How (and Why) Whitefish and Jay Peak Keep Walk-Up Lift-Ticket Prices Low

“We're just like, let's keep it affordable.”

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The outliers: vast amounts of great skiing at bargain prices

Everything about Whitefish is big. Its 14 lifts serve 111 trails across 3,000 acres. Beyond the marked trails lies “vast amounts of bowl and tree skiing.”

“Exactly how much bowl and tree skiing do you have, Whitefish?” one may ask.

“I don’t know, Bro,” Whitefish replies, shaking its head and looking toward the snowy horizon. “Vast amounts, Man. Vast amounts.”

The Montana giant is the 10th-largest ski area in the United States, with a bit fewer skiable acres than Keystone’s 3,148, and right around the same size as Winter Park and Snowbasin. It’s so big that the ski area was for decades named “Big Mountain,” until a 2007 rebrand because, as CEO-at-the-time Fred Jones said, “our name is highly generic.” (The ski area still sits on what is officially called Big Mountain.)

But one thing about Whitefish is not so big: it’s peak walk-up lift-ticket price for the 2021-22 ski season will be $89. Compared to its peers, that’s a bargain: Keystone’s top ticket price this season will be $199; Winter Park, $219; Snowbasin, $185. Whitefish is, in fact, a distinct pricing outlier among large U.S. ski resorts:

On the other side of the country, Jay Peak sports a similar regional stature. It is the best and snowiest ski area in a state of great and snowy ski areas. The resort averages 359 inches of annual snowfall, but can score nearly 500 in a bomber winter like 2016-17. Its summit is served by one of only two trams in New England, and spilling off that peak is a sprawling gladed kingdom that can stand with anything in the country.

And how much does it cost to ride the best ski area in Vermont? The peak walk-up lift ticket for 2021-22 will be $96. That’s the ninth most-expensive top day rate in the state, behind Stowe ($174), Stratton ($169), Killington ($164), Sugarbush ($160), Okemo ($139), Mount Snow ($134), Pico ($114), and Mad River Glen ($97).

Across the United States, a strange pricing dynamic has taken hold of big-mountain skiing. Day-ticket prices, for generations unremarkable, have in the past decade-plus soared at rates well beyond inflation. There are many explanations for this, none entirely satisfying: rising labor and technology costs, the advent of the multi-mountain pass, the one-percenter-ization of status leisure travel, a social-media feedback loop that codifies Aspen-top selfies as part of individual brand and identity. But how, amid this maelstrom, have two of the finest ski areas in the country kept lift-ticket prices steady? As the ski industry collectively hurdles toward an unmarked cliff, it’s worth examining Jay and Whitefish, and imagining an alternate future for a sport that risks pricing itself out of relevance.

Jay Peak – “Holding these prices steady has been a conscious effort”

To a casual observer, Jay Peak looks like skiing’s Titanic, a thought-to-be-unsinkable monster cracking apart in the open ocean. For the past five years, the ski area has been a ward of the state, seized by the federal government after it accused owner and world-class dufus Ariel Quiros of defrauding immigrant investors out of approximately $85 million. The ski area has officially been for sale by a court-appointed receiver since 2019, a process foiled by everything from debates over valuation to Covid-19. And the 18-month U.S.-Canada border closure cut the resort off from the source of half its skier visits. Could this chaos be the source of Jay’s lagging price grid?

No, says Jay Peak President and General Manager Steve Wright.

“Keeping those rates low during receivership hasn’t been a byproduct of dealing with attorneys or the government,” said Wright, who is widely considered by his peers to be one of the most capable ski-area managers in New England. “They aren’t involved, at any level, with pricing or products. And it has nothing to do with the border being closed – if anything, losing access to our guests that use at-par pricing would give us more leverage to move the number up.”

But Jay hasn’t moved the number up, continuing a multi-year, deliberate effort to hold lift-ticket rates steady. The ski area dropped the top day rate from $75 in the 2011-12 season to $64 the next, a message to its customers, Wright said, that skiing remained preeminent even as Jay built out a water park, athletic fields, and other attractions.

“We could feel where the industry was going and that window rates were already escalating at a velocity that seemed both unsustainable and unwarranted, and we wanted to reset ourselves,” Wright said. “Holding those prices ‘steady’ has been a conscious effort and in place to try and make us as approachable as possible to those who don’t mine for day discounts, aren’t multi-day purchasers or lodging-based vacationers and, in general, are simply skiing and snowboarding and not yet skiers or riders.”

