Prices soar, headlines ensue, skiing looks terrible
Kudos on another great piece Stuart. A few thoughts:
1. Data-driven marketing & revenue-optimization works. You can rail on Vail marketing for being "bland" but reality is they transformed the ski industry landscape, for better and for worse. And their business is obviously healthy, so they must be doing something right.
2. What is the harm caused by exorbitant window ticket prices? At Vail and Alterra mountains, I think it's fairly minimal. They legitimately sell out (pre-covid) on most weekend and holiday days, and no matter how much you increase lift capacity, parking spaces remain mostly finite. In a supply-constrained business, you might as well raise prices. Reality is there are enough affluent and price-insensitive last-minute skiers that will still pony up if they have to. They're certainly leaving some $$ on the table by not dropping prices more drastically in the early & late season, but charging $225 on new years eve is probably right for their business.
3. The REAL harm, I would suggest, is the fact that the ski industry is actually not all that data-driven at all. If it were, then the sport might have found a way to attract more than just ~3% of the US population. Last year was the 5th most skier visits EVER, and yet only 10.5m people skied (or snowboarded) last year. Instead, the ski industry is mostly an old boy club where innovation takes a backseat to looking at your competitors and (slowly) copying them. For better and for worse, Vail's "best practices" are mimicked at resorts large & small. I'd love to learn that there are resorts conducting proper A/B experiments with varying ticket window prices throughout the season to determine what they're yield curve actually looks and choosing the price point that maximizes their growth/profit. But experimentation is hard. It's easier to look at your competitor and say, well if they're window prices are going up another 10% this year, so will ours. That's the only explanation for Homeood charging over $150+ for day tickets at the window.
Okay rant over. Change is hard. and slow. I therefore expect the over-priced lift ticket to stick around for awhile longer.
One thing I noticed when comparing the Epic and Ikon Passes, is the Ikon Passes had far more dramatic price hikes than the Epic Passes as the spring progressed to summer and then fall.
I thought the Epic Pass 20% price reduction was a result of Covid's effects on snowsports and the rough customer experience at Vail's resorts the previous season, so I had initially assumed the Epic Pass would only be 20% cheaper this season only. But now I'm starting to think... Are these price cuts here to stay? Because that would put a lot of pressure on Alterra, at least in the megapass world.
There is a funny exploit with the Ikon Passes. The Ikon Passes have a cheaper "Young Adult" price bracket that lasts through the age of 22. But for those who live in the right place anyway, there is the Schweitzer Voyager Pass, which is an unlimited, no blackout day and night skiing season pass at Schweitzer Ski Resort, with tickets to Schweitzer's partners, AND an Ikon Base Pass.
Schweitzer season passes have a "Young Adult" price bracket too, but their young adult price bracket lasts through the age of 26 hilariously. So someone who is aged 23, 24, 25 and 26 can get a Schweitzer Voyager Pass, and get an Ikon Base Pass at a slightly cheaper price that way than buying the Ikon Base Pass regularly through the Ikon Pass website.
Crystal stopped publishing day ticket rates. Which sounds good on the surface. However, ikon buddy passes are tied to that rate, say 25% off. Now it is impossible to know how much a buddy pass will really cost you. A real pain not knowing what final price will be after you convinced someone to join you for a 2hr car ride.
The single day ticket pricing has actually made Europe competitive in pricing for a family from the east coast.
The Epic / Ikon price difference is not as great for a family. Ikon had a massive discount on kid tickets.
Shhhhh - dont let the secret out about Arrowhead! - Signed, an Arrowhead resident
We are enabling this financial exploitation. How about boycotting the big ski resorts for a year until they bring lift tickets down from the stratosphere.
Bravo Stuart. Finally! You are the first to say "The King has no clothes" instead of ignoring or hyping our mountain resort managers with enthusiasm as they slap ungodly prices onto the average person. I hope it doesn't come down to having to hire a consultant in order to purchase a ski pass. Finagling how to max out dollars from a ski/snow's wallet makes me think resort managers' next step would be in creative taxing, getting retainer fees from US Congress, no less.
Great writing as always. As someone in the midwest, it always seems like a such a chore to try and do cost analysis of what would be worth doing in my time when traveling. I love our affordable season passes for local mountains and indy pass price. While I would love to explore more west or east and I love listening to your interviews and podcasts, its hard to stomach the fact that even a few days of snowboarding would cost significantly more than a season pass at a great local mountain like Granite Peak here.
