Taking a multiple pass


April 06, 2016

The way Kirsten Lynch sees it, imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery. Lynch, the chief marketing officer at Vail Resorts, which debuted its multiresort Epic Pass in advance of the 2008-09 ski season, said the introduction of at least three competing multiresort partnerships since then hasn't hurt demand for their product, which offers unlimited skiing at a dozen Vail properties in the U.S. and one in Australia.

"We think it's great for skiers and [snowboard] riders," Lynch said. "We don't see anything negative associated with it whatsoever."

With both economic and weather conditions fluctuating wildly in recent years, more ski resort operators have partnered up to offer multiresort passes that lock in revenue either before the season starts or early on while hedging their bets on conditions that can wreak havoc on daily lift-ticket demand.

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With single-day lift-ticket prices zooming well past the $100 mark at most major U.S. resorts, more skiers and snowboarders appear willing to foot the bill for multiresort passes, which start at about $375 for adults and work their way past $800 for the Epic Pass.

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The current ski season marked the debut of the MAX Pass, a partnership between Intrawest, Powdr and Boyne resorts. The MAX Pass offers skiers as many as five days each at 25 resorts, including Colorado's Steamboat and Winter Park; Oregon's Mount Bachelor; Utah's Brighton and Solitude; Quebec's Mont Tremblant; and Vermont's Killington and Stratton. The cost of an adult 2016-17 MAX Pass is $599 ($399 for teens, $299 for kids ages 6 to 12), though, as with other passes, the prices will most likely rise as next season approaches.

"We have a concentration of resorts on the East Coast, and that's certainly been a pretty big driver," said Intrawest Chief Marketing Officer Matt Bowers, who estimated that more than 5,000 MAX Passes were sold for the current season. "What surprised me is how many days people are actually using it. The amount of people who took advantage of using the pass 10 days or more was impressive."

The MAX Pass followed the 2013-14 debut of the Powder Alliance, whose independent resorts include Colorado's Crested Butte; California's Mountain High and Sierra-at-Tahoe; Oregon's Mount Hood; and New Mexico's Angel Fire. The Powder Alliance grants season-pass holders at any of the resorts (Crested Butte's 2015-16 adult season pass cost $629, while Mt. Hood's cost $509) three free days of skiing at any of the other resorts within the alliance. Restrictions, including Saturday blackouts, apply at some of the resorts.

Meanwhile, the Aspen Skiing Co.-led Mountain Collective was introduced ahead of the 2011-12 season. Member skiers are permitted as many as two days each at the group's dozen resorts, which include Utah's Alta and Snowbird; Lake Tahoe, Calif.'s Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows; Wyoming's Jackson Hole; and British Columbia's Whistler Blackcomb. Adult passes for the 2016-17 season start at $379.

"By and large, people are visiting two to three destinations during the course of a season," said Aspen Vice President of Marketing Christian Knapp, who declined to disclose any specifics on the Mountain Collective's pass volume or revenue. "And it also allows you to chase the snow. Somewhere in the Mountain Collective, there's going to be great snow."

Such a proliferation of options has given travel professionals a chance to not only appeal to wealthier winter-sports enthusiasts with time flexibility but to help match multiresort passes with the travelers' winter-sports enthusiasm, said Julie Danziger, director of luxury travel services at New York-based Ovation Vacations.

The Epic Pass appeals to the most hard-core skiers and snowboarders, offering unlimited seasonal access to Vail's 13 resorts at a 2016-17 cost of $809 for adults, while those looking for more bang for their buck are more amenable to the Mountain Collective, Danziger said.

"I would say one out of 10 clients are asking about [multiresort passes], and out of the ones we introduce it to, about 50% are taking the option," she said. "It's definitely grown during the past couple of years."

The proliferation of such programs reflects a strategy in which member resorts can guarantee an early-season revenue stream while pitching passes that they say can pay for themselves with just a handful of days on the mountain. Single-day lift-ticket prices can range from $84 at Mount Bachelor to $175 at Vail's eponymous Colorado resort.

Vail Resorts has thrown an additional wrinkle into that strategy in recent years by acquiring smaller resorts near urban markets and pitching the Epic Pass to skiers who make both single-day trips from home and longer excursions to the Rockies or out west. In late 2012, Vail acquired Michigan's Mount Brighton and Minnesota's Afton Alps, and earlier this year it added Wisconsin's Wilmot Mountain to pull in Chicago- and Milwaukee-area skiers.

"There are more skiers in Chicago than in the entire state of Colorado," Lynch said. "Putting those [urban-based skiers] on the path [to buying the Epic Pass] has been a hugely successful strategy for us."

That hedge has been all the more valuable amid a winter-resorts sector where visitor numbers has fluctuated in recent years. Last season, the number of skiers visiting U.S. resorts fell for the first time in three years, declining 5.1%, to 53.6 million visits. That was the second-lowest figure in 15 years and marked an 11% drop from the record 60.5 million visits in 2010-11, according to the National Ski Areas Association trade group.

This season, things have improved, if only slightly. Lodging occupancy in Western U.S. and Rocky Mountain winter resort towns through the end of February was up 3.6% from a year earlier after more February bookings turned the season to "respectable" from "marginal," according to DestiMetrics, which tracks the lodging demand at 19 mountain-resort towns across California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

While DestiMetrics director Ralf Garrison cited better snow conditions in the West after four relatively dry seasons, he said that warmer weather throughout other ski regions and the stronger dollar, which has constrained ski visits from overseas, is preventing faster growth.

The partners behind multiresort passes such as the MAX Pass and Mountain Collective appear to be both emulating and taking on the Epic Pass, and for good reason. For the quarter ending Jan. 31, Vail Resorts boosted its season-pass revenue 21% from a year earlier, to about $131 million, nearly three times the $49.2 million Vail sold in season passes for the first season of 2008-09.

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In addition to buying the Midwest ski resorts, Vail connected its Park City and Canyons resorts in Utah with a gondola in time for this season.

While much of the recent revenue gains are a result of sheer resorts growth, Vail has also used its Epic sub-brand of products to broaden its skier appeal while touting its technological advancements.

Notably, Vail debuted its EpicMix Time app this season to provide crowd-sourced, real-time lift-line times at the Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone resorts in Colorado. Lynch said user feedback has been "incredibly positive," and Vail is looking at broadening that feature to its other resorts.

Of course, the calculated risk of selling a multiresort seasonal pass and foregoing the incremental sales of single-day lift tickets cuts both ways. Las Vegas resident and winter-sports enthusiast Zachary Beimes has bought various seasonal passes for more than 15 years and used to rack up as many as 75 days a year on the slopes when he was living in California. He would pay about $400 for a season pass at Mammoth.

That type of investment hasn't paid off for Beimes in recent years, though, as job and family obligations prevented him from taking advantage of the Mountain Collective passes he bought for both the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons.

"The first year, I didn't use it," Beimes said. "The second year, I used it at Whistler for two days. I felt so bad about not using the days. But I'm already so ahead from when I had the Mammoth passes that I've been playing with the house money for a long time."

All of which makes the job of educating prospective winter-sports travelers on the ins and outs of the multiresort passes all the more essential when it comes to arranging the sale and ensuring that the pass's perks and a client's winter-travel habits match up, Danziger said.

"People are interested in it, but they really need to get educated on the subcategories with each pass," she said. "If they see the value, then they'll get it. But if we send them a link and say 'pick a pass,' they won't do it, because there are just too many options."