All across the country, early season pass sales are up—in some cases, dramatically. It’s a good omen heading into the season.
“It’s always a positive thing when season pass sales are up. You know there’s enthusiasm about the upcoming season,” says Brian Lawson, PR director at Crystal Mountain, Mich., where early pass sales were the strongest in six years. “It offers a little more security.”
Shakeup in the East
Nowhere is that security and enthusiasm more evident than Vermont, where Vail’s purchase of Stowe last spring upended the state’s ski market. Vail’s first foray east brought the Epic Pass and access to Vail’s family of resorts in Colorado, Utah, Lake Tahoe and Canada for half the price of what a Stowe-only pass previously cost.
“Who wouldn’t want that level of access at that price?” asks Jeff Wise, Stowe marketing and communications director. “The value proposition is totally different than in the past.”
That proposition has put downward pressure on other resorts’ season pass prices. Nearby Sugarbush, one of Vermont’s last major independent ski resorts, cut pass prices by more than 30 percent in response. “In the spring, we changed our pricing structure fairly dramatically knowing the new landscape,” says Candace White, VP of sales and marketing.
Sugarbush also unbundled its 12 and under children’s pass, making it a separate purchase. In the past, a dependent pass came free with an adult unlimited pass. “Making it a separate purchase helped us get pricing down, and also satisfied complaints from childless skiers,” White says.
Another change: Sugarbush replaced Stowe as the East’s representative in the Mountain Collective, which includes two days at each of the 16 participating resorts, plus 50 percent off additional days after that. “We’ve seen good results on Mountain Collective pass purchases thus far,” White says.
The various moves succeeded, says White, with season pass revenue up seven percent YTD as of mid September.
Okemo, Vt., also cut pass prices, but not in reaction to Epic. “We revamped our whole season pass offerings and price structure,” explains PR director Bonnie MacPherson.
She says Okemo surveyed guests two years ago to find out what they wanted in a pass. “They said they were willing to forego extra bells and whistles for a less expensive season pass.” As a result, Okemo stripped away perks and other benefits and dropped prices.
“It was a bold step,” MacPherson says. “By reducing prices and streamlining the product, we had to sell a lot more to compensate. Mission accomplished. Ultimately, people just want to save money.”
Okemo is also part of the M.A.X. Pass, which this season offers five days of skiing at any of 44 resorts. The resort also has a special pass partnership with Killington/Pico, and Ultimate Passholders have access to $49 non-holiday day tickets to Stratton, which was purchased in April along with other Intrawest properties by the new KSL/SkiCo entity.
Snowshoe, W. Va., is also part of the yet-to-be-named new company, and will remain a part of the M.A.X. Pass until the entity comes out with a new product for the 2018-19 season. According to Sam Cassell, the resort’s PR specialist, sales have been positive for existing products. Snowshoe’s 10-day, “ridiculous” pass sale at the end of February offers unlimited skiing the rest of that season and all of next for $249 ($229 for renewals). “We sold more than we’ve ever sold before,” Cassell says of the sale last winter. “It just went bonkers. At least a 25 percent increase.”
Elsewhere, resorts mostly held the line on pricing, and sold more passes than usual. At Bolton Valley, Vt., which made ownership news of its own last spring when founder Ralph DesLauriers and his son Evan and daughter Lindsay re-acquired the area Ralph ran from 1966 to 1996, pass sales were up.
Although not in neighbor Stowe’s league or market, Josh Arneson, VP of marketing, says Bolton still feels the downward pressure the Epic Pass is putting on prices. Bolton held the line on its best adult pass price ($489) and lowered others. Bolton is also part of the Freedom Pass, a group of nine eastern and four western mountains that offers passholders three free tickets to each.
“We had more than 200 Freedom Pass tickets redeemed at Bolton last year,” Arneson says. “I think that number will go up this year.”
At Cranmore, N.H., pass prices were up slightly and sales the best since 2011-12. Crystal increased prices $10, and sold the most in six years. Holiday Valley, N.Y., mostly kept prices flat and saw its value, non-primetime passes (nights, Sundays, etc.) increase 25 percent. Sales for full access passes were mostly flat.
After last season’s warmup and early close, Ski Liberty, Pa., held the line on pass pricing, and reported sales trending ahead. Beech Mountain, N.C., also kept prices steady, and reported lots of buzz in anticipation of putting passes on sale October 2.
Success in the West
Out West, Alta in Utah held the line on pass prices and added sales tiers and deadlines, creating a sense of urgency and more communication with skiers. “We’re pleased,” says Connie Marshall, communications director. “We’re ahead of last year.”
Marshall says the Mountain Collective—already a “very, very strong product” at Alta—is likely to be even more popular this season with Alta and Snowbird now separate areas on the pass, doubling the days passholders get, and also with the addition of Snowbasin, Utah.
“It’s a big deal for our passholders who now get two free days at Snowbird and Snowbasin,” she says. “And people just buying the Mountain Collective product now get six days of skiing in Utah, and potentially seven. It’s really put Utah on the map.”
Mt. Rose, Nev., raised pass prices slightly and reported a 15 percent increase in early sales YTD. At Mt. Hood Meadows, Ore., pass prices climbed 2.5 percent and sales jumped 10 percent over last year, the resort’s previous best-ever year for early pass sales. With a forecast for a La Nina winter, and with a new Buttercup lift, marketing VP Dave Tragethon is enthusiastic. “Just the amount of engagement we’re getting on social media, Facebook, people opening emails, it all bodes well,” he says.
Perks and Other Pass News
Tragethon says the rewards points Mt. Hood Meadows offers on its unlimited pass is the most popular and requested perk. Passholders earn points on any non-lift or pass purchase at the area—lessons, rentals, food, bar, retail, etc. The points can then be redeemed for about 10 to 20 percent of the value of the purchase.
“It’s much easier to present what a great value it is to people,” Tragethon says. “When they spend money, they earn points. They can then go online and convert the points to added value on their pass or buy online products.”
Snow Time Inc. resorts Ski Liberty, Whitetail, and Roundtop Mountain, Pa., have always had reciprocal passes, but few skiers took advantage. That changed last winter when Ski Liberty and Whitetail had to close early, but Roundtop was able to stay open. Suddenly, passholders learned to appreciate this perk.
“A positive to come out of this is that it encouraged some of our loyal Liberty and Whitetail passholders to visit Roundtop, and they expressed how much they enjoyed being able to do that,” says Anne Weimer, Ski Liberty GM. “They really didn’t think of our resorts that way.”
As a result, Weimer says the Snow Time resorts have changed their marketing to focus on the three-resort value of owning a pass.
Snowshoe’s new perk was a free pass for children of passholders—as long as they were younger than 12, all were free.
At Holiday Valley, the perks are more holistic. “Improving the mountain is the biggest benefit we offer passholders,” says Jane Eshbaugh, the resort’s marketing director, pointing to the $3.3 million the resort spent over the summer to install 70 new automated snowguns, buy two new groomers and cut two new trails. “We’re always improving the resort, and that’s a pretty big benefit,” she says.