WHISTLER, B.C. — For decades, ski resorts have been behind the technology curve. Sure, there were lots of cool developments in the design of everything from skis to boards to goggles. But the business of buying a ski pass and using the lift system at your favorite mountain was pretty old-school.
Skiers and snowboarders know the drill: Pay for your lift ticket and get a small metal triangle, a piece of paper with a bar code and sticky backing on it, which you use to put the ticket on your jacket or ski pants.
But now, with RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology, you can just place a credit card-sized pass in a pocket on your left side at upper arm height. The RFID chip in the pass tells the lift systems who you are and opens the gates that allow entry to chairlifts. It also tracks your movements on the mountain.
RFID technology began appearing at ski resorts a decade ago, and has become commonplace at many major North American and European mountains, including Whistler Blackcomb (home to the 2010 Winter Olympics and a scenic five hour drive from Seattle via Vancouver).
A recent visit to the mountain revealed what drove this storied resort to make the move to RFID, and all the benefits the technology has provided to both the mountain and to the skiers and snowboarders who ride on it. In an interview with Geekwire, Whistler Blackcomb business support team manager Yolanda Foose explained that the major business driver for the move to RFID was to get more accurate ticket validation and reduce fraud.
Whistler Blackcomb introduced its RFID system for the 2014-2015 season (see video below to get an idea of how it was introduced to skiers and riders) and has been building on that foundation ever since.
While it’s easy to see how the system reduces fraud (because skiers and boarders must pass through lift gates that only open if they have a valid pass on them — and each pass is tied to an individual person), Whistler Blackcomb says it has been able to use this infrastructure to build benefits for its customers.
One of the first benefits is safety. By having a record of when someone scans their RFID ticket at a particular lift, the mountain can much more easily help if a skier goes missing.
“We are able to track the last RFID gate a guest scanned through, which helps to narrow the search area immensely,” said Foose. “Whistler Blackcomb has over 8,100 acres of terrain, as well as backcountry access points, so this technology really gives (ski) patrol — and search and rescue — a leg up when looking for a lost guest.”
For most visitors to Whistler Blackcomb, however, the fun of an RFID ticket comes from the WB+ app, available for both iOS and Android devices. The app provides an easy way to use the RFID data generated from skiing and riding on the more than 200 runs at Whistler Blackcomb to generate a whole range of statistics about a visit or a season. In fact, it can carry historical data dating back to when the RFID system was introduced in 2014.
“Our guests love WB+, it’s driving them to visit different areas of the mountain, ski longer and more often,” added Foose. “If you put a challenge in front of our WB+ members, they will try to achieve it.”
The RFID technology at Whistler Blackcomb also brings it in line with its new corporate parent (Vail Resorts, which completed its acquisition of the iconic Canadian ski operation last year). Vail Resorts was amongst the first major resorts to take up RFID when it implemented the technology in the 2008-2009 ski season.
Foose says that knowing which runs are most popular – and when they are most used – can help the company tweak the way it runs its business.
“We do analyze this data and it will factor when determining future capital investment,” she said, adding that RFID is being used year-round at Whistler Blackcomb, which enjoys a busy summer season with lots of hiking and biking. “Both RFID scanning and WB+ are used for the mountain bike park and we have implemented timed hiking on some of our more popular trails.”