Ski resorts go high-tech to catch freeloaders
It was the spring of 1960, and Fred Pabst Jr. had record crowds and plenty of snow at Big Bromley. But the cantankerous ski area pioneer was far from pleased on a blissfully sunny Vermont afternoon.
"Chiselers!" Pabst railed to a reporter, who wrote up the tirade in the Globe on March 13. "These ticket connivers and deadbeats who spend so much of their time figuring out ways to cheat a ski area get under my skin. These same people wouldn't think of stealing money from a bank. Or shoplifting from a store. But they will do most anything to cheat you at a ski area. Apparently they look upon it as a game. Some are cleverer than others. We don't catch all of them."
Pabst was about to — once again — order employees into the parking lot to count cars so he could compare the number of vehicles against the number of lift tickets sold. He tersely reminded them to keep an eye out for customers concealing industrial staplers, because Pabst knew that was how dishonest late arrivals affixed used lift tickets to their jackets.
"I didn't know Fred," said Bill Cairns, Bromley's current director of resort operations. "But from what I've heard, he was definitely the type of person who would get all fired up if he thought someone was ripping off his ski area."
More than 50 years later, resorts are still trying to stay ahead of customers who bilk the system. Some conspire to hit the slopes without paying, while others aren't aware they're on the wrong side of the law when they borrow a season pass from a friend or buy deeply discounted lift tickets from unauthorized sellers. The tools of the trade have gone high-tech, with color printers replacing staplers, and resorts countering by switching to tickets with bar codes and radio frequency identification (RFID) chips. But one constant remains: the prevailing attitude that ski resorts are fair game when it comes to trying to shave a little — or a lot — off the cost of a lift ticket.
"I look at it as the 2 percent rule," said Stacy Lopes, marketing manager at Ragged Mountain. "In any business, you're going to get 2 percent of the population trying to pull a fast one. I think people really don't read the fine print [on lift tickets prohibiting resale or transfer]. There's this notion that it's OK to get a lift ticket in the parking lot from a stranger, when in fact you're stealing a service."
The snow sports industry doesn't compile widespread fraud statistics, but a 2003 study by SKI magazine estimated 8 percent of overall ticket revenue is lost to theft.
Thwarting freeloaders is a problem as old as the hills. In the 1940s, a paper stub got you access to the lifts, but these were routinely swapped among non-paying skiers, so resorts began stapling card-stock tickets to outerwear. As skiers became fashion conscious and didn't want expensive clothing riddled with holes, Killington introduced the wire-loop ticket wicket in 1963. This was countered by those who used heat to separate sticky ticket backings or wire cutters to facilitate re-use.
By the 1990s, lift attendants began using hand-held scanners to read coded tickets, but evaders soon figured out security checks were limited to busy lower lifts, and if they got by the first checkpoint, they could stick to upper lifts without getting caught.
Cairns said data-collecting systems now can pinpoint which lifts have been accessed when and by whom. Advances in RFID are making it possible for turnstiles to replace humans as a means of controlling access. Such systems are being rolled out at larger resorts, but the cost can be prohibitive.
"We're not at that level," Cairns said. "It's quite an investment. If I have $250,000 to spend, do I get more bang for my buck on security scanning or new snow guns? We do it the old-fashioned way, the way Fred [Pabst Jr.] did. An attendant greets you and is asked to touch every ticket."
Lopes said some resorts offer "bounties" to employees who turn in scammers, but it's important not to create a "police state" when you're supposed to be in the service industry.
With the Internet, resorts are now threatened by individuals who stockpile lift tickets by scooping up free vouchers at trade shows or via online coupon deals. It only takes a few clicks on craigslist or eBay to uncover the illicit resale market.
Last weekend, a Globe reporter e-mailed 15 sellers offering tickets at a fraction of face value, expressing interest while asking if the sale was legal. Only three sellers responded, two insisting the transaction was legitimate. The third typified the hazy uncertainty of online commerce, writing, "I don't know [if it's legal], friends gave some tickets to us, since we are not using them, why not sell them?"
Depending on state or local laws, the use of a fake, transferred, or resold lift ticket can equate to charges of conspiracy, theft of services, or even defrauding an innkeeper. But neither Cairns nor Lopes could recall a single incident of prosecution.
"Have I ever prosecuted? No," Cairns said. "And I wouldn't, unless we had a repeat or habitual offender. Except for the wily veterans in the parking lot, people are oblivious and they're always stunned when we tell them it's really not a good idea to be handing over money for tickets right in front of our own ticket window."
Still, Cairns added, "we're not above following someone" when a staffer thinks the old "I lost my ticket" ruse is going on. This once led to a man who, after affixing a replacement ticket to his pants at the window, thought nobody was watching when he went into the lodge, took off his trousers, and switched pants with a non-paying pal.
Lopes said customers sometimes shame themselves into getting caught. One common ploy is when a parent is buying tickets for the entire family and tries to save a few bucks by fudging a child's age.
"The father will say, 'I'd like an under-five age ticket for this one,' " Lopes explained. "And his little girl, indignant in the way kids are about being mistaken for being too young, will insist, 'But Daddy, I'm 7.' "