Clues from Colorado
Delving into the Ikon Pass debate
Local skier morale seems to be falling as quickly as the snow on deep powder days. Tensions are high as locals struggle to come to terms with an influx of multi-resort pass holders and those who found Big Sky on the map last year–when the resort kept a steady blanket of snow as most other areas struggled.
At the heart of it: business owners are generally pleased with higher revenue while resident skiers are frustrated with longer lift lines.
Despite the increased attention from powder enthusiasts, it is unlikely Big Sky, as a destination ski area, will ever be even remotely comparable to the likes of the ski resort-laden area around Denver. The infrastructure: namely a highway capable of carrying a high capacity of vehicles – is not there. Nor is there a large metropolis the likes of Denver which would supply a steady flow of day-trippers to the resort.
Still, the Big Sky ski community is sitting up and taking notice of the latest move by Arapahoe Basin, also known as A-Basin, to end its partnership with Vail Resorts, which introduced the first multi-resort pass in the industry a decade ago – the Epic Pass, a pass that has seen a 25 percent increase in sales for 2018. Alan Henceroth, chief operating officer of A-Basin noted in his blog that A-Basin has invested $40 million in infrastructure over the last 15 years.
“The ski area is feeling a pinch on parking and facility space. Due to constraints, A-Basin believes its staff can take better care of its guests by separating from Vail Resorts… At this time there are no new partnerships to announce,” Henceroth wrote before noting the ski area will be discussing opportunities with resorts and resort groups.
The comments section of Henceroth’s blog blew up with delighted locals, disenchanted multi-resort pass holders, and purists encouraging the ski area to not “go Ikon.” The same debate prevalent in Big Sky erupted: are multi-resort pass skiers bolstering the local economy enough to offset what some locals are deeming a loss of local character, longer lift lines and use of infrastructure?
Vail Daily reported the same day that it is unlikely A-Basin will pursue a partnership with a similar large resort suite as it would lead to the same strains of infrastructure.
According to Bloomberg reporting, Bill Jensen, the chief executive officer of Telluride Ski & Golf Resort, which is in its first season as an Epic partner, projected the move would bring around $5 million in additional revenue to the area – specifying that is the year one economic value to the mountain and greater service industry community. “Becoming Epic” was easy. “I don’t pay anything to Vail Resorts for being an alliance partner,” Jensen said. “And I get paid for every scan of every Epic Pass by Vail Resorts.”
It’s difficult to say if a similar model is being used by Alterra with the Ikon Pass. According to the Bloomberg article, “The company is fairly tight-lipped about the compensation agreements made with ski areas outside the Alterra umbrella.”
The question still begs, how many skiers to the area are using the Ikon Pass? Big Sky Resort declined to release the data currently. To the south, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort may provide some clues.
The resort initially denied Jackson Hole News & Guide’s request for information regarding the Ikon Pass, however did eventually release some data: The Ikon Pass accounts for 14 percent of skier visits so far this year. Skier days are up 8 percent over last year, which could mean a record of nearly 700,000 skier days with slightly less than 100,000 of those with an Ikon Pass. Local use of the resort accounts for 300,000 skier days or 42 percent.
While the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort article was peppered with local comment, many Big Sky residents remain unwilling to go on the record. Though most business owners in town can attest to an increase in revenue, many are hesitant to speak positively of the Ikon Pass – not wanting to invite push back from frustrated locals.
A Big Sky Resort representative told the Lookout that there is currently no company policy regarding employees who speak negatively about the pass.
It’s the skiing world’s first year of contending with Alterra’s big push into the multi-resort pass market. The debate is just beginning – in Big Sky and beyond.