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Vail Slashes Epic Pass Prices By 20 Percent, Further Demystifying the Season Pass
Prices return to 2015-16 levels as Vail aims to supercharge season pass base
Vail Resorts today released details of its 2021-22 Epic Pass suite, dropping prices by 20 percent from 2020-21 introductory rates across the portfolio. The flagship Epic Pass is now just $783, down from $979 last season. The Epic Local Pass, which adds restrictions to Vail mountain, Beaver Creek, Whistler, Park City, Stowe, Northstar, Kirkwood, and Heavenly, is $583, down from $729. The Northeast Value Pass drops to $479 from $599, and the Northeast Midweek Pass is down to $359 from $449. The Epic Day Pass – which can be used at any Vail resort with no blackouts – starts at $87 per day, down from $109, and a new lower access tier starts at $67 and covers 29 of the company’s 34 North American mountains. Pass types and access tiers are otherwise unchanged from the 2020-21 season. Details are here.
The price reductions continue Vail’s long habit of driving pass prices lower, an almost messianic conviction that has reduced the rates of similar products across the industry and demystified the season pass, transforming it from a niche locals product to a mountain passport for the masses.
The Epic Pass is now substantially less expensive than the Ikon Pass, its primary competitor, and cheaper than many mountain’s individual passes. The aggressive reductions run counter to the prevailing industry trend of increasing pass prices this spring, following what was a very strong 2020-21 season pass sales period. But Vail believes sales volume will more than make up for reduced prices.
“Much like in 2008 when we launched the Epic Pass, it can be counterintuitive to think that providing value to our guests by lowering prices will also drive value for our company,” said Vail CEO Rob Katz. “However, we believe the price reduction will drive incremental revenue, given our comprehensive lineup of pass products that can fit any guest’s needs, our personalized and data-driven marketing efforts, and the fact that the vast majority of all visits from our passes occur at our network of owned-and-operated resorts. We expect that today’s price reductions will generate incremental pass revenue from new unit sales in fiscal 2022 that will approximately offset any pass revenue lost from the new discount, and we believe that in future years the compounding impact of retaining guests in our program will drive material increases in pass revenue.”
Let me put that quote through the Wall-Street-analyst-to-human translator: Vail is gonna sell a shitload of Epic Passes.
Vail continues to make skiing more affordable for frequent skiers
There’s a steaming-at-the-ears social media community that reflexively hates everything Vail does. Their avatar is Vail Sucks Guy. “Vail kills local businesses,” they’ll say, with no proof or explanation. “A day of skiing at Vail costs more than the Louisiana Purchase,” they’ll complain. “Vail eliminated bring-your-cat-skiing night every other Monday,” they’ll shout. “And I mean seriously who does that?”
But since launching the Epic Pass in 2008, no entity has done more to make skiing affordable for frequent skiers than Vail Resorts. That inaugural rendition audaciously folded Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, and Heavenly onto one unlimited pass for $579, a five-mountain bonanza that was more than $1,000 cheaper than that season’s single-mountain passes at Squaw Valley or Jackson Hole. The empire grew as Vail devoured more Tahoe resorts, then Park City and Whistler before tacking on an eastern portfolio anchored by Stowe and spreading down New England and all the way south to Philadelphia.
The company eventually gobbled up 37 ski areas. It added them all to the Epic Pass. Many local single-mountain pass prices shrank dramatically as a result. A season pass to Sugarbush fell $630, from $1,779 in the 2016-17 season to $1,149 the following year, after Vail bought just-up-the-highway Stowe and incinerated its $2,300 standalone season pass. The model was so good that Alterra copied it, assembling a roster of 15 owned and 30-ish partner resorts onto a similarly priced pass. You can now ski Sugarbush all season long for $999 on an Ikon Pass, and on the same pass visit Squaw Valley for a month and spend a week each at Jackson Hole, Snowbird, Revelstoke, and many more.
Vail did this. It introduced pricing pressure into a lazy industry that had let season passes become niche products for locals and weekend condo owners. As the Epic Pass grew, almost every major resort on the continent either dropped its prices, joined a pass coalition, or both. Still, Epic Pass prices ticked up nearly every year, and by last season that $579 Epic Pass was pushing $1,000. Knocking it down to $783 takes the pass back to its 2015-16 price – when the Epic Pass delivered access to only 11 U.S. resorts, with nothing in the Northeast and no Whistler.
“But what about the fact that a cheeseburger costs $50?” Well I’m glad you asked that, Vail Sucks Guy. First: it doesn’t. Second: while I understand the hyperbole here as a mechanism to say that ski resort food does generally feel overpriced, Vail did make a sincere effort to acknowledge this last season when it launched its Epic Mountain Rewards program, which grants 20 percent off on-mountain dining, hotels, ski school, rentals, and more to all Epic Pass holders.
