Will Multi-Mountain Passes Benefit Vermont's Ski Industry?

May 26, 2017

Recent ski area acquisitions in Vermont are changing the season ski pass market in the state. Single-resort passes are giving way to discounted multi-mountain offerings. 

Industry insiders say this new effort is part of a marketing drive to attract people who aren't traditionally drawn to skiing.

The ski industry calls them "Big Passes" – season passes to multiple mountains. And they often cost far less than a traditional season pass to a single resort. This week, Inntopia, a resort industry software firm, held its annual conference in Stowe. And among the talks was a panel discussion on Big Passes.

Ski Vermont President Parker Riehle was part of the panel. He says he’s optimistic about Vail’s plan to buy Stowe and Aspen’s announced purchase of Stratton.

"Certainly for those two resorts, of course, given the capital backing that those two world-class premier ski area operating companies will bring to those ski areas and their communities, and enable those two ski areas to really take their game to the next level," he says. "I always do see this as ultimately benefiting and elevating the entire Vermont brand, especially given Vail’s and Aspen’s presence in the marketplace."

Vail has added Stowe to its Epic Pass, which is good at over a dozen resorts. And at around $800, it costs about half the price of a traditional Stowe season pass. However, Stowe had to give up its spot as the only East Coast resort on the Mountain Collective pass, which offers a couple of days of skiing at each of 16 resorts worldwide for around $400.

Sugarbush will take Stowe’s former Mountain Collective spot next season. And Riehle says those aren’t the only big passes being offered in Vermont.

Ski industry insiders Shawn Owens, left, Laurent Vaucher, Parker Riehle and Win Smith discuss the Big Pass at Inntopia's annual Insight conference in Stowe.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"And we also, of course, have, in addition to those two pass products, the M.A.X. Pass, which is incredibly dynamic – 44 ski areas and, in Vermont, including Killington, Okemo, Stratton and Pico," Riehle says. "I understand that Stratton will stay with the M.A.X. Pass even though they’ll be under the Aspen umbrella as of August or September of this coming season."

The M.A.X. Pass can be bought as a standalone, or as an add-on to a season pass at your home mountain. Skiers get five days at each resort for $679. For $329 it can be added to a member resort season pass, giving skiers five days at the other 43 ski areas.

Win Smith heads up Sugarbush Resort. He says joining multi-mountain offerings gives resorts a competitive edge. And he says that’s important because, when it comes down to it, the ski industry is a market share business.

"People don’t like talking about this, but there may be too many resorts in the ski industry today," says Smith. "There were too many banks, too many brokerage firms. Somebody had to survive and somebody had to fail. And so I think a lot of this pricing strategy — it’s defensive as well as offensive."

"People don't like talking about this, but there may be too many resorts in the ski industry today." — Win Smith, Sugarbush Resort owner

Smith says Sugarbush was the first resort to offer discounted season passes to 20- and 30-somethings, to lure student loan-strapped millennials back to the mountain. And now they need to find new ways to fill the slopes as baby boomers age out of downhill skiing. Part of that is appealing to new demographic groups.

"The ski industry was built by upper-middle class white families, right? That’s becoming a minority in this country," Smith says. "So we have to understand, how are we going to market to new demographics? And I don't think that’s only pricing."

Smith says that means taking steps such as creating an atmosphere that is welcoming to Asian customers, as some West Coast resorts are starting to do well. He also says Vermont resorts can benefit from hiring French speakers to cater to the Montreal market.