It’s Time to Kill the Big-Mountain Lift Ticket

Prices soar, headlines ensue, skiing looks terrible

Share

The lift ticket is broken

It’s hard to believe now how easy it was. Late March 2004, spring break a week or two out. Eleven days, desperately needed. A first-year New York City public school teacher, I was beaten to hell, looking West to escape. Something different and vastly so. Online an amazing deal: six out of nine days at Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone, and Breckenridge for $99. Not $99 per day. Just $99. I had never skied Vail before. I bought the pass and bought a plane ticket to Denver and rented a car and I remember driving up I-70 on a sunny April weekday morning and there was no traffic at all. The skiing endless, glorious, new snow almost every day. No liftlines anywhere. The vacation felt eternal, as though I’d resettled there, in some country with no relation to my own. Break from reality accomplished, spontaneously and at little cost.

Three years later, the Aspen Times ran this headline: Vail Lift Ticket Price Tops $90.

“Outrageous,” the paper quoted Matt Teeter, identified as a snowboarder from San Diego who had just purchased a $92 walk-up lift ticket at Vail mountain. “That’s really expensive.”

And now here we are in the future, looking back, laughing. Hahaha Matt you are so dumb that’s what it costs now to ski four hours at Jiminy Peak. That Dec. 20 ticket that cost you $92 in 2007 is $179 today (had the lift ticket cost tracked inflation, it would have been $122). Stick around another week and you’re looking at $209 per day between Christmas and New Year’s, Matt. A seven-day lift ticket starting Dec. 26 comes to $1,176. Shuffle your iPod to that, surfer boy.

There are many ways to ski Vail Mountain affordably, of course. An Epic Pass – a full season pass to that mountain and Vail Resort’s other 36 ski areas – is just $819. An Epic Local Pass comes with 10 non-holiday days at Vail for $619. A one-day Epic Day Pass, good at any Vail Resort, and day of the season, is just $91 (sorry Matt, but that’s a bargain). A seven-day Epic Day Pass is $541, or $640 if you want to ski holidays.

So why does the $209 lift ticket still exist as a pre-purchase option? Why does a seven-day Vail Mountain lift ticket in that same April window I skied for $99 (for six days!) 15 years ago go for $1,001 – hundreds of dollars more than the current price of an Epic Local Pass? Shut up Free Market Bro, I’m not finished. This contradictory price structure accomplishes nothing. It’s borderline deceptive – there is no pop-up at checkout that says, “Hey Dumbass, have you checked out epicpass.com before you make this idiotic and regrettable purchase?” (Vail Resorts did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this practice). Anyone who throws down a grand for a week of lift tickets and then figures out they could have purchased far more access for half the price is going to be furious.

It’s time to kill the big-mountain lift ticket.

This is a profoundly broken product. Yes, it makes people feel terrible when they see those prices. But the lift ticket is not just a financial problem – it is a PR problem, a perception problem, an equity problem. Those raw rates – whether anyone pays them or not – generate headlines that translate to one message for non-skiers: this is not for me. In a sport that is very white, in a country that is increasingly diverse and increasingly sensitive to perceptions of class-based exclusion, this is a very bad look.

And it is not just a Vail problem, as much as the social media keyboard thugs like to bash them. Holiday lift tickets at Alterra-owned Palisades Tahoe will top out at $229 per day (a full Ikon Pass, which is a season pass to the resort, is $1,149; an Ikon Base Pass, which excludes holidays, is $879). Christmas-week lift tickets at Boyne-owned Big Sky run between $220 and $224 per day. Tram access is extra and runs up to $80 per day. But an Ikon Pass includes seven days at the resort, sans tram. Big Sky does massively discount multiday tickets – seven days over Christmas week comes to a quite reasonable $779 – but there’s no way to know this until you start clicking around. The big scary numbers are the first thing potential visitors will see.

This is not just a Western problem, either. New England Ski History reported that single day lift tickets at Alterra-owned Sugarbush will hit $170 on peak days this season. Powdr-owned Killington will charge $169 (with an optional Fast Tracks add-on starting at $49 per day). Vail-owned Stowe will reach $164. None of these prices include tax or an RFID card.

Enough. Everyone hates this system. Everyone. Advertising these rates on resort websites is like wearing a Clinton-Kaine 2016 T-shirt to a Trump rally. You know it’s a bad idea and that it will make everyone hate you but you do it anyway.

