At big U.S. ski resorts like Snowbird, few sights are more welcome to a skier in trouble than an avalanche rescue dog.
Snowbird decided to make its beloved avalanche, or "avy," rescue dogs the faces of its new digital customer experience platform -- an AI-powered virtual assistant that responds automatically to customers' queries and problems.
Though it is spring, the chatbot's customer service capabilities are still in action. With a bounty of more than 7 feet of snow still on the slopes, the resort expects to stay open for skiing and snowboarding well into May, for the longest season of any ski area in Utah's Wasatch mountain range.
Building 'Dog Chat'
To build the 'Dog Chat' AI virtual assistant, Snowbird and its parent company -- Powdr Corp., based in Park City, Utah -- chose Satisfi Labs, a 2014 startup conversational AI vendor headquartered in New York. The vendor specializes in building apps for big malls and outdoor recreation, such as pro sports stadiums, zoos and, in recent years, about 15 ski areas.
The Snowbird and Powdr digital marketing teams chose Satisfi for Snowbird and several other Powdr ski resorts, including Vermont's Killington, because they were impressed with AI virtual assistants the vendor built for a Las Vegas mall and more than a dozen Major League Baseball teams, said Kolton Smith, digital marketing manager at Snowbird.
"They really brought a lot of brand voice into those chats," Smith said. "We were going to have a virtual assistant, but how would we make it so there's some Snowbird personality in this thing? How do we make it fun?"
Kolton SmithDigital marketing manager, Snowbird
One concern was that customers would be frustrated by interacting with a bot rather than a human, Smith explained.
"Looking at some of Satisfi's examples, we got inspired by what they were doing," he said.
Virtual customer assistance for the slopes
Snowbird customers want to know all sorts of things -- from ticket prices and the hours of the base lodge restaurant to whether certain ski runs are open and what the avalanche danger is.
Before Snowbird first unleashed the avy dog virtual assistant for the 2020-2021 ski season, the resort's social media teams answered some 100 questions a day on Facebook or email. The information was mostly available on the resort's website, but people weren't able to find it.
The AI virtual assistant saves a lot of employees' time, Smith said. That and improved customer experience are the main benefits for Snowbird, more than specific ROI or other effect on revenues, according to Smith. He did not provide pricing information, but said the company receives "a good deal on it because we work with it across the Powdr portfolio."
Satisfi built its core product, an AI-powered answer engine, to focus on hyperlocal search, said Don White, the vendor's CEO and co-founder, who has a background in Wall Street financial trading technology.
Rather than concentrate on keyword-oriented search as many customer experience technology vendors do, Satisfi built its conversational AI engine to understand questions like "What's the ticket price for a kid?" or "What's the difference between a family and individual plan?"
"We looked at a lot of the bigger systems and didn't understand why they didn't take this type of specificity into account. The short answer is because it's hard," White said. "It takes a lot of data mining and a lot of data tagging."
White and co-founder and CTO Randy Newman both worked on Wall Street in the early 2000s creating hyperspecific exchange trading algorithms. With Satisfi, they merged the hyperlocal approach with natural language processing and conversational technology.
"We just brought it over to natural language, and that's why I think we've been successful," he said.
Satisfi started out being hosted exclusively on Amazon, but is transitioning its chatbots to a multi-cloud system including Google Cloud Platform.
After seven rounds of seed and venture funding from investors including Google Assistant Investments and Major League Baseball, plus taking on some debt, Satisfi has grown to about 35 employees.
Building an AI workforce
Satisfi prides itself not only on its AI technology, but also on servicing its users by customizing the chatbot virtual assistants to their needs, such as answering new kinds of questions or addressing new problems, whether in the ski industry or other settings, White said.
And that work doesn't always require developers. Satisfi's operations team is able to respond quickly to requests to modify chatbots with its configuration dashboard.
"The AI workforce is what we're focused on. Make conversational AI hirable," White said. "I want Powdr Corp. to be able to ask us, 'So, do you have a lift ticket assistant to help people with lift tickets or post-purchase?'
"I just want that job to be handled by an AI, and the human is the supervisor," he added. "So, the human, let's say, has a staff of three. Well, now your staff is 10 because you have seven AI [bots] running around, doing certain tasks for you."