That philosophy has held for a decade. Lift tickets for every day of the season after November are currently $86 on Jay Peak’s website. Last season, the resort joined the Indy Pass. For $299, skiers get two no-blackout days at Jay and 79 other ski areas.

In some ways, Jay is simply making a retro business model – expensive season pass, affordable day tickets – seem innovative. The mountain’s season pass cost $729 in the spring and is currently $1,039. That’s not unreasonable for a mountain of Jay’s size and quality – especially one that frequently stays open into May – but expensive for a single mountain in the context of the $783 (currently $819) Epic Pass, which is a season pass at three Vermont ski areas, including Jay peer Stowe, and the $999 (currently $1,149) Ikon Pass, which grants unlimited access to lights-out Sugarbush and Stratton. Both passes offer extensive additional access throughout the Northeast and out West. The $619 Epic Local and $879 Ikon Base passes offer similar access, but with holiday blackouts and fewer days at select mountains.

But as Epic Pass-owner Vail and Ikon Pass-owner Alterra have vacuumed up Vermont’s large ski areas, walk-up lift ticket prices have soared at unprecedented velocity. Five years ago, Vail owned no Northeast mountains, and Alterra didn’t exist. Vermont’s seven top walk-up lift ticket prices for the 2016-17 season were, according to New England Ski History: Stowe ($124), Killington ($104), Stratton ($105), Okemo ($101), Sugarbush ($97), Mount Snow ($95), and Jay Peak ($82).

The sheer dollar and percentage increases in just five years are astonishing. A lift ticket at Stowe, purchased by Vail in 2017, is up $50, a 40 percent increase. The other top resorts posted similar jumps: Killington, $60/58%; Stratton, $64/61%; Okemo, $38/38%; Sugarbush, $63/65%; Mount Snow, $39/41%. The actual dollar and rate increases are even more extreme when adding in the cost of an RFID card (typically $5; though they are reusable), and Vermont’s six percent sales tax – New England Ski History estimates that top rates will reach $185.20 at Sugarbush this season, and $180.83 at Stratton. Those are increases of 91 and 72 percent, respectively, in just five years.

This focus on the walk-up rate is frustrating to the resort representatives tasked with defending it. “The deals are there for the taking,” said Sugarbush PR and Communications Manager John Bleh. “Christmas week right now is $129 a ticket. Very comparable to any other resort based on size. Mt. Ellen [part of Sugarbush], which is comparable in size and even larger than many other resorts just on its own, has tickets as low as $50, with holiday rates at $79. With dynamic ticket pricing, it's misleading to only ping the highest possible rate and ignore all the lower prices that come with each tier.”

He’s right, and I can’t remember the last time I was at Sugarbush and thought, “Man, there’s really just a concerning lack of skiers here.” Sugarbush’s season pass is the Ikon Pass, which, at early-bird prices, was $780 cheaper than the resort’s 2016-17 season pass, which was good at Sugarbush and only Sugarbush. That a resort of that size and quality is just 1/46th of the destinations available on a single pass is an amazing development that I still have a hard time believing in.

But I can’t move past the sticker-shock day rates. Depending upon how you measure it, the cumulative U.S. inflation rate was been between 11 and 15 percent from 2016 to 2021. Jay Peak surpassed that, with a 17 percent increase in its walk-up day ticket rate, from $82 in 2016 to $96 this coming season, but that is less than half the rate of its peer resorts.

“There certainly seems to be competitive space for places that offer good products, at fair rates, without too much crowding, without hammering people every 10 steps with an upcharge to park within a mile of the lodge, to cut a line, or to experience an elevated bathroom experience, etc,” said Wright. “But it will mean not attempting to extrude every single dollar, from every single guest, every single time you message them, and within the next 15 minutes.”

Whitefish – “A huge part of our growth is keeping all the local families involved”

Everybody loves Whitefish. It ranked third in Ski’s 2022 reader resort rankings for the West, just behind Sun Valley (number one), and Deer Valley, and ahead of Taos, Aspen, Telluride, Whistler, Steamboat, Beaver Creek, and Crested Butte. It is one of only three ski areas to finish in Ski’s top 30 that are on neither the Epic nor Ikon Passes (the others are No. 28 Grand Targhee and No. 30 Loveland). And while Ski’s rankings are often lampooned for, say, rating Seven Springs above Stowe in the East, the more objective, data-driven Z Rankings also includes Whitefish in its top 25.

It’s a modern resort, with three high-speed quads and a six-pack incoming for the 2022-23 ski season. But Whitefish Mountain President (and soon-to-be CEO), Nick Polumbus attributes the resort’s high rankings to a combination of service and value.

