Buy the ticket (If you can afford it). Take the ride.
If you've bought a lift ticket at a major ski resort in the past half decade seasons you've run across pricing subjected to large increases, with costs nearing $200 for a single-day pass at resorts like Vail. The goal in writing this article was to find out how we got to this point— a cost threshold that for many riders seems unreasonable, even ridiculous.
Yet the more people I discussed the topic with, the clearer it became that it's more complicated than that—discounted season passes offering unlimited access to more resorts than I have fingers to count on being the counterweight to Wild West day ticket pricing. Depending who I spoke to and their affiliations I heard that we're either in the Golden Age of affordability, or at a time when getting on the hill has never been costlier for those who don't buy early. What I found out: it's probably both, at the same time
Organizations like Snowsports Industries of America acknowledge that gear and access to ride are snowboarding's biggest expenses. But unlike other actions sports such as skateboarding, surfing, climbing, kayaking, and even mountain biking, snowboarding is more subject to variable cost. The relatively fixed cost of equipment is one thing, but the vast majority of riders won't use that new board without also buying access to a resort. In this landscape of spending, it can feel that there's no solid anchor. While it turns out that the average price of a snowboard, adjusted for inflation, has stayed nearly constant since 1996, the cost of a walk-up lift ticket has grown higher and higher.
Dedicated riders have always found, and will find, ways to chisel away at the costs of another season on the mountain. Closeout and used equipment sales, resort jobs, and seasons passes—all shave a healthy sum from the off-the-shelf price of getting out there. First-timers can save through "learn to ride" deals designed to ease the cost of entry. But the sticker shock at the ticket window presents a barrier. So too does the consequential and necessary forethought to avoid this by buying a pass almost half a year in advance or buying tickets early and online.
Which side of this dynamic you end up on seems largely up to when, and if, you can commit to buying a pass or lift ticket. Here's the story of how we ended up with pass prices that offer a value on par with the 1950s, while the cost of a walk-up lift ticket hovers higher and higher, to a point that most middle-income families feel they can't touch, and how you, the snowboarder, can get the best possible deal for your next season.
Ski Resort History
Each holiday season, mainstream media sources run a headline announcing Vail's latest holiday lift ticket pricing hike. The number is sensational but doesn't represent the ski resort industry in its entirety, and those articles don't tell the story of how we got here. To do get a clear picture, we need to take a T-bar into the past.
Before the first ski lift was installed in 1936, there were no ski "resorts," just small-scale hills operated with minimal infrastructure. Think a few rope tows, maybe a warming shack—no "amenities," no insurance hang-ups, no online weather update.
When the US emerged from World War II as one of the only intact global industrial powers, our shift from manufacturing weapons to domestic goods included wicking nylon base layers and Gore-Tex outerwear. Meanwhile, veterans of the 10th Mountain Division brought their passion for alpine skiing back to the United States, founding resorts across the West Coast. In short order, skiing blew up.
"It was so competitive; there were ski areas being added like ornaments on a tree through the 1950 and '60s," recalls Chris Diamond, director of the International Skiing History Association and former president of Killington, Mount Snow, and Steamboat. "Every year seemed to bring additional lift service in virtually every market."
Resorts around the US began pouring money into capital investments, transforming ski areas from their rustic, barebones origins into the machine-groomed, chairlift accessed resorts we know today. According to the International Skiing History Association, the birth of the modern ski resort was paid for by raising lift ticket prices at rates that tripled inflation between 1951 and 1965. By the 1970s, snowmaking had become a staple tool, and expectations began to shift. Instead of waiting until Christmas or later, opening day became a fixed point of yearly anticipation, and glory, for the resorts that could fire up their guns before Thanksgiving.
Then pioneers Jake Burton and Tom Sims broke the mold by making snowboarding resort-friendly, accessible and marketable. The result revolutionized the resort industry with a new customer demographic who clamored for a different type of terrain. Starting out as hand-dug sideshows, halfpipes and snowboard parks progressed into significant line items on resorts' budgets, often with their own staff, dedicated snowmaking allotment, and snowcat time.
As the scope of resort offerings continued to expand, so did the inputs they needed to operate: massive amounts of energy, legions of seasonal employees, large equipment and infrastructure investments and maintenance—all while remaining highly dependent on weather. Given these factors, it's logical to assume prices at a more complex and sophisticated resort to be higher than those at the local ropetow. Somehow, snowmaking, grooming, lift service, ski patrol, parking attendants, and shuttle bus drivers need to be paid for, right?
