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Jared Smith, President and CEO of Alterra Mountain Company
July 26, 2023
About Alterra Mountain Company
Alterra is owned by a joint venture between KSL Capital and Henry Crown and Company. Alterra owns and operates the following properties:
The company’s Ikon Pass delivers access to these resorts for the 2023-24 ski season:
Why I interviewed him
If I could unleash one artifact of 2023 skiing on the winters of my teens and twenties, it would be these passes. Ikon, Epic, Indy, Mountain Collective. It doesn’t matter which. They’re all amazing. Punchcards to white-capped horizons. The kind of guidebook I could have spun a winter around, sating those impulses for novelty, variety, constant motion.
Not that I mind them now. For anyone, especially families, that lives near skiing and vacations to skiing, they basically saved the sport. Day trips to Windham, weekends at Stratton, a spring break run to the Wasatch: a tough itinerary – perhaps an impossible one – without that plastic ticket secured the previous March.
But man I coulda used one of those little Ski Club cards when I was untethered and unmoored and wired at all times on Mountain Dew. And broke, too, by the way. Teenage Stu’s ski circuits followed discount days more than snowstorms. Fifteen-dollar lift tickets after one on Sunday at Sugar Loaf? I’m there, rolling three-deep in a red Ford Probe, the driver’s-side passenger seat dropped for the skis and poles and boots angled in through the hatchback.
I would have preferred a membership. In my 1990s Indy Pass fantasies I roll the Michigan circuit early winter – Nub’s and Caberfae and Crystal and Shanty Creek and Treetops. Then 94 to 80, popping into all the snowgun-screaming High Plains bumps along the route west. Chestnut and Sundown and Seven Oaks and Mt. Crescent and Terry Peak. Then the big mountains and the big snows. Red Lodge and Lost Trail and Brundage and Silver and 49 North and White Pass. Or I skip the Midwest and roll Ikon, spend a week circling California. Another in Utah. A third in Colorado on the way home.
It's weird how much I think about this. Alternate versions of winters long melted away. I’m not one to dwell or regret. Or pine for the lost or never-was. But that’s the power of the multi-mountain ski pass. I never re-imagine my past with an iPhone or the internet or even the modern skis that have amped up the average skier’s ability level. But I constantly imagine how much more I could have skied, and how many more places I could have visited, and how much sooner I would have discovered the ski world outside of the destination circuit, had the Ikon and Epic passes arrived 15 to 20 years before they did.
These passes are special, is my point here. As a catalyst to adventure and an enabler to the adventurous, they have no equal that I can think of in any other industry. It’s as though I could buy some supper club pass and use it at every restaurant in town for an entire year without ever paying again. And among these remarkable products, the Ikon Pass is currently the best of them all. It’s hard to dispute this. Look again at the roster above. What they’ve built in just six years is remarkable. And it keeps getting better.
What we talked about
The sudden passing and legacy of Aspen managing partner Jim Crown; why Aspen is not part of Alterra; from entry-level salesman to CEO at Ticketmaster; the dramatic evolution of Ticketmaster and its adaptation to the digital age; skiing’s digital transition; entering skiing at a high level as an outsider; “we don’t make it easy at all for people to come enjoy our sport”; how to better meet consumers on their Pet Rectangles; balancing affordability with crowding and capacity; could lift ticket pricing be more like baseball or concerts?; finally some sensible thoughts on lowering lift ticket prices; $289 lift tickets; filling midweek ghost towns; “we’re on the front end of our pricing and product-packaging journey as an industry”; why Alterra bought Snow Valley; rethinking the mountain’s lift fleet; chairlift safety bars; Snow Valley expansion potential; housing and bed development at Snow Valley’s base; considering a lift connection between Bear Mountain and Snow Summit; whether Alterra could purchase more city-adjacent ski areas; why Alterra bought Schweitzer; expansion potential; how Ikon Pass access may evolve at Schweitzer; the Ikon approach to adding new partners; whether the Ikon Base Pass’ value is eroding over time as high-profile partners exit that tier; comparing Epic and Ikon prices; and Alterra’s Impact Report.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
Smith pinned his CEO nametag onto his shirt almost exactly one year ago, on Aug. 1, 2022. He’s had a busy year. The Ikon Pass has added five new partners (Alyeska, Sun Peaks, Grandvalira, Panorama, and Lotte Arai). Alterra purchased its first two ski areas since Sugarbush in 2019, scooping up Snow Valley, California in January and Schweitzer – the largest ski area in Idaho – last month. And the company acquired gear-rental outfit Ski Butlers and released its first Impact Report. A setback, too: while Ikon has still never lost a partner, Taos jumped off the Ikon Base Pass for next ski season, making it the seventh resort (along with Sun Valley, Snowbasin, Alta, Deer Valley, Aspen, and Jackson Hole) to exit that product.
Meanwhile, check out the growing price differential between the Ikon and Epic passes over the past several seasons:
After three years of relative parity, Ikon prices blew past Epic when Vail Resorts slashed prices in 2021. So this isn’t news. But what’s interesting is that Alterra has been able to hold that premium price. Vail lobbed its discount hand grenade three weeks after Alterra had locked in 2021-22 Ikon Pass prices. Rather than follow Vail into the basement, Alterra raised prices again in 2022. And again in 2023. Stunning as those early-bird differentials are, the gap is even more pronounced now: the current sticker price of a 2023-24 Ikon Pass is $1,259, a 36 percent premium over Epic’s $929 pricetag. Ikon Base currently runs $929, which is 35 percent more than the $689 Epic Local Pass.
So what? A Porsche costs more than a Ford. But when did the Ikon Pass become skiing’s luxe label? For years, no one had an answer for Vail. Now it’s hard to imagine how the Epic Pass will ever catch up to Ikon. Since 2020, Ikon has added Alyeska, Mt. Bachelor, Windham, Snow Valley, Schweitzer, Panorama, Sun Peaks, Chamonix, Dolomiti Superski, Kitzbühel, Lotte Arai, Sun Valley, and Snowbasin to its roster. Vail has added three ski areas in Pennsylvania and two (really one) in Switzerland, while losing Sun Valley and Snowbasin to Ikon. The Broomfield Bully, which spent the 2010s gobbling up everything from Whistler to Park City to half the Midwest and New England, suddenly looks inert beside its flashy young competitor.
For now. Don’t expect the dragon to sleep much longer. Vail – or, more accurately, the company’s investors – will need to feast again soon (and I’ll note that Vail has invested enormous sums into technology, infrastructure, and personnel upgrades over the past 16 months). Which is why Smith’s job is so enormous. It won’t be enough to simply keep Alterra and the Ikon Pass relevant. They must be transformative. Yes, that means things like terrain expansions and $50 million gondolas and new tickboxes on the Ikon Pass. But it also means the further melding of the physical and the digital, a new-skier experience that does not feel like Alaskan bootcamp, and more creativity in pricing than a $5 season pass purchased seven years in advance and a $4,500 day-of lift ticket.
It's 2023. The Pet Rectangle has eaten the world. Any industry that hasn’t gotten there already is going to die pretty soon. Skiing is sort of there and it’s sort of not. Smith’s job is to make sure Alterra makes it all the way in, and to bring us along for the run.
Questions I wish I’d asked
So many. The most obvious being about the recent death of 50-year-old Sheldon Johnson, who fell out of a Tremblant gondola after it struck a drilling rig and split open. The photos are insane – it looks as though the car was sliced right in half. My minivan goes apeshit with sensors and auto-brakes if I’m about to back into a fence – why does a gondola, with all the technology we have, keep moving full speed into a gigantic piece of construction equipment?
I also wanted to check in on Crystal’s decision to jump off the Ikon Pass as its season pass, get an update on the new lifts going in at Alterra’s resorts this summer, and ask when Deer Valley was going to get rid of that icky snowboard ban.
On the sudden passing of Aspen managing partner Jim Crown
Billionaire philanthropist Jim Crown was driving a single-seat, open-top Spec Racer with a 165-horsepower engine on June 25 in Woody Creek when it struck a tire barricade backed by a concrete wall that was surrounding a gravel trap.
His son-in-law, Matthew McKinney, drove the Spec Racer a few hours before Crown drove it that day. McKinney remembered the car handled normally, although the brakes “were somewhat stiff, and the brake pedal had to be pressed somewhat firmly.”
Aspen Motorsports Park staff told McKinney the brakes were new.
These are some of the findings in the Pitkin County sheriff’s report, released on Thursday, investigating Crown’s death at the 50-acre park last month.
A beloved Aspen and Chicago resident, he was not a racetrack rookie. The managing partner of Aspen Skiing Co. and adviser to former President Barack Obama, he enjoyed the Aspen tracks and once owned a Ferrari. He celebrated his June 25 birthday with family at the park.
Around 2:20 p.m., deputies were alerted to a crash at the park’s eighth corner wall. Dispatchers relayed that the 70-year-old driver was conscious, breathing but bleeding badly from head injuries. And his pulse was weak.
McKinney and his wife told the officer in charge, Bruce Benjamin, that they never heard brakes screeching before the crash. (Benjamin noted skid marks near the crash). Crown’s car hit the tire barricade “with such force, that it came off the ground a few feet.”
Sheriff’s deputies, Aspen Ambulance, and Aspen Fire Protection District first responders cared for Crown at the crash site. The report says they took turns giving him CPR chest compressions, but they were unable to save him. Crown was pronounced dead, with daughters Hayley and Victoria nearby.
On why Aspen is not part of Alterra
Smith and I discussed Aspen’s decision to remain independent, rather than become part of Alterra, of which it is part owner. Former Aspen CEO Mike Kaplan told the full story on this podcast two years ago (49:28):
Here are my full write-ups on Alterra’s purchase of Snow Valley and Schweitzer.
On the evolution of the Ikon Base Pass
There’s little question that the Ikon Base Pass was underpriced when it hit the market at $599 in 2018. As the pass gained momentum, flooding some of the coalition’s biggest names, resorts began excusing themselves from the cheapest version of Ikon. While the coalition has added more partners since inception than it has lost from the Base Pass, losing marquee names like Aspen, Jackson Hole, and Alta contributes to a sense that the pass’ value is eroding over time, even as the price continues to climb (the Ikon Base Pass is currently on sale for $929). Here’s a look at how Ikon Pass access has evolved since 2018:
On Snow Valley’s ghost lift fleet
Snow Valley may be home to the most abandoned lifts of any operating ski area in the country. A Snow Valley representative confirmed for me earlier this year that lifts 2 and 8 have not run in at least five years, yet they remain on the trailmap today:
Even more amazing, when I skied there in March, lifts 4 and 5 are still intact. Lift 5 hasn’t been on the trailmap for 20 years!
I also referenced a long-cancelled proposal to expand Snow Valley – here’s where it sits on old trailmaps (looker’s right):
On Schweitzer’s masterplan
Smith alludes to Schweitzer’s masterplan. Here’s a look:
And here, for reference, is the resort today (this map does not include the Creekside lift, which is replacing Musical Chairs this offseason):
On Alterra’s 2023 lift upgrades
Alterra is at work on six new lifts this offseason:
The biggest of those projects is at Steamboat, where phase two of the Wild Blue Gondola will transport skiers from the base area directly to the top of Sunshine Peak. This 3.16-mile-long, 10-passenger gondola will be the longest in North America.
Even more exciting for skiers: the Mahogany Ridge high-speed quad will open an additional 650 acres of terrain looker’s left of Pony Express, transforming Steamboat into the second-largest ski area in Colorado:
Mammoth will upgrade Canyon Express (Lift 16) from a high-speed quad to a high-speed six-pack:
Winter Park will upgrade Pioneer from a high-speed quad to a high-speed six-pack with a mid-station:
Solitude will upgrade Eagle Express from a high-speed quad to a high-speed six-pack:
Snowshoe will replace the Powder Monkey triple with a fixed-grip quad:
On Smith leaving Ticketmaster
I referenced a Q&A that Smith did with Pollstar in 2020. You can read that here.
On Alterra’s Impact Report
Smith and I discuss Alterra’s first Impact Report. You can read it here.
More Alterra on The Storm Skiing Podcast
Palisades Tahoe President and COO Dee Byrne – May 4, 2023
Deer Valley President & COO Todd Bennett – April 20, 2023
Solitude President & COO Amber Broadaway – March 5, 2022
Steamboat President & COO Rob Perlman – Dec. 9, 2021
Crystal Mountain President & CEO Frank DeBerry – Oct. 22, 2021
Sugarbush President & GM John Hammond – Nov. 2, 2020
Sugarbush President & COO Win Smith – Jan. 30, 2020
I’ve also hosted the leaders of many Ikon Pass partner mountains and related entities, including:
Valle Nevado GM Ricardo Margulis – July 19, 2023
Sun Peaks GM Darcy Alexander – June 13, 2023
SkiBig3 President Pete Woods – May 26, 2023
Snowbasin VP & GM Davy Ratchford – Feb. 1, 2023
Aspenware CEO Rob Clark (Alterra purchased Aspenware in 2022) – Dec. 29, 2023
Loon Mountain President & GM Brian Norton – Nov. 14, 2022
Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher – Nov. 21, 2022
Sun Valley VP & GM Pete Sonntag – Oct. 20, 2022
The Summit at Snoqualmie GM Guy Lawrence – April 20, 2022
Arapahoe Basin COO Alan Henceroth – April 14, 2022
Big Sky President & COO Taylor Middleton – April 6, 2022
The Highlands President & GM Mike Chumbler – Feb. 18, 2022
Jackson Hole President Mary Kate Buckley – Nov. 17, 2021
Boyne Mountain GM Ed Grice – Oct. 19, 2021
Mt. Buller GM Laurie Blampied – Oct. 12, 2021
Aspen Skiing Company CEO Mike Kaplan – Oct. 1, 2021
Taos CEO David Norden – Sept. 16, 2021
Sunday River GM Brian Heon – Feb. 10, 2021
Windham President Chip Seamans – Jan. 31, 2021
Sugarloaf GM Karl Strand – Part 1, Sept. 25, 2020
Sugarloaf GM Karl Strand – Part 2, Sept. 30, 2020
Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher – April 1, 2020
Sunday River President & GM Dana Bullen – Feb. 14, 2020
Loon Mountain President & GM Jay Scambio – Feb. 7, 2020
Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher – Nov. 21, 2019
Killington & Pico President & GM Mike Solimano – Oct. 13, 2019
You can view all archived and scheduled podcasts here.
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