Expert travel tips: Trust technology, know when to splurge

Rob Katz is always on the move. When I met him, he seemed to be in perpetual motion. “Hi, nice to meet you — see you later,” he said in a single breath. I hardly had a chance to respond.

That’s what you’d expect from the CEO of Vail Resorts, which operates the iconic Colorado ski resort after which it’s named, as well as Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Heavenly Ski Resort, Park City, Stowe, and Whistler-Blackcomb.

An innovative idea

What you might not know is that Katz, a former Wall Street fund manager, quietly changed the way people ski and snowboard when he introduced the Epic Pass, a season lift pass that uses RFID readers and smart-chip cards to let you board the resort’s chairlifts and gondolas quickly.

No need to show your pass when you slide up to the lift; the resort can scan your card right through your clothes. Pretty cool.

The Epic Pass turns 10 years old this month, but Katz has more to share. As a frequent traveler — he clocked nearly 100,000 miles in 2017 and holds elite status “with everyone” — Katz has developed a few strategies for cutting the line. His time-saving secrets, which include taking chances on new technology and thoughtful planning, promise to resonate beyond the slopes.

Katz is a risk-taker, and not just because he’s a skier. When he proposed the idea of Epic Pass, and reducing the price of a season pass from $1,800 to just $600, his board of directors balked.

“That was my biggest obstacle to building Epic,” he admits. “They were concerned about reducing the price of a season pass by 70%. They said, ‘That’s not what most companies do when they want to drive revenue.’ ”

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Katz’ answer

The new season pass would be transformational, offering skiers unlimited, unrestricted access and keeping them coming back to the resorts. In short, it was worth the risk. And they said “yes.”

The risk paid off. Epic sold a record 750,000 passes last year, offering skiers worldwide access to 46 resorts and making it the largest season pass program of its kind.
Travelers who want to get to their destinations faster need to take risks, too, says Katz — whether it’s trying a new company, sharing personal information or thinking differently about their travel plans. And the rewards can also be considerable.

With a few swipes and taps of our phones, we can get items shipped to our doors, order movie tickets, stream music, and do so much more. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that we could now use similar disruptive technology to plan a trip to Neverland, schedule a visit with Mickey Mouse, or book a flight aboard Dumbo the Elephant. David Roark, Disney

A few of Katz’ expert travel tips

• Try the tech. Epic-like systems are everywhere, from Disney’s MagicBands, which help you access your favorite theme park experience, to Global Entry, which gets you through customs faster. “The ability to digitally communicate can allow you to dramatically reduce the lines and the hassle of waiting around,” says Katz.

• Plan ahead. “I do everything I possibly can in advance,” he says. “I use OpenTable to book restaurants. Uber to get a ride. My Hertz Gold Club to set my car rental preferences. I pre-register for my hotel so I can go to my room quickly.” That applies to his resorts, too, which emphasize the importance of going online before the vacation to register for ski school, lift tickets and dinner reservations. That saves time, allowing you to enjoy more of your vacation.

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• Spend a little more, get a lot. Katz says spending just a little more can often offer a valuable shortcut. For example, if you book a room at the Mountain Thunder Lodge or another official property in Breckenridge, Colo., you’ll have access to the mountain’s “first tracks” in the morning, where there are no lift lines and the runs are perfectly groomed. Every industry has similar time-saving upgrades, from a hotel’s concierge floor to a car rental company’s preferred aisle. Sometimes, you can access them without paying a lot more.
As travelers brace for another hectic summer travel season, using smart technology, careful planning and wise spending to restore much-needed vacation time is more important than ever. “You don’t have to spend your vacation standing in line,” says Katz.

Using data as a travel shortcut

Rob Katz’ strategies for using data to your advantage:

• Give data to a company you trust. Sometimes, supplying information to a trusted company can pay handsome dividends. Katz’ favorite example is Waze (waze.com), a crowdsourcing app that shows traffic.

• Make sure it’s a two-way street. Make sure you monitor the information to ensure it’s a two-way street. This applies to more than travel. “It’s also Alexa, Netflix and Siri,” says Katz. “You have to make sure it’s a good relationship.” Time savings is a big criterion, but by no means the only one.

• Look for a return. Responsible and trustworthy travel companies return the data in a useful way. Vail recently introduced a system that shows lift lines in real time (time.epicmix.com) if you allow yourself to be tracked as well. “If Chair 5 has long lines, you can go to Chair 9,” he says.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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