Your Missing Season Pass Sales Are Sitting in Vail’s Bank Account
Plus one mountain cancels pass sales altogether; Loon’s season passes no longer include weekends
So at what point do you start taking this Epic Pass thingy seriously?
At some point, probably long after the existential dread storm of Covid has passed and we’re back to not considering eating inside a Taco Bell to be an outrageously hazardous activity, Northeast ski resort operators are going to click over to epicpass.com and realize how ridiculous their single-mountain pass prices look by comparison.
As of Sept. 28, six Northeast mountains post season pass prices that are higher than a $999 full Epic Pass. But most Northeast skiers don’t need a full Epic Pass, and the $749 Epic Local will get you unlimited access to all of Vail’s Northeast mountains outside of Stowe on holidays. Chop out the western access and holidays at Hunter, Okemo, and Mount Snow, and you’re looking at just $629 for the Northeast Value Pass (you’re also then restricted to 10 Stowe days). This product is cheaper than the full single-mountain season pass at 25 mountains across the Northeast, including smaller ski areas like Nashoba Valley and right-in-Vail’s-sites-in-the-middle-of-New-Hampshire Gunstock.
Vail revealed on its earnings call last week that it had sold 850,000 Epic Passes through Sept. 18, an 18 percent increase over the same period last year. While the company did not break out how many of those were purchased by buyers in the Northeast, it gave plenty of indications that the region was a growing source of strength.
“Most importantly, we saw very strong unit growth in our Destination markets, with particular strength in our Northeast markets, benefiting from our continued momentum from those guests and the first full year of Peak Resorts in our season pass network,” said Vail CEO Rob Katz in a press release that was written almost entirely as one giant quote from Vail CEO Rob Katz (and you can picture this quite clearly: Vail CEO Rob Katz, in the Broomfield office park he has not left since March, seated at an oversized desk carved from a single rainforest tree, stag and buffalo heads ornamenting the wall behind him, the only illumination coming from occasional lightning strikes outside the 40-foot-high windows paned in Transylvanian style, curtains billowing. Before him on the desk sits a 1980s-style tape recorder and nothing more. He presses the chunky record button. Pushes stop. Looks to the adjacent topographic globe manipulated so that all Vail Resorts rise like Everest to tower above the minions below. Breathes deeply. Pushes record again and begins. “Resort Reported EBITDA for the year was negatively impacted by the deferral of approximately $118 million of pass product revenue…”)
Or maybe not:
Anyway, whoever wrote that (which I will 1 million percent guarantee you was not Rob Katz), is saying, in the most boring and innocuous way possible, that Vail Resorts has entered the Northeast in force to destroy the stale and much-hated business model of outrageously overpriced single-mountain season passes. They of course began this work with the 2017 purchase of Stowe, after which pass prices at large mountains across the region fell harder than this guy:
In 2016, combined season passes for Stowe ($2,313), Okemo ($1,619), and Mount Sunapee ($1,269) would have cost you $5,201. Now you can get them all, plus Mount Snow, Wildcat, Attitash, Crotched, Hunter, and oh yeah everything Out West for $749 or $999, depending on where and whether you like to ski on holidays.
That kind of value is hard to comprehend when placed in the historical context of what skiing has traditionally cost in the Northeast. Many large ski areas are still in denial that this is something they have to be concerned with. Medium-to-large-ish Waterville Valley, a fine mountain but also one of the least-interesting in the Northeast owing largely to its almost non-existent glade network, still charges $998 for a season pass. True, skiers can buy up to a White Mountain Super Pass for $1,159, which adds Cannon, Bretton Woods, and Cranmore, but that pass does not include any sort of pass protection and is still more expensive than an Epic Pass. For anyone planning a trip West, the choice here is fairly clear.
So how long will these resorts’ customers keep paying these inflated prices? It’s hard to say if they even still are. Publicly traded Vail makes its pass sales public, but almost no one else does. It’s impossible to determine if these Epic Pass buyers are defectors from single-mountain passes or newcomers who had previously considered a season pass to be unaffordable. And some people no doubt buy multiple passes – I still pick up a pass to my closest viable ski area, which is Mountain Creek, in addition to the multipasses. But the pass is $230. If it was any more than that, I might skip it.
