CIO Interview: Robert Urwiler, Vail Resorts Inc.
Vail Resorts uses Business Service Management Best Practices for Competitive Advantage
by Rick Berzle, Publisher, BSM Review
Ski resorts are multi-faceted businesses that base their competitive differentiation on the “guest experience”. Every physical touch point with a guest is a very important part of that experience -- the shuttle driver, ticket sales person, lift operator, ski rental clerk, restaurant personnel – as well as every digital touch point -- website, entertainment systems, network access, videos and images.
You may think that technology doesn’t play a big role in the ski mountain business, but think again. Vail Resorts is using technology to directly impact the “guest experience” which sets the company apart from their competitors.
This interview with CIO Robert Urwiler sheds light on the positive outcomes of using Business Service Management (BSM) principles to align IT with the business. Robert Urwiler is a 25-year veteran of corporate information technology and currently Senior Vice President and CIO at Vail Resorts, Inc. in Broomfield, Colorado. Vail Resorts, Inc. is the leading mountain resort operator in the United States. Robert holds a Ph.D. in Information Systems and is an active member of the CIO Executive Council.
Robert accepted a 2009 CIO 100 Award on behalf of Vail Resorts for the company’s innovative use of RFID in lift pass products.
Tell us about the business of Vail Resorts?
Urwiler: Vail Resorts is a vertically-integrated Travel company with interests in the Mountain Resort, Hospitality, and Real Estate Development businesses. We are a diverse company that operates 5 ski mountains including Keystone, Beaver Creek, Vail, and Breckenridge in Colorado and Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe, California. In addition, we operate hotels, ski/golf clubs, restaurants, retail outlets, transportation services, and a property management business. The company is traded publicly on the NYSE under the symbol “MTN.”
To what extent was your business impacted by the economic climate over the past year?
Urwiler: Our business was impacted by the economic situation in a manner similar to others in the sector. Fortunately, we are a financially healthy company with a strong balance sheet so are able to navigate through the situation without compromising the guest experience.
Did you do anything internally to weather the storm, so to speak?
Urwiler: Yes, we had a great business visioning process which was led by the CEO. He brought together a group of individuals representing a broad cross-section of our company who were tasked with developing ideas to boost various aspects of our business both in response to the economic climate and beyond.
The team developed concepts that led to the execution of a summer program called “Epic Summer,” new ski products such as the “Adventure Sessions”, new food and beverage products such as the “Epic Burger” and “Mountain Meal Card,” and others. In all, about a half-dozen impactful programs were implemented this season as a direct result of the process. IT played a direct role in the enablement of several of these efforts.
In addition to supporting the vision programs, we also rebuilt our 5 ski resort websites including standardizing on a common content management and eCommerce platform while emphasizing component re-use throughout.
The website is critical to what we are doing. Travel research indicates that more and more people are using the web as a primary source in the discovery and decision making process. So the web is a very important part of our guest interaction lifecycle.
Who were the cross functional areas that participated in the web project?
Urwiler: The breadth of participation by the business owners was critical. Active participants included senior leaders from across the company representing IT, Marketing, Brand Directors, Business Operations, Reservations, and many others. We worked closely as a team, blending technology with products and programs. The results of our collective works are now in production and being refined.
What does the business look like from your perspective?
Urwiler: The IT ecosystem that enables a business as diverse as ours can be rather complex – Every sub-business, whether it be a hotel, restaurant, retail outlet, ski mountain, reservation center, property management group, or transportation entity has its own set of systems, infrastructure, and requirements. Tying it all together into a comprehensive ecosystem and customer experience can be a daunting task
So, when thinking about the IT infrastructure it is critically important to think in the context of the multiple services we deliver to support the different businesses and at the end of the day the actual “guest experience”.
What are the core systems/applications that you have in place? …any of that in the cloud or delivered as a service (Saas)?
Urwiler: We have about a dozen systems that we consider “core” although our overall application portfolio includes well over a hundred applications. The core systems are a mix of packaged and custom applications that are hosted at a robust co-location facility in Denver. In terms of SaaS, we do have a few applications running in the cloud including SuccessFactors and Taleo supporting Human Resources
I assume you have SLAs in place with your hosting center and with your SaaS providers. What are you doing to ensure they meet your requirements? How do you monitor and manage these providers?
Urwiler: Yes, SLAs are built into the terms and conditions of the contracts with each SaaS provider. We also ensure that SAS-70 II certifications are in place. The larger and more robust vendors provide SLA compliance statistics proactively and root cause analysis / remediation commitments when incidents do occur.
Are your projects generally sponsored and funded by the line-of- business?
Urwiler: It depends on the type of project. Business application projects are generally sponsored and funded by the business area receiving the primary benefit. Infrastructure, compliance, and maintenance projects are generally sponsored and funded by IT.
Do you regularly present KPIs to the business? If so, what are the top performance indicators they want to see to that measure IT?
Urwiler: Our KPIs are primarily focused Project or Initiative status. We provide monthly reports showing green/yellow/red light status against the top projects along with commentary on any change in schedule and the resulting impact on the business. We also include, as needed, any updates on system outages or interruptions that may have impacted a part of the business.
For the most part, our business communication centers on applications and business service delivery versus foundational infrastructure. Our philosophy is that infrastructure should be somewhat invisible to the business. Although having a robust and reliable infrastructure is the foundation of everything we do internally, business value from IT is generally perceived as being based on the effectiveness of the business application ecosystem that is built on top of the infrastructure layer.
Do you have specific roles, for example a business service manager, in place to interface with the business to ensure you are delivering the services they need to meet the demands of the business?
Urwiler: About half of the IT staff is focused on infrastructure management with the balance focused on application delivery. Applications managers are generally aligned directly with the business so they play the role of service liaison. Infrastructure managers are aligned with both the applications teams and business operations. .
What KPI’s do you use to measure efficiency, performance and quality of the IT organization?
Urwiler: We maintain a business communications and governance process that consists of periodic formal synchronization and ongoing project & financial status reporting. We also communicate regularly with our business counterparts. Within IT, there are many more quantitative measures related to Help Desk effectiveness, system monitoring, and change management but the business rarely has insight into these metrics.
What advice would you give to other CIOs s trying to get IT aligned with the business?
Urwiler: CIOs should constantly work to build meaningful business relationships as the basis for ongoing alignment. An important part of the job is recognizing where technology is causing roadblocks in the business as well as seeing where it can be used as an enabler to a better process or experience. This only happens through the building of trusted relationships with key business managers and influencers across the organization.
Is there a certain mindset or approach you take when sitting at the table with the business leadership?
Urwiler: I try to play the role of business technologist without being too technical. This means taking the time to understand the perspective of the business leader with whom I am interacting in order to appreciate how technology is viewed and used in his or her business area. My goal is to be viewed as a business person first, and a technologist second.
Do you use the IT Value Hierarchy that you developed based on Maslow’s hierarchy?
Urwiler: Yes. The whole idea is that the basic IT needs of an organization have to be consistently satisfied before higher level needs are relevant. For example, it is very hard to have a credible discussion with the business about guest-facing technology that might provide a competitive advantage if the IT organization cannot consistently meet internal network or system SLAs. It becomes a matter of credibility and priority.
Maslow’s Hierarchy is relevant to our business on many levels and, as a result, I found that it is an intuitive metaphor for business discussions about technology.