$300 lift ticket? Two Utah ski areas close in on that mark.

As resorts push prices to unseen levels thanks to dynamic pricing, are beginners being left out?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers brave the high winds at Deer Valley, on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.

Not so many years ago — only about four or five, in fact — the idea that one day people would pay $300 for a lift ticket, even at the most posh ski areas, seemed ridiculous.

Well brace yourselves, because for all intents and purposes, that day is here.

Two Utah resorts will come within a few bills of the $300 sticker price this season and both will go above that standard when taxes and fees are tacked on. Deer Valley Resort, often one of the most expensive in the country, will sell a single-day adult lift ticket for $289 at the ticket window this winter. Meanwhile Park City Mountain, which just two seasons ago was charging $189, now wants $299 for a single walk-up ticket on high-demand days.

Within the ski industry, those rapidly increasing walk-up rates are defended as being part of a larger business plan — one that gives the industry more stability while also resulting in lower overall costs for most visitors. But prices that high may also deter newcomers and reinforce the idea that skiing and snowboarding have become sports for the wealthy.

“The sticker shock of that definitely can scare people away,” said Mark Galluzzo, who co-founded the New England-based group No Boundaries with the mission of making skiing and snowboarding more affordable. “You don’t need to spend $300 to go skiing on a holiday weekend. But people see that, and it scares them away.”

Why charge so much?

If odds existed for which resort would be the first to breach the $300 day-ticket barrier (and let’s be honest, they probably did somewhere), Arizona’s Snowbowl would have been a longshot. Yet late last January the Flagstaff-area ski hill caused a commotion when a powder dump pushed its ticket-window prices to $309.

The force behind that price, which was $50 more than Deer Valley charged when it had North America’s most spendy ticket the season prior, was dynamic pricing. Dynamic pricing allows businesses to change their rates based on demand. And while the strategy has been around for decades, the ski industry has only recently adopted it. It was first widely introduced during the 2014-15 season by the online lift-ticket broker Liftopia.

The strategy yields benefits across the board, according to Iveta Malasevska, a senior researcher at the Eastern Norway Research Institute who has studied dynamic pricing at European resorts.

“By adjusting prices based on factors such as the time of purchase, season, capacity constraints, weather conditions, length of stay, weekdays, purchase channel, and historical demand data,” she wrote in an email, “ski resorts can create a win-win situation for both themselves and their visitors.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Early powder enthusiasts ski at Snowbasin Resort, Nov. 21, 2022.

Increasing or decreasing ticket prices on the fly gives resorts a lever to counteract overcrowding by prodding frugal skiers toward weekdays with better deals. It also motivates visitors to book tickets early or to buy season passes, both of which allow some stability to ski areas, especially during low-snow years.

“Lately, booking behavior has significantly changed, with the current trend being to book late,” Malasevska wrote in her email. “Many winter destinations have realized that a high number of tourists book their ski trips only after the weather forecast predicts good skiing conditions. Skiers have become more flexible in terms of their preferred destination, combined with increasing price sensitivity, leading to the development and implementation of innovative pricing approaches.”

In Snowbowl’s case, several factors sent ticket prices sky-high. For one, the ski area is the only resort within a day’s drive of Phoenix, population 1.625 million. Also, it received nearly seven feet of snow in seven days, 15 inches of which fell between Friday and Saturday — weekend days already primed for spikes in visitation and ticket prices.

At ski resorts across the country, inflation and increased wages have contributed to the bump in ticket prices as well. And walk-up prices are rising as demand for the service is falling. Adrienne Saia Isaac, a spokesperson for the National Ski Areas Association, said the average ski area receives less than a quarter of its revenue via window tickets. That’s down from more than 50% just six seasons ago.

Dynamic pricing in the Wasatch

Deer Valley and Park City have related but slightly varied reasons for pushing their posted holiday and weekend prices to the brink of $300 this season.

Deer Valley is synonymous with exclusivity. Setting its prices high allows it to cap visitor numbers and still offer its signature attentive service.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lift lines were not a problem as skiers braved the high winds on opening day at Deer Valley, on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. The resort will be charging $289 plus taxes and fees at the walk-up window during the 2023-24 season.

Even with dynamic pricing in place, a ride on the lifts, whether purchased in advance or at the ticket window, won’t dip below $200 between Dec. 15 and closing week. Deer Valley’s season passes are also among the most expensive in the country at $3,525 for an adult — a number that almost assuredly will jump when it expands into the former Mayflower property in 2024-25. In fact, the cheapest way onto its slopes might be by purchasing an Ikon Pass, which for $1,309 allows holders seven days at the Alterra Mountain Resort-owned property without blackout dates.

