Utah skiers underwhelmed by Ikon, Epic pass response to spring season cut short by COVID-19

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune file) A skiers heads up the hill to the lifts at Brighton ski area in Salt Lake City Monday January 1, 2018. Brighton is offered on the Ikon pass, a multi-resort pass that, like Vail Resorts' Epic Pass, will provide skiers and snowboarders insurance for the 2020-21 season as a way to make up for the coronavirus cutting this spring's skiing season short.

Tony Fantis is the kind of guy who buys travel insurance. He knows among Americans he is an outlier. Still, whenever he takes a trip abroad, which he says is pretty often, he budgets in insurance as part of the cost.

Fantis is also a skier. Yet this season the Salt Lake City realtor had only gotten in four days before resorts across the country abruptly closed last month to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

So when Alterra Mountain Company and Vail Resorts offered insurance on 2020-21 passes to their Ikon and Epic pass holders, respectively, as part of their olive branch for the lost spring season, it should have appealed to Fantis. It didn’t. Even when paired with perks like discounts, later deadlines and interest-free payments, he said the enticement packages he’s seen are not enough to win his loyalty. And he’s not alone.

“The way they’re handling this is like a music subscription service. One day they pull the rug out from under you and you have nothing,” Fantis said. “Why would I reinvest now for a season I don’t know is going to happen? From a risk standpoint, I would rather wait and pay more later.”

Multi-resort passes have boomed in recent years. Among that group, the Ikon and Epic passes have risen as the titans. One in every nine skiers or snowboarders purchased one or the other in 2019, totaling more than one million people.

The Epic Pass provides access to 37 Vail Resort-owned properties as well as 20 more partner properties around the world. In Utah, the pass provides expansive access to Park City Mountain Resort and limited access to Snowbasin. The Ikon Pass boasts access to 45 destinations after announcing Tuesday that it has added Mount Bachelor in Oregon and Windham Mountain in New York to its lineup. Depending on the pass level, in Utah that includes unlimited access to Solitude and up to seven days at Brighton, Alta, Snowbird and Deer Valley.

On Saturday, March 14, Vail Resorts shut down its resorts nationwide after learning that Colorado Gov. Jared Polis planned to order all ski resorts in that state to close later that day. It was the first day of three of the busiest ski weekends of the season, when spring breakers would typically flood the slopes. Yet within days, the lifts had stopped spinning at every resort in the country.

With plenty of snow still on the ground and more to come, it felt like torture for many skiers and snowboarders. What made the situation even less agreeable was that skiing — with its masks, gloves and acres of wide-open terrain — seemed like the perfect social-distancing activity.

Many felt shorted. They wanted some kind of salve from the resorts, preferably in the form of a refund.

Charles Reynolds of Salt Lake City was among them. He was using his Ikon pass to ski Big Sky in Montana when the resort announced it would be shutting down at the end of the weekend.

“It definitely didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like it should be ending,” he said. “It felt like we got cheated out of [the rest of our season], not by Alterra, but by the circumstances.”

Still Reynolds, who works in sponsorship and “the land of make-goods” as co-founder of the tech firm Trak, said he expected Alterra to make up for the shortened season with its pass holders.

He received a notice of closure on March 15 and then a “Community Gratitude” letter a month later. The second letter outlined Alterra’s solatium. It included an extension of its early renewal period to May 26, an interest-free payment plan, discounts on 2020-21 passes and an insurance program. Through the Adventure Assurance insurance program, Ikon pass holders can choose to defer their pass to the 2021-22 season as long as they decide before Dec. 10. That option covers pass holders if, for example, the coronavirus continues to limit skiing and riding into the winter. If pass prices rise between the two seasons, though, pass holders will be required to pay the difference.

“These are uncertain times and we are particularly grateful for our Ikon Pass community, so we wanted to offer some benefits that show our appreciation and offered some value back for the shortened 19/20 winter season,” Alterra spokesperson Kristin Rust said in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune. “Adventure Assurance was an additional way to offer flexibility and choice with their purchase.”

At first glance, Reynolds said he was underwhelmed by the options. He estimated he would save about $50 off his next pass, which will still cost him $599. His “tune changed about 180 degrees,” though, when he read about the insurance plan.

“This offering, at least from Alterra, is enough for me to say, ‘Yes, it’s worth the risk for this coming year,’” he said. “But they’re probably not going to get me to upgrade.”

Vail Resorts announced its plan for redress Monday. It will offer its Epic Pass holders credits of 20-80% toward a 2020-21 pass, depending on how often their 2019-20 pass was used. For those wanting to renew early, when passes are cheaper, it has lowered the pass deposit to $49. The remainder of the cost of a pass will come due in September. Plus, Vail Resorts is offering its own pass insurance. Its insurance functions more like typical pass insurance than Alterra’s in that the company will reimburse pass holders at least partially if something suddenly ends their season. Among the issues covered are skier injury or job loss, a shelter-in-place order, a disease like COVID-19 and a natural disaster.

Margo Van Ness, a spokesperson for Park City and other Vail Resorts properties, said the company’s moves had nothing to do with a class-action lawsuit brought last week by an Epic Pass holder in California.

“We committed to our pass holders that we would follow-up with more details by the end of April and we spent weeks reading their emails and comments on social media to fully understand their concerns,” she wrote in an email to The Tribune. “After careful consideration, we have crafted what we believe is a comprehensive plan to honor their loyalty.”

Response to online posts about both the Ikon and Epic pass plans has been mixed. Like Fantis, many believe resorts did the right thing by shutting down, especially in light of studies that show ski towns harbored abnormally high numbers of coronavirus cases for their populations. He also realizes that issuing refunds instead of rebates might force some out of business.

Still, when it comes to loyalty, Fantis isn’t feeling it — not from the companies issuing multi-resort passes and definitely not to them.

“It kind of feels like we’re not going to give you anything back,” he said. “We’re going to hold your money hostage and force you to give us more money next year. That’s kind of the feeling of it.”