Schussing Cashless Slopes

Thinking of a ski vacation? Ah, yes. Brilliant sun, fresh powder, an apres-ski stroll under the stars. But what about lugging skis and boots through the airport, the long lines at ticket windows and lifts, the ski suit you'll need with room for a wallet full of cash and credit cards? Maybe you should pack a bathing suit and head for the Bahamas instead.

With too many skiers doing just that, U.S. resorts are seeing the future--and it's a walletless mountain. They're borrowing technology from credit cards and retailers, including magnetic strips, bar codes, scanners, and microchips, to make vacations user-friendly. The ultimate goal: one card good for all resort expenditures.

In February, Ski Rio in northern New Mexico will introduce just that. Skiers present a credit card when they check in and get a photo ID, which is scanned at the lift to bypass the ticket line. They can also use the card for food, hotels, even dogsled rides. At the end of their trip, skiers receive a single bill, payable on the preapproved card.

The major advantage is guest convenience, but Ski Rio benefits, too, says Chief Executive Lawrence Smith, who expects the $500,000 system to pay for itself in five years by reducing labor costs and fraud. The system will encourage guest purchases, since parents will give children cards of their own "so little Billy can buy hot chocolate or Chap Stick," Smith says.

Other areas are using cards for lift rides. At Attitash Bear Peak Cranmore in New Hampshire, skiers purchase points good for a certain number of runs. At each lift turnstile, the skier pops a bar-coded card into a machine, and points are debited from the total. The resort credits the program with boosting lift usage on cold days, since skiers can buy just one or two runs instead of a full day's lift ticket.

COMPUTER TUNED. This winter, Vail ski resort is pioneering high technology at the rental counter. Instead of picking equipment by eyeballing a skier, a rental-shop employee feeds the skier's height, weight, age, and ability into a computer, which adds current snow conditions, then selects the right equipment, along with the setting for bindings. Data are stored in the computer, and the skier gets a bar-coded card to be used on subsequent visits--or at other resorts that are expected to install the so-called Snowell system next year. The system includes a machine that waxes and sharpens skis to snow conditions or personal specs. So skis are tuned with every use instead of once or twice a season, and advanced skiers, who were disdainful of rental gear because of poor tuning and fit, are now leaving their skis in the closet.

"Making skiing more convenient makes it more competitive with other destinations," says Andrew Daly, president of Vail Associates, which owns three ski mountains. Who knows, maybe one day skiing will be just as easy as that day at the beach.

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