Future of Ski Passes
The ski resort superpowers and the future of ski
Published on December 5, 2017
CHRISTOPHER STEINER | FEATURED IMAGE • JESSE HOFFMAN
other large industries, the ski industry has felt the steady force of
consolidation during the last several years. Whereas economist and author Adam
Smith would refer to this as the invisible hand, most others would describe
this force by name: Vail Resorts. Already the largest operator of North
American ski resorts in 2014, during the next two years Vail shrewdly bought
the two most consequential destination resorts it didn’t already own—Park City,
Utah and Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia. With these additions, Vail’s
role as the singular empire in skiing, as the company that dictated terms to
not only skiers but also to other resorts who sought those skiers, seemed set.
just as Vail’s utter dominance seemed assured, a new player emerged this spring
by making a series of moves that created a worthy, if not quite equal, rival to
Vail’s collection of resorts. A Denver private equity group, KSL Capital,
teamed with the Crowns, a Chicago family who owns the four mountains that
comprise Aspen Snowmass, to buy Intrawest, a resort operator whose major
holdings include Colorado’s Winter Park and Steamboat.
days after the Intrawest deal was announced, the new entity said it had also
acquired Mammoth Mountain and three smaller ski mountains in California. In
August, filling its Utah void, the company acquired Deer Valley, the
skiers-only resort in Park City that’s long been known as one of the best
operators in the industry. The newly formed and yet to be named resort company
also includes Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, California, which KSL already owned.
The company clearly wants to emulate the path taken by Vail Resorts, a public
company whose stock has nearly quadrupled in price during the last five years,
valuing it at $8.7 billion.
27 or so major destination resorts in western North America, 18 are controlled
by Vail Resorts, KSL or Aspen Skiing Co. If consolidation continues to creep,
the world of skiing will start to resemble that of telecom, with two or three
main choices—to which go pricing controls—and a smattering of regional options.
Crown-KSL foray has roiled an industry that had found an uneasy, albeit
fleeting, equilibrium. On one side, there were major independent ski resorts,
including Whistler Blackcomb and Mammoth, who joined together to offer the
Mountain Collective Pass, which, at $489, gives skiers two full days plus 50
percent discounts on additional days at a basket of more than 14 independent
destination resorts. On the other, there was Vail’s deep lineup of destination
resorts joined together by its Epic Pass, which grants holders full unlimited
skiing at 15 mountains for $859.
locals who tend to ski one mountain, choosing a pass has always been easy: buy
the one that includes the local resort. For destination skiers, however, who
generate more lucrative margins and periphery business—lodging, rentals,
food—for ski resorts and are thus more sought after, the choice has grown more
complicated. Buying individual lift tickets remains an option, but Vail Resorts
in particular has made this route punitively expensive: one-day tickets at some
of the company’s top-tier mountains hit $189 last season.
leads many skiers to make a choice that determines where they will spend their
ski holidays and their money. As Vail Resorts grew, so did the portfolio of the
Mountain Collective as independent resorts sought to challenge the Epic Pass.
Skiers who planned a destination trip to Aspen for Christmas would buy the
Mountain Collective Pass and, if they put another trip on the books for
February or March, would pick another Collective resort such as Jackson Hole.
Likewise, skiers traveling to Vail or Breckenridge for the holidays might
combine that with a spring trip to another Vail Resort such as Park City.
Vail has also purchased three regional ski hills in the Midwest close to major
metros, such as Wilmot Mountain near Chicago, to steer skiers from these
locales into the Epic Pass. Vail also bought Vermont’s Stowe, perhaps the most
recognizable name in the East, to get more New York and Boston-based skiers
into the Epic fold.