The IT avalanche: How the ski industry does IT

How do they do IT: The Australian ski industry

Ask someone to conjure up their ideal image of winter and many here in this country will give you a picture of a slightly cooler version of summer. Ask others and a vivid picture of falling snow flakes, icicles hanging of chalet roofs, powder filled ski fields and a great way to get away from work during the mid-year will come to mind. It’s that latter image that Australia’s ski industry banks on in a frenzied 17-week burst of activity between June and October every year.

Frenzied, is probably an understatement. According to the Australian Ski Areas Association (ASAA), there were some 1.149 million ‘skier days’ — one person purchasing a lift ticket for one day's skiing or snowboarding — in the 2009 season.

While the alpine tourism industry represents just two per cent of the total Australian tourism activity, as of 2006 according to the ASAA, it has been successful in capturing a strong showing of domestic visitors — some 3.1 million — who annually flock to the Alps for the winter. It also adds around $1.3 billion to the national gross product and over 12,739 annual equivalent jobs during winter.

While the alpine region of Australia’s south with its mountainous terrain, snow and ski fields may be a great escape from the grind of work for the tourists, it’s far from a winter wonderland for the staff — particularly in the IT department.

Among the challenges the IT departments of the resorts which dot the region must overcome are high fluctuations in staff numbers, strong competition between resorts in an escalating war of high-tech services and facilities to attract guests, providing connectivity in regional and remote locations, and environmental concerns, to name but a few.

Mass migration

As you’d imagine a key feature of this highly seasonal business is the mass migration of young, unskilled staff — in a phrase, Gen Ys — to ski resorts looking to earn a buck and have a good time, and not necessarily in that order. As many of these staff are new every season, there’s a significant cost to resorts in having to train up recruits well before a single dollar is earned.

Giving a sense of the scale, Perisher ICT manager, Michael Fanning, says his organisation — which manages the resources and facilities of Perisher Valley, Smiggin Holes, Mount Blue Cow, Guthega, the Station Resort and the Skitube Alpine Railway — goes from a permanent staff of 140 off-season to anywhere up to 1500 in peak season.

To address this challenge Fanning has turned to technology and is this year introducing online training to cut down on the time and cost of training a staff member who will ultimately only be with the organisation for three or four months. The system is a combination of video and text completely delivered over the web, offering in the process more consistent content delivery.

“Before it was all manually done and conducted one day a week over seven weeks. It took three HR staff and often the CEO and the heads of all the departments had to go down to train staff as well,” Fanning says.

“Inductees used to have to come on site before they could begin training, but now they can do it off site and in their own time. Once they are on site they not longer have to take time out of their day to be trained when they really should be out greeting guests or operating a lift. We are saving time and money and are returning those back to the business.”

On top of the training, hundreds of new staff every season must be integrated into the organisation’s ICT infrastructure through new user accounts with varying levels of permissions, Fanning says.

To speed this up, the organisation has moved to an electronic form, replacing what was a two day on-site paper-based process. Now, not only can new staff fill in the form before they arrive on site, but the electronic forms capture more information, and more accurately allow the IT department to better assess what the employees access requirements are.

“The biggest challenge we face every year is the influx of IT users,” Fanning explains. “We go from an off season situation where we might add one or two users a month to in two months we have to add close to 500 new users. That is a massive effort.

“We have embraced Windows scripting — PowerShell — and we are working toward being able to create multiple users at the same time. If you have 15 ski lift operators they will all have the same level of access and permissions, just the names are different.”

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