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July 2011

Give Folks a Lift

Creative ways to get guests and employees to the mountains abound.

Written by Tom Patton, Snowbird Tram and Lift Operations Manager | 0 comment

In a business that offers an outdoor experience in wide-open spaces, it’s ironic that our base operations are often challenged for space. That includes parking. Combine that with tight mountain roads or long drives on congested freeways, and you have plenty of incentives to implement transportation strategies that mitigate congestion and hassle, not to mention the increasing expenses transportation entails—or the environmental consciousness of our increasingly Gen X and Gen Y audience, which is pushing “the green way of doing things” to the next level.

Areas use a variety of strategies to cope with congestion in all its forms. Those methods, combined with incentives for guests to carpool or utilize alternative transportation options, are increasing in importance. Assuming (optimistically, but this is the ski industry after all) that visits continue their upward trend and assuming (practically, based on decades of experience) that no major new resorts are developed, it will be increasingly important to strive for greater efficiency and customer convenience. And mass transit, from carpooling to shuttles, can be a big part of the solution.

It is virtually a necessity for some areas to make employee shuttle services part of their transportation plans. For some, the cost of living either close to the area or in the ski town itself has risen so high that few employees can afford to live nearby. That’s why Park City, Utah, offers free shuttle service to “team members” from both Salt Lake City and the Heber valley. Within the town and surrounding areas, the Park City transportation buses are free to everyone.

There are other examples. Breckenridge and Big Sky offer free transit within their communities. Aspen Resorts and Vail Resorts offer discounted mass transit options to employees. The Wasatch Front resorts in Utah—Alta, Snowbird, Solitude and Brighton—have an agreement with UTA whereby the resorts subsidize anyone holding a pass to any of those resorts so that they can ride the Traxx trains and ski buses free of charge. That includes employees and dependants. The Utah areas found necessity to be the mother of their inventiveness. They are all a relatively short drive from a large urban area, and all have very limited parking space due to the steep narrow aspects of both Cottonwood canyons.

It’s not just these destination resorts that are into the transit biz. In the northwest, Stevens Pass has received the designation of one of the “Best work places for Commuters” from the U. S. Environmental Protection agency based on its employee transportation program that offers free transit to all employees. In the northeast, Killington offers free public transportation to all employees to/from Rutland, Vt.

Some areas require employees to utilize satellite parking areas serviced by company shuttles, Steamboat and Breckenridge among them. Canyons, Utah services a satellite parking area via a gondola. At Big Sky, the free Skyline bus system has scheduled stops at employee housing locations.

Buses and shuttles can’t cover everything, though, as varied or night shifts may preclude some workers from the regular transit schedules. Others may live and travel from places beyond transit options. To cover these additional scenarios or to give further incentives for staff to assist with these challenges, many areas utilize carpool incentives. Kirkwood Resort 30 miles south of Lake Tahoe is just remote enough that no mass transit options are available. This is compensated by an employee carpool system that rewards coupons based on total numbers of passengers. Those coupons are redeemable for either food or fuel. In Montana Moonlight Basin also has an employee carpool incentive program with a sliding scale based on riders. Each carpool must register with HR and can earn up to ten dollars per day.

Another process used by many areas is a rewards program for employees utilizing various green transportation options. Riding the free UTA ski buses at Snowbird can still count toward rewards along with carpooling, motorcycle riding, and even bicycle riding (for the very fit). Along with shuttle services for employees from multiple locations, Northstar-at-Tahoe has a similar program to Snowbird’s whereby carpool miles along with walking/running and biking miles are logged and participants become eligible for random drawing prizes along with a grand prize at the end of the season.

It is the rare area that actually doesn’t have some sort of incentives built into their employee transportation program, and even the areas already active in these efforts are constantly looking at ways to do more.

Another reason for community transit: our guests are changing, and have a new set of priorities. Among those are a much heightened environmental awareness, which affects how they view and use our resorts. While resorts have shown a remarkable resilience during the economic downturn, tighter vacation budgets are nonetheless a reality for many customers. Both the real dollar costs and the carbon footprint are considerations in this, especially when one thinks about the traditional destination skier itinerary that involves jetting across the country and then renting an SUV. For younger guests especially, that is becoming less acceptable.

Resort incentives can work. To help alleviate highway traffic on famously congested I-70 in Colorado and to reduce pressure on parking at the areas, Keystone Resort rewards guests who arrive early with a full carload of passengers. On a first-come, first-served basis, any car that arrives with four or more passengers is directed to premier (close-in) parking. The older model—pay parking—still exists at some places (including Keystone), but even those allotments are being tweaked toward a greener goal. For example, at Snowbird, a close-in employee lot that was once first-come, first-served is now reserved for vehicles with three or more passengers.

Shared airport shuttles, or even one-way luxury SUV limos, are also being utilized more often. It makes little sense to rent an expensive fuel-guzzling SUV for a week in a ski town with free transit throughout that community from early morning to late at night.

Resorts in North Lake Tahoe offer a free shuttle service that connects with TART (Tahoe Area Regional Transit) buses. In addition, the Donner Summit-Truckee free ski shuttle circulates from the town of Truckee through the ski resorts situated near I-80, including Boreal, Donner Ski Ranch, Sugarbowl and Soda Springs. Many resort employees also utilize this shuttle. There is also a free night shuttle service, Nightrider, that circulates through Northstar and Squaw Valley, with stops throughout the Stateline and Tahoe city areas.

Finally, our customers themselves are organizing carpooling or rideshare programs. One carpooling website,, a nonprofit rideshare program organized by volunteers, is based in the greater Denver area. Links to Eldora, Loveland, Winter Park and Copper Mountain are featured on the website, and the resorts like to via their Internet transportation pages. Another website,, posts articles and advice on resorts’ green transportation options across the country.

Customers taking transit matters into their own hands? That’s the clearest sign yet that transportation solutions should be on the agenda of every resort in the country.

On a recent hiatus from Snowbird, Tom Patton worked for two different Salt Lake-area resort transportation companies.