I’m head over heels with marketing, but time and time again it’s the jaw-dropping nature of science that steals a piece of my heart.
For example, place sand on a flat surface, and you’ll get a random, yawn-worthy pattern. But apply a specific frequency to that surface and the grains magically organize themselves into beautifully symmetrical shapes as the vibrations find their sweet spot.
The phenomenon, known as the Chladni Plate, is exactly what I think is happening with resorts. For years, small partnerships between resorts have existed as randomly and commonly as sand poured on a table. Within the last few seasons, however, clever marketers have harmonized these relationships to form unique and compelling pass products.
But have they hit the right frequency? Are these partnerships moving the needle, or simply creating pretty patterns?
That was my question, here’s what I found.
Before we dig in, let’s back up for a minute. Traditionally, the value of a season pass is limited by an invisible radius around the mountain: the further you travel away from the ticket window, the less likely you are to find a passholder.
Few products, however, have demolished these boundaries like Vail Resorts’ EpicPass. Rumored to have sold nearly 350,000 passes this year in more than 80 countries, it’s little wonder why a product with so much value at such a competitive price point is forcing other resorts to adapt.
Consider what has transpired in Utah this season. Within a month of Canyons Resort joining the Vail Resorts and EpicPass family, Alta and Snowbird had partnered with Park City and Deer Valley to offer a reciprocal ticket product called “My Pass. My Way.” Shortly after that, Brighton and Solitude turned their joint ticket product into a powerful season pass with full benefits at both resorts.
Like a reflex hammer striking the Utah ski industry’s knee, over half of all Utah resorts had entered into major partnerships by the end of last summer.
One such resort was Snowbasin. But instead of partnering with other Utah resorts, Snowbasin joined a growing list of mid-sized mountains in a new, innovative program called the Powder Alliance.
The brainchild of John McColly, the idea started as a humble reciprocal pass between the two resorts where he heads up marketing: Mountain High, Calif., and Steven’s Pass, Wash. The Alliance quickly grew to seven areas by the end of the 2012-13 season after McColly looked to expand. Then, once the group got a name and brand, it quickly grew again—adding five more resorts before summer 2013 ended.
As the list of partners grew, McColly was careful to deliver on three points. First, he stuck to the main objective: add value to sell more passes overall. “Our [partnership] came solely from the aspect of building value into our current season pass products,” he says. “It may not get a lot of usage, but it would add a little value.”
Rather than sell these perks as a side dish, the Powder Alliance resorts each made them part of the main course, including the benefits in higher pass price tiers. Making these benefits a free add-on also meant that the value isn’t directly tied to use of the benefits. If a passholder takes advantage of the additional perks, great. If they don’t, little harm is done to the value of the original pass or potential renewal rates.
Second, McColly hoped to work with like-minded peer resorts. To Snowbasin’s Jason Dyer, this was a key factor as they evaluated the decision to join. “We took a long look at the other Powder Alliance partners and saw that they shared the same values as Snowbasin Resort. This added up to a great customer experience no matter where you go between all 12 resorts.” Angel Fire’s Robin May was drawn to this point as well, noting that the resorts involved were the kind of mountains that Angel Fire would be proud to partner with.
Third was the desire to avoid cannibalizing one another’s sales. “You didn’t want to pick a resort that was too close—maybe within an hour or two away—because people would start price shopping to find the cheapest pass,” McColly points out. May also expected this distance to provide a nice side effect by encouraging “overnight mini ski trips and a quality sampling.”
Not all Alliance resorts could benefit from the lodging standpoint, but for the areas that did have a few beds to fill, McColly hoped they would use the Alliance to drive reservations.
For mountains with many beds to fill, there’s another model: the Mountain Collective. While the Powder Alliance worked to add value only to current passes, the Mountain Collective created an entirely different pass and partnered with Liftopia, a ticket system skiers and snowboarders already understood, to manage redemption and sales.
Priced at $349 the first year, every pass included two free days of skiing at Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows, Alta, Aspen/Snowmass, and Jackson Hole. Filling beds was a critical piece of the Mountain Collective’s game plan, with included lodging discounts prominently displayed in sales copy.
This year, the pass returned with three new resorts—Mammoth, Whistler, and Snowbird—and even more press coverage.
So what hole was the Collective trying to fill?
“Snow sports enthusiasts are uniquely different today than previous generations, and Mountain Collective is a direct response,” says Aspen/Snowmass’ Christian Knapp, ringleader of the Collective. “Despite each participating resort being fiercely independent, like our guests,
we ultimately realized that by joining together we could innovate and provide greater value, flexibility and variety.”