A little bit of local info too, almost all my friends who love snowboarding are shocked at granite and lutsen being >$80, and often will pass on going if they dont have a season pass. To most locals a day should be around $50ish and so Pine Mountain and others are more attractive. I'm probably showing myself a broke dude in his 20's, but it is hard to get my friends to be excited about spending a full day's work for a single day, especially if they are still newer/learning.
Your comment of "I know this and you know this, but the masses don’t know this" is always surprisingly true. Whenever someone makes a comment about "well _obviously_ everyone knows about Epic/Ikon/Indy" I always use my parent's as a litmus test: they've been skiing Winter Park as their home mountain for decades, and have always purchased 4-packs through some sports store that offered them for $250 one weekend out of the year. Well, when that sports store didn't offer the discount this year, I mentioned the Ikon 4-pack for $400 (they had never heard of Ikon before), to the reaction of "that's so expensive, why even bother?"
Given how expensive WP day tickets have been ($189 was the last number I recall seeing), I'd be surprised if they even go skiing this year once they see those prices.
In other news, Vail's marketing department always surprises me with how terrible it is (especially whoever designs the content on their near-worthless cookie-cutter websites for all of their resorts). All of their information / advertising seems centered around you _already knowing_ what they're trying to advertise. This can be easily seen in Epic vs Ikon pass websites: Epic has descriptions for their resorts as useless as "More Excitement. More Memories. More of What Makes Park City the One." (what's that even supposed to mean?), whereas Ikon has full page descriptions loaded with stoke-filled images that actually describe the resort and why you would want to go there.
Anyway, what reminded me of this was your link to Vail's "Turn in Your Ticket" program---this is the first time I've ever heard of this, and I thought I did a fairly thorough job exploring the Epic pass website. I was looking at a day-trip to Vail in March, but when I saw the insane day ticket prices I decided to wait until I could get a 4-pack this summer and go next year. Had they advertised that program, I almost certainly would have gone to Vail in March instead of A-Basin (which had $90 lift tickets that weekend). I.e., the definition of a lost sale due to due poor marketing.
Yet another great post. I'm sure the pricing guru's at Vail and Alterra will be having interesting chats about this. For me, the only place in North American that has terrain great enough to possibly put up with crowds is Jackson. I will be in search of powder at the lesser know places in the Northern Rocky Mountains of US and Canada. Ikon and Indy pass, some backcountry and occasionally paying the daily rate at places where the price typically isn't 3 digits.
Anyone know how much those Catamount chairs cost?
FIxed prices are a surprisingly modern invention. Before the 20th century, most stores were run by skilled sales associates who would chat with and "size up" a buyer entering to make a purchase. How affluent did they look? How badly did they want whatever they were purchasing? The salesperson could try their best to fully capture every bit of profit under the "demand curve". As the story goes, places like Woolworths famously changed all that by inventing the modern department store. Goods were placed out on an open floor for anyone to walk up and inspect. And those goods came with fixed prices. A portion of sales were lost because some people balked at those prices. A portion of profits were lost because some people were willing to pay more. But efficiency was dramatically increased because suddenly the "salesperson" had been demoted to just a low-paid cashier. And the volume of sales dramatically increased.
For over a century, businesses have tried their best to re-capture different points on the demand curve ... to have the best of both worlds (high volume, but not-so-fixed prices). The coupon is the primary (and lowest-tech) version of this. But the list of gimmicks is varying and ever-increasing ... everything from multiple-level brands (Old Navy, Gap, Banana Republic) to dynamic pricing (e.g. Uber, modern energy utilities in some cities).
Ski resorts play this game in all sorts of ways. They charge more for Christmas, New Years, and Pres Weekend. They charge less for late spring skiing. They offer a subscription model (I heard entirely off-hand recently that the average EPIC pass holder skis just 1.5 days ... no idea if that's true, but that could explain part of the $91/day price tag). Aspen has pass products only available to Roaring Fork Residents. Vail has pass products only desirable to folks in Northern California, or Vermont, or among folks who can take time off midweek. College kids get a steep discount (to keep future high earners engaged in their income-less years).
Part of all this is to "recapture" varying points on the demand curve. $200 walk-up tickets are intended for casual, wealthy skiers who are used to dropping many thousands of dollars on their vacation experiences. But another part of it is to offer subsidized skiing to locals who are essential to making mountain towns vibrant and functional.
How much would a season pass cost if "dark patterns" were shamed out of existence? If Vail charged the same rate in person as it did in advance online, and refunded EPIC pass holders who barely used their product, and stopped taking advantage of various 'asymmetries of information'? My guess is it would be well north of $3000/year.