Smaller, independent ski areas join forces in the shadow of Epic-v-Ikon season pass battle | PostIndependent.com

Smaller, independent ski areas join forces in the shadow of Epic-v-Ikon season pass battle

“Small areas will have problems adapting to such large changes in the market.”

By JASON BLEVINS
jblevins@denverpost.com
The Denver Post
NEDERLAND, CO - DECEMBER: Skiers ride the new high speed quad lift as they enjoy the first snowfall in months at Eldora Ski area on December 21, 2017 in Nederland, Colorado. Between 2-4'" inches fell in the area. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Independent ski resorts are laboring in the shadow of dueling giants to find their niche in an industry swiftly dividing into two distinct camps.

High-profile independent resorts like Jackson Hole, Crested Butte, Telluride, Alta and Snowbird have aligned with the brawling behemoths behind the Epic and Ikon season passes, which, at $899 each, offer access to more than 50 of North America’s 600-plus ski areas and host about a quarter of the continent’s skier visits.

Aaron Brill, whose frill-free Silverton Mountain ski area in southwest Colorado has not attracted partnership offers from either the Epic or Ikon, said the smaller, independent resorts unable to land a spot on the two dominant passes will suffer “devastating impacts.”

“Even for the small guys who manage to find their way onto a mega, big-box pass, they will experience problems with sustainability moving forward,” Brill said. “Small areas will have problems adapting to such large changes in the market. Areas that have run a certain way for decades don’t have a ton of options on how to pivot to adapt to lowering prices.”

Dozens of smaller resorts across the country are joining forces in a communal campaign to entice skiers away from the siren calls of the Epic and Ikon. Those independent hills are forging their own collectives, offering season passes priced well below their break-even point just to maintain relevancy in an industry where the volume of pass sales has become the new barometer for financial success.

The consolidation of major resorts under the Epic-vs-Ikon pass battle is transforming the resort industry. Vail Resorts sees Alterra Mountain Co.’s Ikon Pass as validation of its 10-year-old Epic Pass, which has shifted the resort industry away from real estate development and toward pass sales. When skiers buy their skiing months before the lifts start turning, resorts have the financial stability to invest in upgrades and pursue strategic plans. Vail Resorts recently reported the dearth of snow in the West led to a decline in visitation and visitor spending across its 11 destination resorts. But the company reported an uptick in lift ticket revenue thanks to more than 750,000 early-season buyers of the Epic Pass.

Skiers, in exchange for shouldering some of the financial risk that comes with running a business dependent on snow, benefit with cheaper turns. When the Epic Pass debuted at $579 in 2008, a typical season pass cost around $1,500. With the emergence of the 26-resort Ikon Pass, Vail Resorts corralled even more resort partners. Crested Butte Mountain Resort on Wednesday joined Telluride as one of the more high-profile U.S. resorts to join the Epic Pass.

“The ski industry has changed drastically in the last few years and in the last year particularly and we want to make sure we remain relevant and we remain economically viable and this deal represents that,” said Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s Erica Mueller, whose family owns the resort as well as operations in New Hampshire and Vermont. “I don’t think five years ago this is something we would have necessarily envisioned, but that’s OK and we are open to change and we need to adapt as a company.”

Read the full story in The Denver Post.