Magic Announces Record Pass Sales After Slashing Prices
Mountain records 59 percent jump in units sold and 40 percent revenue increase over last year’s early-bird sales period
Covid finished what Vail and Alterra started: expensive single-mountain passes are an obsolete business model
In mid-April, When Magic Mountain responded to the economic fallout from Covid-19 by dropping pass prices, expanding its product suite, introducing a payment plan, and becoming the first mountain in the Northeast to guarantee credits toward the following season’s pass in the event of another government shutdown, I assumed that other ski areas in the region would follow.
In some ways, they did. Most large ski areas, including those owned by Vail, Alterra, Boyne, and Powdr, articulated some form of pass protection. Many Northeast independents introduced or expanded payment plans. And while many of these companies offered some kind of renewal discount to compensate skiers for the weeks chopped off the end of the ski season, the only other mountain to drop prices uniformly was Smugglers’ Notch.
It’s hard to say how this has worked out for them. Pass sales figures are rarely public. The numbers that are available, however, suggest it’s been a rough spring. Government-owned Gunstock estimated a 50 percent drop in pass revenue last month. Court filings by Jay Peak and Burke receiver Michael Goldberg suggest slowed pass sales at those mountains.
So it’s notable that Magic announced record pass sales last week at the conclusion of its early-bird sales period, selling more 2020-21 passes in the two months between April 15 and June 15 than it had for all of last season. In a follow-up email, Geoff Hatheway, the mountain’s president, confirmed that the mountain sold 59 percent more early-bird passes than it did in the same period last year. More importantly, that added up to a 40 percent revenue jump. And that was after three consecutive years of pass sales growth.
With U.S. unemployment topping 13 percent, Covid-19 cases trending back upward, and massive uncertainty around how restricted ski area operations will be when and if the lifts spin this autumn, this is remarkable. And it is telling.
Single-mountain season passes in the Northeast are too expensive. Vail and Alterra have teleported the region into a high-volume, low-price world, whether the independent operators want to be there or not. A Northeast Epic Pass provides nearly unlimited access to more than a dozen mountains in the region – including some of the very best in New England – for $599. Buy up to an Epic Local for another $130, and you now have access to Vail’s western mountains as well. There are very, very few individual Northeast mountains that can justify prices higher than that (though there are a few).
How to survive in this new world? One: get creative. Magic has passes for couples, families, first responders, Vermont residents, midweek-only, holiday-only, Sunday-only, no-holiday, etc. etc. Two: drop prices. There is no version of 2020 in which a season pass to your mountain not called Killington is worth $1,000. Except for the Dr. McEvil time travel version in which Vail never bought Stowe and there was no Epic Pass infiltration of the region. But it’s here and the industry is going to have to deal with it.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear as though they’re going to bother dealing with it this offseason. The economic fallout from Covid-19 has unfortunately very likely masked the impact of the new Northeast Epic passes and the amped-up Ikon Base Pass, which now includes (blacked-out) season passes to both Stratton and Sugarbush.
But Magic Mountain has figured out how to thrive amid all of these challenges. Let me underscore here that we’re talking about nearly-abandoned-in-the-90s Magic Mountain. Practically next door to Alterra-owned Stratton and close enough to Vail-owned Okemo and Mount Snow to matter from a competitive point of view, it is smaller than all three of those, has zero high-speed chairlifts, and has limited regional awareness outside of the hardcore skier set. While it’s a nice little mountain with some interesting terrain, Magic sits in ski resort-flooded Vermont, the epicenter of Northeast skiing and home to a half dozen of the best mountains east of the Rockies. It’s easy to overlook. And here they are setting records amid an economic tire fire and a global pandemic. They’re doing something right.
Magic’s trails unsurprisingly carry wizard themes, which could just as easily describe the mountain’s unlikely marketing success.
The story is bigger than the price of the passes, of course. Magic is probably the best-marketed and narrated independent ski area in the Northeast (now that Alterra owns Sugarbush). Hatheway comes from the corporate marketing world, and it shows, both in the frequency and tone of his direct communications to the Magic community and the deft positioning that has built and reinforced the mountain’s legend. Part of that legend is the anti-corporate alternative. Epik/Ikon fatigue is real, with more than a few skiers realizing that cheap and ubiquitous Epik passes are going to equal long and frequent Epik liftlines at those already crowded mountains. And Magic is evolving. The arrival of the long-awaited black chair quad to complement the red double chair is surely acting as unspoken assurance that the mountain is capable of handling any extra capacity the amped-up pass sales generate.
