Business

No snow, no problem: Ski resorts push season passes over pay-as-you-go tickets to secure sales

For many skiers, the days of strolling up to the hill and buying a lift ticket are winding down, as the industry tries to hedge its bets against crummy snow conditions by locking in sales weeks or even months ahead of time.

Season passes have been around for decades, but the industry has leaned harder on them as a share of revenue following an industry-shaking decision in 2008 by Vail Resorts, Inc. to introduce a cut-rate season pass that gave skiers unlimited access to its resorts. At the time it had five, but it now has 41 mountain resorts, primarily in North America.

Since then, the company has seen its season pass revenue balloon from $78 million US in 2008 to $795 million US in 2022 — causing ski areas all over North America to mimic Vail’s strategy.

The industry says the increased focus on advance passes is a win-win: Customers can get a better deal by buying early, while businesses lock in revenue that carries them through the off-season and times when it doesn’t snow.

This winter has been a perfect example: Very little snow throughout Alberta and British Columbia meant iffy ski conditions during the critical holiday season.

But at Vail, which owns British Columbia’s premier ski resort, Whistler Blackcomb, bad conditions meant 16 per cent fewer skier visits in the early season — although the company’s lift revenue actually grew 2.6 per cent in the same period thanks to the strength of its pass sales. (Vail is one of the rare ski resort companies that is publicly traded, so it discloses more financial information than most of the industry.)

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“If they never got a single snowflake in all their mountains, they would still have that pre-sale revenue, so that is absolutely bolstering their ability to not have a bigger decline,” said Chris Woronka, an analyst who monitors the leisure industry at Deutsche Bank in New York.

Nabbing a pass early on can mitigate the cost of what’s commonly known as one of the priciest sports around, although for newbies and casual skiers, the relatively high cost of a walk-up ticket can be another barrier.

Ski and snowboard instructors walk along the base of Whistler Mountain. While the rise of relatively inexpensive passes may be a good thing for dedicated skiers, it’s not necessarily a benefit to more casual ones or those who want to try the sport for the first time. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Rise in multi-resort passes

In the words of the Denver-based magazine 5280, Vail’s 2008 Epic Pass “threw a knuckleball” at the ski industry by slashing the price of a ski pass and giving skiers unlimited access to all of the company’s resorts, a move that was seen as crazy at the time but has gone on to change the business.

“They did a very good job of creating a market where skiers and snowboarders that didn’t necessarily live near a resort would still want to buy a season pass,” said Todd Burnette, CEO of the Mountain Collective.

“Customers were basically committing to go to a Vail resort before the season started.”

An ad for the Ikon multi-resort pass is pictured at the base of the Banff Sunshine ski resort.
A sign for the Ikon multi-resort pass, launched by Alterra Mountain Company in 2018, is pictured at the base of the Banff Sunshine Village ski resort. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Rival businesses responded by launching their own multi-resort passes — products that give skiers access to multiple resorts and go on sale well before the season starts.

The Mountain Collective, a group of independent ski resorts, launched its own pass in 2012. It was followed by Alterra Mountain Company’s Ikon Pass in 2018 and the Indy Pass, run by another group of small, independent ski areas, in 2019.

A growing number of resorts throughout Canada are captured by these passes, from Mont Tremblant and Blue Mountain in the east to Revelstoke and Marmot Basin out west.

“It absolutely is the direction the business is going,” Burnette said. “We’re all continuing to see growth around passes.”

The growth in multi-resort passes helps reel in international customers who would have otherwise stayed close to home, said Pete Woods, president of SkiBig3, which represents ski resorts in Banff and Lake Louise, Alta.

“It allows people that maybe have a season pass to a local mountain in Colorado, or potentially in California or in Utah, to then be able to come use that for essentially free, to come here,” said Woods, whose resorts participate in the Ikon and the Mountain Collective passes.

WATCH | Skiers, snowboarders face poor snow conditions at Whistler:

Whistler skiers, snowboarders react to poor snow conditions

Unseasonably high winter temperatures have meant little snow at lower elevations at B.C.’s premier ski resort.

