Liftopia’s Missed Pandemic Opportunity: New Owners, a Ruined Reputation, and an Uncertain Future

Whether partners will be fully repaid is still unclear

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Skiing’s original digital upstart faceplants

Anyone who watches the stock market has by now dissected its curious upward trajectory since its March freefall. While the major indexes as a whole have accelerated past all-time highs, the prices of individual listings have diverged dramatically: companies positioned to serve a socially distant society of remote workers and afraid-to-venture outside consumers have thrived, while those anchored in an increasingly extinct world of physical gathering and free movement have plummeted. This so-called K-shaped recovery has pushed shares of Amazon from a March low under $1,800 to its Friday closing price of $3,162.58, e-commerce platform Shopify from $346 per share to $1,053.89, and digital ad-tech platform The Trade Desk from around $160 to $903.78; while the price of Norwegian Cruise Lines, American Airlines, and theater chain AMC remain around half of what they were this time last year.

This logic did not translate perfectly to the ski industry. While the share price of Vail (which, like any good forward-looking corporation, has quietly evolved into what is essentially a technology company over the past decade-plus) has rebounded from an April low of $125 to a Friday closing price of $283.14, the industry’s most-prominent pure tech entity – Liftopia – has been teetering on existential collapse since failing to pay significant numbers of its partners following the March shutdown. A group of ski area operators tried forcing Liftopia into bankruptcy to recoup their funds. They failed, then appealed, then withdrew that appeal. Outside of the public record, bitter and betrayed ski area operators fumed about the loss of revenues that, as Aspen Snowmass CFO Matt Jones wrote in emails filed in federal court, “were never yours to begin with.” In August, Liftopia CEO Evan Reece announced that he had signed a letter of intent to sell the company.

That new owner, Liftopia announced Friday, would be Skitude, a European tech outfit specializing in mobile apps. “The proceeds from the sale will be used to pay creditors,” SAM reported. In an email to an independent ski area operator that was shared with The Storm Skiing Journal Reece wrote that “…all claims will be treated equally,” without specifying whether partners could expect a full or partial repayment. The message also indicated that the new owner may “prioritize ongoing partners,” though it was unclear whether that indicated preference in future business terms or payback of owed funds, or something else altogether.

Whatever the outcome, this unsatisfying story is a tale of enormous missed opportunity. No company was better positioned to help lift-served skiing adapt to the social-distancing age than Liftopia. It could have easily expanded and adapted its highly regarded technology to accommodate the almost universal shift to online-only sales for lift tickets, rental reservations, ski lessons, and even appointment times in the lodge. It had 15 years of brand recognition with customers and deep relationships within the ski industry.

But ski areas, uncertain about Liftopia’s future, have spent an offseason when they could have been building out their presence on a familiar platform scrambling for replacement tech solutions. In addition to the Liftopia-branded site, many ski areas used Liftopia’s Cloud Store platform to sell day tickets, season passes, rentals, and more. While it is unclear how many former partners shifted to another point-of-sale system this offseason, several have confirmed to The Storm Skiing Journal that they have done so.

So what could have been an unprecedented period of expansion and growth has instead turned into a curdling. Once an expansive online flea market peddling discounts for dozens of resorts in the Northeast (and beyond), the site now lists day tickets for just six ski areas in the region: Shawnee and Blue Knob, Pennsylvania; Snow Ridge and Kissing Bridge, New York; and Suicide Six and Middlebury Snow Bowl, Vermont. The site also lists season passes for McCauley and Hunt Hollow in New York.

