Some thought the April 1, 2018, announcement declaring “No More Unlimited Passes at Mt. Hood Meadows” was an April Fool’s joke. Among the passholder community, many of whom had held their Unlimited Pass for decades, there was a mini uproar. But we were quite serious. The reason for this new direction: There are limits to the number of guests the resort can comfortably serve.
For several years prior, our strategy had been to advance-sell as many passes and tickets as possible, to protect against a low snow year or a bad weather weekend. And that worked, perhaps too well. It led to huge turnouts on weekends, challenging us to find space in the parking lot, for the lunch crowd, and at the lifts. Crowding was amplified by the two- to three-time-a-season guest, who only visited on peak days and always encountered “huge crowds.”
A disconcerting trend. On any given weekend, capacities could be reached, infuriating passholders and ticket purchasers alike who were turned away at the parking lot, inciting intense confrontations between team members and guests. It was not the life-enriching experience the resort’s mission statement espoused. With Oregon’s growing population (the state led the country in in-migration the three previous years) and new-arriving Millennials seeking outdoor experiences, we felt it necessary to remove the word “unlimited” from our vocabulary.
A Solution: The Value Pass
The Value Pass was introduced in 2018 and is the base upon which someone builds their season. A midweek, night, and spring pass all rolled into one, the pass is valid every day except between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on 30 designated “peak days.” Those who want access for the peak-day weekends and holidays can upgrade their Value Pass with an All Access upgrade.
The first season, the total cost for both components was similar to the previous Unlimited season pass. The All Access upgrade has increased at a higher rate than the base pass over the past three seasons, though, allowing us to better manage peak-day visitation. Every purchaser sees the price of a Value Pass and the additional cost of adding All Access—that cost differential shifts demand to the days or times of day when capacity isn’t an issue, spreading out the crowds and making the experience more enjoyable for everyone.
Dynamic pricing. Also introduced in the 2018-19 season was dynamic ticket pricing, and more importantly, date-specific lift tickets. Material pricing discounts entice guests to visit during lower demand timeframes and increased pricing during peak timeframes spreads out demand and visitation, providing more-affordable options at off-peak times while improving the peak-day experience.
Data, the Guiding Light
While we were concerned about the initial response from guests, Meadows used technology (especially lift-by-lift, rider-by-rider data collected by SkiData RFID gates) to capture the data that guided our plans. The use of data led to improved systems and better guidance on dynamic pricing over time. And data proved essential for the resort to prepare for its greatest challenge: the pandemic.
Covid planning. When Covid abruptly brought the season to an end in March 2020, we immediately set our sights on how to operate responsibly for the 2020-21 season. It was clear that would require managing visitation. For a variety of reasons, managing daily turnout through parking reservations was not an option for us. Visitation would have to be managed through lift access.
We decided that our priority would be to accommodate renewing and any new pass purchasers. We needed to figure out our threshold for total visitation first, so we could set targets for total season passes sold ahead of the season. Then we’d focus on daily tickets sales. Needing time to do all this, in spring 2020, we put most advance-sale options on hold.
Behavior models. With seven years of data from SkiData, vice president of resort operations Jeremy Riss crunched numbers to model overall visitor and passholder behavior. Among other revelations, the data showed that up to 25 percent of passholders turned out on any given day. Surprisingly, no more than 18 percent of passholders were riding lifts in any given one-hour period.
The New Metric: PAOT
That data analysis, and the hourly data in particular, changed our approach to managing visits. Capacity would no longer be measured in terms of daily skier visits, but rather by the number of guests Meadows could handle at the same time. PAOT—people at one time, determined by hour-by-hour lift ridership—became our new metric.
Hourly capacity was determined primarily by two factors:
• Runs per hour: On days with minimal lift lines, the median number of lift rides per hour taken for guests was 3.57. On peak days with lift lines, that number dropped to 2.68. Riss determined that if the average number of lift rides per hour was 3.5 or more, there would be minimal lift lines. That information was especially important during the first season of Covid, when spacing for social distancing in lift lines was mandated.
• Lift capacity: The scan history showed that without the upper mountain lifts, which can be affected by weather, Meadows averaged 12,558 lift rides per hour. To manage reasonable lift lines, that number was divided by 3.6 runs per hour, per guest, which gave Meadows an hourly capacity (comfortable PAOT) of 3,517.
Riss’s data deep-dive set the maximum lift capacity target at 3,200 visitors per hour without the upper mountain lifts (Cascade and Vista high speed quads), and 4,600 visitors per hour when those lifts are running. The 3,200 guests per hour was just over 90 percent of capacity. We chose that limit to account for winds affecting lift speeds, lift stoppages, and other factors that could reduce the capacity on any given day.