There are probably two viable ways forward for Northeast ski areas: drop prices or band together to create more value. Magic Mountain demonstrated the efficacy of the former when it posted a 59 percent increase in number of passes sold and a 40 percent revenue jump after slashing pass prices in Covid’s hazy aftermath. Bousquet suggested a model for the latter when its new owners banded together with Berkshire East and Catamount on their Summit Pass, creating an affordable and compelling regional product that doesn’t sticker shock anyone and is a viable companion pass to an Epic or Ikon.
This is of course a weird year, and most large ski areas are at this point looking to curtail capacity. High prices are a good way to do that. Every mountain also has its loyalists who don’t care to ski elsewhere and will buy the pass no matter what it costs. Long term, however, this is a bad business model that needs to be buried and forgotten, as it mostly has been Out West.
Here’s what else is going on in the Northeast season pass world (all changes reflected in this chart):
Deferral or refund options recently introduced or modified
Whaleback will issue a pro-rated credit if Covid shutters the mountain for more than 10 days.
Ski Ward, Massachusetts will allow skiers to defer passes to the 2021-22 season until Nov. 1. In the event of a state-mandated closure, the ski area will issue a pro-rated credit “based upon how many days Ski Ward was open during the 2020-2021 season and the average number of operating days per season.”
In my August season pass update, I wrote that Mohawk was allowing season passholders to roll over 2020-21 passes to the following season by Jan. 1, but I didn’t notice at the time that the mountain was charging an additional $159 for this privilege. A standard season pass is $500, but the one with the rollover option is $659. I get that this is a small operation, but this upcharge is enormous and kinda lame.
In the event of a government shutdown, Blue Hills will issue a pro-rated refund to passholders based upon a Dec. 19 to March 31 expected season.
New York’s Peek’n Peak will allow deferrals of 2020-21 passes to 2021-22 passes by Nov. 15.
Snow Ridge, New York will transfer passes to the 2021-22 season “if you cannot use your pass this winter for any medical reason,” or if the mountain “does not open, is forced to close, or stay-at-home orders are enacted.” The credit will be pro-rated in the event of a partial season closure, though it is unclear how the ski area would calculate that credit.
Tiny Campgaw, New Jersey will issue pro-rated refunds based upon a Dec. 19 to March 31 season if the resort is closed “by an official government order.”
Mountain Creek added the option to purchase pass protection for $49.99, which would provide a full credit in the event of another Covid shutdown, injury, job loss, etc. While making this an add-on is a bit of an eye-roller, the pass, at $300, is dirt cheap, especially given the size of the mountain and the fact that it’s open early on weekends and every night. This happens to be my home mountain, and I typically pick up the pass for an almost negligible $230 in the spring sale. The trade-off of cheap-pass-for-added-risk is one I’m willing to take.
Running list of Northeast mountains offering refunds or deferrals on 2020-21 season passes: Vail/Epic Pass (Stowe, Okemo, Mount Snow, Wildcat, Attitash, Crotched, Mount Sunapee, Hunter, Roundtop, Whitetail, Liberty, Jack Frost, Big Boulder); Alterra/Ikon Pass (Stratton, Sugarbush); Pats Peak, Waterville Valley, Cannon, Cranmore, Whaleback, Windham, Mount Peter, Plattekill, ORDA 3 (Whiteface, Gore, Belleayre), Bristol, Peek’n Peak, Snow Ridge, Labrador/Song, Holiday Valley, Jay Peak, Burke, Magic, Bolton Valley, Killington-Pico, Smugglers’ Notch, Bromley, Mad River Glen, Suicide Six, Boyne 3 (Loon, Sugarloaf, Sunday River), Lost Valley, King Pine, Elk, Blue Mountain, Spring Mountain, Yawgoo, Berkshire East/Catamount, Jiminy Peak, Wachusett, Butternut, Ski Ward, Blue Hills, Mohawk, Campgaw, Mountain Creek ($)
New Pass releases
After Boyne yanked its popular New England Passes – good at Sugarloaf, Sunday River, and Loon – it introduced a Maine Pass that left Loon off. The mountain recently introduced its own pass, but it is only good midweek and there are 10 holiday blackouts. At $589, it is not cheap for a midweek-only pass. There is no payment plan. Strangely, the passes are still covered under Boyne’s Worry-Free Winter Assurance plan, which guarantees 150-day season, even though the pass will likely be valid for substantially fewer than 150 days once you chop off weekends and holidays. Passholders can still defer the value of the pass to the following season until Dec. 10. For always-frantic Loon, which recently became one of only two Northeast mountains to require Ikon Pass reservations this winter, this is a bold crowd-control measure, though one that risks alienating the mountain’s loyalists. It is unclear if the mountain will offer day tickets on weekends, though the pass FAQ states that passholders will not be eligible for discounted tickets even if they are available.