Why Liftopia imploded is a mystery. The operating model was simple: Liftopia sold products on behalf of ski areas, took a cut, and forwarded the rest of the money back to the ski area. Suddenly, in March, at least $3 million (and probably much more), evaporated with no explanation other than a wave in the direction of Covid. Several ski area operators have hinted to The Storm Skiing Journal that they suspect foul play of the pyramid scheme variety, but no evidence has emerged to support such claims. The group of operators – Aspen, Alterra, A-basin, and Boyne – who had pushed for bankruptcy admitted in July that none had ever had a “meaningful dispute” with Liftopia prior to March. But the company did little to calm its partners or explain how such large sums had disappeared. Reece, according to accounts from several ski area operators, did little to help stem conspiratorial thoughts; stunned by his partners’ aggressive response to their delayed payments, he was, reportedly, by turns arrogant, standoffish, combative, and Pollyannaish about the eventual outcome. No one outside of Liftopia knows what really happened, and probably no one ever will.

Whether the new owners can regain these partners’ trust and return Liftopia to growth is uncertain. When Reece appeared on The Storm Skiing Podcast last December, the company was surging in the midst of a global expansion. Fast forward a year, and Liftopia would probably lose a popularity contest with the film adaptation of Cats. The company was never known for knockout customer service, and this whole episode won’t help.

But everyone loves a discount. As lift ticket window prices continue their upward tick, the demand for this site or something like it makes Liftopia’s future probable if not inevitable. This is likely to be a dismal year for the site regardless, as capacity constraints curtail discounts at ski areas of all sizes. But as Covid eventually evaporates and discounts inevitably return, Liftopia will have an opportunity to reclaim its former position as skiing’s first stop for bargains. In the meantime, its reputational repair job is immense. The best place to start is to repay its long-time partners in full. We’ll see.

In which I continue to complain about digital trailmaps

On my opening-day run up to Hunter the day before Thanksgiving, Vail PR confirmed that the company would not print any trailmaps for its 34 North American resorts this season. Follow-up reporting by The Ski Diva indicates that this change may be permanent:

According to Bonnie MacPherson, Vail’s Northeast Communications Director, getting rid of paper maps is part of the company’s EpicPromise Commitment to Zero. The goal is to achieve zero net emissions, zero waste to landfill, and zero net operating impact on forests and habitat by 2030. Getting rid of as much paper as possible is a big step toward reaching that goal.

I get it. Hacking down forests to print maps of forested mountains is probably not the best and highest use of these resources. Many maps are wasted, lost, tossed in the trash, or lay decomposing in two-tailed reticulated chipmunk habitat on a mountainside. If I was standing by a tree and someone was like, “Hey we should cut this tree down to print a trailmap of a ski area,” I’d probably say, “Nah man this looks like a pretty nice tree and there’s a family of two-tailed reticulated chipmunks living in it so let’s just not OK?”

But I continue to like paper trailmaps for the same reasons I continue to eat meat even though I understand the savage and invisible horror show delivering that product to my freezer in plastic-wrapped packaging: humans, untethered from immediate cause-and-effect, will mostly do what’s convenient for them. And the truth is that there is little that humans do that is not destructive to some other species.

Which doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to lessen our impact while still having the things we want and are used to. The explosion of trailmaps lining the lodges at most megaresorts is sort of an embarrassment of excess. But digital maps kinda suck too. The phone screen is too small to provide proper context of a large mountain. Handling a phone in the cold is a pain. Once your battery dies, poof goes your map, and phone batteries die quickly on arctic mountaintops. So what’s the compromise?

It actually seems very simple, in concept if not necessarily in implementation. An idea: each Epic Passholder gets one trailmap per resort per season. They have to request these from a Vail ticket clerk, greeter, liftie, or any other front-line worker. This representative scans the skier’s Epic Pass, confirming that they have not already received their annual map or recording that they have now been issued one. This removes the convenience that lends itself to profligacy, while still providing an important resource to those who want it. The savings – in waste, in printing and shipping resources, in unused maps left over at season’s end – ought to be significant. And by using the already-built Epic Pass infrastructure, no new systems need to be constructed to support it.