There are better ways. Ways that are not going to back ski area communications folks into a defensive crouch anytime they venture onto social media to sheepishly remind the Very Angry People there that, well, “no one actually pays those rates.” Here are a few initial ideas to reset this odious system and rid skiing of one of its biggest image problems. Not all of these ideas would necessarily work together, but pieces of each of them could create a far more rational and sustainable price structure for big-mountain skiing:

1)    Don’t let people buy the most expensive tickets

Let’s go back to our Vail Christmas week example above. A family of four with two teenagers, excited to escape Scarsdale for a holiday week in Colorado, books their lift tickets at vail.com. The cost comes to $4,896.16. Their “total savings,” an onscreen message tells them, is $1,708. This is, presumably, the “discount” for booking early. However, why not insert a message here that says, “Hey, you can save $2,336 more by switching to Epic Day Passes”? Everyone would do this, and everyone would love Vail for it. And, hey, Vail would get that Epic Pass “conversion,” which was the point of those 20 percent price drops, right?

2)    Just do the math for them

That first option doesn’t get rid of the big problem, which is the Goddamn-did-I-slip-into-a-timewarp-to-the-year-3000 prices. Just eliminate upfront prices on the website altogether. Ask two questions: which dates do you want to ski? How old are you? So let’s take a 32-year-old who wants to hit Beaver Creek for two weeks in March. Well pardner, the best deal for you is an $819 Epic Pass. Done. No sticker shock, no second thoughts. A family of four with two young children looking to hit Okemo for three days between Christmas and New Year’s? Well that would default to Epic Day Passes with holidays, $934 for two adult three-day passes and two child three-day passes. This is similar to the Oyster Card riders can use to access London’s Tube – it automatically finds the lowest price for you.

3)    Eliminate all walk-up ticketing

There is no walk-up window rate if there is no window to walk up to. Make all purchases online and in advance – as many ski areas did during peak Covid – and your headline lift ticket rates disappear. Everyone goes through the automated system above, and there are no pictures like this floating around on the internet:

4)    Don’t stop selling Epic and Ikon Passes in December – and include them as an option at checkout

I understand the impulse to create a sense of scarcity to drive pass sales. But it’s time to rethink this. Take your typical Christmas week skier, flying up from Texas to ski Steamboat. She was busy and didn’t think to book the lift tickets until the last minute. Seven days of skiing is going to run $1,673. Holy cow. Well, now would be a good time to tell her about this amazing thing called an Ikon Pass, which for hundreds of dollars cheaper gets her those seven days at Steamboat and much, much more. Maybe she’ll be so excited about the savings on the one trip that she’ll book a second to Taos or Winter Park for February – a once-a-year skier becomes a lifestyle skier. Even better: go back to idea number two. Oh, you want to ski Christmas Week? The best deal for you is an Ikon Pass – don’t even give her another option.

5)    Stop charging the same price to access all parts of the resort

Is Beaver Creek worth $239 for one day of skiing? Objectively, looking at its size and infrastructure, it probably is. But how many people actually ski the full resort? You can often walk onto the Grouse Mountain or Birds of Prey lifts, while Centennial and Cinch can have lines all day, and Arrowhead feels forgotten. Why not offer different price tiers to access different parts of the mountain? With RFID, this is easy to enforce. Maybe there’s a super-cheap option that just gets you up Arrowhead, and another tier to access everything from there over to Strawberry Express and up to McCoy Park. You could have another option for Centennial to Cinch, Rose Bow, and Red Buffalo, and a final full-resort option. And if they decide mid-day to stray to another part of the resort, it’s pretty easy to link a credit card to an Epic Pass, like EZ Pass does for auto tolls, and charge based on which lifts you ended up using.

6)    If you do keep selling lift tickets, allow skiers to use the cost as a credit toward buying a full pass

OK so you’re not ready to put the single-day lift ticket in the museum just yet. Fine: allow skiers to apply their purchase toward an Epic or Ikon Pass at the end of the day. Or give them 48 hours to decide. Vail actually runs a version of this – skiers could apply up to $150 from a single-day lift ticket purchased during the 2020-21 season to a 2021-22 Epic Pass. But why limit this to next season’s purchase? If you keep selling Epic Passes all year, you may get someone who skis a March day at Vail for $209 and decides they want to ski the rest of the spring – why not give them an easy way to do this?

