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In a move intended to bolster the future of the five-year-old Indy Pass, the Pass is being acquired by Entabeni Systems, "the long-time trusted partner who runs the technology platform that Indy Pass has always been built on," according to Indy Pass founder Doug Fish. Indy NEWFish will continue to lead Indy Pass as it continues to grow its independent resort roster.

Entabeni ("mountain" in Zulu) has been an under-the-radar success in providing a tech solution to smaller, independent ski areas and helping them compete against larger corporate competitors. It focuses exclusively on serving winter resorts, primarily across North America. More than 30 resorts have signed up for the company's integrated hardware and software services. In short, Entabeni's mission aligns with the Indy Pass.

The association between Indy Pass and Entabeni began shortly after Fish introduced the Pass. "SAM reported on our story in the spring of 2019, and the first two calls I got were from Rick Schmitz in the Midwest and the next day, Erik Mogensen [founder and managing director of Entabeni]. Both those calls have turned out to be great building blocks for what we've done," said Fish.

Mogensen read SAM's Headline News report and thought, "this is brilliant," he said. "I found Doug's number, and I called him and just said, 'hey, this is what we do. You never heard of us. I'd love to do the software for this.'" Fish was about to sign with a different provider, but met with the Entabeni crew and signed with them.

Fish will remain with the Indy Pass "indefinitely." He told SAM, "This acquisition takes the financial pressure off me. The Indy Pass is a stressful business, and there's a lot of moving parts. Entabeni's taking that on now. I will continue to oversee the marketing and the branding and the Indy Pass resort recruitment. Maintaining the relationships that we've developed over the last four years will be a big part of my role, too. I can't think of a better job than that."

For his part, Mogensen said, "I wanted Doug to be involved indefinitely because he wanted to be involved and it was working well. So you'll see very little change there." 

Entabeni leadership also includes chief technology officer Mark Schroetel, who joined the company in 2022 after serving as CEO and GM of Powder Mountain in Utah for more than seven years. Schroetel was previously the GM of Bear Creek, Pa. The company currently has a team of 18 engineers and product specialists dedicated to support independent ski operations.

Mogensen has long had an affinity for independent resorts. He grew up in a skiing family at a small independent ski area near Buffalo, N.Y., and he loved it. But that hill, Ski Tamarack, eventually failed. That helps explain why Mogensen has focused his efforts on helping other small, independent areas succeed. 

Mom-and-pop operations across the economy face the same threat, he said—cannibalization by large corporations, and they need all the help they can get. "That's why Entabeni has never had a mega resort client, and why we'll never take a mega resort. It's 100 percent David versus Goliath and going to level the playing field," he said.

Biggest Change: Pass Sales Capped

While much about the Indy Pass will remain the same, there's one immediate and important change for next season: "We're going to limit pass sales," said Mogensen . "We want to preserve the independent ski experience. We are always balancing promotion and preservation, but people can expect that preservation is always going to win for us."

The Pass will continue to promote independent resorts, he added, through "all the effort that Doug has put in over the last five seasons."

The cap on sales comes as some resorts have experienced a surge in visits on the Indy Pass, and is intended to prevent overcrowding. The cap will still allow Indy Pass to grow its consumer sales substantially next year, but the flexibility resorts have for adding or subtracting blackout days will enable them to avoid overcrowding.

Capacity has not been an issue to date, said Schroetel, but "it's one we see coming. In some cases we're hitting 20 to 30 percent of a resort's capacity on peak days. And we don't want that number to grow to an unmanageable level."

"I think the resorts will welcome the cap," Fish added.

Managing Growth

The cap also allows Indy Pass to manage the growth of the program and continue to "service the guest really well," said Mogensen. It's difficult "to grow from four customer service employees to 10 or 15 overnight," he noted. "We don't want to scale too quickly."

Not that Indy Pass won't continue to grow. Currently, 139 resorts have enrolled in the program, including 105 downhill, 20 cross-country, and 14 allied resorts in North America and Japan. "We definitely see a ton of room in Japan,” Schroetel said. "We're looking into a Canada pass that's sold in Canadian dollars."

Fish predicted the number of resorts could hit 150 to 160 for 2023-24. "We'll be making announcements as they firm up over the coming weeks and months,” he added. 

How big is the opportunity for consumer sales? "There are about 10 million unique skiers in the U.S.," Schroetel said. "About three million have a season pass, seven million buy day tickets—that's who we're trying to reach. We're trying to get people to commit early and commit to skiing multiple days.

"We've tapped less than one percent of the market. So we have room and ceiling to grow."

That growth and ability to compete with the big guys will come, in part, from adding more resorts to the Pass. "We have several in the queue already for next year," said Fish. "We're talking to every little mom-and-pop resort across North America who wants to be on the pass. We're trying to be a revenue generator and a marketing resource for virtually every indie resort on the continent."

Allied partners are not actually part of the Indy Pass; Indy Pass-holders simply get a lift ticket discount at these areas. Allied resorts don't get a share of Indy Pass revenues. However, as Indy Pass sales increase, some allied resorts may become full Indy members—so long as they don't cut into the visits of existing Indy resorts.