Buying ahead has pros and cons

Beyond inspiring direct copycats, the introduction of the Epic Pass spurred other shifts in the industry.

Paul Pinchbeck, president and CEO of the Canadian Ski Council, said ski areas large and small have mimicked Vail’s strategy by dropping the price of their own season passes and raising those prices at a slower pace relative to window tickets.

The share of season passes sold in Canada relative to lift tickets has grown from 40 per cent to 50 per cent in the last two decades, he said.

(Precise data about pricing trends is hard to come by; Statistics Canada doesn’t track the cost of lift tickets, and ski areas are largely private businesses reluctant to share this information.)

A woman in a yellow ski suit is pictured at Banff Sunshine Ski resort.
Kendra Scurfield, vice-president of brand marketing at Banff Sunshine Village, says she believes it’s important to continue targeting new skiers as part of the resort’s business model. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

At Banff Sunshine Village, about 40 per cent of visits to the ski hill in the 1990s involved the purchase of a walk-up lift ticket. Today, that’s down to about 15 per cent, said Kendra Scurfield, vice-president of brand marketing.

The share of window tickets has declined, she said, as a variety of other products — from season passes to multi-resort passes to pre-sale discount tickets — have become more popular.

“The benefit of having the ability to go into [the] market and pre-sell tickets is astronomical,” said Scurfield, who pointed to the cost of lift development and maintenance, payroll and electricity.

For skiers and snowboarders, buying ahead of time has pros and cons. If all goes well and conditions are great, it’s a good way to get a deal, but poor skiing conditions or an unexpected injury can toss those savings out the window.

“You usually get savings,” skier Nathan Page said during a break from skiing in Banff. “The con is you don’t know what’s happening that season, so user beware, man.”

“I’ve had friends who’ve been completely injured, surgery, everything … and they didn’t get reimbursed for their pass at all,” skier Amanda Woodtke said.

Skis and snowboards are pictured in Whistler, B.C.
Skis and snowboards are pictured in Whistler. For skiers and snowboarders, buying a pass ahead of time has pros and cons. If all goes well and conditions are great, it’s a good way to get a deal, but poor skiing conditions or an unexpected injury can toss those savings out the window. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

And while the rise of (relatively) inexpensive passes may be a good thing for dedicated skiers, it’s not necessarily a benefit to more casual ones or those who want to try the sport for the first time.

“They’re going to pay the gate price when they come to the wicket, and it’s quite expensive,” said John Walton, president of the Calgary Ski Club.

Both Scurfield and Pinchbeck said recruiting new skiers into the sport remains a priority and that many ski hills and resorts offer discount packages aimed specifically at first-timers.

Flying to resorts impacts environment

There’s also some concern about the environmental impact of the pre-sale model.

Part of the draw of multi-resort passes, such as the Epic and Mountain Collective’s, is the flexibility. Skiers can, in theory, buy a pass in the summer and then fly wherever the snow is best in the ski season — a strategy the industry encourages.

“We rarely have really poor seasons in California, Colorado, B.C., New England, in Ontario and Quebec,” said Daniel Scott, a professor at the University of Waterloo who studies climate change and tourism.

“Usually it’s one or two of those regions will have a bad year and other parts will have good seasons, and that will all balance off.”

While the multi-resort model makes sense from a business perspective, Scott said, the increased emissions from flying to a destination can also work against a broader goal among skiers and resort owners: to slow climate change and preserve winter weather.

In response to a question about the environmental impact of the multi-resort pass, a spokesperson for Vail pointed to the company’s environmental initiatives, which include reducing landfill waste and using renewable electricity.

The view from the top of Blackcomb Peak near Whistler.
The view from the top of Blackcomb Peak near Whistler. (Denis Dossmann/CBC)

Criticism notwithstanding, Woronka, the Deutsche Bank analyst, said he believes resorts will continue to push season passes and other advanced sales in the years ahead.

The next frontier, he said, is to get those pre-committed customers to spend more once they’re on the hill. At Vail, for example, that means getting pass-holders hooked on a new members-only gear service the company is piloting at certain resorts this season.

“I think that’s something others will look at as well,” Woronka said.

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