Merchant ski passes at Vail-area ski resorts go on sale starting Friday, Nov. 3 | VailDaily.com

Merchant ski passes at Vail-area ski resorts go on sale starting Friday, Nov. 3

EAGLE COUNTY — In the days before Vail Resorts' Epic Pass changed the ski industry, businesses would buy merchant passes to put their people on the hills. In the years since, merchant pass numbers have declined, but some business owners still see the value.

For a business owner, ski passes are often used as a hiring incentive. Buzz Schleper, owner of Buzz's Boards in Vail Village, buys his employees an Epic Pass every season.

"I want my (employees) on the mountain every day," Schleper said. "I don't want blackout dates, and I'm happy to spend the money to put them up there."

At Venture Sports, owner Mike Brumbaugh said his company uses a combination of Epic and merchant passes.

Brumbaugh said half to three-fourths of his people buy Epic passes and are then reimbursed by his business. The situation changes, though, for people who may arrive late to the mountains: Epic passes have a definite sell-by date.

"Some of those passes don't even exist in January," Vail Chamber & Business Association Director Alison Wadey said.

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A way to keep workers

Wadey said perhaps one-third of her group's members participate in the merchant pass program.

"People who deal with very seasonal employees take advantage of it," Wadey said.

Other merchant pass buyers see those passes as an employee-retention tool. Someone with an Epic Pass can use it no matter where he or she works. A merchant pass is held by the business, and that business has a one-time opportunity to transfer the pass from one employee to another in the middle of the season.

Best of all, Wadey said, if a merchant pass holder doesn't use all of its employee vouchers, then they can be returned before the season's end for full or partial credit.

Merchant pass participation is evaluated at the end of every season, Wadey said. Adjustments to the program are made after meetings between Vail Resorts and chamber officials.

For instance, merchant pass holders in the coming season will be able to use their passes at resorts outside of Colorado. That's a change from previous years, when the passes were valid only at resorts in the state.

The chambers and the resort company also come to an agreement on what businesses have to do to participate in the merchant pass program.

For a number of years, participating businesses had to put employees into a one-day guest service class, often called "smile school." That's no longer the case, but businesses do need to do more than simply write checks for passes.

Here are the conditions

At the top of the to-do list is current, paid-up membership in either the Vail Chamber & Business Association or the Vail Valley Partnership.

In addition, businesses have to participate in one of several programs.

Vail Valley Partnership President Chris Romer said requirements include:

• Participation in the group's Platinum Service Program.

• Contributions to the EGE Air Alliance, which works to bolster air service into the Eagle County Regional Airport.

• Participation in the Lodging Quality Assurance Program.

• Participation in guest service training.

"There's a bit of heavy lifting," Romer said. "But a business gets something in return."

In the years since the Epic Pass was unveiled, merchant pass participation has declined significantly. Vail Resorts doesn't release information about merchant pass sales, but Romer said the first year of the Epic Pass sent shock waves through local chambers of commerce.

"The merchant pass was a forced membership benefit," Romer said. "It was (one-third) the price of a season pass. Everybody needed a ski pass, and the merchant pass wasn't accessible without chamber membership. … When that went away, it made us much more accountable to our members."

Romer, who started work at the partnership two weeks after the first Epic Pass was introduced, recalled that the announcement was a "holy cow" moment at the regional chamber.

The one-two punch of the introduction of the Epic Pass and the national economic slump contributed to a steep drop in membership at the partnership, which bottomed out at below 400.

Today, offering other services and incentives to members, the partnership's membership is about 830.

That shows the partnership is working for its members, Romer said, adding, "If we weren't, our membership would be stuck in the 400 range."

For those businesses that use it, Romer called the merchant pass a great tool.

"The people who use it really love it," he said. "We're thankful Vail Resorts continues to offer that pass. They don't have to … and it's a huge benefit."

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

Five facts

• The least-restrictive 2017-18 Epic Merchant Pass is $859.

• Sales begin Friday, Nov. 3, at Vail and Saturday, Nov. 4, at Beaver Creek.

• Passes are controlled by businesses and can be transferred once from one employee to another.

• Buyers must be members of either the Vail Chamber & Business Association or Vail Valley Partnership. There are other requirements.

• Passes for the coming season are valid at all of the various Vail Resorts.

For more information, go to http://www.vail.com/vbcmerchantpass.