But the headline is clear: prices down, sales up. This is even more remarkable considering Magic backed out of the Freedom Pass alliance, meaning its passholders are no longer entitled to three free days at Bolton Valley, Plattekill, Black Mountain (New Hampshire), and the other dozen or so mountains on the pass. Instead, they can buy up to an Indy Pass for $129, giving them two days each at that pass’ 50-plus ski areas. When he came on the podcast last month, Indy Pass founder Doug Fish outlined how reciprocal ticket programs like the Freedom Pass were unhealthy for ski areas over the long term, and Magic’s surging sales as it cut that program out suggests that they may not be as vital to selling passes as I would have assumed, especially if a substantive replacement is offered. In this case, passholders can still access multiple resorts for a reasonable price by adding on an Indy Pass, and the ski areas get a per-visit payout rather than comping tickets.
The size of the Covid impact crater grows clearer
The 2019-20 ski season may have ended up as the fourth-best on record in terms of skier visits had Covid-19 not unloaded its mothership just as we were cresting into prime spring ski season, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Instead, the organization clocked 51.1 million skier visits last season, a 13.9 percent drop from 2018-19.
While the shutdown hit all regions at more or less the same time, the impacts do not appear to have been spread evenly, with the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Northwest regions tanking by 17 and 21 percent, respectively, and the Midwest and New England off by just 1.6 and 8 percent. Speaking anecdotally, this makes a lot of sense: the majority of Midwestern ski areas fold up operations by late March (there are some big exceptions, especially Boyne Mountain and Mount Bohemia in Michigan). Anyone who skis the Northeast knows that weekends get noticeably roomier the farther we drill into spring, even as the amount of open terrain stays fairly constant and a number of the largest mountains aim toward May closings. But, as both Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory and former Steamboat head Chris Diamond told me on the podcast, end-of-March/early-April destination trips are an enormous part of large resorts’ ski seasons, and these numbers reflect just how much. The huge drop in the Pacific Northwest, which is not a destination region (Whistler is not included in these U.S.-only numbers), started the season with a snow drought before getting clobbered in January.
Interesting note outside of Covid: NSAA figures show that 470 ski areas operated in the United States during the 2019-20 season, six fewer than in 2018-19.
Northeast season pass updates – all changes reflected in this chart
Deferral or refund options introduced this week
After becoming one of the first ski areas in the Northeast to introduce a deferral plan for 2020-21 season passes, Ragged ripped any reference to it from their website when they bumped their passes from $299 to $399 in early May. This has been something of a trend, as a few ski areas have stapled the pass deferral/refund options to early-bird sales as a kind of incentive. I believe this is a big mistake, as removing reassurance while making the pass more expensive seems like the exact opposite of an intelligent sales strategy given ongoing economic uncertainty. Ragged seemed to acknowledge this at some point since my last extensive pass update on June 9, re-installing the protection plan on their season pass page: basically, skiers can defer their unused 2020-21 pass to 2021-22 between Oct. 1 and Nov. 25 for any reason. Ragged offers one of the best pass values in the east, with reciprocal days at its sister resorts, and they seem to understand the changed landscape in a way that most independent operators have yet to process, so I was kind of shocked when the pass assurance plan evaporated. They also got rid of and then re-instated their payment plan. Lesson learned, I guess.
Blue Knob will provide full credit toward a 2021-22 season pass if the mountain does not open due to Covid-19! A partial closure for the same reason will yield a partial credit! And their $299 season pass price has been extended to July 15! Whoever wrote this press release from Blue Knob either did so after drinking 47 Red Bulls or majored in 8th Grade Social Media Composition in college! Because I’ve never seen so many exclamation points on any document produced by any business! Also there is such a thing as paragraphs!
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, Ragged, Windham, Mount Peter, Plattekill, Bristol, Jay Peak, Burke, Magic, Bolton Valley, Killington-Pico, Smugglers’ Notch, Bromley, Boyne 3 (Loon, Sugarloaf, Sunday River), Lost Valley (ME), King Pine (NH), Elk (PA), Blue Mountain (PA), Spring Mountain (PA), Yawgoo (RI), Berkshire East/Catamount, Jiminy Peak, Wachusett, Butternut
Mountains that have committed to some sort of refund/deferral policy, but have not yet provided details (new category based upon my podcast conversation with Mad River Glen GM Matt Lillard): Mad River Glen
Notable holdouts (I have been told off the record that some of these mountains are working on policies): ORDA 3 (Whiteface, Gore, Belleayre), Greek Peak-Toggenburg, Holiday Valley, Bretton Woods, Gunstock, Black N.H., Shawnee Peak (Maine), Mt. Abram, Saddleback, Camelback, Seven Springs-Hidden Valley-Laurel
Ikon Pass prices jumped from $999 with a $200 renewal discount to $1,049 with a $100 renewal discount for the full pass. The Base Pass jumped from $699 with a $100 renewal discount to $749 with a $50 renewal discount. Last year, Alterra ripped the renewal discounts as soon as the early-bird deadline passed. While the payment plan remains in place, the child discounts are gone. I’m a little surprised Alterra bumped these up so soon, since Epic prices are locked in until Labor Day, but they must have seen enough in their data to justify the increases. I can’t find a new deadline anywhere. After adjusting their pass plans four times and pushing out the deadline twice, I’m guessing they’re done fiddling with it for a while, and I wouldn’t be shocked if these ended up being the final prices.