Targets set. Given this threshold, targets for the number of season pass units sold were set to leave room for the sale of an additional 2,000 to 3,000 daily tickets, depending on whether we had upper mountain lifts operating. We dynamically set the season pass price until the target number was reached; after that, passes were no longer available for purchase. We then focused on managing the advance sale of daily tickets. Overall, season pass holders made up about 60 percent of our total visits, including those outside of peak capacity hours.
Day-Parting the Daily Ticket
According to the data, the busiest one-hour period of the day was historically almost always 10 a.m.-11 a.m., while there was significant available capacity midweek and during the evening. To fine tune daily turnout and better control hour-to-hour visitation, the dynamic ticketing system was refined to sell day-parted tickets. For daily purchasers, the day was divided into four start times—9 a.m., 12 p.m., 2 p.m., and 5 p.m.—and two ticket lengths of four hours and seven hours (four-hour tickets were not available until noon). Guests could upgrade from a seven-hour ticket to a “to close” ticket for $10 on days that the we offered night skiing (Weds.-Sun.).
We required all tickets—as well as lessons and rentals, also sold in the same day-parted time blocks—to be purchased in advance. We also established specific inventories for each product, with multiple price points. As lower price-point inventories ran out, the cost for that start time and length would increase. When all the inventory ran out, that start time was no longer available.
Providing options. To encourage guests to purchase the 2 p.m., 5 p.m., or midweek tickets, we kept the price points much lower for those products. For instance, there were times when a ticket to start at 9 a.m. on a Sunday cost $149, but a ticket to start at 5 p.m. was only $29; or a ticket to ride starting at 9 a.m. on Monday was only $79. This gave guests the option to plan their visit based on their preferred date and start time, or on cost.
Communicating Changes and Challenges
To communicate the visitation plan to guests, the resort blog and weekly emails detailed each of the departmental operations, and every web page carried the alert that tickets, rentals, and lessons must be purchased in advance.
Earning trust. Blog traffic quadrupled from the previous 12-month period as guests homed in on our messaging. With each major announcement about visitation management, there was a corresponding surge in advance purchases, as guests gained confidence in the plan being shared and Meadows’ ability to execute it.
When there were problems, the blog was updated to address the issue, share what was learned, and any changes that were being made to prevent it from happening in the future. For example, on our first bluebird powder day of the 2020-21 season, we parked out. There were guests who had purchased lift tickets, lessons and/or equipment rentals for the day who never made it into the lot. Through the blog, we apologized, explained the contributing factors, and were proactive in returning the stored value of unused products to affected customers for use on a future visit.
The powder day park out offered several lessons as well. While lots filled at 9:08 a.m. that day, the lift scan count was less than 60 percent of a normal busy day at Meadows. Why? Due to Covid, there were fewer people traveling together in vehicles, and shuttles weren’t running from Portland or Hood River. Passengers per vehicle dropped from a historic 2.8 to less than 1.5. Parking lots were filling with fewer guests.
Further, those guests were also staying longer since there weren’t other activities to get home to, such as movies, concerts, or even dining at a favorite restaurant.
New visitation patterns. As these new visitation patterns emerged—average passengers per vehicle, and length of stay—we adjusted our visitation models for parking capacities. If a big turnout was expected and the upper lifts were forecast to operate, we opened more lots to accommodate the turnout. We also stopped selling the noon ticket on weekends and holidays, as the “hang time” from morning guests tailgating in the parking lot just wasn’t opening enough parking spaces for later arriving guests.
Having successfully navigated through Covid’s first full season, the lessons learned were applied to the 2021-22 season. The biggest of these: To better control visitation, the number of All Access and even Value passes sold needed to be limited.
Huge success. In response to limited volume, early sales tripled ahead of the May 31, 2021 pass purchase deadline, and renewal rates surpassed any previous season. FOMO (fear of missing out) prompted passholders and new pass purchasers to buy early to avoid being left without a pass, as many had the previous season. The All Access upgrade reached its limit in November, and Value passes were paused the first week of January. This year, with similar unit limits, advance pass sales for the 2022-23 season have exceeded that record.
In addition, based on our 2021-22 experience, we moved the start time for the evening ticket from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., to reduce the overlap between day and night guests. We are also developing target numbers for 5 and 10 Time, Night, and Progression (a beginner product with access to five designated lifts, three lessons, and season-long equipment rentals) passes. And we expect to offer the Spring Pass again this season, as this entire family of passes serve as gateway products to future Value and All Access purchasers.
The goal of accommodating every guest planning on visiting Meadows with a quality, enriching experience every hour of every day is ambitious, but worth pursuing. Guest feedback from these past two seasons has lauded this approach, with passholders appreciating the generally less crowded mountain experience. Increased pricing on peak days has offset displaced visitation from those days, while midweek and evening visitation has grown.
This has been a win for everyone. Meadows will continue to collect and analyze data to model forecasts, anticipate turnout, and manage inventories to improve the experience for guests and team members.