recon-gogglesSki hills are becoming digital. Virtually every mountain has a map that can be downloaded, Recon Instruments has created a high-tech GPS Heads-Up Display for the alpine to help navigate the mountain and drones can take photos of you shredding dronePOW. Another technology that has gained momentum and adoption by ski hills are the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Gate Access Systems. This post will explain how RFID Gate Access Systems work and use Whistler Blackcomb as a key illustration.
In 2014, Whistler Blackcomb implemented a Radio Frequency (RFID) Gate Access System, Enterprise Resource Planning and other technology initiatives for a total cost of $5.9 million (Whistler Investors Report, 2014). As a Technology Consultant, I could not help with trying to understand the benefits of implementing this system and how it works.

What is a Radio Frequency Gate Access System for Ski Hills

All Whistler Lift Passes are now a RFID.whistler-pass

Inside each lift pass is a RFID chip with a unique identifier that can be read typically from 2 feet away. The chips are passive, meaning that they do not have a battery so to read the tags, the reader emits electromagnetic waves that induce a current in the tag’s antenna (RFID Journal, 2016). There have been no known health risks associated with a passive RFID tag with the exception of their interference with pacemakers and other medical devices (U.S.A, FDA, 2014).

gate-systemWhen the Skier gets to the lift with their pass on the left-hand side of their body, they go through the Gate Access.  Each gate only allows for one person to go through at a time and it beeps ‘green’ if you have a valid pass and ‘red’ if no pass or no valid pass is detected. Lift operators are enabled with a tablet that shows them the face of each skier that goes through the lift so that they can eliminate people trading passes.

Once the skier is on the lift, nothing changes from the pre-Gate Access ski lifts.

Why Use It? The Business Case

Almost every project is evaluated through a Business Case that considers the tangible and intangible benefits and costs associated. A project is given a Go or No-Go decision based on the benefits versus costs. Most companies will only approve projects with tangible benefits that can be quickly realized. Often times, intangibles like improved data to enable data-driven decisions are seen as ‘nice to have’ because they are difficult to justify to shareholders and the organization as measurable value. However, these types of intangible benefits can be the difference between a successful organization or a failed one in 10 years. I have identified the following benefits for Whistler Blackcomb as a result of the Gate Access system:

  1. Reduce Free Loaders – Whistler hit a record high with over 2.14 million ski visits in the 2015-2016 ski season with each guest worth on average $120 per visit (Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Report, 2016). Hypothetically, if 0.5% of ski visits were by Free Loaders, Whistler Blackcomb would be losing $1.2 million per year. In the pre-Gate Access system, I believe that this number is feasible due to people who either skipped the line, hiked to a lift area that did not require passes or pulled the old ‘switch a roo’ where two people went up and one came back down to pass on the lift ticket.
    1. Estimated Value: $1.2 million per year
  2. Reduce waste of printing cards – while the RFID tags would be more expensive than a regular pass, their costs are not prohibitive with an estimate of $0.5 per card in a purchase of 1 million cards or more (RFID Journal, 2014). Skiers are now expected to keep their cards even if it is a day ticket, reducing the need to pre-print multiple tickets. If each pass costs $0.05 and 10% of visits are day skiers the savings would be $5,000 per year.
    1. Estimated Value: $5,000 per year
  3. Full-Time Employee Savings at the Lift – As the lifts become automated there will be less of a need for people to scan all lift passes. Whistler is a unique mountain in the sense that for most of their higher elevation lifts they did not have someone scan tickets. However, the 6 lifts at the bottom of the mountain will not need the extra person to scan passes. Instead, that resource could be utilized improving the mountain or customer service. As the mountain is open for at least 5 months, with one role reduced on 6 lifts, 7 hours spent on the lift per day and a wage of $15 per hour, Whistler would save 6,405 hours or $96,075 per year.
    1. Estimate Value: 6,405 hours or $96,075 per year
  4. Full-Time Employee Savings at Ticket Issuance – Since customers now have a smart card that links to your credit card, there is no need to go see guest services to get a new pass. This may result in fewer resources needed in guest services, however, I am hesitant to estimate that benefit.
    1. Benefit Value: 0.5 Full-Time Employee per Guest Services during peak hours
  5. Improved Customer Experience – For a customer, the ease of use for the new system is evident. You no longer need to pull out your pass at each lift station and can automatically pay for new ski days without having to go into guest services. Customers can also use the ski pass as a credit card reducing the need to bring their wallet skiing. Additionally, now Whistler can provide intelligent based messaging as they know the who is going through the lift at a particular time. One potential example is if a family member gets injured, and the father could receive a notification when they go through on their next run. Likewise, as someone who loves Symphony lift, Whistler could alert me that the run has great conditions today and the line is small.
    1. Benefit Value: Intangible – Improved Customer Experience
  6. Whistler Blackcomb’s ability to make Data Drive Decisions – Whistler now has an abundance of information on skiers at their mountain. They accurately know where people usually ski, how long it takes the skier to go down the mountain and get back to the lift, the individual who is skiing, and the capacity of lifts to name a few things. With this information, Whistler could start tailoring runs to beginners by updating the terrain and adding more rest stops and hot chocolate areas increasing customer experience and Whistlers revenue. For season pass holders, Whistler could add more equipment to help people fix gear and provide advanced skier merchandise. For future planning, Whistler could understand the most popular lifts and areas and tailor the mountain around those spots. This is perhaps the hardest benefit to measure but potentially a huge opportunity to improve the mountain.
    1. Benefit Value: High Intangible Benefit

How Does the Gate Access System Work

The following Architecture diagram is an illustration of potentially how the Gate Access system works for Whistler.iot-architecture-ski-gate-access

(Note that this is my personal opinion and has not been reviewed by Whistler.)

  1. The customer wears the RFID tag on their left side and goes through the gate. Their information passes through an ‘Identity Management Tool’ and all data is stored in a database.
  2. The information then goes through a ‘Business Rules’ engine to determine whether the skier should be allowed to ski or not. This system should be tied into the ERP or system used to purchase the passes that can be enabled by the skier or a front end staff. At this time the skier goes on skiing.
  3. The data can then be passed through an Analytics Engine that crunches the numbers and provides intelligent insights to Whistler Staff.
  4. These insights are stored in the Website Data Base where the customer online profile is stored.
  5. The ERP system should include a Customer Relationship Management tool and all data should be centralized and stored. This enables Whistler to track and manage all customers.
  6. Using all available data, Whistler can send notifications to customers regarding their ski trends, abilities, and achievements.

The centralized database should store all information captured by the readers including date, time, and ski lift. Using the customer information and Whistler stored values, an analytics engine would be able to create reports for key business questions such as:

  • Where do different pass holders types typical ski in a day?
  • Which lifts have capacity limits/excess?
  • Which lifts have the best/worst throughput rates? (Also assess this via other characteristics such as staff during lift session)

Displaying Information

In order to drive adoption of smart data into Whistler’s decision making process, they will need to display information in a compelling way and provide training to the required roles that will use this information. Some capabilities Whistler could enable are:

  • Real Time Dashboard of the mountain to enable quick responses
  • Predictive reports on key trends that effect the mountain based on historical data
  • Diagnostic reports on lift issues and slow downs that could be a result of equipment malfunction, employee ability or important events

Vendors who provide Ski Hill Gate Access Today

The following are key vendors:












The RFID Smart Card system enables Whistler Blackcomb to use data-driven decisions to turn their mountain into one of the best resorts in the world. Whistler can save $1.3 million a year and use data to improve the customer experience. The RFID Gate Access system is a major step in digitizing the mountain and may provide data to enable key strategic decisions.