The Era of the Expensive Single-Mountain Season Pass Is Over in the Northeast
Mountains that don’t get it yet will have to very soon
Vail’s done every skier a huge favor by igniting the Northeast pass wars
When Killington announced late last week that its do-everything-the-mountain-offers-all-year-round Beast 365 Pass would now include an Ikon Base Pass, it signaled the official end of the high-priced, single-mountain season pass that has defined frequent- skier access in the region for decades.
Set aside, for a moment, that Killington’s pass has long granted access to little brother Pico, which is by dint of location the most disrespected mountain in Vermont. Even as Vail absorbed Stowe and Okemo and all of Peak Resorts and combined them under a single pass that was cheaper than Killington’s and offered limitless adventure out west, and even as Alterra assembled a roster of owned and partner mountains and steadily increased access to them via ever-more generous Ikon Pass benefits, Killington, with its endless season and hulking vast terrain, seemed like the one Eastern mountain that could stand firm in its quadruple-digit pass price.
Last week’s Ikon Pass announcement was an acknowledgement that this was unrealistic in the megapass era. It is impossible to say exactly what led to this – whether it was Vail’s Northeast Epic Passes or Alterra dropping full Sugarbush and Stratton access to its Base tier or just a general combination of market forces – but we are somehow now in a world where buying the same Beast 365 Pass that you bought last year, for just a few more dollars, now includes just this little bonus of season passes to Stratton and Sugarbush, plus five days at Loon and Sugarloaf and Sunday River, plus oh yeah unlimited access to Winter Park and Copper Mountain, and season passes with a few blackout days to Mammoth Mountain and Squaw freaking Valley, and five days at Revelstoke and five days at Steamboat and five days at Alta-Snowbird and five days at Taos and is anyone keeping track of how absolutely crazy this all is?
You can thank Vail for all this. For the 2016-17 season, the last before the Broomfield Big Boys scooped up Stowe, a season pass at that most classic of New England rough-and-tumble mountains was $2,313, according to New England Ski History. Pass prices to the other large Vermont resorts were similarly outlandish: $1,779 for Sugarbush, $1,619 for Okemo, $1,486 for Killington, $1,199 for Stratton, $1,144 for Bromley (!), $999 for Mount Snow, $992 for Mad River Glen, $974 for Jay Peak, $899 for Burke, and on and on.
Granted, these were probably not early season prices, and these are presumably adult no-blackout passes. But price differential from just four seasons ago – four! – is remarkable. And none of these passes, with the exception of Killington, which gave you Pico access, came with additional days at any other mountains as far as I am aware. In 2020, you can now get full unrestricted access to Stowe, Mount Snow, and Okemo for $979 on an Epic Pass. You get full Sugarbush and Stratton access for a $999 Ikon Pass, and a Beast 365 pass would be $1,344 and get you unlimited Killington and access to Sugarbush and Stratton every day of the season outside of a few blackout days.
In other words, for less than the price of a Stowe season pass four years ago, you can now have season passes to six of Vermont’s largest mountains. If you don’t mind dealing with blackout days, you could pick up a $729 Epic Local Pass and a $699 Ikon Base Pass and ski Vermont every day of the season for $1,428 (and Okemo and Mount Snow are still not even blacked out on the Epic Local Pass). And you can further reduce this by, say, picking up a $599 Northeast Epic Pass and a (if you’re renewing), $649 Ikon Base pass, which would give you blacked-out season passes to Okemo, Mount Snow, Stratton, and Sugarbush, and 10 days at Stowe and five at Killington, for all of $1,248.
I could go on. There is no need to. Skiers will figure this out for themselves, and quickly. Anyone buying a season pass in Vermont just four years ago was more or less locked into that mountain for the season, as the number of ski days required to justify the pass purchase was significant, and any days invested elsewhere probably seemed excessive and indulgent. In the three-year instant it took Vail to buy Stowe and Okemo and Peak and integrate them into a regional pass, and Alterra to buy Stratton and Sugarbush and introduce the Ikon Pass and then significantly expand access in the region, the consumer expectation has shifted from season pass as an aspirational indulgence reserved for locals and second-home owners to a bargain product that offers limitless access to not one but multiple high-quality mountains, not just across the East, but in the snowy towering West.
