Covid Bombed Our Ski Season - But Made Our Season Passes Better

Ski area operators met the moment – will they learn the right lessons?

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That one time when Covid ruined everything, but maybe made some things better in the end

When I sent out my first Northeast season pass roundup on April 17, the economy was flash frozen in an unfolding and uncertain Covid-19 horror show. The smoldering ashes of our incinerated ski season had settled. Skiers, traumatized by the sudden shutdowns, had zipped their wallets shut – no one was buying passes until the industry figured out how to make sure there would be no repeat of the grand rug-pulling of March 2020.

Vermont’s nimble, clever Magic Mountain had actually laid out the first pass overhaul two days before, becoming the first ski area in the Northeast to drop prices and guarantee passes in the event of another shutdown. Over the course of the next several months, 72 ski areas across New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania would follow with some sort of rejiggering of their season pass suite.

All of these overhauls included some combination of these four elements: price reductions, extended deadlines for the best pricing, payment plans, and rollover or refund options that in many cases acknowledged not just the fear of another shutdown, but general fear of skiing and the attendant crowds in the age of Covid.

It was, very likely, the swiftest and most expansive evolution of the season pass marketplace in the history of lift-served skiing. Skiers, long frustrated by STRICT NO REFUND POLICIES even in the event of a Martian invasion that drove them into forced labor in an underseas coconut mine, responded to this more humane approach to commerce by scooping up passes in what have been, in many cases, record numbers. Sales skyrocketed 75 percent at Magic, and were up at Jiminy Peak, Cranmore, Bromley, Mad River Glen, and Jay Peak, according to representatives of each of those mountains. Epic Pass sales jumped 18 percent, and while Vail attributed that increase to renewal credits it issued to address the shortened ski season, the company’s next earnings report on Dec. 10 will confirm whether that momentum continued.

That these adaptations were a one-time reaction to Covid that will evaporate when 2021-22 passes go on sale is unlikely. Skiers have made it clear that they love these updates, and the additional sales should somewhat mitigate operators’ anticipated losses from reduced day ticket revenue, food and beverage sales, and ski school participation. Product innovation rarely runs backward and, besides, Covid concerns are likely to continue into the spring pass sales period, even if vaccine distribution has begun in earnest by then.

So while it’s impossible to predict exactly what next year’s season pass landscape will look like, it’s worth examining each of the four major elements of this year’s pass overhauls to see which may retain their utility beyond the Covid era.

Extended early-bird deadlines: In Covid’s silent spring, it felt like all life on Earth had gone into hibernation. Ski area operators, facing early-bird deadlines that in many cases were just weeks away, pushed them far into late spring and summer. Vail extended its normal late-April Epic Pass deadline all the way to Labor Day (the company would later push it even further). Most settled on an early-June to mid-July deadline before instituting modest price increases. These generous deadlines will, I predict, be the first things to go. Most ski companies want to front-load this revenue to fund offseason operations, and sharp, limited, aggressively marketed discounts are likely to be the best ongoing strategy to drive sales in a nation of finger-tapping procrastinators. Besides, lazy people have no lobby here: it’s easy to summon empathy for the guy who breaks his leg on day one of the ski season and can’t use his pass; it’s a lot harder to care about the people who just aren’t paying attention because Brah they just can’t get with all these schedules and deadlines.

Payment plans: These should be all but universal, and they should be true payment plans. Vail’s $50-down, pay-the-rest-later setup is not a payment plan – it’s a small deposit to guarantee the current price. But with the top Epic Pass running over $900 (to start), Vail should let skiers split this into three or four installments. Alterra, Boyne, and Powdr already offer some version of this. I understand the administrative challenges here for smaller mountains, but anyone with a pass that costs more than, say, $500 really ought to talk to whichever point of sale vendor they’re using to see if there’s a painless way to make this happen. These plans should also be offered throughout the sales period – too many ski areas treated payment plans as incentives to buy the early-bird pass, and then yanked them when the price increase, which to me seems like the exact reverse opposite of how this should work.

