I sent my first text to Emma at 7:15 on a Friday morning. It was unusually warm for December in Colorado, with an expected high around freezing, but blustery west winds had stripped much of Thursday’s fresh snow. I was wary of what I might find when I went up to ski.
“Emma,” I wrote, “what are the snow conditions at Breckenridge?”
I didn’t know what I’d get back, because Emma is not a person. She’s the new digital assistant for nine ski resorts owned by Vail Resorts, including my home mountain of Breckenridge, Colorado. Using her is simple: You text questions to 77477, and she answers. She debuted at Keystone in early November and recently began serving Breckenridge, Vail, Beaver Creek, Park City, Heavenly, Northstar, Kirkwood and Whistler Blackcomb.
I generally am not one to engage with bots, but I was intrigued by Emma, who uses a combination of artificial intelligence and natural language processing to answer a range of questions about each ski resort and its surrounding towns. Her expertise includes everything from the snow report to parking to après. Unlike, say, Apple’s genius-in-hand, Siri, who is equipped to offer general travel information about a destination like Breckenridge, Emma is tailored for skiers and snowboarders.
In response to my question about conditions, Emma replied by text: “Here’s how things look today. Currently 15 degrees and sunny. High: 38F. Low: 10F. Breck received 0in of snow in the past 24 hours. Daytime snow of 0in. No overnight snow expected, but [fingers crossed emoji].” I appreciated her optimism.
I tried asking two more ways, just to be sure. “How is the snow?” Then: “Is there any powder?” Each brought the same reply as the first. The truth was I cared less about the snow than about whether the Lake Chutes, a hike-to alpine cirque that hadn’t opened the day before, would open today. I’d read in Emma’s introductory text that one of her keywords was TERRAIN, so I typed it and hit send. She replied with a link to today’s mountain report.
I wrote back: “Lake Chutes status.” She responded immediately, as usual: “The Lake Chutes double black trail is open and not groomed.” I asked about Serenity Bowl. She told me it was closed. I asked about Beyond Bowl. Open, she said.
Confident that I’d have plenty of fun terrain to ski, I drove into town around 11, texting Emma before I left to inquire about parking. She ran through a list of free and paid lots and explained which ones accessed which peaks. When I asked about the Beaver Run lot, she told me what time it opened and closed, as well as how much it costs to park there on peak and non-peak days. She also told me it was free after 3pm, which I appreciated even if it wouldn’t come in handy today.
Curious about whether there was a lift line to access the Lake Chutes, I asked Emma for the status of the Imperial Express chairlift. She said it was open and did not have a wait. I headed straight there.
Between runs in a mix of leftover powder and hardpack, I continued to engage with Emma. Not necessarily because I needed her tips but more to see how much she knew. She sent me real-time info on traffic, links to off-mountain activities like dog sledding and Nordic skiing and a link to the free town bus schedule. When I shared my season pass number, Emma sent me a report on how much vertical I’d skied that day—as well as how much I’d skied this season—using the resort’s EpicMix app.
Emma was not built to answer questions like “Where should I ski today?” or “How is the wind on Peak 8?” But she was designed to get smarter over time, based on the questions she’s asked, and if you get tired of reading replies like “I’m drawing a blank” or “I’m officially stumped,” you can text PERSON to be connected to a live agent. Unfortunately, this feature was not yet active during my ski day, but it is working now during regular operating hours.
After four laps in the Lake Chutes and a handful more on Peak 7—and more than 90 texts exchanged with Emma—I thanked her for helping and accepted her invitation to submit feedback. I pondered how to phrase my constructive criticism in a few sentences, as she’d requested. Before I could type anything, though, I got a reassuring text from Emma.
“Don’t worry about hurting my feelings,” she wrote. “After all, I am a robot.”