What this is: This is the ninth in a series of conversations exploring the ski industry fallout from the COVID-19-forced closure of nearly every ski area on the continent in March 2020. Click through to listen to the first eight: author Chris Diamond, Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher, Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway, NSAA CEO Kelly Pawlak, Berkshire East/Catamount Owner & Goggles for Docs founder Jon Schaefer, Shaggy’s Copper Country Skis Cofounder Jeff Thompson, Doppelmayr USA President Katharina Schmitz, Mt. Baldy GM Robby Ellingson
Who: Rusty Gregory, Alterra Mountain Company CEO
Why I interviewed him: Because as skiing has evolved into a megapass-anchored duopoly that has trained consumers to feel entitled to cheap access to as many mountains as possible, the consequences of those large players’ decisions has been amplified considerably. When Vail and Alterra shut down their entire North American networks of nearly 50 ski areas on March 14, the impact reverberated in immediate and wide-ranging ways that would have been difficult to imagine even five years ago. Now, as both step out of the wreckage and try to make good with passholders still fuming about shortened seasons while acknowledging that next season isn’t close to being assured, we are collectively witnessing the kind of real-time business adaptation that normally takes years to occur. How Alterra resets the Ikon Pass now will influence not only how smaller mountains adjust their offerings, but what skiers’ pass expectations will be long after Covid-19 has burned out. Looming over all of this is the possibility that the 2020-21 ski season could be a very dystopian, socially distant affair, with capacity limits and restricted access to just about everything. How Alterra is evolving in the shutdown’s aftermath and preparing for the possibility of a very odd 2020-21 season is one of the most important stories in skiing right now.
Alterra’s Steamboat ski area in February 2020.
What we talked about: How the shutdown progressed and the catalysts behind the ultimate decision to close; how using Crystal Mountain as a laboratory told them social distancing at massive ski areas was unsustainable; the chaos and uncertainty of March 14, which turned out to be shutdown day; the creeping atmosphere of fear in ski towns as the virus spread; the impossible decision of shuttering 15 North American ski resorts in the midst of peak season when hundreds of thousands of skiers are planning on booting up the next day; second-guessing the shutdown decision and how long those doubts lasted; dealing with Angry Ski Bro in the moment; Dude Brah are you really going to shut Squaw when we’re about to get dumped on?; managing thousands of layoffs and furloughs and helping move those who wanted to leave out of town; how Alterra is planning for different re-opening scenarios; losses are significant, but the owners are well-capitalized and this is not a death knell; the status of the capital investments Alterra announced just before the shutdown, including the Steamboat and Tremblant expansions, new lifts at Mammoth, and lodges throughout the system; how Alterra rejiggered the Ikon Pass to acknowledge that “people didn’t get what they paid for”; more Ikon Pass adjustments are coming, including a plan for what will happen in the event of another shutdown; Rusty’s reaction to Vail’s plan to offer up to 80 percent renewal discount for last year’s Epic Pass holders; the thinking behind the Ikon Pass nurse discount; Ikon’s substantial child pass discount; the May 26 Ikon Pass deadline likely won’t change; the logic behind adding Windham to the Ikon Pass; Alterra isn’t done buying, perhaps even in the short term; whether the Windham partnership signals a trend toward adding more close-to-cities feeder-type areas that can supplement longer trips at larger mountains; we could see more Ikon partners in the East; whether Vail buying Peak catalyzed Alterra’s Windham partnership; why Mt. Bachelor, a Powdr Corp resort whose large sister mountains Snowbird, Copper, and Killington are already on the Ikon Pass has just now been added as a partner; the importance of the Pacific Northwest; Rusty’s thoughts on Mt. Baldy’s re-opening experiment and whether any of that could be applied to Alterra’s properties; could we see Squaw Valley or Mammoth re-open this season?; if you love conference calls, become a CEO at a huge ski company during a pandemic, because you will have lots of them; will the southern hemisphere 2020 ski season happen?; optimism for the future
What I got wrong: I corrected this in the interview, but it’s worth restating that Alterra’s Adventure Assurance program provides the option to defer the value of an Ikon Pass to the 2021-22 season by Dec. 10. It does not provide a refund. Words are hard and I chose the wrong one.
Questions I wish I’d asked: While this has nothing to do with the coronavirus, I had hoped to ask about Alterra’s decision to kick Aspen and Jackson Hole off the Ikon Base Pass and up to a “plus” tier.
Recorded on: May 4, 2020
The Storm Skiing Podcast is on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, and Pocket Casts. The Storm Skiing Journal publishes podcasts and other editorial content throughout the ski season. To receive new posts as soon as they are published, sign up for The Storm Skiing Journal Newsletter at skiing.substack.com. Follow The Storm Skiing Journal on Facebook and Twitter.
COVID-19 & Skiing Podcasts: Author and Industry Veteran Chris Diamond | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | NSAA CEO Kelly Pawlak | Berkshire East/Catamount Owner & Goggles for Docs founder Jon Schaefer | Shaggy’s Copper Country Skis Cofounder Jeff Thompson | Doppelmayr USA President Katharina Schmitz | Mt. Baldy GM Robby Ellingson |
The Storm Skiing Podcasts: Killington & Pico GM Mike Solimano | Plattekill owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay | New England Lost Ski Areas Project Founder Jeremy Davis | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | Lift Blog Founder Peter Landsman | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Burke Mountain GM Kevin Mack | Liftopia CEO Evan Reece | Berkshire East & Catamount Owner & GM Jon Schaefer | Vermont Ski + Ride and Vermont Sports Co-Publisher & Editor Lisa Lynn | Sugarbush President & COO Win Smith | Loon President & GM Jay Scambio | Sunday River President & GM Dana Bullen | Big Snow & Mountain Creek VP of Sales & Marketing Hugh Reynolds |