But this linear explanation of business costs plus inflation doesn't complete the story of season pass and lift ticket pricing. There's the wildcard of "big passes" like the Epic Pass, offering full access to 15 or more resorts— at a price that halves pre-Vail acquisition pass prices at individual destinations like Stowe and Whistler Blackcomb. Then, there are the multitude of presale and discount online lift ticket offers through websites like Liftopia.
What changed? During the late 1990s, a few resorts in Colorado took the existing pass and ticket playbook, and chucked it. As of now, we're riding by the new rules. Here's how that happened, and what it means for the riding public.
Pre-Epic Pass, the prevailing mindset in the ski industry seemed to give the purchasing power of pass holders and ticket buyer equal value. In some cases, as I once overhead resort managers grousing in a mountain town bar, the pass holder was the onerous reason resorts had to keep the lifts open another few weeks in the spring. Starting with the Epic Pass, that attitude has undergone a radical change. Resorts around the country are now vying for the loyalty of the pass holder, while taxing the convenience of the walk-up ticket buyer with steeper and steeper pricing.
What happened? The spark was the late 1990s pass war in Colorado. In 1998, Winter Park dropped its season pass price to around $200 if you bought with four skiers or riders at the same time. According to Diamond, this price drop wasn't designed to revolutionize ski industry pricing—it was a last-ditch effort by the Winter Park Recreation Association, which ran the ski resort, to make payroll that summer and avoid bankruptcy. The plan that saved Winter Park was so successful that the Colorado Front Range ski resort market scrambled to react.
That season, the Summit Pass, which worked at Keystone, Breckenridge and A-Basin, debuted at $750 and dropped to $199 the next. That was just the start of a fight for market share. Next was the Colorado Pass, introduced in 2000, offering unlimited access to the aforementioned resorts, plus 10 days at Vail or Beaver Creek for $299. Vail Resorts' acquisition of Heavenly and their subsequent launch of the Epic Pass at $579 in 2008 effectively dropped the cost of unrestricted access to Vail by $1270 from the previous season, while offering unlimited days at four other resorts.
According to Mark Gasta, Associate Professor at Colorado State University's Master of Tourism Management program and former executive vice president of Vail Resorts, the shift was deeper than a simple fight for market share. "In my mind," says Gasta, "It was breaking an industry paradigm. It was going from saying, 'I'm going to charge as much as I can per guest,' to, 'actually, no, for those that give us their loyalty and make decisions in advance, we're going to offer a deeply discounted product and access to multiple resorts."
At the time, that shift was seen as crazy. The immediate math flew in the face of convention—at the prices that the first Colorado multi-resort passes were going for, it only took around five days of riding before the resorts were in the negative when compared with their ticket prices. And, meanwhile, those resorts were missing out on the revenue from passes that had previously sold for around $1,500.
"It was looked at as, 'You're losing something that was guaranteed,'" says Gasta. "But the premise was that if you provide deep discounts, you'll get deep loyalty and that ultimately the volume would tip the equation at some point; the revenue lost will be made by more people that can access the new product. It took innovative thinkers and risk-takers to say, no, we understand the downside, and we're willing to take it, on the potential upside that will come of it."
Many of the ski industry veterans and academicians I spoke with suggested that the verdict was still out on whether or not this approach will define the future of pass pricing. But there is no questioning the numbers. Vail Resorts' yearly revenue grew from $838 million in 2006 to $1.4 billion in 2015.
Vail's success hasn't gone unchallenged. Riders in almost any region can now choose from a spectrum of pass offerings, along with national, and international, multi-resort partnerships like the Mountain Collective and the Max Pass. The latest news on this front is, of course, Aspen Skiing Company and KSL Capital Partners' buyout of Intrawest, bringing this new entity's resort count up to 12, including marquee California draws Mammoth, Squaw Valley, and Bear Mountain. While unified access to these 12
resorts hasn't been announced yet, it's widely believed that an Aspen/Intrawest "big pass" to rival the Epic Pass is inevitable.
Big Passes: Who Benefits?
In looking at the depth, and value, of the seasons pass deals available in 2017, for riders who put in days on the hill in the double digits, it's hard to deny how affordable pass prices are, generally. One metric to quantify is the amount of days it takes for the purchaser to break even. On average, according to RRC Associates data, in 1997 a rider had to rack up an average of 17 days on-hill for a season pass to pay off. As of the 2015-'16 season, that payoff number has decreased to nearly half, at 9.2 days. And for dedicated riders, the value can be even higher. It should be noted, however, that the number of days needed to pay off a season pass is measured against day ticket pricing that is on the rise. John Fry, author of The Story of Modern Skiing, analyzed the cost of a day of riding at Stowe via the Epic Pass available this current season in comparison with the lift ticket price at the same resort in the 1950s—after around 20 uses, the daily cost is on par with 67 years ago. But twenty days is more than the average rider uses.
