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Alta Opts for RFID Lift Tickets

The ski area finds the RFID-based system for lift tickets and chairlift access gates requires fewer employees to operate—and its customers enjoy the convenience.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jun 04, 2008Anyone who skied Utah's rugged, expert-friendly Alta Ski Area before the 2007-2008 winter season would likely have described many of its ski runs as being "advanced" or "technical," but would not have said the same of its operations. Lift tickets were very low-tech, color-coded stickers, and ticket checkers were notoriously lax, making it easy to poach rides on the chairlifts—that is, access them using a reused or fake ticket, or no ticket at all. And lift lines were often disorderly.

Not any more, says Michael Maughan, Alta's chief financial officer and the leader of a project to install an RFID-based system for lift tickets and chairlift access gates. "Several people have told me that it's the best thing we've ever done," Maughan told about 125 attendees at an RFID Innovations session during the National Ski Area Association's 2008 National Convention and Tradeshow, held on May 29 in San Francisco.

Each gate has two vertical interrogator antennas—one on each side—to ensure an RFID lift ticket is read regardless of is location on the skier.
Such high praise came as a bit of a surprise, Maughan said, given that news of the resort's plans to install the system was met with opposition from some of the area's die-hard patrons, who accused Alta of becoming overly corporate and losing its homey feel. But after skiing the area last winter, he claimed, "even the most vocal opponents [to the plan] said that they were wrong, and they loved it."

When Alta first set out to modernize its lift ticket and chair access systems, Maughan told the audience, it weighed all of its options. Moving to bar-coded lift tickets would have been a significantly lower investment, he noted, but the RFID-based ticketing systems on the market offered more value to skiers, in terms of convenience and orderly lift lines, as well as to Alta's operations.

"We felt RFID [performance] would be more reliable than bar codes," he said, "and we felt better about RFID than bar codes in terms of security." Bar codes can get ripped, smudged or soaked in a skiing environment, making them difficult to read, but the research Maughan and his team performed—including multiple trips to European ski areas, where RFID-based lift-ticketing systems are common—showed that RFID tickets can be read quickly and reliably, whether by employees using handheld interrogators, or by fixed-position readers mounted in automated turnstiles (which also enables lower staffing levels over manual checking).

Another benefit of RFID-based cards over bar-coded ones, Maughan said, is that tickets can be checked at a greater distance from the skier. "We found RFID more customer-friendly," he explained. "No one comes at you with a bar-code scanner, invading your personal space. Many of our guests comment that [the RFID-based ticketing] system is a much more pleasant experience than [bar-code] scanning."

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