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RFID explosion in social media offers firms supply chain and marketing visibility

07/11/11 | John R. Johnson | email

RFID is well touted as a tool to increase supply chain visibility and provide real-time updates on the whereabouts of critical assets.

In today's mobile world of smart phones and need-it-now access, RFID is quickly becoming known as a visibility tool of another sort – one that allows people to communicate instantaneously with each other, providing vacation updates from around the world, for example.

Those with hint of nostalgia might opt for writing a postcard that will arrive a week later, but those living in a highly connected mobile world are rapidly embracing the combination of RFID and Facebook to allow friends and family to view photos and news updates instantly.

Vail Resorts and Great Wolf Resorts are two entertainment venues that have deployed an RFID-based system to allow visitors to share information. Many more venues, from concerts to conventions, are planning similar deployments.

"The ability to create this virtual overlay on a physical event has great marketing value and provides a terrific engagement for guests," says Patrick Sweeney, founder and CEO of ODIN RFID, whose EasyConnect software powers Vail's EpicMix system that was utilized by more than 100,000 skiers last winter.

EpicMix, which utilizes an RFID-enabled ski pass with readers placed throughout Vail's five resorts, was offered to season pass and multi-day pass holders last winter, with an adoption rate of 15 percent. This coming ski season, the program will be offered to all skiers.

Last year's top EpicMix skier logged 171 ski days and skied more than 7.2 million vertical feet, earning the top spot on the EpicMix leader board. Of the 100,000 users, 45 percent of EpicMix accounts are public, meaning that guests volunteer to share skiing statistics with friends and family on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. According to its web site, EpicMix generated 275,000 social posts and over 35 million social impressions (based on Facebook's estimate of 130 friends per user). Also, EpicMix drove 1.7 million web and mobile visits last ski season.

"The big number for us is 35 million positive social media impressions," says Robert Urwiler, chief information officer for Vail Resorts. "That's a big deal to us because it increases the resort's visibility in the social media space. This is a way for not just the resort to talk about itself but for guests to brag about their experience. We've created 100,000 brand advocates bragging about the experience they had at one of the Vail resorts. That's pretty powerful."

EpicMix leverages RFID installed at each of the company's 89 lifts across its five mountain resorts and RF chips embedded in lift tickets. Urwiler says that 170 readers and 1,300 antennas comprise the current system. The resort has issued hundreds of thousands of RFID tags for the program, a number that will only grow as the recently acquired Northstar ski area is brought online and as more skiers sign on with EpicMix.

The system allows guests to track vertical feet skied and days on the mountain, and lets skiers share their experiences with family and friends on Facebook and Twitter. The free EpicMix mobile app alerts skiers when their Facebook friends are on the mountain, and can be used to send private messages, eliminating the always frustrating task of locating skiing partners on the hill.

Guest location services was also the primary objective of the initial RFID deployment at Great Wolf Resorts, which also uses the technology embedded on visitor wristbands as guest room keys and in-house charge accounts.

After check-in, guests at Great Wolf can register their wristband at the Great Wolf Connect kiosks and link it directly to their Facebook account. Then, at five Paw Posts located throughout the resort, guests can scan their wristband and smile for the digital camera at each spot. That photo – or a general photo of each attraction – and a caption are then automatically posted on their Facebook wall.

"Guests have been asking us for photo sharing functionality for quite some time. Great Wolf Connect allows us to expand our technology infrastructure in a way that enhances their stay," says Great Wolf chief information officer Rajiv Castellino. "In Grand Mound, we've already seen our guests embrace this new experience. And as guests see others capturing memories at the Paw Posts, they're trying it out for themselves, too."

The solution is ideal for Great Wolf, which operates indoor water parks that can be difficult for guests to capture vacation moments due to the possibility of damaging camera and video equipment from water exposure.

The Paw Post locations include the most popular photo opportunities throughout the resort, including the resort's signature Tipping Bucket as well as a full view of the of the waterpark from an elevated balcony inside the waterpark, and the Great Clock Tower in the lobby.

The Walt Disney company is also investigating RFID for a variety of use cases. According to the Epcot Explorer's Encyclopedia, a web site that provides updates on everything Disney related, Disney sent out surveys to its park guests in June to gauge their reaction to RFID. The site says that Disney is considering RFID for everything from wristband admittance to pre-registration of guest information assigned to the wristband that would allow the theme parks to custom tailor a guest's visit, such as character interactions and ride options.

Urwiler thinks we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to RFID and social media.

"This all surfaced pretty quickly and I think there is another wave coming with these NFC-enabled mobile devices," says Urwiler. "Think about the implications of mobile phone manufacturers building readers and tags into every device, and then the innovative app developers who will inevitably develop tools to interact with social media in ways we have not even seen yet. So the proliferation of tags and readers to the general consumer versus back office uses like supply chain will produce a wave of innovation that is pretty exciting."

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