Vail Resorts



Vail Resorts is a world-renowned mountain resort company with a slew of the biggest and best resorts under their name — four in Colorado (Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone and Breckenridge), three in Lake Tahoe (Heavenly, Kirkwood and Northstar), two in Utah (Canyons and Park City), one in Minnesota (Afton Alps), one in Michigan (Mount Brighton), and even a summer resort in Wyoming. As if that weren’t enough to their name, they also own luxury resort hotels throughout the world. Chances are, if you’ve ever gone skiing or snowboarding, you’ve probably set foot on at least one (or several) of their mountains.

The Human Resources team at Vail was interested in taking a deeper look at their employee experience, seeking an in-depth look at what it’s really like to work for Vail Resorts. They brought Universal Mind on board to answer this question. Seeking additional approaches to invest, and to better understand their employees, their goal was to be a facilitator of professional growth for employees, to build and manage communities focused on engaging employees, solving their problems, and highlighting important employee challenges. To accomplish this mission, we set a strategic objective to Ensure the language, the internal processes, and ultimately the thinking within Vail Resorts continues to shift towards an employee-first mindset. The underlying effort would be to ensure that not only is Vail encouraging employee-first mindsets, but that the rollout and adoption on new processes is incremental, thereby achievable.

With this in mind, the team at Universal mind proposed three key questions to Vail: How do we cultivate an employee-first mindset; in which ways could they better empathize with employees; and how can they then use this empathy to drive action.


Before we hit the slopes (kidding… sort of), we knew it was important to collaborate with senior leaders to capture their perspective, helping to better shape our understanding of the organization. Next, it was time to do some contextual research with Vail employees. Our research team met with a wide cross-section of Vail employees – from on-the-snow employees to front-line managers, to senior leadership. Critical to this success were the onsite visits (woohoo!) to many of Vail’s resorts to meet with employees in their day-to-day work environment. The purpose of contextual research, or “contextual inquiry” is to better understand the employee’s context by meeting with them in their authentic work environment. Observational insights gathered in the context of where employees work helps us to build empathy for the employee. The result of this inspection was a collection of findings which were eventually consolidated into research themes, a series of employee personas, and a messaging matrix designed to help Vail Resorts extend their understanding of their employees. Based on this first engagement, we were able to identify areas of opportunity in the HR team’s annual strategic planning process. Additionally, we were able to begin to bring the conversation of experience deeper into their organization.

From here, we narrowed our sights on several near-term and longer-term goals. In the near-term, we worked to change the way teams within HR looked at their annual project creation and prioritization process. Vail Resort’s HR teams meet annually to plan their projects for the coming year at the HR Planning Summit. At this point, the HR organization will have already determined the larger overall objectives for the year. It’s up to the teams to determine how they can create goals which tie to these objectives.

Near-term Goals:

  • Iterate on the current project creation process to ensure all teams included the employee personas as a central factor in their planning.
  • Begin to use experience design methodologies to help determine which projects are prioritized.

Long-term Goals:

  • See measurable improvement in the use of employee-first thinking to help influence decision-making at the HR leadership and team levels.
  • See demonstrated growth where the employee experience is a central value for organizational decision-making.


The Vail HR teams, including Talent Acquisition and Talent Management, are using the personas to help inform and balance their approach to employee-facing projects and shaping a comprehensive program to focus on employee engagement. As you might imagine, the HR team projects often have measurable impacts on the employee experience. The HR team needed a way to understand the employee journey and how their organization could have a positive impact and enhance the overall employee experience.

We trained Vail’s cross-functional teams with a specific emphasis on growing their internal competencies with user-centered design methods. Vail was able to use the personas to help identify areas of opportunity for their employees by working with the Strategy team at Universal Mind. We worked directly with the cross-functional teams to build journey maps of various aspects of the current employee experience. Where were employees having issues? Where were they finding success and how could we help build from these successes?

Ultimately, Universal Mind served as a strategic partner to help Vail better understand and take an empathetic approach to their employee experience. We served in an expert-led capacity to research, coach, and finally to facilitate their immersion into applying experience design methods within their organization. Specific deliverables on the project included the creation of employee personas, a persona-based employee messaging matrix, new employee experience focused processes that were aligned with the current HR planning process, and finally, the creation of an employee-focused “1,2,3 Strategic Roadmap”, designed for growth.