Alterra Smashes Porsche Into Mountainside, Emerges Dazed, Offers Pass Deferrals to 2021-22

Skiers will have until Dec. 10 to defer the value of their 2020-21 pass to the following season

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In a hailstorm of launched tomatoes and voodoo dolls, Alterra abruptly introduced a no-reason-required deferral policy for 2020-21 Ikon Passes on Friday evening. Skiers will be able to defer the value of their pass to a 2021-22 purchase at no cost between Sept. 10 and Dec. 10 - so long as they have not used it yet.

It has seemed clear for the past several weeks that Alterra would at the very least push out their early-bird pass deadlines and perhaps adjust prices downward, inevitable concessions driven by two factors: a 2019-20 season cut dead in the middle of glorious March, with weeks of good skiing remaining across the continent; and an American economy that increasingly resembles the shelled carcass of a wartime city. But what seemed more important than any price adjustment or deadline push was how the company would handle the increasing probability that the 2020-21 season would get COVID-bombed out of existence like the strike-cancelled 1994 World Series.

When Alterra announced their plan this past Tuesday, it included more-generous-than-I-had-expected renewal discounts of $200 on full and $100 on base passes, an extended deadline until after Memorial Day (from April 22 originally), and a new nurse discount. But the cancellation policy remained unchanged: all sales are final.

The internet went ballistic. Scrolling through the hundreds of comments beneath Alterra’s feel-good here-it-is-Guys pass concession announcements on Facebook was like watching an Obama book reading at the Fox News fan club: a brutal and unrelenting beatdown that was half reason and half feral wrath spooling from a population that is, to say the least, rather uneasy at the moment.

There was no way the no-refunds policy could stand. Not even Alterra - which had built up enough goodwill over two seasons that their decision to ax Aspen and Jackson Hole from the 2020-21 Base Pass in February while still raising its price by $50 failed to generate any kind of measurable protest - could awe shucks its way out of this one.

We might give a little credit here to tiny (relatively speaking), Magic Mountain, Vermont, which followed Alterra’s sorry-folks-there’s-just-nothing-that-can-be-done-about-it announcement with a decisive deferral policy that said, essentially, “yeah, if 2020-21 doesn’t happen, we’ll give you credit toward the 2021-22 season.”  

It was a smart move – their president, Geoff Hatheway, is after all a former marketing guy, and he’s channeled every bit of that talent into building up the mountain’s legend over the past half decade. But Magic could have punted like every other independent ski area in the Northeast and almost no one would have noticed or blamed it. Alterra, however, had to make this shift. The Ikon Pass is too popular and its footprint too big to be able to just sneak away and say, “Yeah but Vail.” I don’t have exact numbers on how many Ikon Passes were sold last season, but it’s at least several hundred thousand. You can’t collect admission at the gate, leave before you play the concert, and be surprised when the fans show up in your front yard with pitchforks.

This was a misstep by Alterra, but hardly a fatal one. It was the company’s first public blunder since its triumphant burst from the carcass of Intrawest two years ago. From the moment it materialized, Alterra has successfully positioned itself as the anti-Vail, a corporation that wasn’t corporate, a hey-let’s-just-go-fucking-ski-Man bar buddy with enough rootin’ tootin’ swagger that even Jackson Hole and Revelstoke wanted to hang out with them. People fed up with what they saw as Vail’s arrogance, with its $200 day tickets and its supposed assembly line approach to ski area development, wanted a ride in this slick and affordable new sports car. Alterra gave them a lineup of ski areas that was just as strong, a pass that was just as cheap, and a place to belong that was headed not by a gun-running former private equity slickster, but a football player-turned liftie who went on to run Mammoth Mountain for two decades. From day one, the Ikon Pass was revered by all but the salty locals in a handful of Western ski towns.

The all-sales-are-final fiasco somewhat punctured this carefully drawn Caped Crusader of the Rockies act. That persona was brilliant marketing, but it was never actually true. Not because Alterra wasn’t doing its best to make a solid and necessary product, but because Vail was never actually that bad. Anyone who has skied their mountains knows there’s nothing generic about them, terrain-wise. Vail has done more to drive season pass prices to mortally-achievable levels than any entity in skiing’s long history. And the CEO is more philanthropist than supervillain. But stick $200 lift tickets in the headlines and you will get a line of back-in-my-day haters stretching the length of I-70. Alterra, smartly, pounced on that perception and presented itself as Not-That-Guy.

But Alterra has $200 lift tickets too. They just haven’t really been called out on it. They got called out on this. And they fixed it. It’s time to move on.

There will be skiers who say that this is not enough, that a Dec. 10 cutoff is too early, that a credit is useless, that the “value of” bit is slick Buddy but how about just giving me the equal pass instead of a credit toward it, that nothing less than a full refund for the loss of any part of the season is sufficient. And while they’re at it, they want money back for the months chopped off the end of the 2019-20 season. If you’re one of those people, I would say, “Dude, just wait.” The world, if you haven’t noticed, has decided that everything we thought was impossible was suddenly going to happen immediately. We just brought the hyperactive American economy to a standstill for weeks. This, and everything ahead of us, is unprecedented. To think that that Dec. 10 date is etched on a tablet atop Mount Sinai would be a mistake – it can and very well may change.

With this sudden pivot by Alterra, Vail will have to follow with a similar policy for Epic Passes. This is not a maybe. Independent mountains, large or small, will have to do the same. If you can’t imagine it now, prepare to be amazed. Up until it was happening, most skiers could not have imagined the entire North American ski industry shutting down more or less in tandem for any reason. And then, faster than a continental tourist can drop the safety bar on a chairlift, it did. With the menace of COVID-19 lurking for the foreseeable future, crushing our economy and transforming us all into mask-wearing, stranger-dodging extras in the new My Apocalyptic Life reality series, people will continue to seek certainty in an uncertain world. Anyone who’s trying to sell a ski pass is going to have to give it to them.


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