Late last year, the Crystal Mountain Resort announced it would no longer sell ski-lift tickets at its windows on weekends, a startling move in an industry that has historically sought volume and the high margin returns from single-day lift ticket sales.
The resort, in the shadow of Washington’s Mount Rainier, has been plagued this season with overfilled parking lots, long lift lines and mountain roads choked with skier vehicles. The crowds were brought on by a cycle of big storms, yes, but also the crush of skiers who hold Ikon Passes, which grant riding privileges at Crystal all season long.
“It’s a very imperfect science, pairing demand with snow and terrain,” said Rusty Gregory, chief executive of Denver-based Alterra Mountain Co., which owns Crystal. “Each resort has to do what’s right for its conditions and its skiers.”
Crystal, which will continue honoring Ikon passes and lift tickets that have been purchased in advance, is not an outlier. The recent introduction of multiresort passes have pushed more skiers to more places, making once-sleepy mountains more crowded. Resorts that are within driving distance of major metropolitan areas, in particular, are coping with powder day throngs not seen before.
Private-equity-backed Alterra kindled an intense round of consolidation among ski resorts when it was formed in 2018 as a rival to Vail Resorts, a public company that owns Vail, Whistler-Blackcomb and Park City, among others. Vail was already selling several forms of its Epic Pass when Alterra introduced the Ikon Pass soon after its formation. The dueling passes, both backed by large balance sheets and aggressive marketing, ushered in a new age for skiers. The two passes now cover every major ski resort in North America in some form.
Skiers who once may have taken a single trip to Colorado or Utah, plus a weekend or two at a mountain within driving distance, all via single-day lift passes, now find value in multiresort passes that can be fairly comprehensive for as little as $700.
As single lift ticket prices at many resorts now approach $200, passes continue to grow more popular. Vail announced in December it had sold more than 1.2 million passes for this winter, an increase of 22%. Alterra doesn’t make its numbers public, but the company said it sold more than 250,000 passes for last winter, and sales for this season, Gregory says, “were up markedly.”
The number of pass holders comprises new ground for the ski industry, which must learn how to deal with crowds popping up in unlikely spots. Eldora Mountain, which was once a quiet local mountain 40 minutes from Boulder, Colorado, has been dealing with hordes of skiers since joining the Ikon Pass. The mountain regularly advises carloads of skiers to turn around on weekend days when the parking lots fill up before noon.
Utah’s Alterra-owned Deer Valley halted lift ticket sales five days this winter to keep skier numbers below its target maximum. At the end of last season, Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin, independently owned but then aligned with Vail’s Epic Pass, announced it would depart the alliance because of crowding issues that ranged from overloaded parking lots to cafeterias where open tables had become rare commodities. A-Basin is now aligned with the Ikon Pass, but with more restrictions.
Many skiers plan trips far ahead of time, but there’s a growing number who embrace the freedom of Epic and Ikon and take a wait-and-see approach, sometimes booking lodging just a few days out.
“These passes facilitate the snow chaser,” said Mary Kate Buckley, president of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
Independently owned Jackson saw record amounts of snow last winter, which, combined with the new Ikon Pass (which made up 15% of skiers that year), caused volume to “get out ahead of us,” Buckley said. Jackson has since added a ski lift, increasing its uphill capacity, and brought on line more parking options to decrease crowding on the roads and around the ski area’s base.
In some resort communities new to the Ikon Pass, local gripes last winter grew sharp. Frustrations were so vocal in Jackson and Big Sky, Montana, that resort executives published open letters to their communities, pledging to do better in handling the crowds. In Big Sky’s case, the resort implored locals to welcome out-of-town guests, lamenting a bumper sticker being sold in the area with a play on words: “IKON [not] wait for you to leave.”
Rob Katz, Vail Resorts’ chief executive, said that season pass sales have allowed the industry to better plan ahead and offer better stability to its communities and employees.
“We’re not on as much of a yo-yo anymore,” he said, but managing the additional crowds “requires a tremendous amount of thought.”