Mt. Abram, Maine’s pass went on sale for $599. The site does not outline any kind of refund or deferral policy.
Ascutney will again offer $100 season passes, though they’re encouraging folks not to order them until the mountain confirms its operating plan in mid-October. The mountain plans to be open only on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m., and also Presidents’ Day.
Quechee’s season pass will be $450 for the general public and $420 for a “family guest.” Whatever that is.
Whaleback’s adult unlimited season pass is $199. After closing early when its summit lift failed last year, this is a good sign that this mostly volunteer-run ski area will find a way to make the 2020-21 ski season work.
Blue Hills passes went on sale in July (I missed this in my last update). They are currently $359 and will increase to $379 on Oct. 1.
Mount Southington, Connecticut put its passes on sale for $550 through Oct. 31, at which time they will jump to $650. The mountain’s pass sales page makes no mention of Covid or any sort of refund or deferral policy.
Abenaki, a municipal ski area in New Hampshire, put season passes on sale for $125. Resident passes are $50. There does not appear to be any kind of refund or deferral policy, but that isn’t really the point of supporting this place – this is a community asset where kids can learn to ski and locals can make a few turns after work. This is more of a use fee than an investment, a small contribution to make sure skiing is available to any local who wants it.
Peek’n Peak, New York’s pass is $499 until Nov. 11, after which it jumps to $610.
Royal Mountain, New York’s pass is $380 until Nov. 15. It will increase to $425 after that.
Epic Passes uniformly jumped a modest $20, making a full Epic Pass $999, an Epic Local $749, the Northeast Value Pass $629, and the Northeast Midweek Pass $469. It is not clear when or if prices will rise again. These new prices put the full Epic Pass $50 cheaper than the full Ikon Pass, and puts the Epic Local on par with the Ikon Base Pass. While a Northeast-specific Ikon Pass that could compete with the insane value of Vail’s Northeast passes would be a compelling offering, it is probably unworkable since Alterra only owns two of the eight Ikon Pass mountains in New York and New England. But Alterra did flex to the reality of unlimited Mount Snow and Okemo on the Epic Local by substantially increasing access at Stratton on the Ikon Base Pass this season, bumping access from five days to unlimited with blackouts, so they are clearly paying attention and just about anything is possible.
The NY Ski3 Pass – good for unlimited access to Whiteface, Gore, and Belleayre – leapt from $759 to $919. The next deadline is Dec. 9, after which the pass will jump another $100 to $1,019. The payment plan is discontinued. I frankly don’t understand the business rationale behind eliminating the payment plan as the price of a pass increases, but this is what many ski areas are doing.
While Saddleback’s main pass remains at $699, the mountain temporarily dropped prices on its junior and college passes from $449 to $324, and its Casablanca Pass (for 19- to 29-year-olds) from $599 to $399. The mountain’s website says that the price drops are “in response to long conversations we have had with some of you affected by current circumstances.” While these updates typically only focus on full-freight adult season passes because it is a useful baseline, I’m calling out these price drops because it is an early, promising indication that Saddleback intends to operate more in the mold of Vermont’s Magic Mountain, with responsive customer service and a skiers-first attitude that builds loyalty and anchors a sustainable business.
Shawnee Peak, Maine’s pass jumped from $725 to – yikes - $795. This is very expensive for a mid-sized mountain and a pass that fails to outline any Covid shutdown protections.
