I’m not done complaining about lift-ticket prices just yet
OK well here you go:
Please, for a moment, stop defending these prices. I understand the why here, B-School Bro. Modern ski resorts with modern infrastructure are absurdly expensive to maintain and insure. Labor costs are rising in this labor-intensive industry. Price can be a crowd-control mechanism. Resorts set lift ticket prices high to drive skiers to cheap multipasses. For well-off, once-a-year skiers, these prices are not so offensive. Supply and demand. IT’S SIMPLE ECONOMICS, BRO.
But what if it isn’t? Bro. Vail pioneered a way to stabilize a temperamental, weather-dependent industry by inverting the decades-old, expensive-single-mountain pass/cheap day-ticket model and shifting pass sales to the spring-through-autumn preseason. Unlimited access to Vail Mountain dropped from $1,849 for the 2007-08 season to $579 when the company introduced the Epic Pass for the 2008-09 season. Exactly no one thought this would work. Well, it did. Well enough that this model now rules the U.S. ski industry.
Which, fine. I love this model. I have always been a resort-hopper first. Multi-mountain passes make that practice easy, seamless, and affordable. But as I stood in the Steamboat lift-ticket line (I was buying mountain coaster tickets), among the glass-eyed, horrified tourists staring up at the resort’s terrifying price grid (because yes, Nobody-Pays-Those-Prices Bro, some people do pay those prices) last year, it occurred to me that exactly zero people in that line would ever likely return to Steamboat, or, perhaps, skiing, again after paying this for a few days on the hill:
Is this really the best idea we have? I took this picture in February 2020, long after the Ikon Pass – Steamboat’s season pass – went off sale, and before the next season’s prices had been announced. There is nothing here to indicate that this amazing thing called an Ikon Pass exists. An amazing thing that costs less than a $1,164 five-day lift ticket (starting price, $999), and includes a season pass at Winter Park and Copper Mountain and seven days each at Aspen and Arapahoe Basin and more access to more badass ski areas than you could ever use.
I argued two weeks ago that Vail and Alterra should stop cutting off Epic and Ikon Pass sales in December. B-School Bro was on that one pretty quick, reminding me that this model – the model exactly zero B-School Bros would have endorsed prior to 2008 – was what drives pass sales in the first place. And they’re right. But what if this model isn’t perfect? Locking in the lowest price is likely the most significant driver for buying early. And people who don’t know the pass exists in the first place aren’t going to buy a pass in April for their ski trip the following February. By the time they’re in line, it’s way too late.
So what if Epic and Ikon Passes continued to be available for a significant premium? Like, say, prices increased 50 percent on Dec. 1, so each pass is in the $1,500-to-$1,800 range. Yes, that’s more than the price of the six-day pass above, but maybe they start to understand what the Ikon Pass is and throw on weekends to Winter Park and Copper. Or what if they could apply some portion of this year’s lift ticket purchase to next year’s Ikon Pass? Vail already does this with its Turn In Your Ticket program for Epic Passes, but the program is not well-publicized. Why not have a banner ad announcing this at the bottom of every ticket-window price grid?
What you’re losing here are lapsed skiers. I have a journal entry from 2008 indicating that I paid $176 for a two-day Steamboat lift ticket – a shocking number at the time. Had I not skied between 2008 and 2020, I could have reasonably expected that same two-day lift ticket to cost around $212. If I see $430, I’m wondering what the hell happened to this sport. Maybe I’m skiing those two days, but, with no understanding of the macro environment driving those absurd day-ticket prices, it may be my last time.
I’m less morally offended by the raw lift-ticket prices than I am by the lack of imagination they demonstrate. I’m willing to pay for experiences, and I don’t think the big mountains are pricing beginners out of the sport. There are plenty of affordable places to ski in Colorado (including the big mountains, if you, um, buy an Epic or Ikon Pass). And Steamboat has a unique out here: beginners can just go across the street to city-owned Howelsen Hill, where lift tickets cost $39 for adults and $28 for kids, and are free for children under 4. Sundays are free. A season pass costs $231.
