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What airports can learn from ski resorts (and vice versa)

As a ski area mountain planner for Stantec, I get the chance to spend a great deal of time in two particular settings: ski areas and airports. On a recent trip, I had a revelation– ski areas and airports have a lot in common. And planners of each property can learn a lot from each other.

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On a recent trip, I had a realization while in the terminal awaiting my flight – ski areas and airports actually have a lot in common.

Ski areas and airports share more than is obvious—and both do things well that the other could learn from and improve people’s experience.

How are ski areas and airports similar?

To begin with, they both share three main “areas” from a planning perspective:

  • Land side – Parking, shuttle, utilities etc.
  • Air side – Runways, taxi strips, ski runs, lifts, and/or specialized maintenance equipment
  • Inside – Base lodges and terminals

Aside from those tangible pieces, both resorts and airports also evoke an emotional response, whether good or bad. Some of the bad emotional responses I see are on the land side, most notably in ticketing (both), baggage claim, ski rental, and bathrooms. But there are lots of opportunities for creating the good emotional experience, and this is one place where I think the two industries can learn from each other.

What can they learn from each other?

Take, for example, food service design. Newer airports I’ve visited in Vancouver, Seattle, and redesigns in San Francisco have really dialed in the ability to service large numbers of travelers in their food courts. Many airports also move people through their spaces more efficiently than ski areas typically can. Going through customs at the Vancouver International Airport is first rate. I’d love to take Stantec’s architectural team that designed that terminal and apply their knowledge to a ski area base lodge remodel – I’m sure the results would be fascinating.

Airports could learn something from skiing as well. We design the outside and inside experiences at ski resorts to create (and more importantly re-create) a positive emotional experience, one that can be shared across friends and generations. New trends in ski run orientation and alignment allow us to create upper-mountain experiences for beginners and intermediates that might not have been possible in the age of traditional ski run design.  The environmental and historical interpretation at Park City Mountain Resort in Utah tells a complete story of the mountain using these kinds of interpretive elements. For skiing, doing this well tends to slow the time of a ski run and leads to dissimilar skiing times for skiing groups, which leads to shorter lift lines as they pause to consider the interpretive site. How often do you see a staged photo opportunity at an airport? Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort recently sent a chair from an obsolete lift to American Restoration for refinishing and chroming. The chair now hangs in the lodge area and is by far the most popular onsite photo opportunity for skiers and non-skiers, second only to the resort’s “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign replica.

The power of silence.

Another thing I seek out in both ski areas and airports – when I can – is silence. One of the joys of ski area work is the relative silence once past the parking lot.  The Gardermoen Airport in Oslo is absolutely quiet during even the biggest peak periods due to architectural detailing and space programing. Vancouver also gives travelers the feeling of a seemingly less stressful passage. Airports could do with a little less crowd noise, a little less banging and crashing in the baggage area.

Again, these are just the ramblings of a traveling ski area planner but interesting food for thought. I look forward to seeing you in the mountains, but crossing paths at a good airport works too!

Authored by Bruce Erickson

We design the outside and inside experiences at ski resorts to create (and more importantly re-create) a positive emotional experience.

Many airports also move people through their spaces more efficiently than ski areas typically can.

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