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The Battle for the Best Ski Pass

Bloomberg last year published what I think is one of the best reviews of the season pass battles. They start with the by-line “Alterra and Vail Resorts are going head to head snapping up resorts. Can they save skiing and make selling lift tickets a viable business?”  Ultimately, the article doesn’t answer the question (and obviously can’t) but along the way there are further interesting questions and statements.  

Such as “the (US) $8.4 billion industry faces an existential crisis on two fronts: climate change’s feast-or-famine cycles of snowfall and a tide of baby boomers heading for the permanently aprés-ski scene of hip replacements and retirement homes.” And then going onto say “Alterra and Vail may be exacerbating the problem as they increase daily rates to nudge people into buying a season-long lift ride.” Rob Katz of Vail says the focus on regulars helps the industry: “The more days we can get out of somebody, the more likely it is that they’ll continue skiing.”

But then Evan Reece, CEO of online lift-ticket marketplace Liftopia Inc suggests “There’s some amount of the market that’s going to vaporize overnight if the industry keeps doubling down on season passes.”

We all know this strategy, first popularised in NZ by Mike Smith and RAL, lower season pass prices to stimulate demand and get them committed. And it has worked. The “old” season pass pricing strategy was make it price it at 6 - 8X a day ticket price, RAL changed this so it was only 2 or 3, which is almost a throwaway purchase. Churn was inevitable, but each season there were enough people entering to keep up numbers. 

But, there’s a concern, especially in the US “as the industry rewards the loyalty of its core customers, fewer people will give skiing a try.” The quest to push more and more people into advance purchase means that a day ticket at Vail this season costs $219 USD. So, if you’re an occasional skier or new to the snow, there’s now a substantial price barrier to fostering those new entrants.

Basically then, the proposition is that the season pass war is looking after committed snow lovers, but it’s creating a barrier to entry. Sure, skier numbers are high, but the question is, are they sustainable? Are we growing the market, or simply extracting more value from the exiting market? Are we creating suitable pathways to get people not only to try the sport, but commit to it? And, is the fact a ski pass is over $130 , or $219 at Vail, enough to confirm the idea that skiing is (too) expensive to the uncommitted market?   

And then there’s the final theme in the article, worth exploring in its own right. Altera saying “We’re not selling widgets here—we’re creating experiences.”  By default, accusing Vali of being the “McDonalds of skiing” …

It’s thought provoking article and worth the 10 minutes or so to read!