First, Knapp wanted to create a pass that would be optimal for someone looking to ski or ride about 8 to 12 days per season, and who wanted to visit two or more resorts. By disconnecting the product from a traditional season pass, these guests could come from anywhere on the globe.
Second, like the Powder Alliance, it needed to increment, not dilute, each resort’s pass programs. To that end, Knapp added pass reciprocity for top tier passholders so they could visit each destination at 50 percent off the daily rate.
Jackson Hole’s Anna Olson followed suit to provide an extra benefit to the resort’s loyal passholders. While the Powder Alliance didn’t include Saturdays, the Mountain Collective made these perks unlimited, with no blackouts.
Third, after extensive research, Knapp pitched the idea to other resorts that were both independent but also the best in their region. Christine Horvath from Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows saw this as a critical element. “[We] joined forces with Mountain Collective because of the caliber of the partners and how much it made sense from a brand alignment standpoint.” In Wyoming, Olson saw the same thing. “For Jackson, we could see the benefits of aligning with similar desirable, independent destination resorts. The initial roster and the newcomers this year were very similar in brand awareness, but obviously greater in size. This was a good combination for us to get behind.”
The one downside that may exist, at least right now, is that every new partner actually makes it harder to use a pass’s full value. That could lead to a perception of breakage—an issue that is quickly being overcome.
“If you do the math, visiting just two of the resorts and skiing 10 days total...is actually cheaper per day than a similar number of days on many competing full pass products,” Knapp points out. “As more people learn about the value proposition and inherent flexibility of the product, we expect sales to continue on an upward trajectory.”
Incremental pass sales, higher occupancy, collective brand power, more trial. All great goals, but did these passes succeed? The marketers I spoke with were understandably reluctant to get too specific, but were kind enough to share some basic results.
“With the Powder Alliance only available to our Premier Pass holders, it has made a noticeable difference in their sales numbers,” reports Dyer at Snowbasin. “It has been a great success for us.” McColly is seeing the same both at Steven’s Pass and Mountain High as well as predominantly positive results with the rest of the partners as well.
In the Mountain Collective, the results are upbeat as well. Knapp says that the pass has exceeded all expectations. He notes that “the product has particularly resonated with urban dwellers that have the flexibility to travel.”
For Jackson Hole, Olson provided similar feedback. Not only has the resort seen more trial of Jackson Hole than they anticipated from Mountain Collective passholders, but also “good room night results” for Jackson’s lodging business.
Horvath’s perspective was also positive. “Results, both in terms of sales and usage, show that we are accomplishing our goal of exposing Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows to a high frequency skier/boarder that travels, and that is a great thing for us.”
Aside from direct reports from each mountain, it’s tough to measure the success of these passes on a larger scale.
Take the Powder Alliance, for example. If the goal of creating perceived value is achieved, season pass revenues might increase as more skiers opt for top-tier passes, even if total visits remain unchanged. Likewise, if the goal of actual value is reached, skiers may not change their annual ski days, but simply replace a couple days of skiing at their home mountain with free days at a partner mountain—behavior that already exists, according to industry research.
With the Mountain Collective, the goal is to increase trial among people that already ski or ride more than a few days a year between multiple resorts. A conversion in their book can be achieved with no visible difference in behavioral trends. Instead of traveling to resort A and B each winter, they might try out resorts C and D instead.
If any of the motivation came from competing with other factors like the EpicPass, a marketer could be more than satisfied simply by seeing the same numbers this season as last.
In other words, these passes could be wildly successful for individual mountains (and for consumers as well) with no visible impact on the industry’s overall numbers.
So where do we go from here? Aside from reservations, trial, and pass sales, Knapp makes a point that there’s another huge benefit to these partnerships. “An unanticipated outcome has been the camaraderie and best practices we’ve achieved by working together as partners,” he says.
Many of the marketers I spoke with shared the sentiment that working with other areas has been very valuable.
“I’d like to think that we can make it as big as we want to,” says McColly of Powder Alliance’s future; he gets regular inquiries from mountains wishing to join. “But there’s some motivation within the group just to stick with our core 12 resorts and keep the pass very West-coast-centric and keep the non-corporate, road trip feel.”
Whatever the path, these passes seem to be here to stay. And why wouldn’t they? The Mountain Collective and Powder Alliance aren’t just pretty shapes, they’re generating new, innovative value and helping resorts compete in an increasingly aggressive space. We would expect resorts across the country to have similar goals—and results.