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By Deb Smith

For decades, radio frequency identification (RFID) technology has been part of the culture on ski hills across Europe. With many different inter-connected operators, and skiers wanting to access them all, it was critical to develop a one-pass system that tracked usage for apportioning the cost of the passes. That hasn’t been an issue in North America,

but the technology delivers so many advantages to both skiers and operators, RFID is fast becoming the expected norm on this side of the pond.

It’s all about the card

RFID technology uses radio waves to identify and track tags attached to objects. A reader captures digital data encoded in the tags and relays this information to a networked system. 

Unlike a barcode, the tag need not be within the sight line of the reader/optical scanner, which is a big advantage with this technology. Skiers hate long lift line-ups, having to stop and pull out a printed barcode pass, wait for the operator to scan and then finally head up for the next run.

Instead, the credit-card-sized RFID pass fits nicely into that little zippered pocket sewn onto the upper left arm side of all European-made ski jackets and is immediately recognized by the lift system. If the pass is valid, the entry gate opens. No scan gun pointed at guests, no taking off gloves and fumbling for printed passes and no delays getting back up on the hill.

“People love RFID, how easy it is to use,” said Amber Bergen, manager of guest experience, WinSport Canada Olympic
Park in Calgary, Alta. “We started using the technology in 2015, and it didn’t take long for everyone to get used to not having the handheld scanners and easily moving through the gate. Plus it allows our staff at the lifts to better engage with our guests for an overall friendlier experience.”

Speed and convenience

Panorama Mountain Resort, on the west side of the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, Canada, launched its new RFID technology in November 2017. “A number of guests have been quite excited to see this technology at the resort; skiers are very happy because they’re able to get through the gates quicker than they ever could before,” said Rob
Orchiston, director of business technology. “One guest recently told me that it has vastly increased how quickly he can loop around and get back to the lift. This is very important to all those skiers tracking verticals.”

Another huge convenience RFID delivers is online purchasing of tickets and passes. SKIDATA provides integration of access control systems for mountain resorts around the world, and senior sales and marketing professional, John B. Keefe, MBA, sees this capability as one of the biggest drivers for using the technology. “For example, a skier buys a one-day RFID lift ticket, takes it home and registers the card on the resort website with name, email address and credit card. The next time they want to go skiing, they simply purchase the lift access product through that e-platform, and it’s ready to use at the ski hill – no need to get a new card.”

Keefe adds that with Direct-to-Lift capability, North American ski resorts are seeing reload rates in the high 60 to 70 percent ranges. “Essentially the system is creating a sales channel, a chance to communicate directly. And that’s marketing gold.”

Bergen has seen a great uptake of people coming to the WinSport Canada Olympic Park website to reload cards and buy vouchers online, while the system is also providing valuable data on demographics. “We can see who is coming to our hill and when they come. This offers a lot of good information to help us make informed business decisions, such as what’s the best time to have lifts open, when to open more lifts, when to close some down.”

Keeping track

“No matter how well-trained your front-line employees are, people find ways to get around them,” said Keefe. “We have several measures against fraud. For example, the anti-pass-back
technology can determine the average duration of a run off a particular chair, and the pass can’t be used again within that time frame.”

At Panorama, RFID enables another level of fraud protection at the lifts. “When pass holders first purchase their passes, we take photos to verify ID,” said Orchiston. “Now we’re prototyping technology that takes a photo every time a skier goes through the gate. Using a tablet system, the operator can make sure that person is indeed the pass-holder. The software has some components for tracking usages, and over time this information will be available online.”

And skiers love being able to follow their ski “history.”

Claudia Kopetzky, chief marketing officer with Axess AG, global provider of ticket and access management systems, calls this the new “gamification” of the sport of skiing. “RFID technology allows skiers to get statistics on their smart phones or computers covering where they skied, how many verticals they did in one day, in one season and compare themselves to friends.”

RFID tracking also has an important safety application. As long as a pass has been registered, should a skier go missing, the system can identify the last lift used by that skier, enabling faster search and rescue.

Between seasons

Many mountain resorts have extended activities beyond the winter season, and RFID technology can be applied year-round.

Working with Intermountain in Kelowna, Panorama had aluminum gantries custom-built to hold the gates above the ground. Mounted on a skid mechanism, the gates can be pushed out of the way in winter to allow groomers in. In summer, those same gates allow ease of entry when mountain bikers and hikers take their turn on the hill. 

This summer, Panorama is adding hand-scanning for summer activities: archery, mini-golf, gold-mining and more.
Orchiston said, “We can capture the card ID, look it up on our database and respond back to the agent as to whether or not that person has access.”

Destination management

It’s the marketing and sales capability of RFID that is the real power behind RFID technology. Orchiston said, “At Panorama we are developing the payment system, PocketMoney, that will allow guests to add credits to their online RFID account, then use those credits at the resort to purchase food, services and merchandise simply by presenting their ski pass.”

SKIDATA takes this even further with what it calls Passport to the Resort. “Depending on the installed system, a guest tethers the encrypted chip in the RFID card to a credit card,” said Keefe. “A family can then buy food, services such as locker rentals, even use the card to unlock their rooms at the resort.”

Reciprocal pass products are also becoming more popular in North America, allowing skiers to buy a pass at one resort, use it to move around and try the snow at different mountains, thus sharing revenue amongst the different hills. 

Making it happen

Axess has installed RFID systems in 50 countries, generally beginning the process in early spring to be ready for the next ski season. “The initial costs for such a program are comparatively low,” said Kopetzky. “The whole investment for a smaller resort is less than the cost of two complete snow guns on a tower (including shaft, control panel, etc.).”

Orchiston said, “We did a lot of investigation into ROI prior to purchasing the system in June 2017. We took into account various factors – for example, labor savings and fraud elimination. The technology frees up staff to work on other lifts, interact more with the guests and better focus on fraud control.

“We had discussions with various vendors and in the end purchased SKIDATA hardware units as they integrated very well with the software component that came from Active Networks RTP Software. Other than a few minor glitches with product setup that the staff was able to mitigate, the RFID technology has been working better than we initially expected.”

Bergen notes that the system at WinSport Canada Olympic Park has been operating for two years in all weather conditions – extreme cold, the heat of summer, even rain. “It is an investment up front, but other than a very few glitches, the technology has been efficient and has multiple payoffs.”

RFID technology has been at ski resorts for many years, and that experience has developed a product that is pretty much bullet-proof, bringing the mountain experience into today’s interconnected, online world.

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