Of course, there are affordable ways to ski right now. Just buy an Indy Pass, hit the smaller family-owned joints, avoid the holidays where you can. I know this and you know this, but the masses don’t know this, and the masses don’t care. The masses want to ski Vail and Jackson Hole and Park City because those are the places they’ve heard of and those are the places they can flex on their socials. Nothing is going to change that. But ski area operators can change how they feel about that experience, and whether they’ll do it again if they feel like the price was worth it.

There is an enormous opportunity here. Two decades ago, season passes cost as much as a used car. Vail changed that, and the rest of the industry followed. If “no one is paying these prices” anyway, then why continue advertising them? Kill this thing.

A record-low number of ski areas operated last season

The National Ski Areas Association released its annual tally of U.S. ski areas operating last season. The number came to 462, which is a record low since the organization began tracking numbers during the 1991-92 season, when 546 ski areas were in operation.

This number had hovered around 470 for the past decade, and hit that exact number over the 2019-20 ski season. The number probably would have swung upward had Covid not disrupted operations at a number of small ski areas – two new ski areas came online (Kingvale Snow Schoolers in California and Skeetawk in Alaska), and seven lost ski areas returned: Cockaigne, New York; Hermitage Club, Vermont; Mt. Jefferson and Saddleback in Maine; Tower Mountain, Michigan; Timberline, West Virginia; and Paul Bunyan, Wisconsin.

Doing the math here, 479 ski areas would have operated last winter had the full coalition returned from 2019-20, plus the nine new ski areas. So that means we are really down 17 from the previous season. Some of these, like Villa Roma and Northampton, both in New York, shuttered temporarily rather than operate during Covid. I expect them to return this winter. Others, like Ski Blandford in Massachusetts, closed, probably forever. Granite Peak in New Hampshire shuttered after its owner suddenly died, and Tenney, also in New Hampshire, indicated it may open if sufficient natural snow fell, but it remained closed all winter.

I don’t have insight into which ski areas closed throughout the rest of the country, but I do expect at least some of them to re-open this coming winter, moving that number back toward 470.

The NSAA also released its tally of ski areas by state. Alabama’s Cloudmont suspended operations for Covid, reducing the number of states with active ski areas to 36. New York continues to lead the nation with 49 ski areas, ahead of Michigan’s 39. Colorado and Wisconsin were tied for third with 31 apiece, followed by California and New Hampshire (27 each), Pennsylvania (26), Vermont (24), and Minnesota and Maine (20 each).

Why didn’t they just say all this in the first place?

When Powdr rolled out its Fast Tracks program a few weeks ago, it did so with a vacuous press release that should have been mass printed and shipped to the toilet paper aisle. It said, in essence, “here’s this terrific new thing that is nothing but awesome,” without any attempt to acknowledge that this was a massive change rolled out at the worst possible time, or explain how deeply this would disrupt the daily ski experience. A follow-up open letter signed by Powdr co-presidents Wade Martin and Justin Sibley does a far better job accomplishing all these things:

We … understand that change can be concerning.  … Our recently announced Fast Tracks product, which enables upgradeable express lift access at four of our mountain resorts, has generated some questions and confusion, especially among the Mt. Bachelor community. As a result, we would like to clarify how this product works and what it means for our community and reiterate our commitment to mountain access for all.

The Fast Tracks concept has been in operation at our Copper Mountain, Colorado, resort for almost 20 years. … What we have learned through our recent experience with the product at Copper Mountain is that it is utilized by less than 2% of total daily skiers due in large part to our careful calibration and limiting access to ensure a quality experience for all guests. The product is additionally managed with lift loading protocols, which provide for rotation between traditional, Ski School and Fast Track lines. As a result, the impact on lift line wait times across our mountains is negligible. 

Fast Tracks does not affect general access to our resorts, as it is an add-on product to a day lift ticket or season pass. Fast Tracks access is no different than the access offered through ski school, private lessons and guided mountain tours in that they all provide a finite number of fast lane experiences. These experiences are made available to every member of the public, at the same price, with the same benefits.

Which, why didn’t you just explain all that in the first place? Two percent, on mountains the size of these, should not be material to the liftline experience. Most days. However, I maintain that this should have been launched in tandem with spring season pass sales, as Powdr has some of the most expensive season passes in the country, and the fact that an additional access tier was going to be dropped on top of that would have been helpful to know in advance. They also ought to sell season passes that include bundles of, say, five or 10 Fast Tracks passes, as Big Sky did with tram access (the mountain also offered a very expensive pass with unlimited tram access).

