A Bad Day Skiing Beats a Good Day at Work

Kicking Horse Mountain Resort – Golden, British Columbia

Raise your hand if you’d rather be outside enjoying the day than cooped up working from your office or home? [big exhale] Yes me too, but unfortunately most of us must work for a living! That doesn’t mean you can’t balance some outdoor enjoyment and be successful in the workplace. The transition to remote work for many of us opened opportunities to spend more time at home, or the mountain, and provided added flexibility to our working hours. You may be surprised to learn that digital transformation has come to not just the workplace, but also the ski industry.

Industry Consolidation Comes to Skiing

Over the past decade there has been a major consolidation in the ski industry, driven by the introduction of the multi-resort or “mega” season pass. For those of you non-skiers (seriously you should try it), traditionally ski resorts sold access to the mountain in two main categories: a single-day lift ticket or a season pass. As skiers looked for variety in terrain a major appetite developed to visit multiple resorts. The challenge was that buying single day passes at different resorts is very costly, so some co-located resorts identified a partnership opportunity to offer multi-resort season passes for a single price.

In recent years various multi-resort passes have emerged, but the industry is dominated by the Epic Pass and the Ikon Pass, owned by Vail Resorts ($MTN) and the Alterra Mountain Company (Privately Owned). Vail Resorts went public in 1997 has experience explosive growth expanding from just 4 wholly-owned resorts in 2012, to 37 and growing! Not to be outdone, the owners of Aspen/Snowmass founded Alterra in 2018 and have quickly expanded to 16 resorts in that short span. Both passes also offer access to a host of resorts across the globe through various partnerships. The clear driver for this growth is the feverish appetite for the multi-resort pass, which quietly turned into one of the most disruptive innovations of the 2010s.

The United States has two major areas of skier populations centered around the Application Mountains and the Rocky Mountains. The size and scale of the western range makes for a palpable difference in skiing quality vs. the east coast (#SkiTheEast). The multi-resort pass has driven winter tourism, providing east coast travelers with a more affordable access route to ski trips out west. Almost every major newspaper and every ski town has reported on the impact of this trend on the tourism and hospitality industries (Example: New York Times). Many locals do complain of longer lines or additional traffic in town, but overall this winter tourism creates jobs and opportunities.

Biggest Ski State: 2012 Skier/Boarder Visit Density by State
Skier/Border Visit Density by State (2010)

How has the multi-resort pass driven Digital Transformation?

The rise of these major corporations from the success of the multi-resort pass has jumpstarted technology in the ski industry in a multitude of ways. Sure, every year there are improvements to skis, googles, boots, etc. , but the sheer amount of money generated from the industry consolidation has created larger investment opportunities. A simple example is the transition from single use tickets to RFIDs and smart-phone apps.

Traditional Lift-Ticket vs. RFID

If you’ve skied in the past couple of years you may have noticed the lift attendants no longer check everyone’s ticket with a scanner, but instead you ski/walk through a gate as show above. The gate has an RFID scanner which is links to your pass, and take a photo each time you pass through a gate. This helps to increase safety and reduce fraud by ensuring multiple people aren’t using the same pass (ex. the same pass isn’t used Vermont & Colorado in the same day). There are also benefits for the consumer because the pass lines are more efficient without having to scan each individual person. Stats are also captured and delivered directly to your smartphone app enabling skiers/boards to compete against themselves or their friends for the most number of days skied, total vertical, or number of runs.

Digital transformation in the ski industry has made the sport more accessible and affordable to all, without spoiling the traditional experience of getting out on the mountain to enjoy a nice day. Work flexibility and the advent of the multi-resort pass enable increased winter travel and tourism. Just remember, there’s no friends on a powder day.

Additional References:

  1. https://outsidebusinessjournal.com/brands/snowsports/ikon-pass-case-study/,
  2. https://www.mensjournal.com/adventure/why-ski-resort-crowds-from-popular-multi-passes-are-great-for-skiing/
  3. https://www.geekwire.com/2017/whistler-blackcomb-uses-rfid-tech-to-marry-mobile-apps-to-skiing-and-boarding/
  4. https://nsaa.org/webdocs/Media_Public/IndustryStats/Historical_Skier_Days_1979_2021.pdf
  5. https://unofficialnetworks.com/2014/01/08/state-skiers-snowboarders/

10 comments

  1. This is awesome. Classic example of how digital transformation can complement and not replace real life experiences. I see this as viable for several similar industries.