There are a few regions where Fish believes the number of Indy resorts has reached a saturation level, such as the Minnesota and upper Midwest markets. But it could still be possible "to add a number of small resorts to the allied program," Fish said.

In fact, the allied program came about to avoid having too many Indy resorts in a given market. "For example," said Fish, "if we added three more resorts in New Hampshire, we could start to impact season pass sales at our partner resorts. So, we have to be very careful with our growth in areas where we have high density.

"We analyze the data every season and determine if we can add one more resort here, one more resort there,” Fish continued. “We added seven New England resorts last year, but they're all on the allied program, and so it doesn't impact the financial model."

On to Japan 

Japan, which entered the world of the Indy Pass in 2021, is another area for expansion. "We want to work with some of the smaller players there and partner on a deeper level, probably become more business partners instead of aligned partners, and really start to offer organized tours to our pass holders," Mogensen said.

For example, “we’re down the road on building a cat ski operation in Japan that would be branded Indy Pass and would allow that aspirational powder at a reasonable price to our group of highly motivated skiers,” he added.

"We've been talking about having an Indy-specific Japan pass as well,” Schroetel said. "If we can get 10 to 15 or even 20 to 25 resorts there, we could sell a pass in local currency and have that pass be valid there. It would be so awesome to build a model that will help support independent resorts on other continents, not just North America."

And that would also expand the Japanese options for North American Indy Pass-holders, too.

Easing the Redemption Process

Another change for 2023-24, said Mogensen: "We're going to do a physical pass next year, with your photo on it. We really want to turn it into a yearly collector's item and a bit of a badge of honor. And then with that pass we will start to turn on direct-to-lift access and ease the redemption process for customers at resorts that are equipped to handle that, and then find ways to ease the redemption process for resorts that don't have that capacity yet."

"Currently, the redemption process takes about 30 seconds, and we hope to cut that in half with a physical pass and some other technologies," Fish further explained. "And at Entabeni resorts, of which there are about 30, we can start to introduce direct to lift."

Those Entabeni resorts include Powder Mountain and Beaver Mountain, Utah; White Pass and Mission Ridge, Wash.; and Brundage Mountain, Idaho, will join the group next season. "So, there's a good chunk of the portfolio that'll start to be direct to lift," Schroetel said.

Allowing for Flexibility

One big key to Indy's growth has been the data access it provides to resorts. For example, Pat's Peak and Berkshire East saw huge redemptions on MLK and Presidents’ weekends in 2022, Fish noted. "So, we encouraged them to black out those holiday weekends this year, and it worked beautifully. They've been at or near capacity on those holiday weekends, and most of those guests bought full-price day tickets. That's just one of the levers that we can pull to help manage capacity issues and some of the negative things that can come from a multi-mountain pass."

The program can work the other way, too. Magic Mountain, Vt., had blacked out MLK this year, but as the weekend approached with less-than-ideal conditions, the area unblocked the dates to bring in more business.

For next year, Indy resorts will also have the ability to limit the number of Indy Passes they honor on any given day—and to change that number on short notice. "Instead of blacking out MLK, you can put on a limit of 50 or 100, say," said Schroetel. "If you get a couple days before MLK and your other tickets aren't selling well, you can go ahead and increase the Indy number and move some money in."

One thing that remains largely the same for next year: the payout to resorts. "The payout will remain status quo," Fish said. However, the use of dynamic pricing by some areas can lead to higher payouts on peak days, so Indy will come up with ways to "make it more equitable for everyone." At present, 85 cents of every Indy Pass dollar goes to the resorts; "If anything, that yield could go even higher. That's the direction we want to go," said Schroetel.

Power in Data

The ability to get actionable data on their customers has the potential to be a key benefit for Indy resorts. Indy Pass collects a lot of customer data, and will make that data easier for resorts to understand and act upon.

"Currently, our resorts get full contact information on every Indy guest that visits their resort, in real time," Fish explained, “and they can add them to their marketing database immediately, which many of them do."

"We're doing the front-end data acquisition," Schroetel added of what Entabeni is doing for its resort customers. "We're building dashboards for people to get data out and do good things. But we're also becoming a bit of a consultancy, like McKinsey & Company, around how to use this data effectively. I think we're going to continue to see that evolution happen. We are already an outsourced IT function for a lot of our small places that don't have IT departments. And I think we'll also be an outsourced data function, too."

"Indy Pass is a de facto marketing consultant, and Entabeni is a de facto technology partner for these areas," continued Fish. "How we scale that remains to be seen, but the potential exists for us to support these independent resorts in more ways than just sending them visits."

"We're collecting all this data. Being the custodian of that data is super, super important, and we are going to stay aligned with the independent operations," Mogensen concluded. 

While the ownership of Indy Pass has changed, it’s essentially in the same hands, which appear committed to driving the product—and the following it has garnered—in the same direction it’s been going since it was founded.