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10 Moments That Redefined Northeast Skiing in 2020
How the pass wars, Covid-19, a major resort re-opening, and diversity drove the narrative in lift-served skiing
I’ll spare you the clichés. We all lived through it. 2020 is almost over. We’ll carry its baggage into 2021 and we’ll carry it for the rest of our lives. But before we get there, it’s worth reflecting on 10 big moments that changed Northeast skiing this year. Some of the impacts will be fleeting and some will resonate for generations. These are presented roughly in the order they happened, rather than being ranked by importance, an impossible task in an epochal year. This list is subjective and not meant to be comprehensive. I’d welcome your feedback and alternate versions. Here you go:
1) Vail releases Northeast-specific Epic Passes
While the Epic Pass has had a foothold in the Northeast since the 2017-18 ski season, this is the year Vail announced it was here to kick everyone’s asses by introducing a set Northeast-specific versions. The Northeast Value Pass grants unlimited access to five mountains in Pennsylvania and four in New Hampshire; holiday blacked-out access to Mount Snow, Okemo and Hunter; and 10 non-holiday days at Stowe. It went on sale for just $599 in March. A midweek version with less access started at $449. This is roughly half the price that many Northeast ski areas charge for a single-mountain pass. Something has to break. Will Vail’s mountains become untenably crowded once the company drops its reservation system? Maybe. Will skiers summer-shopping for passes think about that when comparing access and price? Maybe not. While season pass sales ticked up at most Northeast ski areas this season as mountain real estate and outdoor recreation boomed, those may be temporary trends. Multipasses are not, and independent Northeast operators will eventually need to add more value to their passes, probably by forming or joining coalitions that expand access across mountains.
2) Alterra makes Stratton and Sugarbush unlimited on the Ikon Base Pass, signs Windham partnership
When Vail bought Peak Resorts in July 2019, it immediately dropped Hunter, Jack Frost-Big Boulder, and Mount Snow onto the unlimited-access tier of the $699 (2019-20 starting price) Epic Local Pass, which already included unlimited Okemo access and 10 non-holiday Stowe days. The $749 Ikon Base Pass (price at the time of Vail’s announcement), with a measly five non-holiday days at Stratton, Sugarbush, and Killington and no options in the NYC-day-trippable Catskills or Poconos, looked outmatched in the Northeast, despite the higher overall quality of its partner mountains. Alterra made no corrections for the 2019-20 campaign, but after purchasing Sugarbush, it responded decisively with its 2020-21 access tiers, bumping both of its owned Vermont mountains (Stratton is the other) up to unlimited non-holiday access. A couple months later, the pass added Hunter archenemy Windham as a limited five- or seven-day partner, giving us cityfolk a day-trip option to fill the gaps between New England sojourns. These were important and necessary moves, both to give skiers the benefits of big-box skiing’s price war and to signal that Ikon Passes would evolve as market conditions changed.
3) Cannon and Jay Peak sign with Indy Pass
There are 130-odd ski areas spread across Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and New England, but a couple dozen of them get the bulk of the visitors and attention. Quite a few of the remainder are town rope tows or country club add-ons, but a sizeable number are solidly mid-sized mountains with multiple chairlifts, 1,000-foot-plus vertical drops, expansive trail networks, and varied terrain. When the Indy Pass launched in 2019, it locked in a handful of these latter types of mountains, including Berkshire East, Catamount, Magic, Bolton Valley, and Black Mountain, New Hampshire. But it was missing a Northeast flagship, the kind of face-palm-you-can’t-deny-my-existence mountains that even the snootiest ski snobs would agree are among the region’s best. No more. The pass announced deals with Cannon in May and Jay Peak in October. Those partnerships, along with the $199 starting price (which includes two days at each partner mountain), and $129 season-passholder add-on, probably contributed to the pass’ soaring sales. Operators looking for a fair fight with cheap Epic and Ikon passes should probably start with a call to Indy Pass founder Doug Fish.
4) Covid ruins everything
It hit like an asteroid. In one calamitous March weekend, the 2019-20 ski season ended as one ski company after another zipped shut to help stop the then-little-understood spread of Covid-19. Some of us saw the shutdown coming but most of us didn’t. All of us hated it. March holds the best of ski season, with deep bases and fresh snow and long days leading into slush-bump and tailgating season. We missed all that and we missed Superstar in May and we missed T-shirt skiing, but more importantly, the ski areas missed several weeks or months of revenue. In the shutdown’s first eerie days, when American streets emptied and people barricaded themselves indoors, we had no way of knowing when we would ski again or what that would look like. In mere months, ski areas had to completely restructure their operations, save collapsing (for a moment) season pass sales, and execute massive technological upgrades such as reservation systems and a shift to all-online sales. As summer and fall progressed and it became clear that no national plan would materialize to contain the virus, Northeast states, led by ski-epicenter Vermont, solidified some of the strictest travel restrictions in the country, a gigantic disruption in a region where cross-border ski travel is common and built into large resorts’ business assumptions. Social distancing imperatives ended up axing everything from daycare to lessons to bars to the ability to just show up and ski unannounced. Reservations, long lift lines, limited lodge access, masks up. Your car is the base lodge and your day ticket is $170. This is skiing 2020.