The Berkshire Summit Pass – granting unlimited access to Berkshire East, Catamount and Bousquet – ticked up from $549 to $599. The pass jumps to $659 – its final price – on Nov. 30.
Lost Valley, Maine’s pass increased from $495 to $545. It is unclear when the pass will increase to the advertised “full price” of $595.
Gunstock’s pass increased from $589 to $669. The next price will increase to $769 on Nov. 1.
Ragged’s pass increased from $399 to $499. The price increases to $599 on Oct. 19.
Pats Peak raised pass prices from $489 to $599. The pass will increase to $629 on Nov. 2.
Bolton Valley’s pass increased from $599 to $729. That may be the final price, as there is no clear next deadline.
Smugglers’ Notch increased its pass price from $579 to $639. The mountain has several tiers of passes, however, so it’s worth going deeper on this one.
Bousquet’s pass increased to $399. For many skiers, it will probably make more sense to just buy the Berkshire Summit Pass for an extra $200, which will also give them access to the larger and more interesting Catamount and Berkshire East ski areas.
Ski Ward’s pass jumped from $475 to $580. This appears to be the final price.
Butternut’s pass increased from $299 to $249. The next price increase will be Nov. 30.
Belleayre’s pass increased from $629 to $749. The price jumps to $810 on Dec. 10.
Holiday Valley’s pass soared to an astonishing $1,081 from $979, which is like Damn Son that’s more than an Epic or Ikon Pass.
Maple Ski Ridge in New York put passes on sale for $269. There are no refunds, and the mountain is requiring passholders to pick up a lift ticket each day at the ticket booth. This is ostensibly to aid in contact tracing, but also seems like a move sure to cause unnecessary congestion.
Willard Mountain, New York’s pass increased to $394. It will jump to $418 on Oct. 19.
Windham’s pass jumped from are-you-sure-that’s-not-a-typo $1,049 to a Holy Shit Batman $1,169. It will increase to – are you sitting down? - $1,349 on Oct. 13. That’s nearly the same price as a Northeast Value Epic Pass ($629) and an Ikon Base Pass ($749) combined ($1,378). The only redeeming fact here is that you can tack on an Ikon Base Pass for just $150. So if you must ski Windham because you have a condo there or something, do that. Also, it looks as thought he Ikon Pass buy-up may only be available until Nov. 15.
Woods Valley, New York’s pass went from $425 to $450.
Campgaw, New Jersey’s pass ticked up from $259 to $279.
Mountain Creek’s pass increased from $260 to $300.
Blue Knob’s season pass jumped from $369 to $439! Even though the resort’s pass page still advertises the $369 rate, the price on the click-through page is $439! Blue Knob remains the undisputed champion of exclamation point overuse among all ski areas in the universe!!!
Bristol pushed the deadline for its insanely expensive $845 pass from Sept. 15 to Oct. 16.
Additional season pass notes
Maine’s New Hermon Mountain will not sell season passes this year. A statement on the mountain’s website reads, “While we hope and plan to have a full season we do not feel confident enough that we can guarantee it.” This is the first such decision that I’m aware of in the Northeast, and is a reasonable alternative for a small ski area that may not have the resources to manage the considerable administrative strain of deferring or refunding scores of passes in the event of another shutdown.
Upcoming Northeast season pass deadlines:
Sept. 30: Greekenburg (Greek Peak/Toggenburg), West Mountain, Cazenovia Ski Club, Powder Ridge, Blue Hills, Bear Creek
Oct. 1: King Pine, Kissing Bridge, Snow Ridge, Shawnee (PA)
Oct. 7: Labrador/Song
Oct. 12: Jay Peak, Burke, Maine Pass (Sugarloaf, Sunday River), Windham
Oct. 13: Waterville Valley
Oct. 14: Wachusett
Oct. 15: Killington, Pico, Jiminy Peak, Cranmore, Bromley, Plattekill
Oct. 16: Magic, Bristol
Oct. 17: Yawgoo
Oct. 18: Ragged
Oct. 19: Willard
Oct. 31: Black Mountain of Maine, Camden Snow Bowl, Gunstock, Maple Ski Ridge, Oak Mountain, Blue Mountain, Spring Mountain