For many skiers, the days of walking to the slopes and buying a lift ticket are coming to an end, as the industry attempts to guard against poor snow conditions by locking in sales weeks, even months in advance.
Season passes have been around for decades, but the industry has relied more on them as a share of revenue following an industry-shaking decision in 2008 by Vail Resorts, Inc. to introduce a discounted season pass which gave skiers unlimited access to its resorts. At the time it had five, but today it has 41 mountain resorts, mainly in North America.
The industry says the increased emphasis on advance passes is a win-win: Customers can get a better deal by purchasing early, while businesses get revenue that gets them through the low season and periods when it does not snow.
But in Vail, which has B.C.’s first ski resort, Whistler Blackcomb, poor conditions led to a 16 percent drop in early-season skier visits — although ski lift revenue from the company are in reality increased by 2.6 percent over the same period thanks to the strength of its pass sales. (Vail is one of the few ski resort companies to be publicly traded, so it discloses more financial information than most in the industry.)
“If they never had a single snowflake in all their mountains, they would still have that pre-sale revenue, which absolutely bolsters their ability to not experience a greater decline,” said Chris Woronka, an analyst who oversees the leisure industry at Deutsche Bank in New York.
Getting a pass early can reduce the cost of what is commonly known as one of the most expensive sports, although for beginners and casual skiers the relatively high cost of a walk-up ticket can be another barrier.
Increase in multi-station passes
In the words of Denver-based 5280 Magazine, Vail’s 2008 Epic Pass “threw brass knuckles“to the ski industry by reducing the price of a ski pass and giving skiers unlimited access to all of the company’s resorts, a move that was considered crazy at the time but has since continued change companies.
“They’ve done a really good job of creating a market where skiers and riders who don’t necessarily live near a resort would still want to purchase a season pass,” said Todd Burnette, CEO of Mountain Collective.
“Guests were basically committing to going to a resort in Vail before the season started.”
Rival companies have responded by launching their own multi-resort passes – products that give skiers access to multiple resorts and go on sale well before the season begins.
The Mountain Collective, a group of independent ski resorts, launched its own pass in 2012. It was followed by one from Alterra Mountain Company. Pass Icon in 2018 and the Indy Passmanaged by another group of small independent ski areas, in 2019.
“This is absolutely the direction the company is going,” Burnette said. “We all continue to see growth around the passes.”
The growth of multi-resort passes is helping attract international customers who otherwise would have stayed close to home, said Pete Woods, president of SkiBig3, which represents the ski resorts of Banff and Lake Louise, Alberta.
“It allows people who maybe have a season pass for a local mountain in Colorado, or potentially California or Utah, to then be able to use it for free, to come here,” said Woods, whose stations participate in the program. Ikon and the Mountain Collective passes.
Buying in advance has advantages and disadvantages
Beyond inspiring direct copycats, the introduction of the Epic Pass sparked other changes in the industry.
Paul Pinchbeck, president and CEO of the Canadian Ski Council, said ski resorts large and small have emulated Vail’s strategy by lowering the price of their own season passes and increasing those prices at a faster rate. slow than that of tickets at the counter.
The share of season passes sold in Canada compared to lift tickets has increased from 40 to 50 percent over the past two decades, he said.
(Accurate data on price trends is difficult to obtain; Statistics Canada does not track the cost of lift tickets, and ski resorts are largely private companies reluctant to share this information.)
At Banff Sunshine Village, about 40 percent of visits to the ski slopes in the 1990s involved purchasing a walk-up lift ticket. Today, that figure is down to about 15 percent, said Kendra Scurfield, the brand’s vice president of marketing.
The share of box office tickets has declined, she said, as have a variety of other products — from season passes to multi-station passes to presales. discounted tickets – have become more popular.
“The benefit of having the ability to go into the market and pre-sell tickets is astronomical,” said Scurfield, who pointed to the cost of elevator development and maintenance, payroll and electricity.
For skiers and snowboarders, purchasing in advance has advantages and disadvantages. If everything goes well and conditions are good, it’s a good way to score a bargain, but poor ski conditions or an unexpected injury can send those savings out the window.
“Usually you save money,” said skier Nathan Page during a ski break in Banff. “The problem is, you don’t know what’s going on that season, so be careful, man.”
“I’ve had friends who were completely injured, had surgery, everything…and they didn’t get refunded for their pass at all,” said skier Amanda Woodtke.
And while the rise of (relatively) inexpensive packages may be a good thing for avid skiers, it’s not necessarily a benefit for more casual skiers or those looking to try the sport for the first time.
“They’re going to pay the entry fee when they come up to the ticket booth, and it’s pretty expensive,” said John Walton, president of the Calgary Ski Club.
Scurfield and Pinchbeck said recruiting new skiers to the sport remains a priority and many ski slopes and resorts offer discounted packages aimed specifically at beginners.
Flying to resorts has an impact on the environment
There are also concerns about the environmental impact of the pre-sale model.
Part of the appeal of multi-resort passes, such as those from Epic and Mountain Collective, is flexibility. Skiers can, in theory, buy a pass in the summer and then fly to where the snow is best during the ski season – a strategy that industry encourages.
“We rarely have very bad seasons in California, Colorado, British Columbia, New England, Ontario and Quebec,” said Daniel Scott, a professor at the University of Waterloo who studies climate change and tourism.
“Usually one or two of these regions will have a bad year and other regions will have good seasons, and it will all balance out.”
While the multi-resort model makes sense from a business standpoint, Scott said, increased emissions from flying to one destination may also work against a broader goal of skiers and owners of stations: slow down climate change and preserve winter conditions.
In response to a question about the environmental impact of the multi-resort pass, a Vail spokesperson highlighted the company’s environmental initiatives, which include reducing landfill waste and using renewable electricity.
Despite the criticism, Woronka, the Deutsche Bank analyst, said he believes resorts will continue to promote season passes and other advanced sales in coming years.
The next frontier, he says, is getting these previously committed customers to spend more once they’re on the Hill. In Vail, for example, that means getting passholders hooked on a new members-only amenity service. the pilot company in some resorts this season.
“I think it’s something others will look at as well,” Woronka said.