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2020-21 Northeast Ski Season in Review – Part 1
Covid, season passes, and the endangered species of Northeast skiing
Last October, I published this list of 10 things I’d be watching over the 2020-21 ski season. I didn’t bother making any predictions – the world had just spent seven months reminding us that such arrogance would be punished with all sorts of simultaneous global catastrophes. Which was fun.
But with the ski season over aside from the broh-brahs still skinning western volcanoes from their VW Subarus, I thought it was a good time to say what I saw as I watched what I said I would. This is part one of a two-part article. I’ll release part two sometime in the next week. Here goes:
1) Will socially distant lift-served skiing prevent another shutdown?
What I wrote
While the specifics of operating plans at the region’s 130 or so ski areas are too tedious to itemize, this whole reset may, over the long term, end up being the best thing to happen to lift-served skiing since the invention of the detachable chairlift. Many parts of the resort experience are broken and have been for a long time. … By forcing the re-examination of every aspect of operations to accommodate social distancing, Covid is forcing a sort of Skiing Year Zero, in which well-we’ve-done-it-this-way-since-Amos-McNugent-ran-the-first-tow-rope-up-this-hill-from-the-engine-of-his-Model-T-in-19-aught-12 isn’t good enough anymore. It’s time to find better ways. While many of these changes – especially the capacity restrictions and reservation systems - will likely evaporate whenever Covid does, expect at least some of these operational efficiencies - online ticketing and perhaps better crowd management - to become permanent.
Short term, whether any of this will be enough to keep ski areas running if a Covid outbreak nukes a resort or the virus spirals out of control again or we enter some version of reality in which organized activities are no longer permitted under Order 419 of the United States government’s Voting Reorganization and Re-education Act of 2021 is impossible to predict.
What actually happened
The Northeast endured exactly zero Covid-related ski resort shutdowns. And other than a two-week November shutdown in New Mexico, the United States avoided them entirely. The same was not true elsewhere. Outside of Switzerland, which had a regular-ish season, most of Europe, including the vast ski kingdoms of France and Italy, never really got going. Canada endured successive waves of shutdowns that alternately swallowed all of Ontario, Whistler, and other regions and resorts. Much of this disparity in response is likely attributable to cultural factors: after a springtime trial period, lockdowns fell out of political favor in the yee-haw U.S. of A., where we collectively value our freedom far more than not dying.
That became fairly clear as the worst of the virus descended in the mid-winter, killing, at one point, more than 4,000 Americans per day. And we kept skiing. Which, actually, was fine – with the guidance of the National Ski Areas Association, the industry had figured out how to orchestrate safe and socially distant skiing. In March of 2020, we were sani-wiping our groceries and doing awkward sidewalk dances to stay as far apart from strangers outdoors as possible. By ski season, it was clear that Covid spread primarily not from surface contact, but through the air and mostly indoors. Masks had become ubiquitous. For the first time ever, having coffee in grandma’s sitting room was more hazardous to your health than skiing the Front Four at Stowe.
But 2021 did in fact act as a Skiing Year Zero. Many Covid adaptations will likely become permanent.
“We learned a lot from this past ‘Covid Season,’” said Mad River Glen General Manager Matt Lillard. “We will take the lessons with us and are making some changes. They include limiting capacity to ensure our best Mad River Glen experience. We are limited pass sales to 10% less than last year and will be limited lift ticket sales on our busy days. We will be pushing our online ticket platform but will offer in person ticket sales if we are not sold out. We don’t anticipate changing how our Basebox [baselodge] works, but we will be keeping our outdoor ‘to-go’ outlet, the Snack Shack. It was a huge success last year that people really enjoyed. We had to institute ticket/pass scanning at the lifts, which will stay.”
Many ski areas echoed Mad River Glen’s plans to restrict capacity, a surprise move that was perhaps inspired by what turned out to be a more manageable and enjoyable peak experience during the season of Covid.
“We plan to find a comfortable capacity number that emphasizes a quality experience over attendance volume,” said Windham Marketing and Communications Manager Dan Toth. “We expect that this number will be higher than last winter as Covid-19 restrictions are removed, but we don’t plan to ‘open the floodgates’ and sell as many tickets as possible.”