“I think we've accepted as an industry that you have to sacrifice service or value,” Polumbus said. “That's always been our goal from a brand standpoint, is be high-service, high-value. Our service, we define it differently. Obviously, we're not white tablecloth, crystal on the tables, like a Deer Valley or Sun Valley. We're more just like, ‘Hey, we're going to be as friendly as we can,’ and people have responded really well to that.”

The value part is easy to explain: Whitefish is the most-affordable big mountain in the Western United States. Lift tickets are $89 every day of the season, whether purchased in advance or onsite. Anyone who buys a $50 frequent skier card can ski for $59 a day. There are no multipass hacks – it is the largest ski area in the country that is not on the Epic, Ikon, or Indy Passes. The ski area does offer reciprocal ticket arrangements with season passholders from Red Lodge, Loveland, Great Divide, and Mount Hood Meadows. Kids under 6 ski free, and a beginner ticket good on three chairlifts and the carpet is just $26. Night skiing is $27.

The low prices are partially the product of one advantage Whitefish has over many competitors: it has more mountain than it knows what to do with.

“This place is huge,” said Polumbus, who has helped guide the ski area’s strategic direction since arriving in 2007 as sales and marketing director. “We knew that this mountain could handle a lot more volume than it had. But you need pricing that's competitive to do that. And so we've tried to maintain this weird space between being the big guy – the Steamboats and the Breckenridges of the world – and that mom-and-pop kind of place, because we are big and we do have modern facilities and high-speed chairs.”

But a big, empty mountain alone does not explain the relatively low lift-ticket prices. Polumbus says Whitefish strives to keep expenses minimal, eschewing upgrades to RFID gates or back-end HR and tech software, for example, and running the operation with no debt, even for big-ticket items like chairlifts. That fiscal discipline has helped keep lift tickets well below the triple-digit mark, even as skier visits have risen from fewer than 300,000 in 2007 to 450,000 last season.

All these factors aside, lift-ticket prices at Whitefish have stayed within normal ranges of inflation because the people who run the place have decided that they will. “We're just like, let's keep it affordable,” said Polumbus. “Our community is certainly becoming more affluent as it grows, but, you know, Northwestern Montana is not the richest part of the country. And so to keep people engaged in the sport and to keep people happy and doing stuff in the wintertime, we want to keep making Whitefish really accessible.”

Low prices create a virtuous circle, as they keep local families from dropping out of the sport, fueling further growth. Whitefish’s season-long programs have seen “massive” growth Polumbus said.

“A huge part of our growth is keeping all the local families involved,” Polumbus said. “It's hard, Man. I've got three kids, you know, they're not cheap. As parents, you start making choices and that's where you lose people. That's well-documented. You're a skier in your twenties and your thirties maybe, and then you get married, have kids, and all of a sudden you're not a skier anymore. And then by the time you're 45 and can afford it again, you've moved on to other things.”

The bad idea that won’t go away

How did we get here? From outrage at a $92 Vail Mountain lift ticket in 2007 to complacency as Steamboat’s walk-up price hits $269 just 14 years later? There are plenty of explanations, none of them entirely satisfying.

The most common is that ski areas jack up window-ticket prices to incentivize Epic and Ikon Pass sales. This makes sense for Vail- and Alterra-owned mountains, but what about these:

Why would Telluride, Aspen, or Jackson Hole want to push its customers to Epic or Ikon Passes, which surely deliver a lower payout than a ticket bought with the resort? And season passes at these mountains do now follow the bargain template. Telluride’s season pass is currently $2,475, Aspen’s is $2,599, and Jackson Hole’s is $2,639 – three of the most expensive passes in the country, and roughly the price of Epic or Ikon Passes for a family of four at early-bird rates (though I’ll point out that Aspen and Jackson Hole’s passes actually include an Ikon Base Pass).

The focus on the day ticket/season pass dynamic is misguided, say resort representatives. “Over the years we have tried to encourage our guests to pre-purchase, whether that be a season pass, K-Tickets or just a regular e-ticket,” said Amy Laramie, director of communications at Killington, an Ikon Pass partner that is owned by Utah-based Powdr Corp. “Pre-purchasing allows guests to save from the window rate. In addition, we offer packages with lodging and other amenities, that, when purchased in advance, have substantial discounts.”

