Strange and radical things are happening in the ski industry and the business of buying a pass is not the same as it once was.
Mountains are glomming together with resorts, falling into partnerships left and right, getting vacuumed up by Big Mountain corporations. Passes are expanding, prices are changing and skiers and boarders all over the state are being forced to choose paths.
It’s like a game of hungry-hungry hippos out there as corporations gobble up any and every mountain they can get their hands on. It’s a path being blazed by two of the largest ski conglomerates in the world, and it’s a one-way slope. One that ends in either snowy salvation or high-country homogenization — corporate ski area “resortification.”
And only time will tell for sure.
Before delving into outcomes, though, it’s important to understand origins. Because, this has been coming down the chutes for a long time, even if it’s only now starting to snowball.
For over twenty years Vail Resorts has been expanding their network of partnerships, buying mountains and striking deals all over Colorado, throughout the country and even abroad — in places like Canada (Whistler), Japan (Hakuba Valley), and Australia (Perisher). For years their pass, the Epic Pass, was the undisputed best option for local snow junkies who wanted to shred multiple mountains, multiple times throughout the season. And with 65 different mountains worldwide attached to their name, there was nothing even close to competing with them.
Last year, a new player hit the scene — Alterra Mountain Company, a joint venture between KSL Capitol and Henry Crown and Co. (which owns Aspen Skiing Co.). This new conglomerate is stepping up to challenge the Big Dog of Ski Country. They saw what Vail was doing, expanding their skiing empire, and decided it was about time they did the same.
So, on January 25th of 2018, Alterra announced their new pass product: the Ikon Pass; featuring "38 Iconic destinations". And just like that, the Epic monopoly became an Ikonic duopoly, stoking the race to “resortify” Colorado’s ski country.
But what does this mean for smaller, individual mountains? How can places like Ski Cooper and Wolf Creek stay relevant when they’re competing against megalithic companies like Vail and Alterra?
By either selling out, partnering up, or, simply, just by having more snow than anyone else.
“The partnerships are great,” says Dana Johnson, the director of marketing and sales for Ski Cooper. “It's something that we are doing to add value to our pass.”
Ski Cooper sits at the top of Tennessee Pass near Leadville, Colorado. It’s a tiny mountain with only 400 acres of skiable terrain, but it is a beautiful place and they get some big snow throughout the year. As Vail Resorts has grown, though, their business model has had to change as well, and sometime around 2012 they started to partner up with mountains in the Mid-west, mountains in the Northeast and mountains on the West Coast.
It may not have been a direct response to the growth of Vail or the emergence of the Ikon Pass, but it was certainly at least partially a result. Today, Cooper is partnered with 37 different local ski mountains spread out throughout the nation, at which, pass holders can enjoy three free days at each.
However, not all ski resorts have had to submit to this model. Wolf Creek is the only mountain in Colorado that hasn’t sold out, hasn’t partnered up and has absolutely no intention of doing so any time soon, according to the owner Davey Pitcher.
But, that’s because they’ve got an ace up their sleeve.
“Wolf Creek gets tremendously good snow all winter,” admits Pitcher. “That puts us in a niche of our own.”
Almost without exception, Wolf Creek gets more snow than any other mountain in Colorado. Which means they get to play the game a little differently. Their day passes stay cheap, so powder hounds with a n extra stash of snow-cash can afford to stop by and shred the Wolf when it's getting dumped on. Their season passes, however, are comparable to the Epic and Ikon passes at $979. But the San Juan locals who make that investment, know they’re paying for premium powder, consistent snow, early and late season skiing and low-density slope traffic (ie no crowds).
Pitcher did express concern, though, for the way corporate ski conglomerates are booming in this state. As these mountain conglomerates continue to grow, consuming more and more mountains, he fears that the unique ski culture that defines each and every mountain and ski town will be homogenized by corporate meddling. The individualism of the different local mountains will be flushed out. Replaced with a uniform personality, a corporate cookie cutter blueprint repeated in different places, producing nearly identical ski resorts.
“That's part of what made it so fun and unique during the pioneering days,” says Pitcher. “In the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, every ski area was like night and day… You could name a hundred things that made them unique to themselves.”
Which is not something you find between conglomerate mountains. On a certain level, walking through Vail Village isn’t a whole lot different from walking through Beaver Creek Village, Keystone Village or Breckenridge; the personalities of the mountains feel like reflections; the mountain operations are almost identical; the signage, indistinguishable… And, worst of all, they all charge for parking in some respect.
Could Pitcher be right? Could the rise of corporate ski conglomerates herald the downfall of ski town individualism? Could this resortification be the means by which corporate America sucks the very life and style out of local ski mountains?!
Perhaps. But that's not all bad. At least, not according to Pitcher.
“At the end of the day you have to look at those big mountains and realize that there's an awful lot of people that are having a good time, there. And so, you know, it can't be the worst thing in the world,” he says. “It's just maybe different.”
That sentiment was echoed by Colorado Ski Country USA’s Chris Linsmayer, who thinks the real beneficiaries of this corporate expansion are local skiers and snowboarders. Even if it means bigger out-of-state crowds, more uniformity among resorts and fewer stand-alone mountains.
“I think it’s great for consumers,” he says. “The [Ikon] pass is great because it gives people the option to travel around and chase storms.”
When passes were more localized and specific to a single mountain, that wasn’t as feasible as it is today. So, if you’re into geographic variety, this new modus operandi is an appealing one. Though, it may mean less diversity of character.
Regardless, the genie is out of the bottle. This shift towards bigger passes owned by corporate conglomerates is not one that can be reversed. How it evolves and into what remains to be seen. But it’s safe to say that we are beyond the point of no return — for better or for worse, and whether skiers and boarders are on board or not.