Lost Valley, Maine’s season pass jumped from $395 to $495. It is unclear if this will increase again. It also appears that the previously offered payment plan is no longer available.
Holiday Valley, New York’s pass price increased from $960 to $979. The next price increase is Sept. 15. This is a very expensive pass and the mountain offers no deferral or refund options. However, the ski area sits relatively isolated from megapass pressure in Western New York (there are ant colonies with larger vertical drops than Vail’s nearby Ohio ski areas), so I imagine they’ll retain their pricing power for some time yet. As one of the most built-up ski areas in the state, and the largest and best in its immediate region, Holiday Valley is actually one of the best possible acquisition targets for any large ski company looking to lock down an avid ski market.
Magic’s pass price jumped from the aforementioned $539 to $679. Prices go up again on Oct. 16.
After bumping their early-bird season pass deadline out to June 15, Saddleback has abandoned any reference to it, saying that they “completely get” that “many of you need more time before you can consider spending for next winter.” The problem, though, is obvious here – Saddleback is one of the largest remaining Northeast resorts that has yet to articulate any kind of refund or deferral policy. This is problematic for any mountain with such an expensive pass ($699), but it is an especially big ask for a mountain that has not been open for five years. I get that they need some cash flow to put in that expensive new quad and all, but you have to flex to the moment here and acknowledge that “sorry no refunds” just doesn’t work as a sales strategy right now.
Black Mountain, New Hampshire has removed any reference to its June 15 deadline. While their $499 pass is cheaper than Saddleback’s, Black is also one of the few mountains of note that has yet to outline a refund or deferral policy.
Bromley pushed their early-bird deadline from June 15 to July 15. While the mountain did already institute a payment plan and a comprehensive payment protection plan, that isn’t the issue here. The issue is that Bromley still thinks a season pass that’s only good at Bromley is worth $925. It isn’t. I would suggest it’s more in line with Magic, though Magic is a better pure skier’s mountain and also offers the Indy Pass add-on. Bromley’s best move would be to roll up into a super pass with sister mountains Jiminy Peak and Cranmore and cut the price of that in half. They would sell plenty.
Additional season pass notes
As promised when Boyne announced renewal credits and an extended deadline last month, New England Passes went off sale on June 15. This is our best clue so far as to how the major operators are rethinking operations for the 2020-21 ski season to function at far lower capacity. The company did hint that the passes may be available again later this summer.
Jay Peak appears to have removed the $25 deposit option for purchasing a season pass, with the full balance due at the point of sale. There is also conflicting information about whether the Oct. 1 option to request a refund is still available – the season pass homepage states that the mountain will “allow refunds, for any reason, through October 1st, 2020.” Click through to buy the pass, however, and it states that “season pass … purchases are non-transferable, non-extendable and non-refundable,” so it’s possible that this benefit was only available to early-bird buyers. I’ll try to clarify this by next week.
Someone needs to let Powder Ridge know that, strange as 2020 has been, there’s still no plans to include a Nov. 31 on the calendar this year.
Ski magazine put together a concise history of how late ‘70s/early’80s snow droughts and the 2008 recession forced the ski industry to innovate with better snowmaking technology and multi-mountain passes, and how that same problem-solving spirit will carry them through the Covid era.
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Powder on Bagging Tuckerman Ravine on an empty June day. Beartooth Basin, the summer-only ski area at the top of Montana, has been packed since re-opening June 1. More on Liftopia’s troubles. New York Ski Blog updates its ski-milestones calendar. Those damn New Yorkers fleeing the city are driving up prices in the Catskills. Shirtless Dirtbike Bro is a thing.
COVID-19 & Skiing Podcasts: Author and Industry Veteran Chris Diamond | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | NSAA CEO Kelly Pawlak| Berkshire East/Catamount Owner & Goggles for Docs founder Jon Schaefer | Shaggy’s Copper Country Skis Cofounder Jeff Thompson | Doppelmayr USA President Katharina Schmitz | Mt. Baldy GM Robby Ellingson | Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory
The Storm Skiing Podcasts: Killington & Pico GM Mike Solimano | Plattekill owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay | New England Lost Ski Areas Project Founder Jeremy Davis | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | Lift Blog Founder Peter Landsman | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Burke Mountain GM Kevin Mack | Liftopia CEO Evan Reece | Berkshire East & Catamount Owner & GM Jon Schaefer | Vermont Ski + Ride and Vermont Sports Co-Publisher & Editor Lisa Lynn | Sugarbush President & COO Win Smith | Loon President & GM Jay Scambio | Sunday River President & GM Dana Bullen | Big Snow & Mountain Creek VP of Sales & Marketing Hugh Reynolds | Mad River Glen GM Matt Lillard | Indy Pass Founder Doug Fish | National Brotherhood of Skiers President Henri Rivers