Fast Track to criticism: Express-lane product at Killington garners complaints, curiosity in Capital Region

Royal Mountain Ski Area owner Jake Tennis moves his new SMI Snow Maker, one of the three new snowmakers, in Johnstown Friday.

Royal Mountain Ski Area owner Jake Tennis moves his new SMI Snow Maker, one of the three new snowmakers, in Johnstown Friday.

A Saturday adult lift ticket at Killington already costs $169. And now the Vermont resort’s parent company, Powdr, is rolling out a product that will benefit skiers and riders who can afford to pay even more.

Much like Disney’s Lightning Lane, Powdr’s Fast Tracks product will allow customers to pay an extra feewhich will start at $49 but vary based on factors like day of the week, snow conditions and customer volumeto move directly to the front of the busiest lift lines. While Powdr and Killington say the product will have minimal impact, many Killington regulars and ski enthusiasts say this kind of program screams of the very elitism they are hoping to push out of their sport. And, for their part, representatives of several New York ski areas say they have no plans to implement such a product, but they are curious to see how it all plays out at Killington, which opened to Ikon passholders on Nov. 5, with the K-1 Gondola and North Ridge Quad. 

When Powdr announced Fast Tracks in October, the company quickly faced an onslaught of negative feedback, particularly from locals at Mount Bachelor in Oregon. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon even expressed concerns. Fast Tracks will be available at Killington, Mt. Bachelor, Utah’s Snowbird and Colorado’s Copper Mountain.  

Northeast skier Adam Jaber, host of the Out of Bounds outdoors podcast, has been a vocal Fast Tracks critic. 

“I think it’s really dumb. Realistically, I just think it’s a bad direction for the ski industry to push itself in,” Jaber said. “It’s promoting the notion that if you have more money you deserve to be up front.” 

Jaber said this season, in particular, could be critical for the ski industry, because during the height of pandemic restrictions last winter, outdoor snowsports saw a rise in participation, even in the face of protocols that placed greater burdens on resorts and their guests. 

For instance, Northeast ski areas saw an estimated 12.252 million visitors last season compared to 11.488 million the year before, and Rocky Mountain areas hosted an estimated 22.638 million visitors compared to 20.107 the year prior, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

Jaber says the resorts rightly want to capitalize on that uptick in enthusiasm, but he worries the effect may be to alienate newcomers. 

Jaber’s sentiments were echoed by members of the Killington Locals Facebook group. “It feels like we’re going back to catering to the wealthy, and who cares about the rest of us?” one group member wrote in a thread with nearly 200 comments at the time of writing. 

Kristina O’brien posted that Killington tried a similar product a few years ago, and she and her family actually bought the passes before she said the resort returned her money. “Within approx 45 days of opening, Killington returned our money and stopped it because guests paying full price were not happy.” 

In an email to The Daily Gazette, Killington’s Amy Laramie, the resort’s director of Communications, Events and Special Projects, said Killington was anticipating minimal impact. “We don’t believe the experience will be affected for those who do not purchase Fast Tracks. We have had a variation of these fast lanes in a testing environment for the last two years as both a season pass add-on and as a daily upgrade and it was very well receivedwe really never received complaints from non-users. We are committed to managing the experience and getting our guests from the parking lot to the top of the mountain as fast as possible and this is where the limited access comes inwe’ve found that if we limit the number of Fast Tracks passes on a daily basis, everyone has their desired experience and no one is adversely impacted.”

Michael Solimano, Killington’s president and general manager, wrote in a post on the Killington Locals Facebook thread, that the Fast Tracks passes would be limited in their availability. 

“I’m asking again today that you trust that we will manage and operate Fast Tracks in a manner that has very little impact on our guests who don’t choose the upgrade. We will achieve this by having very limited quantities of Fast Tracks available daily, generally less than 2% of total skiers. This also ensures those who do choose to add Fast Tracks get maximum value from their upgrade,” he wrote. 

In a letter responding to criticism, Powdr’s co-Presidents Wade Martin and Justin Sibley, noted that Fast Tracks is not actually a new program. 