In this environment, not even the burliest mountains can stand alone. Killington just conceded that. Boyne did something similar with its New England Pass last week, tossing an Ikon Base Pass in with its $1,549 Platinum-tier product, which provides unlimited access to its standout trio of Sugarloaf, Sunday River, and Loon.
All of this leaves skiers – especially mountain-hopping skiers like myself – in the best pass-shopping position imaginable. No matter which pass we buy, it will come not just with limitless days at our local mountain, but bonus or unlimited days at at least half a dozen other mountains that we can easily travel to.
All of which creates a very difficult reality for independent mountains: skiers now expect access far beyond their core mountain when purchasing a season pass, and they expect those passes to be massively discounted from what they were less than one presidential election cycle ago.
On both price and additional access, many independent ski areas are far behind. Bromley’s season pass, for example, is $925 (all prices are for adult, no-blackout passes, unless otherwise indicated). That’s early-bird pricing. It includes no free days at any other mountains, even though its parent company also owns or operates Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts and Cranmore in New Hampshire. It does offer some non-holiday discounts of up to half off day tickets at partner resorts, including Jay Peak.
This is a completely untenable position. Bromley is a fine mountain. It is terrific for families. It has some fun terrain off the Blue Ribbon Quad. It is very easy to get to. But it is right down the road from Stratton, which is far larger, has a far more sophisticated lift network, and is on the Ikon Pass, meaning a pass to Stratton is only $74 more than a pass to Bromley and also includes a pass to Sugarbush, days at Killington, etc., etc. Unless you have a condo on the mountain and you ski there and only there and have for years and years and have no aspirations or intentions of going anywhere else ever, there is no way to justify that pass price with no access to any mountain other than your own in today’s competitive ski pass environment.
One of two things needs to happen in order for independent mountains to remain competitive in the season pass realm: they need to join a coalition of other independent ski areas to offer reciprocal free days at one another’s mountains for passholders, or the price needs to come way down. And in most cases, the answer is probably some combination of both of those things.
You only need to look West, where intense season pass wars have raged since the late 1990s, to understand this reality. Take, for example, Loveland Ski Area, which is to its Summit County neighbors what Bromley is to Stratton. Loveland is a (for Colorado), medium-sized ski area (1,800 acres!) with a rich history and long season – it is often the first ski area open on the continent. This is the stack of bump runs and faces that you pass beneath as you enter the Eisenhower tunnel westbound on I-70 toward wherever you booked your Summit County condo for the week.
Loveland is 12 miles from Keystone and 26 miles from Breckenridge, both of which are unlimited with no blackouts on the $729 Epic Local pass (there are Summit County-specific passes that grant nearly unlimited access to Keystone for as little as $389); and 22 miles from Copper Mountain, which, even though it is not owned by Alterra, is unlimited with no blackouts on the $699 Ikon Base Pass. These are three of the most developed and balanced mountains on the continent.
Loveland, sitting where it is sitting and offering what it offers (they have only one high-speed lift, and they just installed that last season), has to be realistic. So, their adult season pass is $479. They are a member of the Powder Alliance, which means that all of their passholders are entitled to three midweek tickets at each partner mountain, and half off on weekends. A lot of these are regional standouts that you may not have heard of, but each of which could swallow Killington and still have room for a side of Stratton – places like Schweitzer Idaho and Sierra at Tahoe in California. And passholders get three additional days at Monarch, Powderhorn, Powder Mountain, Whitefish, Snow King, Red Lodge, Homewood, Ski Cooper, Sunlight, Brundage, Ski Granby Ranch, Sipapu, Pajarito, Ski Hesperus, and Arizona Snowbowl. Some of these are seriously huge ski areas.