K-Tickets, good any day of Killington’s season, are $85. Midweek K-Tickets are $75. A $95 express card gets skiers half off weekdays and 25 percent off on weekends and holidays, plus every seventh day free. Killington’s season pass currently costs $1,479, the second-most expensive in the East (not unreasonable, considering the length of The Beast’s season), but its Beast 365 Pass is one of skiing’s great subscription products, delivering an Ikon Base Pass and access to all of Killington’s activities – golf, mountain biking, adventure center – for $120 a month (the payment plan is only available in the spring).

“Beast 365 sales have been growing fast and we now sell several thousand of them, which speaks to our guests finding value in this product,” said Laramie.

These are all great products, but is a 58 percent increase in the walk-up ticket rate in a five-year span the best way to push skiers to them?

“I think in general folks charging this much at the window either don’t understand how much of drag it’s creating against growing new skiers or, rather, feel it’s not their job to care,” said Wright, responding to a general query about high walk-up ticket prices, and not about Killington’s practice in particular.

Other common explanations for soaring walk-up prices don’t hold up. Labor and materials costs are rising, but they are rising everywhere. Infrastructure costs are obscene, but lack of investment can’t explain the low lift-ticket rates in the case of either resort: Whitefish will soon have four high-speed lifts; Jay’s lift fleet is older, but snowmaking costs in New England are high and necessary, even for the region’s snowiest resort. Location is not a satisfactory explanation either: plenty of remote resorts – Telluride, Mammoth, Taos – sell expensive day tickets. And Jay, while the northern-most ski area in Vermont, is less than two hours from the 4-million-person Montreal metropolitan area.

Price can also be considered a crowd-control measure, but Wright dismisses this idea. “I really don’t feel that anyone, and I mean anyone, is looking at pricing as a means of crowd control,” he said. “It’s a popular trope, but if crowd control was really at the heart, you’d simply (and literally) stop selling day tickets and limit the number of season passes you sell. Some did that during Covid. Some might continue. Most won’t.”

Free-Market Bro wants you to know this is not a real issue

One of the pitfalls of the wide-open internet is the constant reminder that there exists within this country a large contingent of pea-brained nihilists whose fondest wish is to live in a ruthless Ayn Randian dystopia. Some Facebook comments from my recent posts examining the current price of walk-up lift tickets:

“It’s already too crowded. Skiing needs to be way more expensive not cheaper and more accessible.”

“Same old, washed out Marxist rant against Capitalism and free markets.”

“The author is your typical Left Wing progapandist always trying to find some grievance or injustice where there are none.”

I don’t know if these people have no brains, or no soul, though I suspect it’s both. I think the price of walk-up lift tickets matters. It matters for a lot of reasons, but one that may appeal to Free-Market Bro is this: skiing is ruining its own best story. The Epic Pass and all the innovations it has spawned have done more to make skiing affordable for frequent, traveling skiers than anything in the history of the sport. By the time a lapsed skier walks up to the ticket window, the option to buy an Epic or Ikon pass – or any information about it or any of the other fantastic discount products like the Epic Day Pass – is long gone. And that person is probably not coming back. In other words: making walk-up lift ticket prices astronomically high is a bad business strategy that is probably costing the industry customers.

In the view of many resorts, however, this strategy is working: Laramie noted that 90 percent of Killington lift tickets are now purchased in advance.

Whether this dynamic is sustainable, however, is unclear. “[This strategy is] all about earnings, short-term profitability and share for them (and the ubiquitous them here relates to any company, really, that is more focused on trees than forests),” said Wright. “It works in the short term and, likely, even the medium term, but as share gets shared and cannibalized and shared again (without finding a way to grow the market in general), at some point (I think) we’re going to realize that the index of new skiers and riders has diminished to red-alert levels (talking new skiers not skier days), the cost escalation of these aggregated passes has reached a no-mas point, window rates are (even more) laughable, and we’re all beating the shit out of each other on rate for the few trees left standing.”

Still, we’re unlikely to see a de-escalation of rising walk-up ticket prices anytime soon, mostly because skiers keep paying them. “You’d be shocked to learn how many people simply walk up and pay the posted one-day, un-discounted rate, so there’s real revenue there,” said Wright.

In the meantime, two of the nation’s best ski areas have found a way to differentiate themselves with an old-school approach that now seems radical. “Let's not kid ourselves that skiing is somehow a super-affordable activity,” said Polumbus. “It's not. So it’s all obviously on a relative scale, but let's make sure that people could still afford to do it. And we think we're accomplishing that for our geographic area and for our dedicated guests. I think a real key component of this is just making sure that we can fill a gap for folks who can't necessarily afford some of the prices that they see other places, but want a bigger experience.”

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