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Ski pass wars head west

When’s the last time a trend was exported from Colorado to California? Usually it’s the other way around. Californians dictate our sense of style, buy up our real estate, and even tell us how to run our legal system (see the Kobe Bryant case).But one area where the Golden Staters lag is in skiing, especially when it comes to the art of mass marketing. Now Colorado’s discount season pass wars have gone west in a big way, and the ripple effects are just starting to be felt.Sure, Northstar at Tahoe and Sierra at Tahoe have had a discounted combo pass for three seasons now, but they’re owned by Vail-based Booth Creek Ski Holdings.And, yeah, Mammoth has been peddling cheapo passes for several years, but they’re owned by Intrawest, which first cut its teeth in the Buddy Pass wars in Colorado five years ago, selling discount passes at the Canadian company’s Copper Mountain ski area.Industry experts may try to tell you that low-priced passes first cropped up at Bogus Basin, Idaho, and technically, they’re right. But the arms race escalated to a fever pitch in Colorado when Winter Park fired the first salvo of ’70s prices for the ’97-98 ski season.Once Vail Resorts joined the fray, the discount season ski pass became the norm in the industry for areas anywhere close to major metro markets.In Vail, where the Colorado Pass sells for $319 and offers unlimited skiing at Arapahoe Basin, Keystone and Breckenridge and 10 days at Vail or Beaver Creek, that’s brought a shift from being predominantly a destination resort to catering heavily to day skiers.It’s also meant much larger crowds on weekends, parking and traffic snarls on key holidays and dwindling sales taxes due to more spend-thrift Front Range skiers who hit the slopes and then hit the highway.Vail Resorts CEO Adam Aron says his company, which owns Vail, Breckenridge, Beaver Creek, Keystone and now Heavenly Ski Resort on Lake Tahoe, pulls in $35 million a year in advance pass sales during the spring and fall, when it used to have a negative cash flow. That means discount passes are here to stay.Last season, its first year under Vail Resorts ownership, Heavenly launched its UltraPass for $299, including five day’s at the ski company’s four Colorado resorts, and saw its skier days and lift ticket sales increase 12.5 and 19.3 percent respectively.In April, Mammoth Mountain, which is primarily an in-state destination area serving the Southern California market, put a cap of 32,000 on its $399 Value Pass and sold out in 27 days. It also enjoyed its best season in 17 years, with 1.3 million skier days, third in the nation behind Vail and Breckenridge.Obviously, the affordable pass is gaining momentum in California, but it’s also having the same negative side effects Colorado has experienced. Asked why Mammoth imposed the cap last spring, communications coordinator Fleur Gilligan replies, “To preserve the on-mountain experience. We were finding that on our big holiday days we were getting too many people and it was too crowded.”That complaint has taken on a life of its own in Vail, where some merchants last spring floated the idea of imposing weekend restrictions on Colorado Passes. Fat chance, Vail execs responded (in so many words), because that would kill the program. Instead the company has restricted local use by imposing blackout days on Merchant Passes for years.Winter Park spokeswoman Joan Christensen says there are too many Colorado ski areas too close together for any of them to disarm in the pass wars.”We reserve the right to restrict ours, but we’ve found that in five years of doing it, we haven’t needed to. But we’re dividing the pie six or seven ways here, and (Mammoth) pretty much has a monopoly.”And, she adds, the passes, which typically have to be purchased in the spring or fall, represent too much guaranteed income for anyone to back off now. And snow riders like the idea of locking in early.”It’s the Home Shopping Network mentality,” says Christensen, whose Intrawest-run resort offers the Rocky Mountain Super Pass with Copper Mountain for $299. “Buy that emerald necklace now before it’s too late. And it works.”Less than 10 years ago, an unrestricted season pass at Vail sold for around $1,500. Its clientele was primarily destination, out-of-state skiers who stayed longer and spent more money in town. Vail still is about 65 percent destination, and with its Perfect 10 and Ski 3 Pass does offer deep discounts to fly-in skiers, but the number of day skiers on the slopes has skyrocketed in the past five years.Around Tahoe, which is about three hours from the massive metropolitan complex of the San Francisco Bay area, there are a number of ski areas arrayed around the lake competing for those drive-in skiers. But Heavenly’s chief competition in the area won’t play Vail Resorts’ game.”When you start to go down the Costco or Wal-Mart ski area road, where you’re trying to discount to the masses as opposed to catering to a clientele that respects your product, the backlash can be severe,” says Eric Brandt, marketing director for Squaw Valley, which is holding the line at Tahoe with $1,599 peak season passes.”What we have at Squaw Valley versus the rest of our local competitors is an attitude that a season pass is a special thing,” Brandt adds. “I think (the discount pass) devalues the overall value of what the skiing experience is for reasons of overcrowding and frustration by the general public, whether its drive-ups or fly-ins.”At some pint there’s going to be a backlash to the point where you’ve taking the skiing and snowboarding out of skiing and snowboarding.”Vail Resorts spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga says it’s time to drop the term “discounted season passes,” because the company offers deals to both day and destination skiers. And she argues that day skiers actually help bring in out-of-state skiers through word of mouth.”We have embraced, for four years now, and will continue to embrace Colorado skiers and snowboarders. They spend money at our resorts in winter and in summer, and they remain animportant influence for our destination markets in the sense that they spread word of mouth to friends, relatives and coworkers who live out of state on where to ski and ride,” Ladyga says.Gen Gunnarson, marketing director for Sierra and Northstar at Tahoe, says the passes have become an economic reality one that gives the Vail-based company’s clients a choice of two resorts on either side of the lake.”To us is not a bad thing that’s happening,” she says of the spread of the pass wars to California. “It’s actually really helped the resorts, especially in poor snow years.”


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