Powdr’s letter said that it would honor any refund requests for season passholders prior to the start of the season, which is nice, but it made no attempt to acknowledge that the announcement’s timing was terrible. How much would it have hurt to say, “you know, we messed this up”?

LOL Camelback

Camelback continues its efforts to be Detroit Lions of skiing (click for full effect):

If you’re on Twitter, give @ubkev a follow. He’s a good dude.

The current price different between the Epic and Ikon passes is stark

Rusty Gregory told me on the podcast in March that “the market will tell us” if Vail’s monster Epic Pass price drop was cutting into Ikon Pass sales. Since Alterra doesn’t release pass sales figures, it’s impossible to tell what’s going on other than to see they’re confident enough to keep raising the price. In this case, an Ikon Base Pass – which carries considerable blackouts and no access to Aspen or Jackson Hole – is $60 more than an unlimited Epic Pass, which has no blackouts and is a season pass to some very Jackson Hole-caliber mountains (ahem, Whistler). The full Ikon Pass is $330 more than a full Epic.

Given their vast partner network, Alterra will never have the latitude to swing prices around like Vail. However, they will have to respond to Vail in a realistic way if Ikon Pass sales slow (which I suspect they are not). The best indication of how this will sort out will be Ikon Pass prices next spring.

Elsewhere

I connected with ConSKIerge co-founder Charlotte Miller for an interview about The Storm. Ski releases its annual reader rankings of ski resorts in the East and West. Ski Cooper adds Shawnee, Pennsylvania and Lookout Pass to its monster reciprocal partner network. Shawnee also joins the reciprocal program at Mont du Lac, Wisconsin. Indy Pass founder Doug Fish told the Ski Rex Media podcast that he believes the pass will ultimately have 110-120 partners, that Indy+ prices could drop next year, and that Mt. Abram wanted back on the pass after leaving it. Watch TGR’s Indy collaboration In Pursuit of Soul.

Catamount is selling rare center-pole SMI double chairs from its recently removed Catamount chair. Chairs are on the Kanc 8 at Loon. New England lift construction update and Covid protocol overview. Killington launches a podcast and moves its 4241’ magazine online. Big Snow is now targeting an early 2022 re-opening after the September fire. Black Mountain of Maine’s Angry Beavers will cut “four to five” new glades for this season. Sierra-at-Tahoe to open with limited terrain after massive Caldor fire damage. Bloomberg on Big Sky. Jackson Hole will require Ikon and Mountain Collective reservations; masks on the tram but not the gondolas. Aspen’s Pandoras expansion heading toward likely approval while Lutsen faces opposition to its expansion.

Former Mount Snow GM Erik Barnes is the new GM at Ragged. Vail has new GMs at Crotched, Wildcat, and Mount Brighton. Slopefillers on why most resort swag sucks. This overview of skiing in Scotland is almost unreadable but worth skimming. This New Mexico ski primer is better.

This week in not skiing

I spent little time last summer walking about the city, taking instead to my bike as a mechanism of socially distant exploration. This year however as I continue to recover from my June rotator cuff surgery I’ve taken again to long walks, the bike too risky and hard to manage. In doing so I have rediscovered the modern plague of the smartphone zombie-walker, a tribe of self-involved nitwits incapable of moving 10 feet without simultaneously arching in a slow-motion shamble over their handheld device. This would be fine if they had sense enough to hew toward the sidewalk’s edge or otherwise remove themselves from the flow of pedestrian traffic, but of course no such common courtesy can overcome the impulse to constantly refresh the number of high-fives they scored on Slampost. And I think back often to a long-ago night in the bowels of the 7 train, where, buried beneath Grand Central Station, a group of teenagers, boisterous and rowdy with the weekend night, moved from train toward the labyrinth of staircases leading to the surface. This was the first half of the 2000s, pre-smartphone, pre-social media, pre-everything that has made this version of America at once amazing and intolerable, and these kids had nothing but one another and the vast city before them for entertainment. There were six or eight of them swarming toward the exit, enough that the hive mind temporarily short-circuited, someone hesitating, sparking a ricocheting backup. The kid at the back, leaning into them, pushing, agitating them onward with some city wisdom spun from deep within, one of the smartest things I’ve ever overheard anyone say on these distracted and arrogant streets: “This is New York! You gotta-fuckin’-move!”

Follow on Twitter

Follow on Instapost