And this isn’t a ropetow bump. It’s the size of a respectable Midwest ski hill, 440 vertical feet served by a new triple chair. It also happens to be the oldest ski area in America, in continuous operation since 1915. This season, Howelsen Hill will spin the lifts seven days a week “for the first time in decades,” according to the Steamboat Pilot.
But no one’s flying across the country to ski Howelsen Hill. They are flying across the country to ski Steamboat, a fabulous mountain by nearly any measure. Most of them are planning ahead, but some are not. Is this really what you want them to see when they show up?
“It would have been easier to build a new ski area”
Bousquet is the eighth-oldest ski area in America, serving Massachusetts’ Berkshires since 1932. For a long time, it felt as though nothing had been replaced since then, the place a charming but ramshackle antique that seemed to be teetering on the edge of existence.
Last year, an outfit called Mill Town Capital bought the joint and immediately began funneling money into it. They replaced the rustic yellow chair, pumped up the snowmaking plant, tore down and rebuilt the baselodge, re-arranged the slopes to more logically position the terrain park and beginner area, cut a new trail, thinned glades, installed RFID gates, upgraded the night-skiing lights, and rethought their legendary learning and race programs.
It didn’t all go so well at first. Poor weather forced the mountain to miss Christmas week. The yellow chair replacement – a used triple from Hermitage Club – hit engineering problems and didn’t get spinning until midwinter (Berkshire East and Catamount owner Jon Schaefer, who advises Bousquet on operations, told the story of how they salvaged the project in this conversation I had with him last spring). The snowmaking system turned out to be compromised to its bones, forcing the mountain to replace every hydrant and up to 90 percent of its snowmaking pipe.
“I think in some respects, it would have been easier to build a brand-new ski area,” Bousquet General Manager Kevin McMillan told me in a conversation last week. “I don’t know how the mountain survived for as long as it did – it was on its last breath.”
Not anymore. The yellow chair, McMillan says, should run without issue. The sparkling new 15,000 square-foot-lodge will be ready to go on opening day (the photos that hung in the old lodge will migrate to its replacement). The only runs without snowmaking are now Louise’s Folly and Robertos.
This year, skiers will find a new trail cut through the woods from Parker to East Slope, allowing them to dodge the terrain park, which Bousquet moved to the Russell trail last year. The ski area also widened Russell by roughly 20 feet, cleaned up the edges of Louise’s Folly, and “cleared out” the tree islands between Russell and Beeline, and along Nikki’s Run and Main Street. A new trailmap will show the new, yet-to-be named trail, but the thinned glades will not be marked runs – skiers who know where they are can ski them at will.
McMillan sees enormous potential in the terrain park, and Bousquet hired industry veteran Josh Morse to manage that part of the mountain (he will also oversee grooming).
“I think the park is one of our bigger opportunities to grow revenue and create a buzz on the mountain,” McMillan says, echoing a strategy that has worked well for smaller mountains throughout the Northeast, most notably Vail’s tiny-but-outstanding Big Boulder, Pennsylvania. He said Bousquet will consider installing a dedicated surface lift on Russell, allowing skiers to lap the park.
McMillan says that future improvements will include a replacement of the Blue Chair, a 1980 Hall double, likely within the next two to three years. A quad would be ideal, he said, as it would allow the ski area to build out a summer biking operation. The loading station would likely move closer to the lodge, while the top terminal could move up to 50 feet downhill to help reduce congestion where the Easy Rider run branches off into a half-dozen trails around the current unloading ramp.
Even with all these improvements, McMillan says the focus will remain on affordability. “We rely on Pittsfield to support this mountain,” he said. “If we priced them out and tried to more actively attract a tourist market, we would fail pretty quick. So we've been pretty cognizant of our pricing across the board, and food and beverage is part of that consideration.”
