- Jeb Wallace-brodeur
- Skiing at Stowe Mountain Resort
The sun shone on blinding white snow at Killington Resort last Thursday, a lovely day at the Vermont ski area. Then it became even more lovely, at least for those counting the cash tucked into their ski pants pockets: Killington officials announced that, for the first time in years, they would slash the price on adult season passes by several hundred dollars, to $899.
The markdown came four days after a new competitor in the Vermont scene, Vail Resorts, announced a new deal for skiing at Stowe Mountain Resort. The Colorado mega-company will soon own the storied ski venue atop Mount Mansfield, which until now has been the state's priciest.
Two Mondays ago, Vail trumpeted that it would charge $859 for its multi-resort Epic Pass and, as it had promised, include Stowe in the consortium. The package means that skiers can pay less than half the Stowe adult pass rate this season — $1,860 — and get a lot more vertical feet for their money. Along with Stowe, Epic Pass holders have unlimited access to more than a dozen resorts, including Vail in Colorado, Park City in Utah and Whistler Blackcomb in western Canada.
The Epic deal isn't going unnoticed, especially by Vermont ski areas that rely heavily on dense East Coast population centers to fill their chairlifts with weekend skiers.
"We've dropped prices pretty much across the board," said Michael Joseph, communications manager at Killington, where about 90 percent of the skiers hail from out of state: 50 percent come from the New York metro area; 30 percent are Boston-area residents.
Sugarbush Resort has also responded. It dropped the price of an early-bird adult season pass from $1,149 to $799, extended discounts to skiers up to age 40 and announced that it would join the Mountain Collective network for the first time. The multi-mountain pass, organized in 2012 to compete with Vail's, does not provide the same unlimited access as the Epic deal. It offers a few days of free skiing at resorts including Aspen, Alta, Jackson Hole and Squaw Valley and 50 percent ticket discounts after the freebies are used up.
Even with all of that, Win Smith, majority owner and president of Sugarbush, predicted that some Sugarbush skiers would likely opt for the Epic Pass. "Our hunch is that we probably we will lose some," he said.
Jay Peak Resort, near the Vermont-Canadian border, is paying attention, too, but hasn't lowered its prices, said JJ Toland, communications director. The adult season pass for next winter is an affordable $699. Many of Jay's regulars are anchored to second homes, and the resort keeps its many Canadian customers happy by offering ski tickets for Canadian dollars at par — despite the current anemic exchange rate.
Nonetheless, Toland acknowledged the power of Vail's Epic marketing message: "I know it definitely serves to give an 'Oh, shit' factor to the consumer market — the 'Oh, shit, look at this; what an affordable option to all these resorts,'" said Toland. "It gets people's eyes onto their product."
A small number of Jay customers might try Stowe, Toland allowed — good but frugal skiers for whom the option has been cost-prohibitive. "I think you will have some people, just out of novelty's sake, check it out for a year or so," he said.
Because of the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program scandal, Jay Peak is expected to sell at some point, though court-appointed receiver Michael Goldberg has said it might not find a buyer for at least two years. Vail CEO Rob Katz, a former New York City investment banker, has not been nosing around Jay Peak, according to Toland. "I think Mr. Katz will see how the Stowe investment turns out before he goes and kicks another set of tires," he said.
Over at Bolton Valley Resort, Epic isn't having an immediate effect, either.
"Are we doing anything different? The answer is no," said Larry Williams, co-owner of the small area 35 minutes from Burlington at the top of the steep, frost-heaved Bolton access road.
"Our view was that we're already a very good value. Our customers are probably not likely to be Epic Pass customers. People come to Bolton because it's convenient. It's a great place for little kids to run around and do whatever they want," Williams said. "We don't feel like we're competing as directly with Stowe and the Epic Pass."
Bolton has been for sale for some time. "It's possible you might hear something soon, but it's not Vail," Williams said. "We will know more in the next month."
