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Ski Lines: Time to look ahead to next season

Ski Lines: Time to look ahead to next season

Phil Johnson's weekly look at the skiing scene
Ski Lines: Time to look ahead to next season
A spring crowd at the Umbrella Bar deck with Killington Mountain slopes in the background.
Photographer: Chandler Burgess

While most skiers are looking forward to the next few weeks of warmer weather, longer days and some great spring skiing, the places we ski are way out ahead of us. 

They are already thinking about where we’ll be next winter.

It is 2019-20 pass time, when areas roll out their season-ticket programs for next season at discounted rates, so long as you buy way in advance — like, now. 
Next year’s prices are at, or near the tab for this year, if you act soon. As an incentive for those who do not have passes this year, or who want a different pass for next winter, most purchase plans throw in the rest of the current season for free.

There have always been season-pass plans out there, almost all of them offered by individual areas to regular customers. If you skied at one place all season, such a pass made sense. 

The game changed 11 years ago when Vail introduced its Epic Pass — access to all five of its resorts at the time for $579, less than half of what it had cost to buy a season’s pass at any one of those areas the prior year.

Why would Vail Resorts do such a thing? First of all, the passes had to be bought before Thanksgiving. As Bloomberg Businessweek noted recently, “By getting skiers to buy early, the company locked in a mass of customers and raked in a pile of revenue during its slowest months. Its season’s pass revenue increased 22 percent its first year.”

And the growth hasn’t stopped. By last year, the Epic Pass had expanded to 13 areas now owned by Vail Resorts, including Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe and Stowe, and now Okemo, in Vermont. Currently there are 20 destinations in the program, and you can ski most of them as many times as you want with the premium package that now costs $939. There are versions of the Epic Pass that cost less, but to get an idea of how that compares to the landscape before Epic, a season pass good at Stowe only the year before Vail came in at $1,800. 

In recent years, there have been other multi-area pass plans introduced. But until last season, none had the horsepower of Epic. The IKON pass was introduced in 2017 by the Aspen-affiliated Alterra group, which bought 11 well-known resorts and struck deals with many others to offer a competing multi-area pass plan that includes marquee names like Aspen, Mammoth, Big Sky, Squaw Valley and Jackson Hole. In our neighborhood, Killington and Stratton are in the IKON program. 

There is also The Mountain Collective plan that offers limited days at another group of appealing areas like Sun Valley, Banf/Lake Louise, Alta, and Snowbird plus more regional multi-area grouping, such as the Ski 3 Program for Whiteface, Belleayre and Gore, the Hunter Mountain-based Peak Program and the modest priced Catamount cooperative arrangement with Berkshire East. More programs are in the offing, including a plan just announced that for now only includes independent areas in the U.S. West — like a personal favorite of mine, Brundage in Idaho. 

There is no question that as a result of these programs, the cost for those who ski regularly has gone down in recent years. According to industry published statistics, the percentage of skiers buying passes has gone up from 20 to 40 percent of those who ski regularly. 

That can mean more people on the slopes of your favorite area, and they are not building more parking lots. But, in general, it is good news for committed skiers.

The other side is that for people who ski infrequently, or for those who are looking to try the sport, especially families, the cost or a day or weekend ticket keeps growing. The pricing benefits, it seems, are going to the regular skiers and not to newcomers. The Vail group is attempting to address this with its just announced “EPIC For Everybody” program, which offers individual day passes. Usage is flexible, but the cost is still not cheap. Insist on buying at the window on the day you ski? Expect to pay a premium rate.

So what should you do for next season?

Much of that answer depends on where you plan to ski. If you are already an Okemo skier for instance, it is a no-brainer. The Epic pass is the plan for you, and buying it now will save you money. You can ski unlimited days and, of course, if you do plan a getaway, there are plenty of appealing options in the Vail universe. If you are a Stratton or Killington regular, your choice is IKON with plenty of attractive options if you choose a road trip.

With day tickets at all those major areas well into three figures, it doesn’t take many days on the slopes to begin to save money with a pass.

What about the areas that aren’t part of these plans? Well, chances are prices have not gone up significantly, if at all lately, because the big guys have absorbed the pricing flexibility of the independent areas. For many, that won’t matter. If Royal or West gives you all the skiing you want, why add on areas that you likely won’t ski next year? And, if you change your mind and do want to travel, area ski clubs and other organizations have a substantial menu of options. 

CARDBOARD DERBY AT ROYAL

What is spring skiing without a special event?

There’s a fun one at Royal Mountain Saturday with the Cardboard Derby at 4:30 p.m. There are four categories — 6 and under, 7-12, 12-18 and adult — for teams to race with prizes to the fastest in each category and the best decorated. Signups start at 3 p.m., and the cost is $15 per team with all funds raised to benefit the Royal Mountain Ski Patrol. 

DAVIS AT CATAMOUNT

Author Jeremy Davis will be at Catamount Sunday afternoon to discuss his new book “Lost Ski Areas of the Berkshires.” 

This is the fifth in his well-received series of books on ski areas in our region that are no longer operating. 

The free presentation starts at 4 p.m.

PARA-BOBS AT LAKE PLACID

The sliding sports track at Lake Placid is accustomed to hosting world events, but March 25-31 will be the first time the world championships for elite bobsled and skeleton athletes with disabilities will compete in a World Championship event at the Mt. Van Hoevenberg track. 

For a competition schedule, check whitefacelakeplacid.com.

Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected].

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