The 279-foot mountain with a $199 season pass and 70-plus partners
Several months ago, I wrote about Ski Cooper’s $299 (at the time) season pass, which includes three mostly no-blackout days at each of more than 50 ski areas. It is, by my assessment, the best value among the many Western mountains that have forged such alliances, mostly because of its discount price and national scope. But several ski areas – Loveland ($499), Monarch ($519), Powderhorn ($699), Sunlight ($599), Lee Canyon ($519) – have assembled a list of pass perks that may appeal to skiers who never even boot up at that mountain.
But a pair of Midwestern resorts have developed ultra-cheap versions of these passes. One, Mount Bohemia, I already wrote about: buy their $99 season pass between Nov. 24 and Dec. 4, and you get two days each at Bogus Basin, Porcupine Mountains, Crystal Mountain (Michigan), Lost Trail Powder Mountain, and Hurricane Ridge; and three days each at Mission Ridge, Brundage, Great Divide, Pine Creek, White Pine, Sleeping Giant, Mt. Spokane, and Eagle Point; and free skiing with a lodging stay at Caberfae over two March weeks.
The other ski area is far less famous than freewheeling Bohemia. Little Mont du Lac, Wisconsin, has built one of the largest reciprocal pass coalitions in America on its $199 Superior Pass. Passholders get discounted or free days at these ski areas:
Four days at Beech Mountain, North Carolina
Three days each at Snow Valley, Howelsen Hill, Ski Cooper, Sunlight, Mt. Crescent, Lost Valley, Lee Canyon, Black Mountain (New Hampshire), McIntyre, Whaleback, Red River, Ski Apache, Greek Peak, Plattekill, Shawnee (Pennsylvania), Yawgoo, Mt. Spokane, Hogadon Basin, Pine Creek, Cherry Peak, Eagle Point, Masella (Spain)
Two days each at Crystal Mountain (Michigan), Mount Ski Gull, Powder Ridge, Great Bear, Mt. Ashwabay
One day each at Mont Ripley, Pine Mountain, Labrador, Song, Snow Ridge, Swain, Willard, Baldy (British Columbia)
Discounted days at Skeetawk, Seven Oaks, Sundown, Four Lakes, Snowstar, Titcomb, Big Powderhorn (Michigan), Blackjack, Indianhead, Swiss Valley, Timber Ridge, Andes Tower Hills, Detroit Mountain, Giants Ridge, Mount Kato, Wild Mountain, Bottineau Winter Park, Huff Hills, Ski Big Bear (Pennsylvania), Tussey, Terry Peak, Camp 10, Little Switzerland, Nordic Mountain, Sunburst, The Rock, Antelope Butte, Sleeping Giant, Snowy Range, White Pine
You can also “ski free every day” (seriously WTF) at Chester Bowl, Coffee Mill, and Mt. Itasca, whose season passes cost $82, $375, and $175, respectively. The Superior Pass also includes unlimited access to Mont du Lac’s tubing park.
For the range-roving adventurer who’s not trying to rad out on couloirs, this is one of the best deals in skiing. Unfortunately, unlike Ski Cooper, they don’t ship the passes, so you have to show up at Mont du Lac to get it. I can’t find a recent trailmap of the place, but here’s one from 2011 that shows roughly what you’ll find when you show up at the 279-vertical-foot bump:
For a Midwest molehill searching for relevance among a nation of 462 ski areas, Mont du Lac has built something pretty impressive. How many imitators may be out there, and how long this strategy is sustainable, are a whole different story.
Keep saying things like this
I wrote last week about the amazing Hickory, the New York ski area that refuses to die and could re-emerge from its half-dozen-year slumber this coming winter. On Wednesday, New York Ski Blog released details about what a 2021-22 Hickory season could look like.
The most important point to make is this: the ski area intends to open the good stuff, which is pomas 1 and 2, serving the upper mountain, this coming winter.
But the ski area, which has no snowmaking, has operated at a loss for years. On the handful of days the ski area can open each winter, lift-ticket sales alone are not enough to cover the costs of running the antique lifts, which have an extremely low capacity and high maintenance costs.