It's not just conglomerated resorts owned by Vail or Aspen offering discounted passes. According to RRC, when adjusted for inflation, the average season pass price has actually dropped $8 since 2006, down to $765. "The relative cheapness of big resort products has forced pricing alertness," says Diamond. "Resorts everywhere are looking over their shoulders to make sure they are not pricing themselves out the business."
So what do resorts get out of this approach? Stabilizing seasonal revenue is one perk. Resorts like Vail's can lock in customers as early as the spring prior to the season of the pass's effectiveness, tapping a huge revenue stream to carry them through the summer season. It's a hedge against the chance of a bad winter when revenue might take a huge hit with low snow over the holidays. Loyalty is the other key benefit. Rob Katz, the CEO of Vail Resorts, has compared the Vail business model to the way a casino thinks about its patrons: the core participant is extremely committed, even addicted.
Locking in that loyalty is a way to capture the spending power of both local and destination skiers and riders, who otherwise might spread their business across resorts outside of Vail's grasp. Now, whether they are going to a Vail resort or one serviced by the Mountain Collective, all the money spent on hotels, food, equipment rental, and more stays within the respective group. And like any modern business, especially a casino, multi-resort partnerships like Vail's are closely tracking each customer's unique pattern of travel booking and spending once on resort premises. The explosion of smart phones, smart devices, and even smart TVs allows resorts to serve skiers and riders targeted ads and discounts, ideally timed to tip over more revenue.
Discount pass pricing is what everyone I spoke to called the win-win of the current pricing era. The committed riding public gets affordable access, and resorts retain and deepen their share of the market. But, I had to keep asking: if the name of the game is discounted pass prices and serious resort loyalty, why are lift ticket prices so high?
Pass vs. Lift ticket pricing: Check the Brakes
Before we get to the elephant in the room—that nearly $200 ticket—there's more to the story of how resorts discount their pass pricing. Let's start with the assumption that resorts need to make at least as much as the year prior, and more still to keep up with inflation. How do they pull that off, while keeping pass prices low?
Well, not everyone who buys a multi-resort, early-bird, discount pass is skiing or riding to the payoff point— let alone the number of days needed to take a time machine back to 1950s pricing. In business terms, this is called breakage, and it describes the unused value of a pre-purchased product or service. To use an example from the world of retail, CardHub estimates consumers lost an estimated $44 billion in unredeemed gift cards between 2008 and 2013. That's a lot of breakage.
"What happened is that when people were given these pass deals, they made the commitment," says Diamond. "And maybe they thought 'I'll ski 10 times,' but they only skied four, and still said, 'Well, maybe next year I'll ski 10 times.' For the resorts, the math on paper didn't make sense, but in terms of behavior it did." Looking at the industry from a very high level, says Diamond, "The huge pass discount up front brings down the total revenue that might be expected, but you make up for it with a combination of breakage and dynamic pricing."
"Dynamic pricing" is business speak for that Willy Wonka-sized lift ticket price you can expect if you buy at the window the day you want to ride. If you've ever booked air travel last minute, you're familiar with how this works— on average, the price of the ticket goes up the closer you get to the date of the flight. Ski resorts have adopted a similar strategy, offering discounts for early and multi-day lift tickets but higher "walk up" prices. This is the sticker shock that's generated so much media attention. But once all possible discounts are factored— buying online early, lower prices for seniors and kids, complimentary tickets, and so on—resorts don't fetch even close to the total amount of their adult, weekend, walk-up ticket price, on average. Ticket yield is the term to describe how much a resort actually grosses.
According to RRC Associates, the company that gathers intel for the National Ski Area Association, average ticket yield was 47.5% for the 2015-16 season, meaning that on average, skiers and riders paid less than half of the walk-up ticket price. That might sound nuts, but as ticket prices have gone up over time, so has ticket yield, aka the amount of that ticket price that resorts actually bank on for their bottom line. Average ticket yield has increased around 2% per year since 1997, trending close to the average rate of national inflation—the same economic force that drives the price of everything from candy bars to construction supplies upwards over the past 20 years.
RRC doesn't have data that breaks down ticket yield by the size of the resort—for ticket and pass prices, RRC divides all ski resorts into four categories based on the number of people a resort can bring up the mountain per hour. So, we can't say for certain if the largest resorts have managed to raise their ticket yields above the industry average.