Lower prices: Magic ended up being the only ski area to significantly drop its pass prices, though Vail, Alterra, Boyne, and Powdr all offered substantial renewal discounts (Vail’s credits were up to 80 percent, and Alterra simply gave anyone who hadn’t used their Ikon Pass a new pass for 2020-21). With spring’s economic freeze-out giving way to something of a sales surge as interest spikes in outdoor activities and more high-income cityfolk relocate to the rural fringe, I doubt we’ll see additional price drops on 2021-22 passes. In fact, there is a good chance they will increase. For now. Eventually, the Northeast ski areas with single-mountain passes that cost more than the cheap multi-mountain Epic or Ikon passes are going to have to respond, either with lower prices or with more value in the form of reciprocal coalitions with other ski areas (or at the very least, by joining the Indy Pass). Covid has likely pushed that timeline, however, and I expect next season’s early-bird prices to be either largely in line with or slightly higher than this season’s.

Deferral or refund policies: Nothing inspires ski areas to break out the ALL-CAPS MACHINE than the line in their season pass policies and procedures section in which they state that THERE ARE NO REFUNDS FOR ANY REASON. OK, I get this in principle. Of the 50 or so Northeast ski areas that did not articulate some sort of Covid-era refund or deferral policy, most are small, family-owned, and not equipped, from an administrative or financial point of view, to guarantee the sort of mass financial flow-back that a repeat of March’s shutdown would require. In most cases, passes at these ski areas are just a few hundred bucks (many offer family passes for not much more than an individual pass), and the choice to buy them likely didn’t come down to this or a new car. But for everyone else, some kind of specific, clear, fair refund or deferral policy needs to become standard. Giving a passholder until X date to roll the pass over, which many ski areas did, seems fair, as does guaranteeing a certain-length season, with proportional credits for each day short of that goal (Boyne went with 150 days between its Northeast mountains, while Fairbank Group went with 100 days for its trio of Jiminy Peak, Bromley, and Cranmore). Simply folding the my-ski-season-is-screwed-for-whatever-reason insurance into the pass itself, as Vail did, is probably the best-case scenario, though unlikely for ski areas unequipped with an administrative back office. Whatever they land on, the STRICT NO-REFUNDS POLICY has to go. If you don’t understand why, go spend five minutes on social media, where Angry Ski Bro has decided to spend every waking minute for the rest of his life reminding everyone with a Facebook account and a passing interest in skiing that Ski Area X SCREWED ME OUT OF MY 1999 SKI SEASON. In this climate, resort operators will likely find that they have less to fear from a clearly articulated refund or deferral policy – which will likely be used sparingly - than a no-refunds policy.

So we’ll see. I’ve done these season pass updates regularly since April, but it’s time to take a break. Expect the next one around the end of February, or whenever Northeast season pass pages begin blipping to life. Meanwhile, here are all the changes since my October update. I’ll continue to update the chart periodically.

Northeast season pass updates – all changes reflected in this chart

Deferral or refund options recently modified

  • For months, Bretton Woods stood as the last large mountain in the Northeast that declined to offer its passholders any sort of refund or deferral option. Just five months past the nick of time, the mountain promised to offer a full credit or a refund minus a $50 processing fee anytime before opening day. In the event of another “health crisis” shutdown, the mountain will issue prorated credits toward a 2021-22 pass: 75 percent if the shutdown hits between opening day and Jan. 15, 50 percent if the mountain closes between Jan. 16 and Feb. 28, and 25 percent for closures between March 1 and closing day. Slow clap for the largest ski area in New Hampshire following regional titans such as Spring Mountain, Pennsylvania and Lost Valley, Maine in not actively flipping off their passholders.

  • Sugarloaf, Sunday River, and Loon updated their pass rollover deadline for unused passes to Jan. 15. The Maine Pass, good for unlimited access to Sunday River and Sugarloaf, is back on sale for $1,599 after a hiatus.

  • Mohawk Mountain will no longer offer a season pass that includes a deferral or refund option.

