Snowbird: Bringing the ski resort experience to the web
Award-winning Utah ski resort Snowbird teamed up with local digital geniuses Rally Interactive to align their talents and know-how to bring both form and function to the outdoor lifestyle brand
Project: Snowbird – web: www.snowbird.com | Agency: Rally Interactive – web: www.rallyinteractive.com
Duration: 15 weeks | People involved: 7 | Total man hours: 1,600 hours
The crisp, clean, white and cold expanses of a mountain have been attracting the adventurous for centuries. But it was the latter half of the 20th century that saw ski resorts blossom into desirable holiday destinations. Snowbird, situated in the Little Cottonwood Canyon in the state of Utah, started life back in 1971, long before digital outsider Rally Interactive was born.
The resort has seen continual development over the decades with the 2002 Winter Olympics gracing nearby Salt Lake City. In 2008 Outside Magazine named Snowbird the number one ski resort in North America.
Snowbird’s digital heritage has been gracing the web since 1996, but it wasn’t until 2012 that the resort teamed up with three guys that go by the name of Rally Interactive. The agency itself had only been in existence since January 2011. The three founders, Ben Cline, Thomas Cooke and Wes Pearce all shared a love of digital, snow and the great outdoors, which was an ideal combination to start an agency and get involved with the Snowbird resort.
It was always a long-term goal for the agency to align their talents and skills with outdoor-lifestyle brands as a way to feed their culture. The Snowbird project fitted neatly into Rally’s portfolio of clients where quality matters. And, to make matters even more exciting, the Snowbird brand just happened to be something that the agency cared passionately about.
The obvious connection, and location, between Snowbird and Rally Interactive meant that the project was always a goer. But the project took a little longer to come to the table than originally expected as Rally managing partner, Thomas Cooke, explains: “Ironically, we had pitched this project and won the RFP once before, but at that time, the project was put on hold – whether it was for budgetary reasons, or whether Snowbird needed to get the right staff in place on their end to handle the content needs of a project of this scale, or a little bit of both.
“The entire ski industry in the West suffered a pretty bad snow year in 2011-2012. There is a widely held belief in the ski resort business that if it snows a lot, you are a marketing genius. A great snow year motivates skiers to visit your mountain and buy lift tickets, stay in the lodges and hotels, dine at the restaurants, and put their kids in ski-school. Everybody wins. It’s the multiplier effect of a great snow year, and the coffers for next year’s marketing projects are overflowing. But when you have a bad snow year, well… you get the idea.
“We happened to finally get this project rolling after an uncharacteristically tough year for Utah, and though Snowbird’s need to re-create its web experience was long overdue, coming after a lean snow year amplified the stakes, not just for Rally: our clients’ necks were also on the line. On top of delivering a great site that was expected to increase online bookings, it was almost as if we needed to guarantee that it would snow too! I can happily say Snowbird is having a great year so far, just browse through their Photo of the Day section, and you can see evidence of all the snow Rally was responsible for making. Genius,” he says, with tongue in cheek.
Winning the project was just the first step in bringing the new Snowbird ski experience to the web. To build a persona and get to the core needs for the site, a host of meetings and planning between the two parties involved were called upon. Cooke gives an insight into the starting relationship between the client and the agency. “Nobody knows the true Snowbird brand better than the core customers, and nobody knows those customers better than the marketing folks at Snowbird who hired us. Their team and our team were very active and collaborative throughout the process. Naturally, they (Snowbird) played a huge role in defining what their needs were and guiding our efforts in user-centric design for the most important groups of users. In the initial planning phases, we dealt with a much larger group than what the working group would be in later phases. We conducted a planning session where we gathered as much internal feedback from a variety of internal constituents: lodging, reservations, mountain operations, etc. It was imperative that our clients had support from their internal stakeholders. It also didn’t hurt that the Rally strategy and project-management team (Thomas Cooke and Heather LaPerle) both had held senior marketing positions with other Utah ski resorts, and were very familiar with dealing with the politics of the ski town. As we got further along in the scope and execution, the client working group got much smaller: basically just the project manager on the client side and the director of marketing of the resort who was ultimately responsible. We talked to them daily.”
The site design is the visual experience that brings a website to life. How a design gets to the web begins at the concept stage. What considerations need to be taken into account, who will be the core users and what do they want to see? As Cooke reveals, trends also play a part. “Our initial concept presentation to Snowbird borrowed an old phrase from hockey great Wayne Gretzky: ‘Don’t skate to where the puck is, skate to where the puck is going to be.’ Snowbird initially asked for a new site design, but what we gave them was a mobile-first approach to rebuilding their web presence. We didn’t pull this out of thin air. Taking into account the rise of responsive approaches, looking at their site analytics, considering the approaches of some of Snowbird’s respected competitors, we believed they needed to address the whole big picture. Analytics tells you where the puck has been. So many smart people only look at analytics as a way of reporting what happened. Harder to predict what is happening or what will happen. It wasn’t too far of a stretch for us to convince Snowbird about the trends indicating more mobile web visits, not fewer. We built one application on the backend that manages content on three unique views: the desktop browser, the touch-optimised tablet, and the small-screen smartphone. But many of the design cues started with the small screen. Our approach was not to take a robust desktop view and shrink it down, but to make a no compromise mobile site and scale it up to larger experiences.”
With a concept in hand, the next stage of the Snowbird project was to get down to the shop floor and get designing the elements that would wow users. Creative director Ben Cline gives an insight into the process that Rally adopted to create the visuals . “Visual design duties were primarily handled by myself and Nick Schiefer, our design intern last summer. Nick came to us from the new media design program at RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology). Once the overall design direction for the Snowbird site was locked down, I had Nick specifically working on custom iconography for the mobile site as well as a couple of page layouts. The need for the icons came from a mobile development prototype that we built very early on. The goal with the mobile site was to make it feel like a native app. Philosophically, designers at Rally always work closely with developers throughout an entire project to ensure the visual integrity remains intact by launch. So many of the small details that make this site unique were polished elements that happened down the stretch, so to speak, with design and development bouncing ideas back and forth while we were executing. For example, the ‘mountain contour’ rollover that moves organically along the top navigation, that was a math-based animation that Adam, one of the lead developers on the project prototyped. Another example would be the desktop site transitions. I prototyped the transition in After Effects before it went into development. This allowed the developers to oversee how the transition would link together before writing any code.”
The completion of a site is just the beginning of its journey and it is not the end of an agency’s responsibility. Managing partner and producer Thomas Cooke reveals how their relationship with Snowbird is much more than just building a web site. “We have since provided Snowbird with some post-launch changes and enhancements to the site, and continue to offer maintenance support on an ongoing basis. We’ve enjoyed a long relationship with Snowbird that goes back to some smaller previous projects, and the launch of the new site only entrenches Rally as a partner for the long term. We’ve had our end of the year company holiday party there the last two years. We bring clients in for work sessions and have them stay at the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird, and it just blows them away. We have a road map in place with Snowbird that looks at other initiatives they want to tackle. This site is just the beginning.”