As Vail’s passes grow more affordable, other ski areas’ passes will continue to improve
Vail’s first contribution to Northeast ski culture was to destroy the archaic model of the expensive single-mountain season pass. That took about two months. But the more gradual changes that took place afterward have created a pass landscape that is far more varied, interesting, and valuable for passholders than the one that had stagnated for decades before.
As Vail and then Alterra steamrolled into the Northeast, smaller operators reacted. Some, like Magic, dropped prices (though this move was in direct reaction to the economic downturn in the aftermath of Covid shutdowns, the fact is that the mountain is right down the road from Alterra-owned Stratton). Others joined larger coalitions, with 17 ski areas in Pennsylvania, New York and New England (including Magic), now part of the Indy Pass, which their season passholders can add on for a nominal fee. There are now eight regional season multipasses in the Northeast, including New York’s Ski3 Pass, Boyne’s New England Pass, and The White Mountain Super Pass. And while some of these existed pre-Epic/Ikon era, they seem to be thriving alongside the Colorado-based megapasses.
This is likely just the beginning. Skiers are being trained to expect wide-ranging access with their season pass. They want to ski their local and they want to go to Vermont for the weekend and they want to go out West for a week. Not everyone can offer you Whistler – there’s only one of those, and Vail’s got it. But as Indy Pass founder Doug Fish realized, there’s more than one way to solve that jigsaw puzzle. If you can provide broad-ranging access in the form of a $129 Indy Pass add-on to your season pass, you don’t have to give them Whistler; how about Idaho? The mountains there still make Hunter look like a snowpile pushed into the corner of the Wal-Mart parking lot. So what if your coworker Steve who only skis Park City has never heard of Brundage or Silver Mountain? They’re amazing.
Vail pricing its Escalade like a Ford Escape will only further push this innovation in the pass landscape. It has to. The Northeast Value Pass provides unlimited access to four mountains in New Hampshire and five in Pennsylvania; unlimited access with a dozen or so holiday blackouts at Okemo, Mount Snow, and Hunter; and 10 days at Stowe. It’s $479. That’s cheaper than the single-mountain season passes at Mount Southington, Ski Sundown, Mt. Abram, Saddleback, Shawnee Peak, Jiminy Peak, Bretton Woods, Cranmore, Gunstock, King Pine, Waterville Valley, Belleayre, Greek Peak, Kissing Bridge, Plattekill, Swain, Titus, West, Windham, Blue Mountain (Pennsylvania), Camelback, Hidden Valley, Laurel, Bolton Valley, Bromley, Burke, and Jay Peak. For $104 more, skiers can upgrade to a $583 Epic Local Pass, which cuts the Hunter and Vermont blackouts and adds unlimited Stowe outside of holidays, along with basically unlimited access out west, with the only real restrictions being holiday blackouts around Tahoe and Park City and a total of 10 days between Vail, Beaver Creek and Whistler. How does Mount Southington, with its $650 season pass, compete with that?
It will find a way. Many of the aforementioned resorts, such as Waterville Valley or Windham, have joined larger pass coalitions and offer those passes as add-ons. Some, like Bromley or Jiminy Peak, are likely confident enough in their bed base of condo-owners that they don’t feel incentivized to lower prices or combine access. Others, like Jay Peak (which joined Indy Pass), are unique enough terrain-wise to stand alone should they so choose.
Everyone is a season passholder now
I don’t know how many passholders Vail is directly poaching from its competitors. Skiers who own a condo at Bretton Woods are going to buy Bretton Woods passes for their entire family. Indeed, just about every ski area that released 2020-21 season pass numbers indicated that these rose substantially. Vail seems more interested in creating passholders out of people who would not otherwise have considered it – a white-collar worker living in Manhattan who isn’t near a mountain of any size but takes a trip out west every year and spends a weekend or two in New England.
Twenty years ago, that person would have simply bought lift tickets as part of their vacation package. Now they can be a season passholder. Vail has made that a practical decision, but there’s a mystique in that too, a sense of belonging and connection to the mountains that perhaps didn’t exist before. A season pass at Vail used to be a precious and rare thing. Now, who doesn’t have a season pass at Vail, or Stowe, or Sugarbush? Hell, I’ve had a season pass at Mammoth for going on four years now, and I’ve never been within 50 miles of the place. Still, it’s cool to say out loud.
“The new prices announced today not only provide value to existing skiers and riders, but we also believe they will contribute to the growth and vitality of our sport as we bring new people and higher engagement into the industry, which we think is imperative,” Katz said in today’s press release.
At current prices, Vail doesn’t even need passholders to abandon their home mountain – they can have both an Epic Pass and a single-mountain pass. If you own, say, a $549 Gunstock pass because your kids are in a race program there on the weekends, you might also invest in a $359 Northeast Midweek pass for some weekday variety. While the $908 that those two passes would cost is a significant investment, it’s easy enough to rationalize for a variety-loving skier who plans to rack up 25 or 30 days per season.