Still-bubbling plans would help fill this financial gap in two ways. The first is a “Hickory Legacy Foundation,” which would run the lower-mountain lifts as a 501c3 serving kids and families. It would sell a “Mountain Access Pass” to help fund these efforts.
The second, complementary plan is a so-called “Hickory Preservation License,” which would give skiers first access to upper-mountain lift tickets.
The mountain will release pricing and more details on the plans Nov. 25. Visit the ski area’s website to sign up for updates. If this place can find a sustainable model to operate, it will be an enormous victory for throwback, independent, community-oriented skiing, even if its long-term future is improbable without some form of snowmaking (at least on the lower mountain).
Political maneuverings could lead to Gunstock, which is owned by New Hampshire’s Belknap County, being leased to a private operator, just weeks after the resort unveiled major expansion ambitions. Terrific write-ups of Big Sky and Cannon. Rundowns on what’s new at Colorado and New England ski areas this year. Palisades Tahoe’s base-to-base gondola will not be ready for this season. An update on Sierra-at-Tahoe’s recovery. Indy Pass partner Brundage intends to expand its terrain over the next decade. Breck and Vail open for the season, making six ski areas in Colorado with lifts spinning. Minnesota’s Andes Tower Hills also opens. Aspen raises minimum wage to $17 an hour; minimum salary to $50,000 per year. Loon’s Kanc 8 is just going to be so unbelievably baller:
This week in skiing
No skiing. But I did write about my opening day at Killington on Nov. 5 for New York Ski Blog:
I did without a lot of things last season. Ski buddies. Random chairlift conversations. Booting up in the lodge. Skiing out West. And, until my last day, Vermont.
When the 2020-21 ski season wrapped, with an improbable bomb of an April snowstorm at Mount Snow, I thought that would be the end of Covid-era skiing, of masks and staggered lift-loading and travel restrictions and ski-area reservations. And while I had come to like booting up in my minivan, music blasting and heat cranking, I was done with the rest of it.
But as summer wore on and Covid surged once more, I didn’t know if skiing would or should be done with it. Perhaps this was a thing and we would just have to learn to live with it.
And it is, in a way. The world we left in March 2020 is not coming back. Most ski areas will still require masks indoors this coming ski season. Some will require proof of vaccination to enter certain areas. A few will continue to require reservations. But: lifts will load to full capacity everywhere. We seem to be done with masks in liftlines. And, crucially for Northeast skiers, the race to open returned.
Word dropped Wednesday evening at 5:00 p.m. that Killington would open Friday. With its usual two trails, remote and improbable at the top of the mountain, a layer of manmade caked 500 vertical feet to the bottom of the North Ridge Quad.
Read the full story here.
Pricing psychology is waaaay overrated in the skiing industry. At some point it has to come down to basic ethics and I'm glad I'm not the one working in the Steamboat ticket window. I'll give an exception to Crystal, but I agree with Luke's comments that I don't believe Alterra is maximizing their profit by basically forgoing all legitimate day ticket offerings at some of their resorts. On the other hand, the Vail Resorts Epic Day Pass for $91 (was in the $70's range when excluding some of the top dog resorts?), has to be some of the most competitively priced single day lift tickets for big mountain skiing in the country. But when you think about it, even at that competitive price (which only a few years ago would have been considered a lot) they're still probably making way more money per skier visit than from their passholders.
It’s not like destination resorts need price gouging day tickets to stay in business. No one outside the US does that, but even within the US, non-Epic/Ikon resorts (Alyeska, Wolf Creek, etc.) have day tickets _over holidays_ for under $100.
Vail & Alterra are just trying to drive more people to their passes, which will hurt them in the long run. And it’s allowed Indys to thrive and grow, because as it turns out, tickets don’t actually need to be that expensive for resorts to make money. Loveland’s 4-pack (which are legitimately 4 separate lift tickets that can be used by 4 different people on the same day if wanted) is $200 for a reason. By having ludicrous “rack rate” prices, Vail & Alterra are giving a distinct competitive advantage to everyone else who doesn’t.