It's clear, however, that the biggest players, like Vail, aren't just maintaining their bottom line relative to inflation— they're growing. For resorts that can juggle discount pass prices with the ticket yield of higher walk-up prices, business has never been better. Here's the knock on effect this strategy is having on under-committed skiers and riders, and how you can play the game to win.
Play the game so you don't get played
Each spring, Nate Fristoe, RRC Associates Director of Operations, sends out a spreadsheet of seasons pass offerings to his friends and family. He jokes that it's about 125 lines deep and says most are shocked that to get the best deal they have to buy before Labor Day. "But," says Fristoe, "that is the landscape you are dealing with." For the less committed consumers, who are riding less than nine times a year and aren't thinking about snow until the Holidays, there's no perfect solution. "I do feel like we have created an incredibly complicated timeline of presold products that have made it very difficult for the less engaged skier or riders to decide what to buy."
Dynamic prices do more than pad a ski resort's revenue stream—they incentivize riders to purchase "presold products," aka buying your season pass well in advance of the winter. Most people I spoke to kept circling back to access being more affordable now than ever, given discounted season pass pricing. But the factor of what the industry is doing to make their deals clearer, and the consumer that gets left out, remains a sticking point.
"There are killer deals to get started," says Diamond, "but if for that in-between consumer that's not ready to jump ahead and buy a multiple-day pass product, the expense can present a barrier."
It comes down to what you're looking for in a snowboarding experience. The reality is that across the nation— from Bolton Valley, Vermont, to Trollhaugen, Minnesota, to Loveland, Colorado, to Mount Baker, Washington— the majority of US ski resorts still operate on a smaller scale and offer more modest ticket prices than the headline-stealing walk-up rates at conglomerate resort destinations. Mount Baker, one of the first US ski resorts to allow snowboarding, checks in at $61.00 for adults on holidays and weekends and $56 non-holiday and weekdays. There's no valet parking, but there's crazy, steep terrain, and more than likely deep snow. The dividing line generally lies between "ski areas" and "ski resorts." If you're after the slopeside dining and heated parking lots, you can expect to pay for it in a lift ticket. Where you choose to spend your money is up to you, and there are plenty of ski areas out there.
We admit, the timing of this article isn't ideal for locking in one of the show-stopping discount passes. If you haven't purchased already, November can seem like the start of a black hole in affordable access, but across the country, there are still ways to get out and ride without paying full price. No doubt there's a deal to be had the resort closest to you, whether it's riding weekdays, at night, with a group, or on a special event day. Here are just a few:
– Bolton sells $19.66 tickets every Monday, except during peak holidays.
– Sipapu in New Mexico has a Car Load Day, where the drive and up to four passengers can get on the lift for $25.
– After the September 27th deadline, Brighton's night riding pass is $419, and $319 for military personnel.
Here's where we start talking about the future. The advice I got from everyone I spoke to was the same: Think ahead. The earlier you can commit and buy a pass for the season to come, the more you'll save. Many of the "big pass" offerings, like the Epic Pass, Mountain Collective, and MAX pass go on sale as early as the spring before the next ski season, when you'll save a hundred or more off late summer pricing. If you live in Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Super Pass is an excellent and cheaper alternative to the Epic Pass, granting you unlimited access to Winter Park, Copper, and Eldora, with days at Steamboat, Crested Butte, Mt. Bachelor in Oregon, and Alyeska outside Anchorage, as well as destinations in New Zealand, Japan, and Iceland. Smaller independent resorts are now offering discount passes and flexibility for where you can ride too. Check out your home resort— they may already offer this sort of partnership deal.
– A season pass at one of the 16 Powder Alliance resorts gets you three free day tickets to any of the other member resorts, including Stevens Pass, Timberline and Sierra-at-Tahoe.
– A-Basin pass holders get three free days Taos Ski Valley.
– On the East Coast, pass holders at one of the Mountains of Distinction resorts get 50 percent off weekday lift tickets at other alliance resorts, including Jay Peak and Wachusett Mountain.
Nearly every resort, regardless of size, is now selling passes for less than their walk-up lift ticket cost when you buy early, especially for multiple days. Liftopia offers massive discounts off walk-up pricing, but again, their numbers are pegged to how early you purchase. For beginners, a majority of resorts offer learn to ride packages with a discount for booking a lesson, rental, and lift ticket package. And across the country, January is Learn to Ski or Snowboard month, with even deeper discounts for getting up and linking turns for the first time.
The deals for riders that can buy in advance are impressive. Yet it's never been trickier to head to the mountain on a whim affordably. What this means is simple. Figure out what type of snowboarding experience you want, then shop around, and commit to finding the best deal on lift tickets, or buying a pass early. Happy trails.