The most suitable purchase for Vail could be Smugglers' Notch Resort, on the other side of the mountain from Stowe and close enough for a lift-line link. Earlier this winter, Smugglers' Notch spokesman Mike Chait emphatically denied rumors that Vail was trying to buy the resort. Chait did not respond to a request for an updated comment this week.
Speculation is likely to continue as long as Vail Resorts is in acquisition mode. It keeps purchasing ski areas, including small ones rising up from the cornfields outside population centers such as Chicago and Minneapolis. The idea is that by putting Podunk ski areas in the Epic family, the pass holders in Evanston, Ill., and Edina, Minn., will choose a Vail resort for their expensive ski trips to the Rockies or the Sierras. Supporting that theory: Since Vail resorts launched the Epic Pass in 2008, sales have soared — from 500,000 in 2015 to approximately 600,000 this winter.
Stowe already has more cachet and better terrain than a place like Wisconsin's Wilmot Mountain, which Vail bought last year. And the Vermont property gives the company access to a lucrative market: East Coast urbanites who trek to the Green Mountains on weekends and likely have enough disposable income for a longer ski trip out West.
U.S. ski resorts have tried all manner of survival strategies. Many in Vermont have embraced the model of a four-season mountain theme park, with aquatic centers and zip lines as well as high-speed quad lifts.
For some resorts, real estate development has made the difference. In the 1980s and especially the 1990s, many ski area operators expanded slope-side lodging and, in some cases, made much more money off real estate than ski tickets. But the volatility of the real estate market proved almost as risky as praying for snow.
Multi-mountain pass packaging is the latest trend. "The new model is that you have to be able to make money operating the ski area without the real estate," Bolton's Williams explained.
Just how many new visitors the Epic Pass will bring to Stowe is unclear. Town officials say Stowe logs in the range of 300,000 skier visits per year, fewer than the 700,000-plus range execs at Killington estimate for this year. Stowe would not disclose annual skier visits.
But almost everyone agrees there will be more skiers at Stowe, which for years charged high prices and didn't seem to care much about volume.
"I think they will see a considerable increase in skier traffic over past numbers," said Williams, adding, "Probably the biggest issue is just traffic and the next biggest is parking."
Both have been a mess at Stowe on peak holiday ski days this winter. Drivers have sat in traffic jams on Route 108, only to find Stowe's approximately 3,500 parking spaces full. "It was like you were in New York City," said Burlington snowboarder Ben Plotzker. Big snowstorms have attracted skiers, as has a pent-up desire for powder after last winter's snow drought. Stowe town officials say the resort is working on a new parking management system.
Competing resorts are already spinning those problems to their advantage. "We're family-owned and -operated," said Sugarbush's Smith. "We don't have to focus on growing business quarter by quarter ... We really do not want to be overly cluttered here."
Is there a risk that in making itself more affordable — read: accessible — Stowe could lose what has set it apart?
For decades, its well-heeled customers have enjoyed a laid-back scene, said Matt Kulas, a ski-loving Vermonter living outside Boston who admits he is tempted by the Epic Pass. When crowds thicken, he said, "I can see them being bothered."
And while Stowe skiers may be decked out in expensive Patagonia — or "Pata-Gucci" — skiwear, as Kulas joked, they have skills to go with their outfits.
On a recent visit to Stratton Mountain Resort in southern Vermont, Kulas observed that "people don't even know how to get through the lift corral."
Not at Stowe. "There are just a ridiculous number of awesome skiers there," Kulas said. And crowded or not, they come for one thing: "I think it's the best in the East, and, on a great powder day, it can compete with anywhere," said Kulas. "It doesn't have much of a runout, so it's got over 2,000 feet of vertical that's in the fall line. It has great classic trails, great groomers and then just a ridiculous amount of woods skiing ... It's superlative."
You could argue that the more people who have that experience, the better. And Sugarbush's Smith does. He believes Vail's bid to grow the Epic Pass and extend deals into Canada, Europe and Australia will ultimately grow the sport of skiing, and he said that's good for all resorts.
"They are looking at the worldwide market," he said.