The mountain will remove other restrictions: Toth confirmed that they don’t currently plan to limit Ikon Pass visits, as they did over the 2020-21 ski season, or to require reservations for those visits.
Windham and Mad River Glen are just two of the many Northeast ski areas limiting pass sales. After quadrupling season pass sales since the new ownership group took over five years ago, Magic, which has long limited day ticket sales, is limiting the number of passes it sells for 2021-22 to 10 percent more than the number it sold last season. Boyne may limit sales of the New England Pass, which the company says will be back on sale “soon.” Several ski areas, including Mad River Glen, Mountain Creek, Mount Peter, Peek’n Peak, Willard, Kissing Bridge and Montage offered a brief early-bird sale before shutting down pass sales altogether (all will offer passes again closer to the season, presumably at a higher price). Yawgoo has started a season pass waitlist.
Whether big-name ski areas will continue to sell out on weekends, as they frequently did last season, remains to be seen. Vermont’s strict quarantine restrictions drove many skiers out of their typical destination patterns and to local hills like Belleayre, Catamount, and Plattekill, which sold out most weekends from January to early March.
I don’t have much confidence that two of the best Covid-era adaptations will stay: less-cluttered base lodges and better management of lift lines. I’m less concerned with the first: after booting up indoors for the past decade, I became a big fan of the car-as-your-baselodge concept this winter, especially since I acquired a minivan. I fold down the bucket seats, pull out a folding table, and eat lunch in the back with heat and music pumping.
But I cannot similarly hack the region’s generally pathetic liftline management. It was a little better this year, but still mostly awful, with too many pinch-point alternating lanes that obliterated any pretense of social distancing. If I had one wish I would send every Northeast ski area operator to Alta for a week, where a squadron of bearded granola bros command the liftlines with authoritative precision of an angry drill Sargeant. It seems impossible to make skiing at one of America’s best ski areas any better, but these snowy commandos do exactly that at Alta, and if every ski area in the nation emulated them, we’d all have a better day.
As far as that whole Voting Reorganization and Re-education Act goes, well, let’s just say that’s not going as smoothly as ski season went.
2) How will Covid redefine the season pass?
What I wrote
When the trapdoor opened on the 2019-20 ski season in mid-March, stunned skiers turned to resort operators asking for some kind of make-good, or at least a guarantee that their purchase would be protected in the event of another shutdown. The industry, as it has done for decades, basically said, “yeah go fuck yourselves.” And skiers were like, “Not this time, Chief.” … While deadlines will likely snap back to their earlier dates to front-load revenue into the spring, it is easy to imagine payment plans remaining in place for most passes. My guess is that some version of the new refund or deferral will also become permanent. Vail, for instance, formerly charged extra for its Epic Coverage plan, which guarantees a refund if you lose your job or get decapitated by a falling icicle, but the plan is free this year with all Epic Passes. Where Vail goes, the industry tends to follow, and I imagine that will happen here as well.
What actually happened
Vail did indeed continue to offer Epic Coverage for free with every pass purchase. All the large operators – Alterra, Boyne, Powdr – continued to offer some form of pass protection, though with earlier deferral dates than last season.
“We pride ourselves on allowing passholders the ability to purchase with confidence,” said Killington and Pico Communications & Social Media Manager Courtney DiFiore, noting that the mountains had long offered some form of pass protection. Both resorts moved their deferral date from Nov. 20 last year to Sept. 30, 2021.
Many of this year’s protection plans dropped features of their 2020-21 passes. Boyne, for instance, eliminated its bold 150-day operating guarantee for its New England Pass, which includes unlimited access to Loon, Sunday River, and Sugarloaf.
“The 150-day promise was created as a reaction to COVID as an additional level of assurance for guests against COVID-related closures or other impacts,” said Boyne Resorts Chief Marketing Officer Nick Lambert. “With our snowmaking, it’s rare that we don’t operate for at least 150 days every season, and moving forward that is our intent and our guests’ expectation.” Lambert added that Boyne intended to continue offering the deferral option for the foreseeable future.
Many independent operators, including Cannon, Wachusett, Holiday Valley, and Pats Peak, also continued to offer deferral options (I’m tracking all Northeast season passes here). Waterville Valley dropped last-year’s refund option, but will again allow skiers to defer their passes to the 2022-23 season after skiing one day and before skiing a second day, and before March 1, 2022.
