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Meet Emma

Vail Resorts rolls out its 'Epic mountain assistant'
Know-it-all Vail Resorts' new digital assistant can help out with basic questions, but it will likely be a while before it can handle more complex queries. Photo by Joel Barde

Got a question about Whistler Blackcomb? If so, Vail Resorts is hoping you might give its new digital assistant, Emma, a whirl.

"I am the collective knowledge of every lift operator, groomer, snowmaker, ski-school instructor, ticket-counter attendant and ski patroller," wrote Emma (or, more likely, a Vail Resorts communications worker), in a recent press release.

How long is the wait at the Creekside Gondola? Where can I smoke a joint? How much new snow did we get last night?

Those are just some examples of the types of questions that Emma will (eventually) be able to answer. But it's important to keep in mind that Emma (so named because she's an Epic Mountain Assistant) is still in "beta mode," said Marc Riddell, communications director for Whistler Blackcomb.

"Emma has to learn to get better," said Riddell. "So the more questions that are thrown at it, the more that Emma's going to learn, and the more intuitive it's going to become by the time we roll out of beta at the end of this season."

The system uses artificial-intelligence technology and natural language processing to answer questions. To pose one, users are asked to send a text message to 77477, and they will receive a response, or be directed to a "live agent," via text.

"Right now Emma's just a baby, and these are baby steps," said Riddell. "But eventually ... it's going to be able to answer guest questions about the resort, about their vacation, about lifts, things to purchase—all that sort of stuff."

With Siri and Amazon's Alexa gaining traction, digital assistants are becoming increasingly popular. Following the astonishing trajectory of mobile phones, research firm Ovum predicts that there will be as many voice-activated assistants on the planet as there are people by 2021.

(For now, Emma is just offered in text form—but Riddell said a voice-component may come at a later date.)

The first-generation technology is being launched in eight different Vail properties—including Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Park City, Whistler Blackcomb, Heavenly, Northstar and Tahoe—after a soft rollout at Keystone earlier this winter.

According to Riddell, the experience at Keystone went well, with people asking questions about ticket prices or on-mountain dining options.

"It's quite amazing how quickly it learns," said Riddell, adding that there is potential for future generations to be integrated with things like Facebook messenger or Alexa.

Riddell said that Emma will serve as a handy tool for people, especially those who are brand new to the resort.

"For those times when you are coming to a resort, and you don't know the lay of the land or what's available to you on-mountain, we want to make it as easy for you as possible," said Riddell.

"We don't want you to pop your skis off and head into Guest Services and ask questions if you're unfamiliar with things.

"We really want this to be a good point of contact for you, so you're able to enjoy what you're doing and are provided with the most accurate information about the mountain."