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July 2018

North America's Pass Time

Even with two Goliaths in the game, early-season pass sales went gangbusters for most.

Written by Linda Goodspeed | 0 comment

Never has there been a better time to be a skier or snowboarder.

“It’s a buyer’s market,” says Dave Fields, general manager at Snowbird, Utah. “There’s so much talk about all the season pass options right now. It’s a very dynamic time in this space.”

With Alterra Mountain Company’s new Ikon Pass competing with Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass across the country, and with many independent resorts aligning with one or the other, or joining still other resorts in regional multi-area pass products, areas raced to lock in skiers with early pass sales.

The Ikon Pass is good at 26 resorts in the U.S. and Canada, including many resorts in the Mountain Collective—which continues this year, offering two days at each of 16 resorts. The Epic Pass, in its tenth season, will be good at 61 different properties worldwide. Both the full Epic and Ikon pass were priced at $899, but the local Ikon Pass ($599) was priced lower than the $669 Epic Local Pass.

As SAM was going to press, Vail Resorts acquired Crested Butte, Stevens Pass, Okemo, and Mount Sunapee—further shaking up the alliances and collaborations of those companies. (Ed. Note: This also rendered a quarter of the interviews done for this story moot.) That said, several acquired resorts that we spoke to prior to the acquisition reported strong early pass sales; those pass buyers will have the option of keeping their passes for 2018-19 or exchanging them for an Epic Pass. In the latter case, depending on the price they paid and the pass they choose in exchange, pass buyers will either pay the difference in cost or receive a refund.

But Ikon and Epic are only part of the season pass story. There are many other pass products, reciprocal deals and other variations, regional and otherwise.

“Ikon and Epic, along with the Mountain Collective, have been battling to see what new and flashy resorts out West they can show off with their passes,” says Jamie Storrs, communication manager at Mount Snow, Vt. “As it turns out, delivering a good product with a very competitive price point and unlimited skiing at Northeast mountains really captures a lot of northeastern skiers. Not a lot of people can make a trip out West. They’re looking for an affordable pass to ski in the East.”

Enter the Peak Pass, which debuted two years ago and offers unlimited access to seven of Peak Resorts’ Northeast properties in Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Pennsylvania. Through April 30, Peak Pass sales increased 14 percent in units and 16 percent in revenue compared to last year. The biggest jump was in sales of the Drifter Pass for 18- to 29-year-olds, up 47 percent year-over-year. That group now constitutes Peak’s largest passholder demographic.

“We’re really excited about being able to capture that demographic,” Storrs says. “They’re customers right now, and also the families of tomorrow. It’s a great chance to capture customers for life.”

At Mt. Hood Meadows, Ore., early pass sales through May 31 were even with last year’s record number. For the last three years, Mt. Hood had a reciprocal pass deal with Steamboat and Winter Park, Colo. That deal is no more. Instead, Mt. Hood will do a five-day reciprocal pass deal with Mt. Baker, Wash., and also a possible three-day deal with Mt. Bohemia in the upper peninsula of Michigan.

“We reached out to find other interested resorts,” says Dave Tragethon, Mt. Hood Meadows VP of sales and marketing. “Bohemia was interested. If anyone from Mt. Hood can find their way to Bohemia, and vice versa, we’re thinking of doing three days of reciprocation.”

In the Midwest, Crystal Mountain, Mich., is feeling better since receiving an offer to partner with Boyne Resorts and its Michigan properties. The partnership, formed in response to Vail’s “Urban Resort Collection,” offers Boyne and Crystal passholders 25 percent off the window rate at each other’s resorts.

“We’re thrilled with the gesture,” says Chris MacInnes, Crystal president. “We have people who enjoy skiing Boyne Highlands and Boyne [Mountain], and their skiers enjoy skiing at Crystal.”

The new partnership helps Crystal compete against Vail’s Midwest properties, including in-state rival Mt. Brighton, all part of the Epic Pass. “The Epic Pass from Brighton is a more compelling value than what we offer,” MacInnes admits. “But our Boyne collaboration is a good start. I don’t think it will drive sales for us as much as add value.”

Overall, MacInnes says early pass sales at Crystal are up about 2-3 percent, continuing several years of steady growth.

Snowshoe, W.Va., is now part of the Ikon Pass, but its unrestricted $229 Ridiculous Pass is still the resort’s most popular pass product—and it’s only on sale for 10 days. This year, Snowshoe delayed the ridiculous sale from late February to early March to coincide with the launch of Ikon. The move was serendipitous.

“We got a great assist from the weather,” says PR manager Shawn Cassell. “Late February was pitiful this year. More mud than snow.” March, meanwhile, was one of the snowiest on record, perfect for the March 6-15 sale. Cassell says pass sales were at least equal to or slightly ahead of last year, when the resort offered a free pass for kids 12 and under with the purchase of an adult pass. “We sold as many this year without doing that,” he says.

Mt. Hood Meadows introduced a new strategy—offering a low-cost value pass ($399) to which buyers can add as many specific peak timeframes as they want, right up to the all-peak-access unrestricted pass ($599).

“The value pass includes every day of the season, but on weekends and holidays it’s not valid until 3 p.m.,” Tragethon says. “The point is, if you can adjust your schedule to get on non-peak timeframes, you can save big. This allows us to have a conversation about what peak days are, things like parking access, room in the lodge.”

In Vermont, Sugarbush has continued its relationship with the Mountain Collective, and also joined the Ikon Pass.

“There’s not really a benefit to Sugarbush passholders as a member of Ikon,” says Candace White, VP, communications. “But we feel it was a smart decision for us to make sure we continue to get day visitors.”

While Sugarbush passholders get no Ikon benefits, Ikon passholders get either seven unrestricted or five restricted days at Sugarbush. However, as part of the Mountain Collective, Sugarbush Premium and Threesome passholders get 50 percent off at each of the 15 other Mountain Collective resorts.

“We’re feeling really good about our spring pass sale,” White says. “Last year was our best ever. This is our second best. Given what’s going on in the industry, we feel good about that.”

Snowshoe is “sitting pretty” with no Epic competition. “We’re the only one in the mid-Atlantic on either pass,” says Cassell. “We’re really excited to be part of Ikon. I think it will bring a lot of new people to Snowshoe.”

At Aspen, linchpin of the Mountain Collective and a partner of the Ikon group, sales of the four-mountain Aspen Classic Pass are down.

“We fully expected that,” says Jeff Hanle, PR director. “People have different pass options, different choices. We’re in a year when we’re not going to be able to compare apples to apples. It’s a big new puzzle to look at. Our expectations are good based on what we’re looking at so far.”

Rival Vail Resorts’ CEO Rob Katz had this to say on April 15, discussing spring season pass sales results: “We have seen strong overall results with continued growth on top of the record results we saw last spring. … We are seeing solid growth across all geographies, with particular strength in our destination markets and with Whistler Blackcomb products. In addition, our military pass products are driving a significant number of new passholders into our program.”

Like I said: No better time to be a skier or snowboarder!