Mount Werner goes wireless

Radio bracelets link ski families

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Mount Werner is going wireless, and Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. officials hope their investment in new technology will make the slopes more appealing to families.

Beginning this winter, families who rent a set of waterproof radio transmitters, each not much bigger than a wristwatch, will be able to keep track of one another no matter how widely they scatter across the ski trails and on-mountain restaurants. Ski area managers predict the transmitters will increase the "peace of mind" factor for parents vacationing with adventurous youngsters bent on exploring the mountain on their own.

Thanks to wireless communications technology, skiers and riders will be able to approach one of six kiosks at key locations on the mountain, scan their radio frequency bracelet and see a computerized map plotting the location of other members of their group. They'll also be able to send and receive text messages to those people.

"We're interested in using the latest technology to provide our guests a better experience," said Ski Corp. marketing vice president Andy Wirth.

Jim Schneider, vice president of skier services for Steamboat, said all children enrolled in ski and snowboard school or the Kids Vacation Center will wear the devices this winter. Parents who rent an RF wristband of their own will be able check on their child's location throughout the day, whether they are with their instructor at the top of the Magic Carpet lift, or having lunch in a cafeteria. No one outside their unique group and Mountain Traffic Control will be able to monitor their location.

Rental fees haven't been finalized, but Schneider said it probably would cost about $25 a week for a family of four.

But the new wireless network at Steamboat isn't just for children in organized lessons, Schneider said.

"For anyone that turned right instead of left, got off to a late start, lingered on a powder day, lingered for friends or finished a lesson, Steamboat MountainWatch allows guests to better locate their group and enjoy the slopes together," Schneider said.

Anyone who ever has made a promise to meet a friend at Rendezvous Saddle at noon, only to get stuck in a lift line on the other side of the mountain, immediately will appreciate the value of MountainWatch, resort officials said this week.

Steamboat MountainWatch is a wireless network similar to interoperable "Wi-Fi" networks and uses some Wi-Fi frequencies. But it also has important differences from Wi-Fi. Most consumers think of the technology in terms of the Wi-Fi hotspots that are popping up everywhere from airport terminals to coffee shops and truck stops. They allow people to use their laptops to connect remotely to the Internet or check e-mail.

Steamboat MountainWatch employs similar technology but has a different intended purpose. Vacationers who bring their Web-enabled personal digital assistants on vacation will be able to use them to get messages over MountainWatch, but they won't be able to access the net or check e-mail over the network.

Instead, Steamboat will use a network of radio antennas linked to central computers to create 56 location zones on the ski area. The system will allow people wearing the RF locators to be tracked all over the mountain whether indoors or out.

Steamboat has formed a business relationship with two companies, SafeTzone Technologies Corp. of Laguna Hills, Calif., and ScooterBug, Inc. of Woburn, Mass., to establish the system on Mount Werner. They are sharing the cost of installation and the revenue stream they hope will result.

SafeTzone successfully has installed similar systems at amusement parks and water parks in California, Nevada and Florida. Pearson Communications of Steamboat Springs is installing the equipment on Mount Werner.

Michael Prall, vice president of sales for SafeTzone, said the original idea was to increase the comfort level for say, a Cub Scout parent who is fearful of being responsible for a tribe of wild children at a water park. Prall said he was looking for a ski resort to expand his company's market when his acquaintance with former University of Colorado and Miami Dolphins football player Dick Anderson led him to a connection with former Steamboat Olympic skier Jim "Moose" Barrows. Barrows knew Steamboat was looking for something similar and got the two parties together.

Steamboat representative Wirth said the ski area's arrangement with SafeTzone is exclusive among North American ski resorts this winter. He expects the new technology to strengthen Steamboat's reputation as one of the most appealing resorts for families with children.

"We're confident it will augment Steamboat's position as a leading family resort," Wirth said.

Prall said the wireless industry has been transformed dramatically in the past 18 months by the ability to pack stronger RF devices and batteries into smaller packages. That means that before the distance limit on sending wireless signals was several hundred feet, now it's three to four miles.

"We think delivering technology to out-of-door entertainment companies will be a growth industry," Prall said.

His company has tested other technologies in an attempt to deliver a similar product. They tried global positioning satellite systems. However, they had a major downfall -- they didn't work indoors.

The first RF system they tried involved wearing a waist pack that weighed several pounds. That wasn't going to work in either the wave pool or on ski slopes.

Five to seven years ago, many skiing and snowboarding families latched onto Motorola Talkabout radios as a way to stay in touch on the slopes. They worked well, but the more popular they became, the less attractive they were. It didn't take long before all of the frequencies were jammed with people bickering about who was using channel 13 first.

In the case of wireless, Prall said, the technology and hardware had to catch up to the software his company writes for specific applications, such as ski areas.

In the future, Steamboat MountainWatch could help the Ski Corp. gain a better understanding of its customers' habits and even facilitate cashless spending. SafeTzone has software add-ons that will print out customized reports about customers' movements. And the RF wrist bracelet can link everyone in a family to a credit card number. It isn't much of a leap to imagine children using RF transmitter bracelets to purchase their lunches at the cafeteria while their parents enjoy a gourmet lunch on the other side of the mountain at Ragnar's.

But all of that is further down the trail at the wireless ski mountain.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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