5) Alterra sticks to its no-refunds policy – and gets nuked
The massive Covid-19-related shutdowns stoked fears of an economic downturn. While government relief money prevented a complete collapse, millions of people still lost their jobs. Big-ticket items like ski season passes seemed indulgent and excessive in those early days, especially when the ski season had just ended prematurely. Pass sales were in trouble. The first large company to respond with incentives was Alterra, doubling its renewal discount and pushing out its early-bird deadline by a month. Buried on page 429 of the Ikon Pass FAQ, however, was this: “At this time, all Ikon Pass destinations plan to be open for the 20/21 winter season. All Ikon Pass, Ikon Base Pass, and Ikon Base Plus Pass purchases paid-in-full are non-refundable.” Skiers received this like a pot roast at a vegan barbeque, and three days later Alterra pivoted, giving skiers until Dec. 10 to defer the value of their Ikon Passes to the 2021-22 season (they later pushed this all the way to April 11). Every large ski area operator in the Northeast (eventually) followed, shattering a decades-old tradition of sorry-pal-no-refunds that is likely to endure long after Covid evaporates into history.
6) Magic Mountain drops prices, sales soar
This is the year that Magic was ahead of everyone. It was the first mountain in the Northeast to announce a comprehensive season pass overhaul, including significant price cuts, in response to Covid-19’s economic fallout. It was the first to announce a modified operations plan. It hired the first Black ski school head in North America. For all this I credit mountain President Geoff Hatheway, who has proven himself a master marketer, transforming Magic from a ramshackle operation that sat abandoned for half the 90s into a story that people want to be part of. The changes have been so constant and so transformative that it’s tough to rank them, but the fact that those April season pass price cuts led to record sales and revenue for a ski area in direct competition with cheap-Ikon Stratton (and not far from Vail’s Mount Snow), leaves some clues as to how independent operators can compete against the Colorado-based megapasses.
7) Vail announces universal reservation systems
If turning ski area operations upside-down to survive Covid is primarily a matter of resources, then no one is better prepared to fight this one out than Vail. Publicly traded, well-capitalized, global, and highly corporatized, Vail has the intellectual and financial infrastructure to meticulously organize everything from individualized season pass credits to day-to-day mountain capacity. Little surprise, then, that the company was the first in skiing to introduce a universal reservation system, in August. With 34 ski areas spread across North America, this would be a massive undertaking. The plan turned out to be so complex, in fact, that almost no other large operators followed on universal reservations, and Vail understaffed its customer service operation to the point that CEO Rob Katz had to issue an apology to passholders (the backlog was also partially due to changes to the Epic Pass credit policy). Still, the plan signaled to skiers that reservations, capacity limits, and advanced purchase requirements would be part of the lift-served mix this season, and most ski areas ended up relying on some combination of these things. And to Vail’s credit, starting from an all-reservations-all-the-time policy and metering down where possible is looking far smarter than the kind of make-it-up-as-you-go plans that are frustrating so many skiers at smaller operations.
8) Skiing acknowledges its diversity problem
In early June, as protests rolled across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz admitted that the company he has led for 14 years had failed to drive more diversity in skiing. “As much as I have been saddened seeing these acts of racism across our country, I am also confronted by the fact that our Company and our sport are overwhelmingly white, with incredibly low representation from people of color,” Katz wrote. “I see this as a personal failing.” Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory followed with a similar memo, promising to focus on more diversity in hiring. They are right to be concerned: as the nation rapidly diversifies, the perception of skiing as something only white people do is going to turn into a business problem. A good first step would be to start pipeline programs that get more diverse people skiing and recruit more diverse candidates to work in the mountains.
9) Saddleback re-opens
The last brand-new major ski area to open in the Northeast was Whitetail in 1991. The last in New England was Bretton Woods in 1973. In the 47 years in between, hundreds of ski areas in the region have closed. We’re not getting any more of these things, so it’s imperative to save the ones we do have. That, to me, was the number one reason Saddleback had to be revived before it slipped into a permanent coma. It’s a big, rowdy mountain with nearly endless expansion potential, an independent operation that stands as a legitimate alternative to the region’s increasingly crowded multipass-accessible mountains. It’s back with new owners, new management, and the only new chairlift in New England. I was there for the understated opening day and hosted GM Andy Shepard on The Storm Skiing Podcast last month, two events that left me feeling positive about the mountain’s future.
10) The 2020-21 ski season happens
Hey, we’re here, skiing. In March, I wasn’t sure we would be. We owe it to ski area operators and the NSAA for finding a way to make lift-served skiing happen even as Covid numbers accelerated across the country in the fall. I don’t know if there will be more shutdowns and I don’t know if every ski area will make it to the other side of this intact, but I do know that we have a 2020-21 ski season. Even if it’s not the kind of season any of us wants, it’s better than no season at all.
And the Ski Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?"
"It came without daycare! It came without beer!"
"It came without tailgates or a place to store gear!"
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Ski Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe skiing," he thought, "doesn't come from a store."
"Maybe skiing...perhaps...means a little bit more!"
2020’s top articles
I delivered 118 Storm Skiing newsletters in 2020 (thank you to those who collected them all). Here were the 10 most popular:
2020’s top podcasts
I also recorded 34 Storm Skiing Podcasts in 2020 (10 of which were Covid-specific). Here are the 10 most popular by number of downloads:
Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory
National Brotherhood of Skiers President Henri Rivers
Sunday River President and GM Dana Bullen
Doppelmayr USA President Katharina Schmitz
Mt. Baldy, California GM Robby Ellingson
Loon Mountain President and GM Jay Scambio
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows President and COO Ron Cohen
Indy Pass Founder and President Doug Fish
Sugarbush President and COO Win Smith
Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher
While it’s fashionable to make predictions in these end-of-year wrap-ups, I’ll save myself the embarrassment of getting everything wrong. I’ll be back with more pods and the regular newsletter format, sent at irregular intervals, in January. There is no pattern and no schedule here, so please don’t look for one. Happy New Year.