  2. I think a great follow up post to this would be to discuss the benefits these companies have been able to realize at an international scale. I would recommend you watch this video for further details: https://youtu.be/vpcUVOjUrKk . Overall, you have highlighted a great aspect of digital transformation in an industry that is noticed by most consumers a few times a year.

  3. We are so close to ski season! Is it cruel to start taking out all my gear?

    Great post. I’ve often wondered why it’s taken other sports so long to catch up to ski tech. It’s probably due to the amount of money the ski industry brings in. Luckily, I’m a Cowboys fan and they’ve already made huge digital improvements to the AT&T stadium like adding RFID gates, AR experiences, and in-seat ordering to avoid lines.

  4. I am not a skier, so I was not aware of the introduction of RFID technology in the ski space. Between the efficiency and safety benefits it seems like such a great idea. I look into this idea a bit further and it looks like some resorts have taken the technology even further by allowing guests to add stored value to their RFID cards. Being able to track and associate a guests every move and purchase is extremely beneficial for ski resorts. Resorts can create personalized marketing campaigns for skiers based on their actions and preferences.

  5. I am a colossal ski fan! As soon as I read the title, I knew I was going to read your blog. My uncle, dad, mom, and grandfather were all ski instructors, and they are the ones that got me hock in the sport, and before you are wondering, yes, we ski in Spain. It was a big surprise when I came to the USA (2010) and saw ski resorts still using the traditional paper and not the RFID lift ticket, which were already popular way before 2010 in Europe. I am glad the US is finally catching up to this. Another technology that I was super excited for some ski resorts to implement was free WIFI offering in their chairlift. The first I recall seeing this was in Kitzbuhel back in 2014. By the way, after reading your blog, I can’t stop thinking about skiing!

  6. Digital technology has only positively impacted my life over the past 10 years. First, I buy an Epic Pass every year for an annual trip to ski Colorado and it allows me to ski a few days in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. This digital approach allows me to use one pass at all the resorts, so I don’t have to worry about having the right pass for the right resort. Also, RFID lift tickets have been a complete game-changer. Wait times in lift lines have significantly decreased and it allows me to be much more excited to take another run.

    Another way that digital technology has impacted the ski industry is the advanced GPS technology for backcountry skiing. These devices make me feel much more comfortable backcountry skiing as if there is an avalanche I feel as though my chances of being rescued are much higher (though it is still incredibly dangerous).

  7. Technology can really have a tremendous impact on operations processes, as you mentioned with the RFID skiing scanners. Incorporating tech into operational systems allows for increased consumer interactions with digital mechanics, and subsequently allows for businesses to collect more information on the consumer. There is always a trade-off; customization comes at the expense of privacy. Take the RFID scanners or even your own Netflix account – the more your use it, the better services it provides and more value you get. The question remains, however, at what cost are we willing to acquire value?

  8. I’m definitely not an avid skier but do go once or twice a season. The impact of just changing how a ticket is read can impact a skiers experience and wait times significantly. I also think it’s interesting that the offering of multi-resort season tickets has driven up winter tourism into areas where previously only locals would ski. As noted in the blog, locals may find it a bit more time consuming but the overall impact is positive with tourism brining in new opportunities to the communities for jobs and revenue.

  9. Great post!! As a former travel sector employee (and having lived in the heart of ski country – Vail, CO!) I love how you outline two disruptive transformations to the industry that have only been positive: the impact on tourism (and the consumer’s wallet/experience) through the consolidation of passes, and now the impact on mountain operations, skier experience and, as @allietlevine points out above, the ability to more directly target skiers based on data gleaned from their usage patterns, where they spend in dining/shops, etc.

    The one thing I’m curious about is if there is any issue of over-crowding on the slopes due to the increased efficiency. Perhaps the longer lift lines and manual scanning of tickets had the beneficial effect of slowing the flow so skiers and snowboarders had a little less congestion on their runs? Of course that translates into frustration for those in the lift lines.

    Now I’m daydreaming about Colorado :) Class field trip?

  10. A couple weeks ago I was in Big Sky, MT staying at a house up on the mountain. Not only did it snow, but I got to watch parts of the installation of 2 huge chair lifts. One would be the fastest 6 person lift in North America and the other was the first 8 person chair in NA when it opened a couple years ago. I also have watched the expansion over the years of not only skiable area increase-but an increase in what these companies are doing to make it a destination for all people- not just skiers. I think the off season especially took off with mountain biking, but now places are installing zip lines (longest one in NA is in Mass!) and adventure ropes courses. “Ski bums” now have full time year round jobs if they want them and the business seems to still be growing exponentially.

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