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Vail Picks New Line With UHF RFID-Powered Passes

The resort operator estimates it will issue RFID-enabled season passes for the 2008-2009 winter season, and deploy readers at its five ski areas.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jul 15, 2008Last winter, Vail Resorts traversed new technological terrain, conducting a proof-of-concept test in which it employed RFID tags to read and validate roughly 1,000 season passes, carried by ski patrollers and ski school employees at Vail Mountain. With the concept tested and proven, the resort company has decided to take the plunge and issue RFID-enabled season passes to patrons and employees of Vail Mountain and its three other Colorado ski areas—Breckenridge, Keystone and Beaver Creek—as well as the Heavenly resort on the California-Nevada border.

Embedding RFID tags into ski passes, of course, is nothing new—its been a common practice in Europe for many years, and a growing number of U.S. ski resorts have started embracing the practice as well (see Alta Opts for RFID Lift Tickets, Aspen Signs With Skidata, RTP for Integrated RFID/POS System). But Vail is taking the trail less skied. While high-frequency (HF) passive RFID tags operating at 13.56 MHz have become standard for ski pass applications, Vail is utilizing newer, ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) passive EPC Gen 2 tags, which operate at 900 MHz and can be read from much greater distances than HF tags.

Vail's season passes, such as the Epic Pass, contain an embedded RFID tag providing unlimited lift access at the company's ski resorts.
In 2007, the firm hired RFID hardware and systems developer SkyeTek to help it determine the ways in which RFID could be integrated into resort operations to improve customer experience and business operations and assist it in undertaking a proof-of-concept test (see Vail Resorts Sees RFID in the Forecast). But after completing its testing last year, Vail opted to take its RFID project in-house, says Robert Urwiler, the resort's chief information officer for Vail Resorts.

Starting next winter, Urwiler says, lift ticket scanners at all of Vail's resorts will use handheld readers—Intermec's CN3 mobile computer with an IP30 handheld EPC Gen 2 RFID reader attachment and an integrated bar-code scanner—to collect the unique identification number encoded to each season pass as skiers and snowboarders approach base lifts. (A base lift is a ski lift that loads from the base area of a ski resort—as opposed to those loading from higher points on the mountain.)

The handheld will transmit the ID to back-end software, via a Wi-Fi network link, where the software—developed on a Microsoft platform by Vail's in-house IT staff—will perform a query to ascertain whether the pass ID is valid. If it is, the software will send the pass holder’s digital image, as well as personal data, such as name and birth date, back to the handheld. The employee will then compare the image with the actual skier or snowboarder .

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