“We felt a bit of consumer hesitation when we released passes for next season and felt it was more consumer-friendly to offer the pass promise again,” said Waterville Valley President and General Manager Tim Smith, who noted that pass sales were up an astonishing 450 percent over this time last season. “We did however step away from the refund policy that we had last season. We feel that consumers aren’t as hesitant as last season. We don’t want to take a risk of guest pre-purchasing their season passes only to refund them because they find what they feel is a better deal someplace else.”
Many smaller companies, however, reverted to their old no-refunds policies, including Bolton Valley, Berkshire East, and Catamount. Some cited lack of guest demand for such policies.
“We have not heard any feedback from our guests about the policies surrounding our pass programs – in fact our pass sales are super strong at all three mountains,” said Tyler Fairbank, CEO of Fairbank Group, which owns Jiminy Peak and Cranmore and manages Bromley. “However, if COVID rears its ugly head we of course will do the right thing.”
3) How will the season pass wars evolve?
What I wrote
For decades, Northeast ski areas have operated on a model of expensive season passes valid at a single mountain. Over the past three seasons, that model has disintegrated in reaction to the following events: Vail introduces Northeast-specific Epic Passes … Alterra dramatically increases the value of the Ikon Pass in the Northeast … [and] Indy Pass provides a pathway for independent operators to take advantage of the scale and marketing power of a multi-mountain coalition.
Vail and Alterra’s bargain passes, which provide unlimited or near-unlimited access to multiple mountains not only in the region, but out West, have completely reset customer expectations for what a ski season pass means in the Northeast, both access- and cost-wise. As skiers grow more accustomed to these cheap, expansive passes, it is going to make it increasingly difficult for, say, Bretton Woods to continue charging $1,029 for a single-mountain pass that does not even provide reciprocal days to any other ski areas. I expect more mountains to follow Magic south in pricing when 2021-22 passes go on sale in spring.
What actually happened
Almost no one dropped prices. In fact, most increased them. Some substantially: Connecticut’s Mount Southington raised prices from $550 to $650. Most increases were more modest: New York’s Ski 3 Pass - good for unlimited access to Belleayre, Gore, and Whiteface - ticked up to $809 from $759; Cranmore from $659 to $699; Killington from $999 to $1,029. Many stayed flat, including Jay Peak at $729, Cannon at $729, and the Ikon Pass at $999 (but with reduced renewal discounts).
There was one enormous exception: Vail made the stunning decision to drop all Epic Pass prices by 20 percent, lowering the price of its flagship Epic Pass to just $783 and its Epic Local pass to $583. This completely reset the season pass landscape in the Northeast. As I wrote in March:
Vail pricing its Escalade like a Ford Escape will only further push this innovation in the pass landscape. It has to. The Northeast Value Pass provides unlimited access to four mountains in New Hampshire and five in Pennsylvania; unlimited access with a dozen or so holiday blackouts at Okemo, Mount Snow, and Hunter; and 10 days at Stowe. It’s $479. That’s cheaper than the single-mountain season passes at Mount Southington, Ski Sundown, Mt. Abram, Saddleback, Shawnee Peak, Jiminy Peak, Bretton Woods, Cranmore, Gunstock, King Pine, Waterville Valley, Belleayre, Greek Peak, Kissing Bridge, Plattekill, Swain, Titus, West, Windham, Blue Mountain (Pennsylvania), Camelback, Hidden Valley, Laurel, Bolton Valley, Bromley, Burke, and Jay Peak. For $104 more, skiers can upgrade to a $583 Epic Local Pass, which cuts the Hunter and Vermont blackouts and adds unlimited Stowe outside of holidays, along with basically unlimited access out west, with the only real restrictions being holiday blackouts around Tahoe and Park City and a total of 10 days between Vail, Beaver Creek and Whistler. How does Mount Southington, with its $650 season pass, compete with that?
