SE3:EP7 - Katharina Schmitz - Future of Ski Lifts

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What do ski lifts mean to skiers? Ask Doppelmayr USA President Katharina Schmitz and she’ll tell you ‘freedom.’ In this episode, Last Chair host Tom Kelly chats with the leader of Utah-based Doppelmayr USA to explore the evolution of ski lifts and future trends, not only at resorts but as a vital form of mountain and urban transportation.

Doppelmayr, which is located not far from the Salt Lake City International Airport, has a history in Utah going back to the 1970s. One of its predecessor companies, CTEC, was founded here. It later morphed into Garaventa, and then became a part of Doppelmayr, an Austrian company with a history going back 125 years.

Utah is a big customer itself for the company, with over a hundred lifts in the state including the Garaventa-built Snowbird tram, now over 50 years old and still one of the most iconic ski lifts in the world, and the brand new Outlaw Express high-speed quad that opened at Sundance just before Christmas.

In many ways, the future of lift technology is already here with products like Doppelmayr’s revamped detachable technology in D Line lifts, which are soon to come to Utah. Its tri-cable 3S line, featuring high-capacity, long span gondolas like the new Eiger Express in Switzerland and Whistler/Blackcomb’s Peak-to-Peak Gondola, may also find a future home in the state.

A passionate skier herself, Katharina Schmitz grew up in Austria, coming to America with her engineering degree to forge a career in the automotive and aerospace industries, before landing in Utah with Doppelmayr in 2018.

It’s a fascinating interview that will explain current trends in uphill transportation, showcase future innovations and even take a look into the proposed Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola and how Doppelmayr’s triple-cable 3S technology could make a difference. She even speaks to the growing importance of WiFi in lift cabins!

Katharina, tell us more about Doppelmayr.

We have around 3,500 employees, about half of those are in Austria. The rest of us are scattered throughout the world across about 50 subsidiaries. The North American market is a key part of that, so we typically make up around 15 percent of the group's revenue. In really strong years, we were a little bit closer to 20 percent, so we certainly have a lot of attention from our group's headquarters and a lot of support as well.

Why is Utah a good home for a lift company like Doppelmayr?

Having a very business friendly environment certainly is a factor now. In addition to that, having several world class resorts right in our backyard is a real benefit. It helps us to collaborate closely with customers, not only in Utah but throughout the West. And having a Delta hub here is really nice to visit the rest of our customers throughout the country.

The history of aerial tramways in Utah goes back to hauling mining ore in the 1800s. How has the ski lift industry evolved from there?

Yes, it started with material transport and Doppelmayr still has a material transportation segment. But the core market for us is transporting people. We have seen a lot of evolution from the first surface lift in, I think, 1937, that Doppelmayr built in Austria that really started the company's ropeway business. Then if you look from there and how fast we came to the first detachable around 1970 or so, the innovation since then has just been mind blowing. So I think it shifted the profile as to what ropeways are used for or used in.

What’s the coolest lift installation you’ve seen in the world?

I have a personal favorite, which is the Stoosbahn in Switzerland. It is a funicular and it has barrel shaped compartments that have a leveling floor, so you always stay horizontal. It's the steepest funicular in the world and it is the most unique ride. You're going up this amazing incline and then through a little tunnel and come out on the other side. It serves as public transport, as well as access to a smaller ski area that's car free. And it's just an amazing installation, a really fun ride.

In your three seasons here in Utah, any favorite runs?

Well, I'm not as territorial since I'm not native Utahn, but I very much enjoy long runs. So I really do like some of the runs up at Snowbasin - off John Paul or Needles - that are just making for a good, long, fast run.

With the move from quads to six-packs and now to eight-packs, what are the important factors?

Terrain and alignment certainly are the big and obvious ones. Capacity is a big topic these days. And how many people do you want to move up the mountain per hour comes with a few different factors. Lift speed is certainly a factor, but also how many carriers you have. While you typically want to go up the mountain fast, you want to be really slow going through the terminal. And so we found in recent years that having slower carriers through the stations, having longer loading intervals really helps with keeping the lift running and not having any misloads as you go. So that also explains a little bit why you see lifts with, let's say, six or eight seater chairs so you can have fewer carriers, longer loading intervals, and you would still have the same capacity doing that.

So it’s not just about capacity?

In essence, with an eight seater, you would have a higher ultimate capacity. Most resorts don't strive for that per se. They're trying to get a certain capacity. And then it's a question on how comfortable you want your load interval to be. Increasing the load interval is a big topic and it ties into one of these other big factors - the level of skier that really uses that lift. If you have a beginner area, that's maybe one of the most important factors is making sure you can load them. If you have, you know, an alignment where it's all expert skiers, that's probably not your concern and you'll be looking for some other factors.

I recall the old Park City gondola being a great place to develop a relationship with a 25-minute ride. Modern lift technology has really changed that, hasn’t it?

Yes, you have to be efficient about your conversation, that's for sure.

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