With a title like Senior Marketing Technologist, Steven Hubert's role at Intrawest implies innovation and forward-thinking. And as their recent launch of Alexa apps suggests, that's exactly what he's delivering.
Gregg: Let’s start with a little backstory. Where did you grow up? Were you always into skiing?
Steven: I grew up on Long Island, New York. I started skiing when I was 12 when our school offered a ski trip up to Camelback. I remember getting to the mountain, getting my rental and having to wait an hour or so for the lesson to begin. That was way too long to wait and I was stoked to be on skis, so I just went up the chairlift anyway, having never skied before and somehow made it all the way down without falling.
At the bottom I didn’t know how to stop, so I just bailed sideways and ending up taking out three ski instructors. I’m sure they were mad, but I had a lot of fun and from then on I fell in love with winter sports. I am sure they have no idea that kid is still skiing and working in the industry, 23 years later.
Gregg: Were you always into tech?
Steven: I was always into tech. At first it was for gaming. My neighbor and I would dial up each other’s 2400 bps modem to play multiplayer Doom for hours. Around the same time I got really into IRC (Online chat) and Shoutcast audio streaming. I ended up setting up a cluster network of servers and hosting an online radio show mainly focusing on Drum and Bass music. It was a lot of fun and I had no idea what I was doing, but I loved it.
Gregg:How exactly does someone go from Doom with their neighbor over dial-up to resort marketing at Intrawest?
Steven:I got to Intrawest in a very roundabout way. I came from interactive advertising and most recently worked at an agency called Mondo Robot in Boulder that worked with Steamboat (an Intrawest resort). As an avid skier I really loved the work and creating web experiences for a brand I personally love and for a place where I am happy to spend my own money.
I ended up having lunch with an Intrawest employee and I let him know I’d love to be able to work at Intrawest if there was ever to be a suitable position for me. Given my unique background there wasn’t really a specific job title already in place for me, but he was able to get me hired and together we were able to create a job for me that blended advertising, marketing, and tech.
Gregg: Would you consider yourself an early adopter? And, given your title’s combination of marketing and technology, how much of that is baked into who you are and how much of that is about keeping up professionally with trends?
Steven:I would call myself an early-experimenter. There is so much stuff out there these days and so many failed Kickstarters that I would be broke if I invested in every new thing that came out. There is so much interesting going on that no matter what field I worked in I would be keeping up with tech. I read Hacker News and Ars Technica daily, and read and contribute to a number of tech-oriented Slack groups. I’m currently obsessed with the https://jamstack.org/ and the possibilities it opens up for modern flexible web development with smaller in-house teams.
Gregg: On that note, what first drew you to things technology like Amazon Alexa. And at what point did you realize Alexa could be a platform for resorts?
Steven:The Alexa idea came from an article I read right after Thanksgiving that estimated over 8 million devices were sold in the US. The friends and co-workers I asked that I knew had Alexas LOVED them, so it was a no-brainer to take a look at what would take to get skiers to add to their flash briefings and integrate the app into their morning routines.
I didn’t have an Alexa at the time, so I downloaded a simulator and got to creating a very basic “hello world” app and shared it with some people. I learned a lot about the usage patterns “voice vs clicks” and what is the right balance of information to communicate via voice. Based on feedback from co-workers and friends the text we wanted to speak was modified maybe a dozen times before we landed on what we ending up liking and ultimately releasing.
Once we decided upon the ways in which Alexa would speak, we created Alexa specific JSON feeds using data from our custom snow/weather/lift/trail/activity reporting tool QuickTrax Alerts. From there it was pretty easy to link those feeds to specific Alexa apps and submit to the app store, very similar to the iOS app submission process.
Gregg: The app was built internally, then? Was it just you or who else got involved?
Steven:The Alexa aspects were created here, but the Alexa specific JSON data feeds were created by a contractor that we often use for smaller scale development needs. I created the app, but I involved as many people as I could to get feedback on the content.
Gregg: From downloading the simulator and submitting to their app store, about how long did it take?
Steven:About 4 weeks of off-again, on-again work.
Gregg: You mentioned finding the right balance of information to communicate and finding the right text to speak, can you walk through that process a bit and talk about what you ultimately ended up going with and why?
Steven:The process was pretty organic. We use Slack to communicate across our many resorts so I would take a stab at what Alexa would say, put it in Slack, get feedback. Adjust, Get feedback, adjust, and so on. I leaned heavily on the feedback from those co-workers who own and use their Alexas to help determine what is natural. We ultimately ended up with the following statement:
“New snow in the last 24 hours totals 10 inches. High of 32 degrees today with Cloudy skies. Current Surface Conditions are Spring. 127 trails open.”
We landed on this statement by focusing on a statement that read naturally and provided what a skier would need in order to decide whether or not to head up to the mountain that day.
Gregg: It works with all Intrawest resorts then? Give me an example of the commands you can say to Alexa.
Steven:Yep, all 6. It’s considered a “Flash Briefing,” so there is no interaction other than Alexa’s standard: “What’s my Flash Briefing.” We wanted it to be part of the Alexa user’s morning routine. Get the news from NPR, Local Weather, Mountain Information, Stocks etc… We wanted the user to be able to add it once and be able to hear it every day, instead of having to remember custom interactions.
Usage would be much lower if users had to ask: “Alexa open Winter Park Snow Report”, then “Alexa Trails Open,” or “Alexa Weather at Winter Park Resort.”
Gregg: Any initial results you’d be okay sharing or initial feedback now that it’s out in the wild? How has it paired with your goals or expectations going in?
Steven:We haven’t really advertised the feature this season, so pickup amongst Alexa users was mainly organic. Given the time invested we are quite happy with the results so far.
Gregg: Let’s wrap up with a final question I think you’re as well-suited to answer as anyone and that is the advantages of being a marketer who can write code. Would this app exist if you weren’t both a marketer (to see the opportunity) and a developer (to act on that opportunity) without having to pitch it as just an idea, get budget, find a developer, go back and forth with them (instead of someone internal), etc.?
Steven:The app might still exist, it might just have taken a bit longer to get buy-in on a budget. Intrawest is very open to new ideas like this and has really adapted a fail fast approach to efforts like these.
However, given the fact this fell within my ability and interest levels, it was a no-brainer to hack on this during periods of downtime to see what we could come up with. With tech changing so quickly if you can’t dive in and experiment you are going to miss opportunities. Intrawest realizes this and gives us great leeway in experimenting with new tech to understand how they might benefit our customers.
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