Whether other mountains react with price adjustments in future seasons remains to be seen, but Vail’s push to sell more passes is working. Earlier this month, the company reported a 50 percent jump in the number of units sold and a 33 percent increase in sales dollars over 2019 (2020 being an outlier and therefore not useful for a sales comparison). While there is a clear value here, I believe there is also a psychological shift going on. As I also wrote in March:
I don’t know how many passholders Vail is directly poaching from its competitors. Skiers who own a condo at Bretton Woods are going to buy Bretton Woods passes for their entire family. Indeed, just about every ski area that released 2020-21 season pass numbers indicated that these rose substantially. Vail seems more interested in creating passholders out of people who would not otherwise have considered it – a white-collar worker living in Manhattan who isn’t near a mountain of any size but takes a trip out west every year and spends a weekend or two in New England.
Twenty years ago, that person would have simply bought lift tickets as part of their vacation package. Now they can be a season passholder. Vail has made that a practical decision, but there’s a mystique in that too, a sense of belonging and connection to the mountains that perhaps didn’t exist before. A season pass at Vail used to be a precious and rare thing. Now, who doesn’t have a season pass at Vail, or Stowe, or Sugarbush? Hell, I’ve had a season pass at Mammoth for going on four years now, and I’ve never been within 50 miles of the place. Still, it’s cool to say out loud.
Another interesting trend that emerged this spring was early-bird renewal discounts. While the Ikon and New England passes have long offered these, several smaller operations introduced them, including Waterville Valley (10 percent off the full price), New York Ski 3 ($50 off), and Blue, Bear Creek, Camelback, and Montage ski areas in Pennsylvania. While this is a small sample size among the more than 100 ski areas in the Northeast, I would not be surprised to see these become more common as a way to reward loyalty as the Epic and other megapasses become ever more seductive.
What we did not see more of in the Northeast is reciprocal pass partnerships. In fact, the newest of these – two free reciprocal tickets for passholders at Jay Peak or Saddleback – evaporated as both ski areas joined the Indy Pass. And I think the Indy Pass is why the Northeast will not follow the West into byzantine reciprocity grids that make Vail’s maddening Covid credit FAQ look like a Jack-and-Jill pop-up book.
This was the year that Indy Pass became a true destination product in the Northeast, adding Jay Peak, Cannon, Waterville Valley, and Saddleback. These are four of the region’s largest and best ski areas, every bit the equal to the refined mega-mountains crowning the Epic and Ikon Passes – and neither Vail nor Alterra has anything in Vermont equal to snowy and glade-throttled Jay Peak.
At just $279 ($119 for kids) for two days at each mountain, the Indy Pass is the best deal in the region (though it faces legitimate competition from Vail’s $359 Northeast Midweek Epic Pass). But what really killed the reciprocity deals, in my opinion, is that passholders at any Indy mountain can simply add an Indy Pass on for just $179 ($89 for kids), turning a season pass at Magic or Snow Ridge or Bolton Valley into a multipass with access around the region and, crucially, out West.
Payment plans continued to be popular, with 44 of the region’s 130-plus mountains offering them. In many cases, these were only available for early-bird passes, a restriction that I find confusing – why eliminate an incentive to purchase as the price increases?
The increasing popularity of payment plans may be a prelude to an eventual move to a subscription-type model, especially for mountains with substantial summer operations. Killington has done this for years with its Beast 365 Pass, which at $120 a month gives you unlimited skiing, mountain biking, golf, and Adventure Center access, plus an Ikon Base Pass. This year, Killington introduced a version of this pass at Pico. As we move full speed into a subscription economy, I expect these sorts of offerings to increase.
4) Is the Freedom Pass dead?
What I wrote
The Freedom Pass deal was simple: buy a season pass at any of 19 independent U.S. ski areas, get three free anytime lift tickets at the other 18 partner mountains. It was an immediate obvious value-add for passholders, but it worked for ski areas as well, a way to add value to single-mountain season passes that faced increasing competition from cheap and ubiquitous Epic and Ikon Passes. In the East, this meant passholders at rugged, rarely busy ski areas such as Magic, Bolton Valley, Plattekill, and Black Mountain (N.H.) could add some flexibility to their wintertime ramblings.
Then the whole thing fell apart. Sort of. I think. The Freedom Pass website recently went dark, “Please come back later” typed across a blank screen.
