Vail Resorts Sees RFID in the Forecast

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

SkyeTek says it is working with the ski resort operator to develop RFID-enabled mountain services and applications.

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Vail Resorts, an operator of ski resorts in Colorado, Wyoming and California, is working with Colorado-based RFID hardware and systems developer SkyeTek to incorporate RFID into its operations at points where it believes the technology could be useful in improving customer service and business processes.

“Vail is looking at a variety of different forms of RFID technology,” says Sayan Chakraborty, SkyeTek’s chief technology officer, “but SkyeTek is contributing in terms of passive RFID applications.” Chakraborty says Vail Resorts began working with SkyeTek on an initial RFID pilot a year ago, and is set to launch additional pilots soon. While he says he can not reveal specifics of the tests at this time, Chakraborty reports that the resort operator is most interested in using RFID to replace bar codes as a means of authenticating lift passes, to enable cashless payments and to help visitors more easily locate friends or family members on the ski slopes.

Last ski season, Colorado’s Steamboat Ski Area began using semi-active RFID tags and readers provided by SafeTzone Technologies to help skiers and snowboarders stay connected on the hill (see U.S. Ski Area Completes First Season Using RFID).

In European ski areas, high-frequency RFID tags are widely used in lift tickets, embedded either in day or season passes. Patrons present the tags at turnstiles that open when a valid ID is read, allowing skiers or snowboarders to join a queue for a chairlift or gondola. But Chakraborty says a passive tag with a longer read range could be used to generate estimations of wait times for lifts. This information could then be broadcast, via display screens or similar methods, at other lifts or on information kiosks around the resorts, providing skiers and snowboarders with real-time information regarding which lifts have the shortest wait times.

Contactless payment capability built into the season or day passes could prove particularly convenient for skiers and snowboarders, Chakraborty explains, because it could enable them to avoid having to dig through layers of clothing to locate wallets when paying for food and other goods and services. “The last thing people want to do [on the slopes] is to take off jackets and layers to search for money,” he says.

Vail Resorts’ Vail ski area, in Colorado, currently offers guests a card that can be used to make purchases on the mountain, but it employs bar-code technology. A contactless payment card could instead utilize an RFID inlay and transmit payment data via RF, which could save the user the hassle of fishing the card out of a pocket. Still, Chakraborty stresses, Vail Resorts’ top concern is that any RFID system be deployed with strong protections around the financial data and personal privacy of its patrons.

“RFID is a double-edged sword,” Chakraborty says. While the technology could benefit Vail Resorts’ properties and customers—through efficiency gains, labor savings and added convenience—it also raises consumer concerns about how data collected and transmitted via RFID could be used or abused. “One of the first things we’ll bring to bear,” he states, “is…a layer of security to prohibit the tracking of people [without their consent or knowledge], and to secure customers’ financial information from being stolen. This is critical.”

SkyeTek, which specializes in developing and deploying non-supply-chain applications of RFID technology, is providing the interrogators and software Vail Resorts will need to implement its passive RFID infrastructure. The company is also supplying systems integration services to get things up and running, and to identify the best use cases for the technology. In addition, SkyeTek will provide integration services that will link the passive RFID systems to back-end software platforms, such as those used to power point-of-sale terminals at Vail Resorts’ ski areas, or to create and manage lift pass IDs.