That is how you survive in the shadow of three of the largest and most well-known and developed ski resorts in the country. And that is where the East is heading, whether independent mountains are ready to admit it or not.
We are already seeing a bit of this. Black Mountain, Dartmouth Skiway, McIntyre, and Whaleback, New Hampshire; Magic and Bolton Valley, Vermont; Yawgoo, Rhode Island; Plattekill, New York; and Lost Valley, Maine have already joined the Freedom Pass, which gives the unrestricted passholders of each ski area three days at each partner mountain (it also includes several western mountains). This coalition is going to need to grow substantially and add more high-quality independent mountains.
The Indy Pass offers another route here, particularly if partner mountains were to begin adding an included Indy Pass to their season pass, or even just offering it as a discounted add-on, which was done on a limited and not widely promoted basis last season. While it is not the same as “Oh here’s a season pass to Sugarbush for all you Ikon Base Pass holders,” it is still a nice incentive that would provide variety and value.
In the meantime, prices are going to have to come down. I don’t see a world in which a Camelback or Wachussett season pass is worth $599 as a standalone product, not when the Epic Northeast Pass gets you nearly unlimited access to 12 mountains in the region (discarding the Midwest mountains here as irrelevant) and 10 days at Stowe for the exact same price.
Mountains that can team up need to. The White Mountain Superpass, which provides unlimited access to New Hampshire’s Cranmore, Bretton Woods, Waterville Valley, and Cannon is a good example, thought for $999 it is not super enticing beside the Epic and Ikon offerings outside of folks directly along the I-93 corridor. ORDA’s $759 all-access pass to Whiteface, Gore, and Belleayre is another good start and has strong regional appeal.
Back to Bromley for a moment – following the Western template, its $925 pass probably needs to be about half that, and it needs to offer access to more than just Bromley. The Fairbank Group, after all, manages that mountain and owns Jiminy Peak (which is selling a standalone season pass for an insane $869), and Cranmore ($659), but only offers a combined pass to all three mountains for college students (a great deal at $329). Why not blow that product up and offer it to everyone at varying price points? Increased volume would likely make up for the lower price.
Mountains that either insist on standing alone or have no choice are going to have to bring pass prices way down, as Mountain Creek ($260), Montage ($299), and Ski Big Bear ($300), have already done.
I understand that there is more to the ski experience than the cost of your lift ticket. Lines, crowds, atmosphere, accessibility, family tradition, condo ownership, ski clubs, where you live, and where your friends ski all matter. It’s vital to support independent mountains both as the growth engines of our sport and as a corrective force to the over-the-top faster-bigger-better exuberance that increasingly defines many of the corporate-owned mountains. But skiers are going to look at $700-ish Epic and Ikon passes on the one hand and at expensive single-mountain passes on the other, and with a “you’ve got to be kidding me” headshake, they are more often than not going to choose the option that gets them more for less.
It may take the Northeast a few years to figure this out. The independent Western mountains (and there are many), have provided a template that demonstrates that discounted season passes with robust partner benefits can make a ski area both competitive and sustainable. There may be a few indies that can tough it out alone – Mad River Glen, perhaps. Most cannot. The sooner they figure that out, the better it will be for all of us.
A very brief roundup of current season pass prices:
Here, for quick comparison’s sake, is an incomplete list of current pass prices for notable Northeast ski areas. All prices are for adult no-blackout passes:
Maine: Sunday River - $1,169 (New England Gold Pass); Sugarloaf - $1,169 (New England Gold Pass); Black Mountain of Maine - $360; Mount Abram - $609
New Hampshire: Ragged - $299; Gunstock - $619; Pats Peak - $519; Wildcat - $599 (Epic Northeast Value Pass); Attitash - $599 (Epic Northeast Value Pass); Mount Sunapee - $599 (Epic Northeast Value Pass); Crotched - $599 (Epic Northeast Value Pass); Loon - $1,169 (New England Gold Pass); Cannon - $729*; Waterville Valley - $897*; Bretton Woods - $839*; Cranmore - $659*
*The White Mountain Superpass serves as a combined season pass to Cannon, Waterville Valley, Bretton Woods, and Cranmore for $999.