What actually happened
Less than three weeks after publishing the analysis above, I officially declared the Freedom Pass dead. Literally the next day, the coalition kicked the lid off its coffin and emerged as skiing’s Van Halen, with a new lead singer in Sunlight, Colorado (the former lead had been Bolton Valley). This overhauled coalition was frankly underwhelming: the best mountains – Magic, Plattekill, and Bolton Valley – had fled. While similar-sized Greek Peak and Black Mountain, New Hampshire, stayed on, most of the remaining ski areas were tiny and more likely to drive visits elsewhere than pull passholders to them: Lost Valley, McIntyre, Yawgoo, Whaleback. Sunlight and Ski Cooper, also in Colorado, added some western variety. And for some reason a Wisconsin ski area called Mont du Lac was there as well.
The coalition grew notably stronger in April, when Cherry Peak and Eagle Point, Utah; Red River, New Mexico; and Snow Valley, California all joined. These are all ski areas with between 1,000 and 1,600 vertical-foot drops and 200-650 acres of terrain. The Utah mountains pull in more than 300 inches of snow per year. A skier who picks up a $180 Whaleback season pass could do worse than a western swing through Freedom Pass partner resorts.
Then, earlier this week, the Freedom Pass made the surprise addition of Masella, an enormous ski area in Spain that towers 3,000 vertical feet:
It looks amazing. Still, I’m not sure how I feel about these throw-a-random-ski-resort-on-the-other-side-of-the-planet-onto-the-pass arrangements. How many Black Mountain, New Hampshire season passholders are going to book a flight across the Atlantic and then ferry themselves up to the mountains because they have three free lift tickets? For that matter, how many Ikon Pass holders are flying to Japan because they have five or seven days at Niseko United? Once you get on a plane across an ocean, free lift tickets are kind of beside the point.
5) Will these endangered ski areas make a comeback?
What I wrote
Shortly after the Covid shutdown, Massachusetts’ Ski Blandford – run by Butternut and Otis Ridge owner Jef Murdock - announced it was closing forever. … An all-natural-snow ski area is not something you want to be in 2020, particularly in seasons like this last one, when the snow line moved ever-farther north. But that’s what Mt. Jefferson, Maine was, and the mountain failed to open last year. It’s website is dead, and the ski area probably is too. … Cockaigne shut down following a lodge fire in 2011. The Western New York mountain was poised for a comeback for the 2019-20 ski season under new ownership, but I cannot find any evidence that the mountain operated last season. …
What actually happened
Blandford: There’s nothing to say about Blandford except that it’s as dead as the dinosaurs. Perhaps someone could revive it.
“The infrastructure at Blandford remains intact, including the chairlifts and snowmaking equipment,” said Dillon Mahon, marketing director at Butternut, which purchased the ski area from the Springfield Ski Club in 2017. “The area is not publicly listed for sale and we are not actively seeking a buyer, however we would be willing to entertain offers from any interested parties.”
So it could make a comeback. But the Springfield Ski Club ran Blandford for more than 80 years before selling it to Butternut in 2017. When Butternut took over, the ski area was insolvent. Apparently they couldn’t find a way to make it a sustainable business. If a group of passionate skiers couldn’t make it work and an experienced ski area operator couldn’t make it work, there may not be a way to make it work.
Mt. Jefferson, miraculously, reopened for the February break and several subsequent weekends. Thank the early-season snows and steady low temps. The last post on the mountain’s Facebook page, dated March 18, states that they “hope to be back open early next year with night skiing and possible snow making.” Also, its website is back. The mountain did not return a request for additional details on its hopes to install snowmaking.
Cockaigne opened for the first time in nine years on Dec. 27, according to its Facebook page. It lasted just over two months, with a March 12 Facebook post announcing that the mountain was closed for the season. Cockaigne held a 2021-22 season passes in the spring (it’s unclear if the passes remain on sale), and the mountain is hosting a parade of concerts, car shows, ATV races, and ax-throwing competitions over the summer. Whatever it takes to get by, Man.
Part two of the 2020-21 season wrap-up will examine Saddleback, the Hermitage Club, and Bousquet under new ownership; the new general managers at Sunday River, Sugarbush, and several Vail properties in New England; Liftopia’s implosion and attempted comeback; the futures of Jay Peak and Burke; efforts to diversify skiing; and more. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get that analysis the moment it’s live: