Podcast #92: Alterra Mountain Company CEO Rusty Gregory
“We dramatically exceeded our expectations in every metric for the fifth year in a row.”
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Rusty Gregory, CEO of Alterra Mountain Company, owner of the Ikon Pass
June 23, 2022
About Alterra Mountain Company
Owned by: KSL Capital and Henry Crown and Company
About the Ikon Pass
Here’s a breakdown of all the ski areas that are party to Alterra’s Ikon Pass:
Why I interviewed him
In its first five years, Alterra has gotten just about everything right – or about as right as any ski company can as it Starfoxes its way through an asteroid belt filled with Covid and empowered workers and shattered supply chains and The Day After Tomorrow weather patterns and an evolving social fabric and the sudden realization by U.S. Americans that there’s such a thing as outside. The company changed the name of one of America’s iconic resorts, managed a near meltdown of its Pacific Northwest anchor, met Covid as well as it could, and continually tweaked Ikon Pass access tiers to avoid overwhelming partner mountains while still offering skiers good value. Oh, and adding Sun Valley, Snowbasin, Chamonix, Dolomiti Superski, Kitzbühel, Schweitzer, Red Mountain, Mt. Bachelor, and Windham to the pass – all since Covid hit.
If it’s all seemed a little improvisational and surprising, that’s because it has been. “I have a great propensity for enjoying chaos and anarchy,” Gregory tells me in the podcast. That explains a lot. In the frantic weeks after Covid zipped North American skiing shut in March 2020, angry skiers demanded concessions for lost spring skiing. Vail released, all at once, an encyclopedic Epic Pass credit plan, which metered discounts based upon number of days skied and introduced an “Epic Coverage” program that secured your investment in the event of everything from a Covid resurgence to the death of a beloved houseplant. Alterra, meanwhile, spun its plan together in four dispatches weeks apart – a renewal discount here, a deferral policy there, an extension six weeks later. “We’re continuing to strengthen our offerings,” Gregory told me on the podcast mid-way through this staggered rollout.
In other words, Dude, just chill. We’ll get it right. Whether they ultimately did or not – with their Covid response or anything else – is a bit subjective. But I think they’ve gotten more right than wrong. There was nothing inevitable about Alterra or the Ikon Pass. Vail launched the Epic Pass in 2008. It took a decade for the industry to come up with an effective response. The Mountain Collective managed to gather all the best indies into a crew, but its reach was limited, with just two days at each partner. M.A.X. Pass, with five days per partner, got closer, but it was short on alpha mountains such as Jackson Hole or Snowbird (it did feature Big Sky, Copper, Steamboat, and Winter Park) and wasn’t a season pass to any ski area. The Ikon Pass knitted together an almost impossible coalition of competitors into a coherent product that was an actual Epic Pass equal. Boyne, Powdr, and the ghosts of Intrawest joining forces was a bit like the Mets and the Red Sox uniting to take on the Yankees. It was – and is – an unlikely coalition of competitors fused around a common cause.
The Ikon Pass was a great idea. But so was AOL-Time Warner – or so it seemed at the time. But great things, combined, do not always work. They can turn toxic, backfire, fail. Five years in, Alterra and Ikon have, as Gregory tells me, “dramatically exceeded our expectations in every metric for the fifth year in a row.” While Rusty is allergic to credit, he deserves a lot. He understands how complex and unruly and unpredictable skiing and the ski industry is. He came up under the tutelage of the great and feisty Dave McCoy, founder of the incomparable and isolated Mammoth Mountain, that snowy California kingdom that didn’t give a damn what anyone else was doing. He understood how to bring people together while allowing them to exist apart. That’s not easy. I can’t get 10 people to agree to a set of rules at a tailgate cornhole tournament (the beer probably doesn’t help). Everyone who loves the current version of lift-served skiing – which can deliver a skier to just about any chairlift in the United States on a handful of passes (and that’s definitely not all of you), and has inspired an unprecedented wave of ski area re-investment – owes Gregory at least a bit of gratitude.
What we talked about
The accidental CEO; Alterra’s “first order of business was to do no harm”; Rusty’s mindset when the Ikon Pass launched; the moment when everyone began believing that the Ikon Pass would work; reflections on the first five years of Alterra and Ikon; the challenges of uniting far-flung independent ski areas under one coalition; “every year we have to make the effort to stay together”; the radically idiosyncratic individualism of Dave McCoy; what it means that Ikon has never lost a partner – “there’s no points in life for losing friends”; Alterra doesn’t like the Ikon Base Plus Pass either; Covid shutdown PTSD; the long-term impact of Covid on skiing and the world; the risks of complacency around the Covid-driven outdoor boom; why Alterra’s next CEO, Jared Smith, comes from outside the ski industry; how the Ikon Pass and Alterra needs to evolve; preserving the cultural quirks of individual mountains as Alterra grows and evolves under new leadership; “we dramatically exceeded our expectations in every metric for the fifth year in a row”; the importance of ceding local decisions to local resorts; “I have a great propensity for enjoying chaos and anarchy”; the current state of the labor market; Ikon Pass sales trends; “having too many people on the mountain at one time is not a great experience”; staying “maniacally guest-experience focused”; Crystal Mountain’s enormous pass price increase for next season; why Deer Valley and Alta moved off the Base Pass for next season; Mayflower, the resort coming online next to Deer Valley; the Ikon Session Pass as a gateway product; why Alterra pulled Mammoth, Palisades Tahoe, and Sugarbush off the Mountain Collective Pass; Sun Valley and Snowbasin joining Ikon; Ikon’s growing European network; whether Alterra would ever look to buy in Europe; “we’re making constant efforts” to sign new Ikon Pass partners; “we’re very interested in Pennsylvania”; I just won’t let the fact that KSL owns Blue and Camelback go; “Alterra needs to move at the right pace”; whether we will ever see more Ikon partners in the Midwest; why Alterra hasn’t bought a ski area since 2019; whether Alterra is bidding on Jay Peak; and thoughts on Rob Katz’s “growth NIMBYism” speech.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
Gregory has been Alterra’s CEO for about four and a half years. That seems to be about four and a half years longer than he wanted the job. In 2017, he was enjoying retirement after four decades at Mammoth. As an investor in the nascent Alterra Mountain Company – a Frankenski made up of Mammoth, Palisades Tahoe, and the remains of Intrawest – he helped conduct a wide-reaching search for the company’s first CEO. He ended up with the job not through some deft power play but because the committee simply couldn’t find anyone else qualified to take it.
His only plan, he said, was to do no harm. There are, as we have seen, plenty of ways to make multi-mountain ski conglomerates fail. Boyne alone has managed the trick over the extra long term (a fact that the company does not get nearly enough credit for). The years after Gregory took the job in February 2018 certainly tested whether Alterra and Ikon, as constructs, were durable beyond the stoke of first concept.
They are. And he’s done. At 68, confined for the past half decade to a Denver office building, I get the sense that Gregory is ready to get away from his desk and back in the liftline (or maybe not – “I will be so pissed if I have to wait in a line,” he tells me on the podcast). He’s earned the break and the freedom. It’s someone else’s turn.
That someone else, as we learned last month, will be Jared Smith, Alterra’s current president. Gregory will move into a vice chairman of the board role, a position that I suspect requires extensive on-the-ground snow reporting. Smith, who joined Alterra last year after nearly two decades with Live Nation/Ticketmaster, has plenty to prove. As I wrote in May:
Gregory was the ultimate industry insider, a college football player-turned-liftie who worked at Mammoth for 40 years before taking the top job at Alterra in 2018. He’d been through the battles, understood the fickle nature of the ski biz, saved Mammoth from bankruptcy several times. Universally liked and respected, he was the ideal leader for Alterra’s remarkable launch, an aggressive and unprecedented union of the industry’s top non-Vail operators, wielding skiing’s Excalibur: a wintry Voltron called the Ikon Pass. That such disparate players – themselves competitors – not only came together but continued to join the Ikon Pass has no doubt been at least partly due to Gregory’s confidence and charisma.
Smith came to Alterra last June after 18 years at Live Nation and Ticketmaster. I don’t know if he even skis. He is, by all accounts, a master of building products that knit consumers to experiences through technology. That’s a crucial skillset for Alterra, which must meet skiers on the devices that have eaten their lives. But technology won’t matter at all if the skiing itself suffers. Alterra has thrived as the anti-Vail, a conglomerate with an indie sheen. Will the Ikon Pass continue to tweak access levels to mitigate crowding? Will Alterra continue its mega-investments to modernize and gigantify its resorts? Can the company keep the restless coterie of Boyne, Powdr, Jackson Hole, Alta, Taos, A-Basin, Revelstoke, Red, and Schweitzer satisfied enough to stay united on a single pass? For Alterra, and for the Ikon Pass, these are the existential questions.
I have been assured, by multiple sources, that Smith does, in fact, ski. And has an intuitive understanding of where consumers need to be, helping to transform Ticketmaster from a paper-based anachronism into a digital-first experience company. Covid helped accelerate skiing’s embrace of e-commerce. That, according to Gregory, is just the beginning. “Different times require different leadership, and Jared Smith is the right leader going forward,” Gregory tells me in the podcast.
Alterra’s first five years were a proof of concept: can the Ikon Pass work? Yes. It works quite well. Now what? They’ve already thought of all the obvious things: buy more mountains, add more partners, play with discounts to make the thing attractive to loyalists and families. But how does Alterra sew the analogue joy that is skiing’s greatest pull into the digital scaffolding that’s hammering the disparate parts of our modern existence together? And how does it do that without compromising the skiing that must not suffer? Is that more difficult than getting Revelstoke and Killington and Taos to all suit up in the same jersey? It might be. But it was a good time to get Gregory on the line and see how he viewed the whole thing before he bounced.
Questions I wish I’d asked
Even though this went long, there were a bunch of questions I didn’t get to. I really wanted to ask how Alterra was approaching the need for more employee housing. I also wanted to push a little more on the $269 Steamboat lift tickets – like seriously there must be a better way. I also think blackout dates need to evolve as a crowding counter-measure, and Vail and Alterra both need to start thinking past holiday blackouts (as Indy has already done quite well). I’ve also been preoccupied lately with Alterra’s successive rolling out of megaprojects at Palisades Tahoe and Steamboat and Winter Park, and what that says about the company’s priorities. This also would have been a good time to check in on Alterra’s previously articulated commitments to diversity and the environment. These are all good topics, but Alterra has thus far been generous with access, and I anticipate ample opportunities to raise these questions with their leadership in the future.
What I got wrong
Well despite immense concentration and effort on my part, I finally reverted to my backwater roots and pronounced “gondola” as “gon-dole-ah,” a fact that is mostly amusing to my wife. Rusty and I vacillated between 61 million and 61.5 million reported U.S. skier visits last year. The correct number was 61 million. I also flip-flopped Vail’s Epic Pass sales number and stated at one point that the company had sold 1.2 million Epic Passes for the 2021-22 ski season. The correct number is 2.1 million – I did issue a midstream correction, but really you can’t clarify these things enough.
Why you should consider an Ikon Pass
I feel a bit uncomfortable with the wording of this section header, but the “why you should ski X” section is a standard part of The Storm Skiing Podcast. I don’t endorse any one pass over any other – my job is simply to consider the merits and drawbacks of each. As regular readers know, pass analysis is a Storm pillar. But the Ikon Pass is uniquely great for a handful of reasons:
An affordable kids’ pass. The Ikon Pass offers one of the best kids’ pass deals in skiing. Early-birds could have picked up a full Ikon Pass (with purchase of an adult pass) for children age 12 or under for $239. A Base Pass was $199. That’s insane. Many large ski areas – Waterville Valley, Mad River Glen – include a free kids pass with the purchase of an adult pass. But those are single-mountain passes. The Ikon lets you lap Stratton from your weekend condo, spend Christmas break at Snowbird, and do a Colorado tour over spring break. The bargain child’s pass is not as much of a differentiator as it once was – once Vail dropped Epic Pass prices last season, making the adult Epic Pass hundreds of dollars cheaper than an Ikon Pass, the adult-plus-kids pass equation worked out about the same for both major passes. Still, the price structures communicate plenty about Alterra’s priorities, and it’s an extremely strong message.
A commitment to the long season. On April 23 this year, 21 Ikon partners still had lifts spinning. Epic passholders could access just nine resorts. That was a big improvement from the previous season, when the scorecard read 20-2 in favor of Ikon. Part of this is a coincidence – many of Alterra’s partners have decades-long histories of letting skiers ride out the snow: Killington, Snowbird, Arapahoe Basin, Sugarloaf. Others. But part of it is Alterra’s letting of big operational decisions to its individual resorts. If Crystal Mountain wants to stay open into June, Crystal Mountain stays open into June. If Stevens Pass has a 133-inch base on April 18… too bad. Closing day (in 2021) is April 18. The long season doesn’t matter to a lot of skiers. But to the ones it does matter to, it matters a lot. Alterra gets that.
That lineup though… The Ikon Pass roster has been lights out from day one. But as the coalition has added partners, and as key mountains have migrated from Epic to Ikon, it has grown into the greatest collection of ski areas ever assembled. As I wrote in March:
Whatever the reason is that Snowbasin and Sun Valley fled Epic, the ramifications for the North American multipass landscape are huge. So is Alterra’s decision to yank its two California flagships and its top-five New England resort off of the Mountain Collective. Those two moves gave the Ikon Pass the best top-to-bottom destination ski roster of any multi-mountain ski pass on the continent.