  • Nashoba Valley breaks out the ALL-CAPS KEYBOARD to insist that there will be, “NO REFUNDS. NO REFUNDS FOR ANY REASON. LIMITED QUANTITY OF LESSONS, RENTALS & TICKETS AVAILABLE FOR EACH NIGHT.” Then switches back to the regular keyboard IN CASE WE HAVE NOT MADE OURSELVES CLEAR: “No refunds for any reason. If we are open and you do not attend for any reason including sickness, you will forfeit your lesson, rental, admission or ticket without refund.” Before finally saying OK OK we will work it out if Covid spin-kicks us into 2022: “If we are forced to close by Federal, State or Local order we will issue you a credit for future purchases at Nashoba Valley Ski Area.” So they kind of arrived in the right place, though the whole thing about no-refund-even-if-your-sick sort of makes me wonder if they spent the past nine months orbiting the planet on an intensive laboratory research mission that precluded them from hearing the doomsday news spinning off the frantic world below.  

  • McCauley, New York will issue a 50 percent credit toward a 2021-22 season pass in the event of a New York State-mandated closure within 40 days of opening, and a 30 percent credit for a closure between 41 to 60 days of opening. No credit will be issued for closures after that.

  • Woods Valley, New York will roll the pro-rated value of a pass over to the 2021-22 season in the event of a state-mandated stay-at-home order.

  • Bear Creek, Pennsylvania is guaranteeing a 65-day season, with a two percent-per-day credit toward a 2021-22 season pass purchase for each day the mountain falls short of that goal. Passes that are not picked up will automatically be rolled over to the following season. If the mountain doesn’t open at all, passholders can request a full refund or roll their pass over to next season.

  • Middlebury Snow Bowl will issue a pro-rated refund if the ski area “is forced to close before March 1, 2021 due to a non-weather-related event, including disease, war, terrorism, natural disaster, or government-mandated shutdown.”

Price increases (all prices are final unless otherwise indicated)

Passes no longer on sale

White Mountain Super Pass, Cannon (except New Hampshire Senior Midweek and New Hampshire College Passes), Bretton Woods, Cranmore, Jiminy Peak, Wachusett (join the waitlist); Mount Peter; Windham; Yawgoo; Bolton Valley; Mad River Glen

Additional season pass notes

  • When ORDA outlined its season pass assurance policy in August, the ski-as-much-as-you-want-before-Dec.-1-and-then-ask-for-a-deferral policy seemed pretty reasonable. It was one of only two try-before-you-defer policies in the Northeast (the other being Waterville Valley). Only one of their three ski areas (Whiteface, Gore, Belleayre), had failed to open before that date in any of the past five years (Belleayre in 2015). “Unless we have an unusually warm autumn, all three mountains should be ready to go well before Dec. 1,” I wrote at the time. Oops. While snowmaking has been ongoing throughout their operations, here we are a day past the deadline, and all three mountains sit shuttered. Gore and Whiteface will open this Friday, but ORDA stood firm on the Dec. 1 deferral date. Sorry dudes, 2020 is just like that.

  • I am not sure what happened yesterday when the date turned to Dec. 1, and not Nov. 31 as promised by Powder Ridge’s website, but I wish I could be in their office to witness this realization take place. Or then again no one noticed and here we are with the world still spinning.

  • Cockaigne updated their website, and it’s loaded with intent that the ski area intends to open for skiing this season. Adult season passes will be $450.

  • Nashoba Valley had recently said they would offer a pass for $650 sometime this fall, but I don’t see any reference to it on their website – just a lift-ticket five-pack for $240.

Upcoming Northeast season pass deadlines:

  • Epic Passes are scheduled to go off sale on Dec. 6.

  • The NY Ski3 Pass – good for unlimited access to Gore, Belleayre, and Whiteface, will jump from $919 to $1,019 on Dec. 10.

  • Dec. 15: Beartown

  • Dec. 19: Titcomb

  • Jan. 1: Holiday Mountain