Mastering the Ski Rental Obstacle Course

Employee huddle at the Mt. Hood Meadows rental shop

New efficiencies speed up the Mt. Hood Meadows equipment rental process.

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Five thousand eight hundred skiers and snowboarders showed up at Mt. Hood Meadows on December 26, 2016. 

Six hundred and fifty of them decided to rent equipment.

I was one of the 650. And when I saw the line, my heart sank.

One of the best things about downhill skiing is the feeling of freedom — and speed — that comes from swooshing down the mountain.

The worst part is the slog: trudging from the parking lot to the lodge, sitting in traffic to and from the mountain and waiting in the chair lift and equipment rental lines. (I usually bring my own skis but on this day decided to try out a different brand).

Renters represent about 10% of the total number of skiers, and the number of people who rent has been growing faster than the ski population, says Meadows rental shop manager Michael Birch-Jones.

“The quality of rental gear is so much better than it used to be,” he says.

In 2016 Meadows rented 40,000 units of equipment, a 25% increase over the prior years. During busy periods — holidays, weekends — the shop sees 900 people a day. In 2016 the shop broke the 1,000 mark for the first time. 

The average number of renters clocks in around 400 daily. The lion’s share show up between 9-11 a.m. 

I was one of those people. (To avoid the parking/driving slog I took the Meadows Park & Ride bus from Portland). It took about one hour to make my way through the rental line.

That’s a lot longer than I would have liked. But given the number of people waiting, I was impressed.Unknown

Besides, a year ago, a 90-minute wait was the norm, Birch-Jones says.

A “major leap forward” Meadows implemented in 2016 shaved 30 minutes off that time. The innovation is a “boot queue.” After you get your boots, an employee kneels at your feet to scan an RFID tag, which sends your information to computers manned by 14 ski technicians. They pull your skis and adjust the bindings based on the boot size.

The technicians call your name when the equipment is ready for pickup.

Before the boot queue invention, renters used to bring their forms to the counter and chit chat with the technician as he/she adjusted the bindings, Birch Jones says.  The “extra socializing” prolonged the process to 7-8 minutes.

“The boot queue cuts that response time to three minutes,” Birch-Jones says.

A reservation system put in place last year is another big improvement. Of the 650 people who rented equipment on December 26, about 225 purchased rentals in advance online. It takes about 10-15 minutes to get through the reservation pick up line.

The new innovations require more staff. On the busiest days, 36 people staff the Meadows rental shop, Birch-Jones says. Last year the employee head count was 20.

Most people who rent are beginners, and ski resorts eager to hook the novice for the long term have a vested interest in making the experience as pleasant as possible. 

Meadows’ current goal is to get the wait time down to 30 minutes, Birch-Jones says.  “I’m guessing the slowest part of the process was the wait for the cashier,” he said, referring to my own experience. It was. More terminals should help speed things up.

How do I rank my experience overall? Actually, it reminded me of the Cheaper by the Dozen, the book about a famous efficiency expert who tried to run his family like a factory.

With thousands of people showing up daily, resorts are in a race to move skiers as fast as possible through various assembly lines — and onto the slopes.

Birch-Jones says Meadows continues to look for new efficiencies and draws on expertise from consultants as well as in-house talent. (Meadows Vice President of Operations Jeremy Riss came up with the queue idea, after seeing it at another resort.)

“If there’s a good idea, we’ll take it,” Birch-Jones says.

This is the first in a series of posts about growth on Mt. Hood.