Good arguments can still be made for the supremacy of the Epic Pass, which delivers seven days at Telluride and unlimited access to 10 North American megaresorts: Whistler, Northstar, Heavenly, Kirkwood, Park City, Crested Butte, Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone, and Breckenridge, plus Stowe, one of the top two or three ski areas in the Northeast.
But many of Vail’s ski areas are small and regionally focused. I like Hunter and Jack Frost and Roundtop and Mount Brighton, Michigan, and their value as businesses is unquestioned, both because they are busy and because they draw skiers from rich coastal and Midwestern cities to the Mountain West. But the Epic Pass’ 40-some U.S. and Canadian mountains are, as a group, objectively less compelling than Ikon’s.
The Ikon Pass now delivers exclusive big-pass access to Steamboat, Winter Park, Copper Mountain, Palisades Tahoe, Mammoth, Crystal Washington, Red Mountain, Deer Valley, Solitude, and Brighton, as well as a killer New England lineup of Killington, Stratton, Sugarbush, Sunday River, and Loon. The pass also shares big-mountain partners with Mountain Collective: Alta, Arapahoe Basin, Aspen Snowmass, Banff Sunshine, Big Sky, Jackson Hole, Lake Louise, Revelstoke, Snowbasin, Snowbird, Sugarloaf, Sun Valley, and Taos. For pure fall-line thrills and rowdy, get-after-it terrain, there is just no comparison on any other pass.
In large parts of America, it’s become impossible to imagine not buying an Ikon Pass. The lineup is just too good. Epic still makes more sense in many circumstances. But for the neutral party, aimed primarily for big-mountain destinations in a city not defined by access to a local, the Ikon is telling a damn good story.
Rusty and I talked a bit about the huge jump in Crystal’s pass price for next season. Here’s a more comprehensive look that I wrote in March, based on conversations with Crystal CEO Frank DeBerry and a number of local skiers.
We also discuss Mayflower Mountain Resort, which is to be built adjacent to Deer Valley. Here’s a bit more about that project, which could offer 4,300 acres on 3,000 vertical feet. The developers will have to overcome the ski area’s relatively low elevation, which will be compounded by Utah’s larger water issues.
Rusty explained why Alterra pulled Palisades Tahoe, Mammoth, and Sugarbush off the Mountain Collective pass ahead of next ski season. Here were my initial thoughts on that move.
A tribute to Mammoth Mountain founder Dave McCoy, who died in 2020 at age 104:
Previous Storm Skiing Podcasts with Rusty or Ikon Pass mountain leaders
The Summit at Snoqualmie President & GM Guy Lawrence – April 20, 2022
Arapahoe Basin COO Alan Henceroth – April 14, 2022
Big Sky President & COO Taylor Middleton – April 6, 2022
Solitude President & COO Amber Broadaway – March 5, 2022
The Highlands at Harbor Springs President & GM Mike Chumbler – Feb. 18, 2022
Steamboat President & COO & Alterra Central Region COO Rob Perlman – Dec. 9, 2021
Jackson Hole President Mary Kate Buckley – Nov. 17, 2021
Crystal Mountain, Washington President & CEO Frank DeBerry – Oct. 22, 2021
Boyne Mountain GM Ed Grice – Oct. 19, 2021
Mt. Buller, Australia GM Laurie Blampied – Oct. 12, 2021
Aspen Skiing Company CEO Mike Kaplan – Oct. 1, 2021
Taos Ski Valley CEO David Norden – Sept. 16, 2021
Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory – March 25, 2021
Sunday River GM Brian Heon – Feb. 10, 2021
Windham President Chip Seamans – Jan. 31, 2021
Sugarbush President & GM John Hammond – Nov. 2, 2020
Sugarloaf GM Karl Strand – Part 2 – Sept. 30, 2020
Sugarloaf GM Karl Strand – Part 1 – Sept. 25, 2020
Palisades Tahoe President & COO Ron Cohen – Sept. 4, 2020
Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory – May 5, 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
Sugarbush President & COO Win Smith – Jan. 30, 2020
Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher – Nov. 21, 2019
Killington & Pico President & GM Mike Solimano – Oct. 13, 2019
Future Storm Skiing Podcasts scheduled with Ikon Pass mountains
Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher – September 2022
Sun Valley VP & GM Pete Sonntag – September 2022
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