“Dynamic lift ticket pricing, particularly for walk-up tickets, has consistently been tailored to protect and maintain the quality of the guest experience,” Deer Valley said in a statement issued to The Tribune. “Over the years, walk-up lift ticket prices have seen steady increases as a strategy to manage crowd levels, encourage advance planning, and uphold operational excellence.”

Park City Mountain also employs dynamic pricing as a way to regulate crowds. However, it emphasizes the stability it gets from pass sales — be they for a single day or the entire season — as the main motivation for adopting the strategy. So yes, a skier can walk up on New Year’s Day and pay $326.06 with taxes and fees for a ticket at the window. Or, that same skier can purchase a one-day pass with no blackouts now for $129 plus tax and use it at any time during the season.

“Incentivizing people to buy a pass ahead of the season has created a great deal of stability for our industry,” spokesperson Sara Sherman wrote in an email. “It allows us to plan ahead, so we give the very best deal to people who purchase a pass before the season begins.”

Sherman noted that the resort sets its prices early in the season. It then evaluates them as winter progresses.

Sticker shock for new skiers

The problem with the dynamic pricing strategy is twofold, argues Galluzzo of No Boundaries. He pointed out the reluctance of most new skiers and boarders to pay upward of $1,000 for a season pass for a sport they’re not sure they’ll enjoy. Plus, many newcomers don’t start thinking about going skiing until snow is on the ground, at which point ticket prices are often well above what they were a few months earlier.

When they see that tickets cost up to $300, the sticker shock is real. And it may be contributing to a decline in skier numbers.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brighton Ski Resort ski instructor Rochelle Erskine, right, gives basic instructions to beginning skier Freebody Mensah before hitting the slopes for a lesson, March 21, 2022. Ski Utah's new pilot program "Discover Winter" that aims to increase the participation of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) individuals in winter sports by providing four complimentary ski or snowboard lessons, rental equipment and warm clothing.

Both Utah and the United States set records for skier visits last season, when most of the West also collected record snowfall. But that achievement reflected the efforts of a relatively small number of people going to the slopes a large number of times. The actual number of unique skiers and snowboarders who visited a resort last season actually dropped.

According to Kelly Davis, the director of research for the Outdoor Industry Association, the number of skiers and snowboarders fell roughly 14% between 2019-2022. Meanwhile winter activities not requiring lift access, such as snowshoeing and cross country and backcountry skiing have gained participants.

Saia Isaac, the spokesperson for the National Ski Areas Association, said it’s on ski areas to give newcomers incentive to look beyond those eye-popping prices.

“From an anecdotal perspective: Sure, sticker shock is going to negatively influence some folks, especially those who aren’t as familiar with the process of going skiing and riding,” she wrote in an email. “Ski areas have to balance the messaging around demand with the development of products that reduce some of the barriers to entry.”

One option is to offer beginner packages that include discount lift tickets. Another, she said, is to partner with smaller ski areas that can cater to beginners at a lower price until they’re ready to graduate to a larger resort.

Alison Palmintere, a spokesperson for Ski Utah, noted that dynamic pricing has produced eye-popping prices on the other end of the spectrum as well, especially at some of the state’s smaller ski hills. Nordic Valley, for example, offers tickets for $9 online on a couple of weekdays in December. Its most expensive ticket is going for $67.

Those differences exist at larger resorts as well, though they may be less discernible. Just a few miles south of Nordic Valley, Snowbasin is charging $139 for weekday tickets purchased online in advance and $189 for weekends. A weekday ticket in January at Park City Mountain, which has the most skiable acres in the United States, is going for $242 in advance.

Palmintere compared the use of dynamic pricing at ski resorts to its use by airlines. The further ahead people plan, she said, the more they can save.

Galluzzo isn’t so sure that analogy fits. He sees the stabilization benefits of dynamic pricing for resorts and how it can benefit customers with the knowledge or flexibility to take advantage of it. However, he disputes that a lift ticket falls into the same category of necessity, or even convenience, as one to board a plane.

“I think the counter argument to that is: ‘You wouldn’t buy a movie ticket six months in advance to go see a movie now,” he said. “Now skiing is not going to the movies, either, but it’s recreating. It’s something that people could do instead of going skiing.

“So I don’t know what the answer is, but it probably lies somewhere in the middle. Dynamic pricing is important, and it’s definitely helpful, but we’ve got to find a way to make sure that new skiers know that you don’t have to spend that much. There’s other ways.”

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