More likely, other large resort operators will see what Vail is doing and do what they usually do, which is let everyone get pissed at Vail while they do exactly the same thing. This trick worked neatly with astonishingly high day-ticket prices, and will likely work fine here too. Jackson Hole, for one, will not provide paper trailmaps this season. Alterra seems split, with Squaw Valley, Deer Valley, Sugarbush, Stratton, and Snowshoe all confirming that they’re printing maps (some in limited quantities), while Blue Mountain, Solitude, and Big Bear are not, at least for this season. Boyne confirmed that all nine of its resorts will have paper maps available this season, and they expect to continue offering them indefinitely.

But the truth is that while I love paper trailmaps, I rarely look at them while skiing. Part of the joy of being at a large resort is getting lost in it, each run a unique rollercoaster ride that flushes you, inevitably, to a ride back to the top.

With no national leadership, we have no leadership. That could be a problem.

The caustic re-opening debate in Europe has reached a potentially combustible end, with Germany, Italy, and France electing to close ski areas and Switzerland and Austria keeping them running. From SAM:

The leaders of Germany, Italy, and France are attempting to rally fellow European Union nations to join them in a call to keep ski areas closed until mid-January to mitigate holiday crowds and stem the spread of the coronavirus. The hope is these ski nations can develop a unified plan to avoid citizens traveling from a country where ski areas are closed to one where ski areas are open.

France is addressing this very issue with random border checks being imposed to stop French skiers from traveling to neighboring Switzerland, where ski resorts are open.

Austria is ostensibly only allowing locals to ski, and hotels will be closed. France, somewhat stupidly, is taking the exact opposite route, permitting ski resorts to open but not allowing lifts to spin, which would seem to corral people at the bottom of the mountain rather than spread them out on it.

Regardless, this is a mess. Worse than a full shutdown would be a partial shutdown, which, as we witnessed in the Northeast spring when all the intransigent skiers in the region stuffed the parking lots of the four New Hampshire ski areas that remained open, just serves to concentrate skiers into smaller and smaller areas.

If ski season ends early in America, this will be why. The lack of national leadership on Covid has forced each state to act as its own nation, with its own limitations and restrictions and shutdown protocols. If one state shuts down skiing, this will likely shift significant skier traffic to neighboring states. There is particular risk in the Northeast, where states are small, travel is easy, resorts are already overrun, and skiers are fanatical. The greatest risk is Vermont, which both leads the region in skier visits and is the most likely to hammer its mountains shut. New York is probably the next most likely - though the state has little in the way of destination resorts, the day-skier visits could easily overwhelm ski areas in the Berkshires and Poconos. That ski resort closures in one state would force cascading closures in neighboring states is all but certain. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen.

New trailmaps corner

Loving West Mountain’s new trailmap:

Bousquet also drops their new map as part of their website relaunch. Very cool approach:

Gore’s new trailmap shows the higher new terminals for the new Sunway and High Peaks chairs:

And Sugarloaf adds the West Mountain expansion (but not the potential trail network) to its trailmap:

Elsewhere

SAM with a wrap-up of openings around the country through last week. Also from SAM: New staff announcements at Camelback, Ragged, and Mountain Creek, as well as obituaries for former Attitash, Loon, and Gore head Phil Gravink and Taos ski school legend Jean Marie Mayer. Saddleback gets a $1.3 million donation to help in its next phase of development. New England Ski Journal with a Q&A with Bolton Valley President Lindsay DesLauriers. New England Ski Industry with a terrific rundown of New England’s smallest ski areas. New York Ski Blog opens the New York ski season at Hunter. Ice Coast Magazine is back.

This week in skiing

No skiing. Shrug. In a normal year, I would have turned toward this weekend’s storm like the family dog chasing down a two-tailed reticulated chipmunk. But the bulk of the snow fell over the New York border and the travel restrictions are too onerous to justify day trips right now. Some New York mountains opened, but the terrain was limited and far and not particularly appealing. If you haven’t learned patience this year, you probably never will, and I’m willing to wait a little more for some damn fine skiing I have lined up in the very near future.