The Leading Edge: A behind the scenes look at high-tech trends at ski resorts
By Pamela Clarke
At about 4 a.m. each winter morning, ski patrol avalanche team members dial into a central system from their homes and download current images from satellites. They also retrieve the latest mountain weather forecast and current conditions and can download data from other avalanche teams and heli-skiing units throughout the Coastal and Rocky ranges. Then, with the information collected in their computers, they decide what needs to be done to make the mountains safer for skiers.
The mountains have been here for over 10,000 years, skiing's been around for a few hundred, but only in the last decade has high-technology been used to advance the scope, enjoyment and safety of the sport.
Computer systems have enabled Blackcomb and Whistler to expand their range of runs, improve their customer service, and cut costs at a rate that wouldn't be possible without those boxes and their bytes.
One system in particular has had a tremendous impact on hundreds of ski resorts around the world — Skiplan by Ecosign-Mountain Resort Planners Ltd. of Whistler.
Ecosign's three-dimensional terrain modelling software, Skiplan, was used to design the new runs at Blackcomb and Whistler. "We've done the basic design on every trail since 1976," says Paul Mathews, president and founder of Ecosign. "The staff of each mountain now does the layout for construction, such as flagging trees for removal. They do it all using our maps."
Skiplan, developed in 1988, has made the task of planning a resort much easier. It allows planners to analyze a new run in terms of visual impact, capacity, lift and trail profiles — as well as how much sun it will get.
But not every ski resort high-tech development is as sophisticated or revolutionary. Most are basic systems designed to make the skier's experience a more enjoyable one.
Expensive lessons, new techniques
Computers are now used in every facet of ski resort management, from standard business applications such as word processing, payroll, point-of-sale and inventory to tasks which are unique to the industry — such as downloading avalanche data and weather forecasts, operating lifts, processing ticket sales and checking passes.
Locally, the high-tech systems at Whistler and Blackcomb are very similar. Each resort has six Data General servers — a few running the UNIX operating system, others are DOS-based — several hundred Data General and Compaq PCs and point-of-sale terminals. Both computer systems managers are in regular contact with their peers at other North American ski resorts. "There's lots of communication between the resorts," says Kelly Blunden, computer systems administrator at Whistler Mountain. "There's no need to reinvent the wheel."
One of the major trends in the industry is one-stop shopping, a system that will allow skiers to buy lift tickets, book ski lessons, order rental equipment, purchase lunch vouchers, make dinner reservations and confirm their hotel rooms at several locations around the resort.
The first steps towards one-stop shopping have already been made here in the valley. Last year, Whistler Mountain co-developed with Ronneberger Computing Inc. (RCI) of Squamish a PC-based point-of-sale (POS) system that was subsequently purchased by Blackcomb. Intrawest met with companies from across North America and "Ronneberger's system was head and shoulders above everybody else's," says Jamie Pike, information systems manager at Blackcomb.
All three parties are now working together to ensure the POS system evolves into a one-stop shopping package. Since RCI owns the source code, the package, once developed, could be sold to any ski resort. In the meantime, it's going to be expensive and time-consuming to develop — what people in the industry call a real "bleeding edge" case, in reference to the financial and time investments required to maintain a lead in the high-tech industry.
The goal of one-stop shopping is a challenging one, exacerbated by the problem that at present there is not one piece of software that can do everything at a ski resort. There are numerous software vendors with a lot of programs for the ski industry, but they're all specific applications, says Blunden.
As a result, Whistler currently runs 47 software programs — a costly scenario, not only in terms of managing the technical behemoth, but also in labour, the largest expense at any ski resort. It takes roughly two weeks to train an employee how to use a program and with the seasonal turnover, training most of the users has to be done at least once a year.
Blunden hopes to have uniform functions and interface for all systems, as this would lower training costs, and enable staff to work at a variety of positions. Currently, the systems are so different that ticket sales clerks, for example, are unable to assist people lining up at a busy retail counter with their purchases because they don't know how to use the other program. Not even the code for a cash or credit card transaction is a standard function.
In the meantime, resort personnel will continue to work with a variety of programs. Ski patrollers will continue using one application to download weather and avalanche data, another to input the pass number of a dangerous skier who has been warned, and yet another to file the details of an accident with the insurance company.
Although it will be costly to switch over to a new streamlined system, there are many ways in which computers save money. In one case, Whistler management tallies the number of skiers on the mountain at noon every day by downloading data from ticket sales and pass checkers, then calculates how many food and beverage staff will be needed for the afternoon shift. If there are fewer skiers than expected, then employees can be sent home after having worked the four hour minimum, thereby reducing labour costs.
Taking turns, sharing solutions
Unofficially, "we take turns taking the lead in development," says Blunden, referring to the one-stop shopping system. In other areas, however, Blackcomb has been more aggressive in using new technology.
Whistler, for example, installed fibre optic lines in 1991 and 1993, but Blackcomb was the first to use a fibre optic network, last year. Whistler will use the high-speed communication lines for the first time this year, after it adds nodes connecting the main line to the base stations.
Fibre optics are an important development, as one of the biggest problems for high-tech at any ski resort is "dirty power", says Blackcomb's Pike. He explains: ski lifts are major power users, so heavy-duty surge suppressers must be installed throughout the network to prevent costly computer crashes. Fibre optics lines transmit data more quickly and reliably than any other lines and are not disturbed by the magnetic fields generated by high voltage equipment such as lifts.
Blackcomb will also lead in introducing video image technology to process season passes. This year, a video of the skier's face will be made, then the image will be digitized and stored on a computer. The image is then printed on a credit card blank. But Blackcomb is not about to become a bank, as all charges will be linked to the skier's credit card. Passholders can charge all purchases — a beer at Christine's, a toque from Horstman Trading Co., or a snowboard rental from Essentially Blackcomb — to their pass. The video image system also means the pass can be re-issued by phone or mail if it is lost or needs to be renewed, for a $25 replacement fee.
Despite the $300,000 price tag of the 12-image capture systems, Pike points out that the new system is actually cheaper and more convenient than the former Polaroid film-based process. The real gain, however is improving service to the resort's customers. This new technology means that passholders won't have to line up each year to have their mug shot taken and get a new pass — they simply have their old one reactivated by signing and mailing in their renewal agreement.
Blunden says Whistler has no plans to introduce video image systems yet, waiting instead to see what will be the result of Blackcomb's experiment.
Blackcomb is also the first to introduce a hand-held radio link system to check lift tickets. The old hand-held scanner system was dropped because each scanner could only store a limited amount of bad pass numbers. The new system is a laser gun which scans the bar-coded pass number then transmits the data to a central computer system. Within two seconds, staff will know if the pass is valid.
This radio link validation system is the current standard in state-of-the-art North American ski resorts, but it may be replaced by a Radio Frequency Tag system. Tags similar to those used at some airports to sort baggage could be used as ski lift passes. A small computer chip would be imbedded inside the pass, which would be similar in appearance to a credit card. As skiers move through the monitoring site, their pass will be checked automatically, without them having to stop or wait while a resort employee checks their pass. This could save a lot of money in terms of reduced staff and it may shorten the lineup for boarding a lift — but many argue that a friendly greeting from a pass-checker is invaluable public relations for the resort.
The trick is to strike a balance between leading edge technology and the user-friendliness of its applications. State-of-the-art systems will not determine who will win the competition to provide the best possible service to the skiers, but they will play a valuable role.