“The Fast Tracks concept has been in operation at our Copper Mountain, Colorado, resort for almost 20 years. First introduced in January of 2002 for lodging guests only, the offer was made widely available to anyone skiing the following season, in February 2003. Since that time, it has gone through a number of variations and optimizations informed through guest feedback. Product and experiential enhancements were successfully implemented at Copper Mountain and the concept was expanded to other resorts and reintroduced as Fast Tracks,” the letter reads. 

The letter says the company doesn’t anticipate Fast Tracks disrupting any on-mountain experiences. 

“What we have learned through our recent experience with the product at Copper Mountain is that it is utilized by less than 2% of total daily skiers due in large part to our careful calibration and limiting access to ensure a quality experience for all guests. The product is additionally managed with lift loading protocols, which provide for rotation between traditional, Ski School and Fast Track lines. As a result, the impact on lift line wait times across our mountains is negligible.”

Stephanie Backes — the marketing manager at Gore Mountain, a popular area for Capital region skiers — said she worked in Copper Mountain’s marketing department for eight years before coming to Gore. To be sure, her job was to promote Copper Mountain, but she said she honestly never experienced widespread negativity in response to Copper’s fast-pass option.

“I come from a mountain that has been doing such a program for many, many years. So it’s interesting to see this reaction happening in the marketplace,” she said. 

She described the fast lanes at Copper as separate lanes at key lifts that see higher volumes. She said, much like with skiers in the singles line, skiers in the fast lane mix in with the general line as they approach the lift. 

Asked if she ever saw animosity between skiers and riders in the different lines, she said, “Honestly, there were never people yelling at people or getting nasty. It just became part of the everyday.”

Jaber noted that he’s seen online comments in Fast Tracks discussion threads in which people say, “We are going to egg the people in line,” but he also said those are likely empty threats.

Backes said Gore and the Olympic Regional Development Authority, which operates Gore and Whiteface in the Adirondacks and Belleayre in the Catskills, has no plans to implement a program like Fast Tracks. Neither does Maple Ski Ridge in Rotterdam, or Royal Mountain Ski Area in Johnstown in Fulton County, according to a lift supervisor and an owner, respectively. 

Jaber said one of his concerns was that people who purchased season passes to Killington prior to the Fast Tracks announcement bought a product that has since seen the terms change.

Killington’s Solimano, in his post, noted that the resort would honor full refunds to season pass holders who are unhappy with the Fast Tracks announcement. 

Jaber said skiers will likely feel the impact of the Fast Tracks product most on powder days, when the snow quality diminishes with more traffic. 

“On a snow day there is a limited amount of good skiing,” he said. “Killington gets a powder day and somebody that pays more than you do has more access to that terrain.” 

For local ski areas and ski shops, the Fast Tracks product is an interesting discussion worth following, but not necessarily all that germane.

“I don’t think it makes sense for the smaller areas, but I’ll watch it,” said Jake Tennis, owner of Royal Mountain. “We don’t have lines, and that’s why people come here. Nobody would pay for [a Fast Tracks-type product] because we don’t have a line.” Tennis estimated the longest lift lines at Royal have guests waiting about five minutes. 

Drew Higley, manager/owner of Sports Page Ski and Patio in Queensbury, said he hasn’t heard much about Fast Tracks from his customers. Higley said he sees both sides of the argument.

“With skiing being as expensive as it is, if [skiers and riders] want to make sure they get the most out of the day, pay a little more, I don’t personally see it as a big issue,” he said. But, he added, “Maybe when you do get out there and you’re sitting in that line and person after person is going in front of you, you might get a little pissed.”  

Jack Hay, co-owner of Alpine Sport Shop in Saratoga Springs for five decades, also said he hasn’t heard too much complaining about Fast Tracks among his customers. He also said the product wouldn’t affect his personal decision to go to Killington, where he said he skis about six times a year. Still, he was sympathetic to skiers and riders who are upset.  

“If everybody buys a lift ticket or season pass they should be on equal footing,” Hay said. “I see it as a bit of a money grab. It’s a big corporate decision, and most of us middle-class people aren’t usually happy with big corporate decisions.”  

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