Vermont: Magic - $779; Bromley - $925; Bolton Valley - $549; Killington - $999 ($1,344 – for Beast 365; includes Ikon Base Pass); Pico - $439; Stratton - $999 (Ikon Pass); Sugarbush - $999 (Ikon Pass); Stowe - $979 (Epic Pass); Okemo – $729 (Epic Local Pass); Mount Snow - $729 (Epic Local Pass)
New York: Hunter - $729 (Epic Local Pass); West - $499; Belleayre** - $629; Gore** - $759; Whiteface** - $759
**The $759 Ski3 pass acts as a combined season pass to Belleayre, Gore, and Whiteface – it looks as though only Belleayre still offers a standalone season pass.
Massachusetts: Berkshire East/Catamount - $479; Butternut - $299; Wachussett - $599; Jiminy Peak $869
Pennsylvania: Camelback - $599; Blue Mountain^ - $429; Montage - $299; Big Bear - $300; Blue Knob - $599; Jack Frost - $599 (Epic Northeast Value Pass); Big Boulder - $599 (Epic Northeast Value Pass)
^This is not the Blue Mountain that’s on the Ikon Pass – that Blue Mountain is in Ontario, Canada.
Some curious holes in current available offerings
Some might say that it’s veeeeeeery curious that three of the mountains that are most often rumored as acquisition targets – Jay Peak, Smuggs, and Windham – are also among the very few that have not yet announced season pass prices for the 2020-21 season.
It is entirely possible that Windham was knocked sideways by the appearance of a $729 Epic Local Pass that provided access to not only larger neighbor Hunter, but everything else in the Vail land army. After all, their $1,499 season pass price is LOL amazing. This is 2015 wishful thinking. There are very few mountains left on the continent that can justify even half that amount for a standalone season pass. Freaking Whistler is $979 – because it’s part of the Epic Pass. Windham is no Whistler. It’s not even Gore. But the larger point here is that this one should be very high on Alterra’s wish list. They could immediately drop it onto an unlimited access Ikon Base Pass tier and truly be in a position to fight Vail to the death for New York metro dominance.
Jay Peak, of course, has its own longstanding issues. Its pass price schedule may well be tied up in some sort of court or regulatory review. But sometime or another, someone is going to buy this mountain, and whether or not it ends up as part of the Ikon or Epic Pass is not necessarily dependent upon Vail or Alterra buying it. It’s been for sale for years, and at some point, receiver Michael Goldberg – who has proven to be an outstanding steward to both Jay and Burke – is going to want to move this one into his out box.
Smugglers’ Notch is more often rumored as an acquisition for Vail, which would be happy to instant presto viola create the largest ski area on the East Coast by stapling this New England beauty to Stowe. There is a long history of skiers moving between the two, and the trails between them were at one time a formal interchange, as this Ski article from the late 1990s details.
Smuggs recently restated their intention to remain independent. But until I see 2020-21 pass pricing appear on their site and those of Jay and Windham, I’ll be refreshing the Alterra and Vail press pages.
Note: This is this week’s news update - the “elsewhere” and “this week in skiing” sections had to be cut due to Substack email-length limitations. I will try to include them in another mailing later this week.
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Previous 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 |
Jay and Smuggs did announce season pass prices. Smuggs is only $299 for people 26 and under, while those 35-69 pay $549. I understand that many people like high-speed lift infrastructure and vertical at places like Stratton, but if you've ever been there on the weekend or Presidents' week, you know how packed the slopes can get. Bromley and Magic give you more breathing room, and in my opinion feel more homey and less sterile than Stratton. I do think there is a market that is willing to pay a bit more for the atmosphere and space.
Windham I know wants to be seen as more spacious and upscale, but I agree there pass prices are exorbitant. They still do have lift ticket discounts in ski shop coupon books and for ski councils, something I feel will go away at the Peak resorts.