Epic and Epic Local Pass Sales Dropped 10 Percent Through September - So What?
Is this a fire alarm or an expected market adjustment?
To support independent ski journalism, please join The Storm’s roster of thousands of free and paid subscribers. Paid subscribers receive thousands of extra words of content each month, plus all podcasts three days before free subscribers.
It wasn’t free but it felt like it. An unbelievable bargain. Vail Mountain for $579. All day every day, all season long. Even on Christmas. Even on powder days. Even if you lived in Texas. In 2007 a season pass to the Eagle County endless was $1,849. Then on a March day in 2008 Vail cut the price by 70 percent. Like big-mountain lift tickets were a crate of about-to-expire cottage cheese. And by the way act now and we’ll throw in Beaver Creek, Breck, Keystone, and Heavenly. Five of North America’s best ski areas assembled in a discount package like a powdery Lunchable. Oh, and pack the Lunchables – kids Epic Passes debuted at just $279.
The Epic Pass was designed “to reward our most loyal guests,” then-CEO Rob Katz said at the time, so they can “ski or ride when they want, how they want. They can visit for a week-long vacation during the holidays and then decide later in the season to return for an extended weekend getaway or even to book a last- minute trip after hearing about one of Colorado's or Tahoe's epic snowfalls. They can ski all day or just for an hour. In essence, we're taking the thought out and putting more fun into a ski vacation.”
There was no catch, no coupon, no fine print. And the Epic Pass was no one-off gimmick. That first year, Vail Resorts sold more than 59,000 Epic Passes. And they’ve sold more every year since: sales hit half a million in 2014 and crossed the 1 million mark in 2019. The next year, in the hangover of March 2020 Covid shutdowns, Vail sold 1.4 million Epic Passes on the strength of generous pass credits. Inspired by this discount-driven momentum, the company cut prices 20 percent in spring 2021, and sales erupted. For the 2021-22 ski season, Vail Resorts sold approximately 2.1 million Epic Passes.
We don’t yet have final numbers for 2022-23 Epic Passes, but the sales streak continues: unit sales were up six percent and sales dollars increased seven percent year-over-year through Sept. 24.
“Advance commitment continues to be the foundation of our strategy, shifting guests from short-term refundable lift ticket purchases to nonrefundable pass commitment before the season starts, in exchange for value,” Vail Resorts CEO Kirsten Lynch said in the Sept. 28 fiscal year-end and fourth-quarter earnings release. “We are very pleased with the results for our season pass sales to date, which demonstrate the strength of the guest experience, our network of mountains resorts, and commitment to continually investing in the guest experience.”
But on the earnings call an hour later, Lynch revealed another, potentially alarming number: sales of the Epic and Epic Local passes had declined 10 percent in units over the previous year. The number seemed to surprise analysts on the call, who pressed for more details. Lynch dismissed the drop as “expected,” and pointed to the increased strength of the Epic Day Pass, a product that has surged under Vail’s new three-tier price model. “Epic and Epic Local were on our expectations,” Lynch said.
It is unclear what percentage of Epic Pass “products,” as Vail has taken to calling them, are Epic and Epic Local passes, but as recently as three years ago, the two passes carried the product line. “The majority of our sales growth came from our Epic and Epic Local products where we saw solid growth in new pass holders and renewing pass holders,” then-CEO Rob Katz said in the December 2019 earnings announcement.
Last year, Epic and Epic Local Pass sales increased 50 percent. Lynch, last December, called Epic and Epic Local Vail’s “core pass products.” If those two passes accounted for even a quarter of Vail’s 2.1 million 2021-22 Epic Pass sales – approximately 500,000 total – then a 10 percent drop would translate to at least 50,000 skiers shunning a product that they had purchased the year before. The number could be far higher.
“Who are these folks that are leaving [the Epic and Epic Local passes] at this point?” a Barclays analyst asked Lynch on that September call. Who indeed? It’s easy to guess: locals, weekenders, roving Powderhounds. That is to say: frequent skiers.
Two opposing forces are driving Vail’s narrative, one acknowledged, one obscured. The first: total Epic Pass sales continue to increase as the company successfully converts lift-ticket buyers – shamed by walk-up prices as high as $275 – into Epic Day Pass holders. The company’s goal is to drive 75 percent of skiers to so-called “advanced commitment products.” By March, the company projected it would hit 71 percent this year. It seems likely that Vail will blow right past this number.
But it won’t matter if the second force takes hold: frequent skiers appear to be shunning the Epic and Epic Local Passes that once defined their ski seasons. These are the “most loyal guests” that Katz called out to in 2008. Driving their exodus is a combination of factors: intensifying competition from the Ikon, Indy, and Mountain Collective Passes; a need to align with friends taking a trip to non-Epic mountains; or a desire to try something new. But more than a dozen skiers who held Epic or Epic Local passes last ski season told The Storm Skiing Journal that they had become disillusioned with Vail Resorts’ management of its mountains, with many citing crowds, lack of staff, disorder, shuttered lifts, limited terrain, overbearing traffic, and limited parking leading directly to their decision not to renew for the 2022-23 ski season – and to purchase a competing pass instead.
“Vail’s blatant disregard for the customer experience was almost laughable,” said Steve Sweet, who lives in Greenfield, New Hampshire and says he skis between 50 and 60 days per season. He recalled several outings last season during which he skied just a handful of runs in several hours at Okemo and Mount Sunapee. “I decided to vote with my wallet and not support Vail's operation. I’m going Ikon and Indy. My two ski buddies are not renewing Epic. Both are equally fed up.”
The Storm also spoke with many Epic Pass holders who did renew their Epic or Epic Local passes for the 2022-23 ski season. The majority of them also cited Vail’s mountain-management failings last season, but expressed optimism that the company’s combination of pay raises, employee benefits enhancements, and operational adjustments would bring the ski experience back up to their expected standards.
“I had horrible experiences last year: delayed openings at Crotched Mountain, reduced hours, and even days closed,” said Weir Lundstedt, an Epic Local passholder who lives in Merrimack, New Hampshire and skis around 30 days per season, many of them at Vail-owned Crotched and Mount Sunapee. “Grooming and snowmaking where poor when compared with years past, even at Sunapee. I went to other Epic mountains, like Attitash and Wildcat, and locals were saying the same thing. I firmly believe the policy changes they enacted, such as raising pay and getting rid of vaccine mandates, will help them access a larger pool of potential employees to hire and thus create a better skiing experience for skiers this year.”
When Vail Resorts reports its quarterly earnings tomorrow, the company is expected to report final (or close to final) numbers for 2022-23 Epic Passes, which went off sale on Dec. 4. Most analysts expect year-over-year increases in both units sold and sales dollars. But what does it mean, long term, for Vail to lose substantive numbers of its most frequent skiers? Where are they skiing instead, and why? Can Vail recapture them, or is the company content to reorient itself toward tourists and occasional skiers, who tend to spend more dollars per day skied but typically carry a smaller influencer megaphone? And is this, as Vail CEO Kirsten Lynch said on the September earnings call, an “expected” drop and a normal part of the Epic Pass product evolution? Or is this the start of a more alarming long-term trend toward Epic Pass stagnation?
Here’s a deeper look at Vail’s Epic and Epic Local Pass sales drops, who’s leaving the pass, and what that means for Vail Resorts:
Below the paid subscriber jump: a look at who didn’t - and who did - renew their Epic and Epic Local Passes, and why. Plus, what Vail is doing to change the ski experience this season, and whether that will be enough to stop the pass-sales slide in future seasons.