In the history of skiing there are a handful of events that have unequivocally shaped the industry into what it is today. ‘Minnie’ Dole founding the National Ski Patrol in 1938, Doppelmayr constructing the world’s first detachable quad in 1981, and most recently Vail Resorts introducing the EPIC pass in 2008. Since Vail unveiled its multi-mountain pass ten years ago as the centerpiece of its growth strategy, they have become the most powerful ski company in the world. As a lifelong skier I have reaped the benefits of lightning fast lifts and dedicated patrol, but as a current resident of Vail I must admit I feel resentment towards the corporatization of our sport. Before I offer more of my opinion on Vail as a company, however, I want to highlight what I see as a growing trend in the industry and what it could mean going forward.
Millennials are connected constantly in a way no previous generation has been (often times to a fault). Our use of social media and access to affordable transcontinental flights not only keeps our loved ones accessible, but the entire world. Technology has fueled our desire to travel farther from home than any generation before us. In addition to taking weekend trips to our local ski hill, we now want to ski new and exciting places. We envy our buddy who just posted about their epic day at Whistler on Instagram, and we want to experience the same. So when it comes time to purchase our season pass, we froth at the options that offer unlimited skiing at a multitude of resorts- all for less than what a season pass cost ten years ago.
When Vail introduced the EPIC pass in 2008, they changed the game. Their pass holders not only had access to five mountains in Colorado, but Heavenly in California as well. When it came time for them to book a ski vacation away from home, many were making the trip to Lake Tahoe (or vice versa). Fast forward ten years and they have amplified this strategy with incredible effect. In addition to purchasing resort destinations, they made a number of strategic mountain purchases near large population centers which, by adding those resorts to the Epic Pass, has massively increased their consumer base. With unlimited access to 15 resorts on the pass for the 2017/18 season, Vail has cast its net over Northern California, Denver, Salt Lake, Boston, Minneapolis, Detroit, Chicago, and Vancouver. When skiers from those cities plan their winter vacation away from their home resort, they’re most likely doing so at another Vail Resort.
In case you needed any proof that their model is working- over 650,000 EPIC passes were sold for the 2016/17 season netting a whopping $525 million (and that’s before they sold a single cheeseburger)!
This idea of an affordable season pass across several mountains seemed ludicrous at first, but Vail saw the big picture; they realized that lift tickets are only a piece of the pie. With each new acquisition, Vail increases its number of season pass holders and in turn increases the number of visits to their resorts. When these people arrive at the airport they are being picked up in a Vail owned shuttle, staying at a Vail owned hotel, eating at a Vail owned restaurant, and skiing on rental equipment from you guessed it- a Vail owned rental shop. Vail has vertically integrated their resorts in such a way to capture every single dollar that guests spend over the course of their vacation. And while their customers may be saving money on lift tickets, they are paying for it big time in other areas.
Vail’s approach to the ski industry is ruthlessly effective and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Aspen Ski Company along with KSL Capital Partners and Intrawest recently joined forces to purchase Mammoth Resorts. While they have remained relatively tight lipped about their intentions, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them unveil a multi-resort pass in an attempt to replicate Vail’s success. As the ski industry continues to consolidate, the players in the game are becoming fewer and more powerful.
Mountains are being scooped up by the season and with each purchase comes a slew of changes that impact community members deeply. More skiers on the slopes means added infrastructure on and off the mountain which in turn leads to a higher cost of living. In states like Colorado where five mountains are on the EPIC pass, how Vail chooses to report snowfall amongst their resorts can dictate where people to choose to ski. This impacts traffic patterns and places additional strain on state owned infrastructure such as roads and parking garages. I believe it is the responsibility of these new conglomerates to think deeply about the impact of their business and to act responsibly and generously.
There is no denying that Vail Resorts has created an impressive business model. They figured out a way to turn people who live thousands of miles away into annual pass holders. Going forward they will continue to acquire new mountains (New York? Toronto?) and in turn become richer and more powerful. As all eyes fixate on the 800 pound gorilla that is Vail resorts- it will be interesting to see how they act as an industry leader. In my opinion they have just as great a responsibility to serve the best interests of their employees and the mountains they operate in as the stockholders of their company. This is something in my opinion they haven't done a good enough job of- there is a reason of course why you can still buy ‘Fuck Vail’ bumper stickers. But again, this is something that goes beyond the scope of this article.
The bottom line is this. The EPIC pass has changed skiing forever. We are rapidly heading towards a more corporate industry, where the lion’s share will be in the hands of a few mega companies like Vail Resorts. In a world where ski corporations seem set to have greater and greater influence and visibility, let’s hope Vail can show us how much good one ski company can do. Only time will tell, but for now we can enjoy some incredibly affordable skiing. That is, of course, if you bring a bagged lunch and can avoid the $25 parking.