Vail Resorts Links RFID With Social Media

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

Visitors to the company's ski mountains this season can use their RFID-enabled lift tickets to connect with each other via social-media tools, and also track their ski or snowboard metrics over the Internet.


This coming ski season, Vail Resorts will debut EpicMix, a platform by which visitors can use social-media tools to connect with each other, as well as track their ski or snowboard metrics online—and it’s all made possible by radio frequency identification.

“We’ve always had bigger plans for our RFID system,” says Robert Urwiler, Vail Resorts’ CIO. “Last year, we started talking about how to take it to next level and do something extraordinary, especially using social media, and this is the perfect extension of our business.”

An RF symbol is printed on the lower corner of Vail Resorts’ RFID-enabled season passes.

In 2008, Vail Resorts began incorporating RFID technology into its ticketing system in order to make it easier for the company to check lift tickets at base-area chairlifts across its five resorts (see Vail Picks New Line With UHF RFID-Powered Passes and Benefits Up and Down the Ski Slope). The firm chose ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) Gen 2 RFID technology, rather than the high-frequency (HF) tags widely used in European resorts, because it expected to eventually leverage the long read range of UHF tags for other applications.

Every season pass issued at the five resorts—Colorado’s Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone and Beaver Creek, and California’s Heavenly—contains an RFID inlay encoded with only a unique ID number, which is linked in a database to the season pass number printed on the card. All “Peaks” single or multi-day passes also contain RFID inlays, with encoded, unique ID numbers linked to a unique number printed on the pass. As with season passes, Peaks tickets come in a rugged, plastic form factor (visitors must request a Peaks pass at the time of purchase; otherwise, they will receive a paper ticket).

After purchasing a Peaks or season pass, visitors can reuse the same card during the following season, by reactivating pass or buying additional single or multi-day tickets from the issuing resort.

Each season pass and Peaks card contains an RFID inlay manufactured by KSW Microtec, using G2XM RFID chips from NXP Semiconductors and an antenna designed by Zebra Technologies to optimize both near- and far-field tag reads.

As a visitor approaches any of the 89 ski lifts at the five resorts, EPC Gen 2 RFID readers and antennas mounted on a bar (known as a gantry) arching above the lift’s loading area will capture that individual’s tag ID and transmit that information to back-end software—developed on a Microsoft platform by Vail’s in-house IT staff—where it is associated with the season or Peaks pass number stored in the profile of that skier or snowboarder. Vail worked with RFID systems integrator ODIN to deploy the EpicMix RFID infrastructure. ODIN’s EasyEdge operating system, which does basic data filtering and functions as a middleware platform between the readers and the back-end software, runs on each of the gantry-mounted readers. In addition, ODIN’s EasyMonitoring software is used for reader monitoring and maintenance. Vail Resorts’ design team worked with its creative agency to develop EpicMix’s consumer-facing applications, with which visitors interact online and through their phones.

Throughout the day, as the visitor returns to that same lift, or accesses another lift on the mountain, the ID in his or her pass will again be captured, and sent to the back-end software. This enables the system to aggregate the number of vertical feet that the skier or snowboarder has traveled, based on the distances between chairs. This is determined by calculating the difference in elevation at the top of the lift that the skier or snowboarder rode, and the elevation at the bottom of the next lift at which the tag is read. The results are added up throughout that person’s stay, and at the end of each day, the user’s day and season totals of vertical feet are reflected on his or her profile.

EpicMix users will earn electronic “pins” upon reaching various milestones, such as the number of vertical feet they skied or snowboarded. Each visitor’s pins appear automatically on his or her profile, which that individual can then access by logging on to EpicMix’s Web site from any computer or Web-enabled phone. Riding a High Noon Express chair five times in a single day, for instance, earns a user a High Five pin. Those who ride 350,000 vertical feet will earn the Echo pin. And the Nightrider pin is awarded to visitors who ride three different chairlifts on a single night.

In addition, visitors will be able to publicize their statistics by opting to allow information-sharing between their EpicMix accounts and their Facebook or Twitter accounts. Using these social-media tools, they will also be able to compare stats with their friends who are also on Facebook, and opt in to post their personal data online.

While at the resorts, visitors with Web-enabled phones will be able to use an EpicMix mobile application to receive alerts when any of their Facebook friends are skiing. The application will also show their friends’ last known location on the mountain, as well as enable guests to send messages to their private groups of Facebook friends also visiting the resort.

Visitors with multi-resort passes will be able to view their stats from all resort visits on a single profile, and their vertical distance skied will be presented both as a grand total and per resort.

According to Urwiler, Vail Resorts’ and ODIN employees working together to install and test the gantry-mounted readers, and then conduct tests to ensure that they would capture the ID of each tag-carrying visitor moving through the read zones. “We made sure to perform these tests while snow was still on the ground,” he notes, since the moisture in the snow can affect RF signal transmission. Urwiler declines to reveal the number of RFID-enabled passes that the company could potentially read throughout a busy weekend day at all five resorts, though he does indicate that he and his staff have performed tests on their software systems to ensure they’ll be able to process all of the data collected.

Visitors will have the option of disabling the RFID inlay in a season pass and Peaks card, but Urwiler declines to comment on whether the tags would be disabled physically (such as by placing the card in a metallic envelope that blocks out RF signals) or by using a password or other means to make the inlay impossible to read.

Vail Resorts, Urwiler says, has issued hundreds of thousands of RFID-enabled season passes and Peaks cards at its resorts during each of the last two seasons. That number could jump this season, he adds, if visitors take to the EpicMix system. “We think this is the evolution of the skiing industry,” he states.

Vail Resorts is not the only company combining RFID technology with social media. This summer, a total of 6,500 Israeli teenagers attended an event known as Coca-Cola Village, all of whom utilized RFID technology to share their experiences with friends and family members via Facebook (see RFID Helps Make Friends for Israeli Teens).