How cheap is too cheap?
Do you ever go into H&M and think “yeah that shirt with whales on it is super cool and it’s only $5 sure I’ll buy it,” and then realize that because it’s a $5 shirt from H&M approximately 42,000 identical shirts are now circulating through your community and whenever you wear it to the park you feel like you’ve wandered into some kind of nautical convention of whale lovers and maybe the shirt doesn’t seem so cool anymore?
Well that’s how buying an Epic Pass these days feels. Everyone can afford one so everyone has one. That can lead to crowding, or the appearance of crowding, amplified by selective social media posts. But outside of the digital complain-osphere, I can’t remember the last time I was at a Vail resort and thought, “Man I sure wish there were more people here.”
This season, granted, was weird. Social distancing mandates artificially stretched liftlines, even with Vail’s reservations system. It wasn’t a great gauge for how much the fiercely discounted Northeast Epic Pass could potentially flood Vail’s regional ski areas.
Still, I thought Vail would react to what is already clearly a healthy pass market by raising prices. Instead, Vail is, surprisingly, doing the opposite. The company’s goal is to sell as many passes as possible, to, as Katz said on Vail’s recent earnings call, “… be aggressive … and really move big numbers of people into the [Epic Pass] program.” The numbers are already big: Vail sold around 1.4 million Epic Passes for the 2020-21 ski season. Katz calls the Epic Pass the “cornerstone” of its business, and it is: invest several hundred or thousand dollars into a ski pass, and most skiers will choose one of the pass’ resorts as its destination, with all the attendant spending on shuttles, hotels, food, and ski school that entails.
That the aim is to pack as many people as possible onto the mountain ought to be a consideration for anyone looking to buy an Epic Pass. Price matters, but so does the overall experience. Katz said last week that Vail would nix its reservation system for next ski season. That means the only ski area capacity restriction in many communities may be the size of their parking lots. What happens when ultra-cheap passes meets a holiday weekend with good snowfall is predictable enough. How well Vail manages those peak periods will determine skier’s perception of the Epic Pass as a true value over the long term.
So what does this mean for the Ikon Pass?
Probably not much. I doubt Alterra is interested in a race to the bottom. Its passes are fairly priced, its collection of mountains compelling, its value plain. Vail lowering prices is not Covid shutting down the world. A doubling of the renewal discount, as we witnessed last year, is not forthcoming. A full Ikon Pass is $999 and $899 for returning passholders. The Ikon Base is $729, with a $649 renewal price. These prices are not unreasonable alongside Vail’s $783 Epic Pass and $583 Epic Local Pass, and are certainly more compelling than the many single-mountain passes still approaching four digits. If we see any changes to the Ikon Pass for 2021-22, it will be more partners. I expect the prices to increase, as scheduled, on May 5.
And what about that whole Vermont quarantine thingy?
The 2021-22 Epic Pass suite has plenty of strengths beyond price. Vail will continue to include its Epic Coverage guarantee, which essentially protects passholders from every sort of mishap imaginable, from injury to another Covid nuking. Epic Mountain Rewards also returns.
One thing Vail did not include is any sort of concession for passholders who were unable to use their passes in the ways they had expected due to state-to-state travel restrictions. This was a particular issue in the Northeast, where Vermont’s onerous quarantine requirements basically walled the state off from its neighbors. Unlike Alterra, which gave Ikon passholders until April 11 to defer the value of unused passes to the 2021-22 season, Vail’s pass guarantee only articulated credits for involuntary resort shutdowns of the sort we witnessed in March 2020.
I had kind of expected Vail to acknowledge this with a softer version of their excellent pass credit program last summer, which delivered passholders discounts as high as 80 percent off a 2020-21 Epic Pass based upon how many days they scanned their 2019-20 pass. Universally dropping prices is, I think, good enough compensation, and it’s certainly easier to articulate and understand. Besides, U.S. travelers weren’t barred from Vermont – they just had to quarantine first. For skiers from, say, Canada, who expected to ski Stowe, or from the U.S. who were targeting Whistler, I imagine the answer is that plenty of Epic Pass options remained in their own country, should they be willing to travel to them. Not a super satisfying answer in the midst of Covid, I’ll admit.
[Correction: per WCVB5 on March 19, Vail has issued personalized credits equal to the full value of each pass for skiers who, “had a priority reservation day at a resort that was subject to state quarantine requirements and you have not used your pass this season. This credit will be 100% of the value of your 2020/21 pass product and can be applied towards the purchase of a 2021/22 pass product. Please note that if you decide to use your pass before the core season ends on April 4, 2021, you will no longer be eligible for this credit.”]