Look past the glitzy lodge makeovers and terrain expansions, and you’ll see an ugly truth for ski resorts: They haven’t been able to get more people on the slopes.
Skier visits have remained flat for the past decade. Drought, fickle weather, the growing popularity of backcountry skiing, and the Great Recession have all been floated as possible causes for visits flatlining. But one thing is certain — today’s ski areas are competing for visitors in a pool that isn’t growing. The National Ski Area Association reported 56.5 million visits to U.S. ski areas in the 2013-2014 winter, a 0.7 percent year-over-year drop and a total below the 10-year average of 57.3 million.
The dip was pronounced in the Pacific Northwest, which was unusually dry before February. That slow start to the season resulted in a 19.4 percent drop in traffic.
Fickle skier visits worry resorts, but there’s a buffer all resorts employ: season passes. In essence they work as a membership fee. A rider pays a sum up front, which guarantees cash for the resort whether that skier visits 60 times or just once in the season.
As a result, resorts nationwide are rolling out season pass deals. Stevens Pass is entering its third season of membership in the Powder Alliance, a collective of 13 ski areas that offer three lift tickets to skiers who purchase a season pass at a partnering resort. Alliance resorts are in Utah, Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.
“It really had to do with the competitive landscape and geographic location and looking at resorts that are nicely spaced throughout the West so we’re not giving three visits to our competitors,” says Chris Danforth, Stevens Pass’ vice president of marketing. “Crystal Mountain and Snoqualmie are our two biggest competitors. This type of product gives us a competitive advantage over our direct competitors.”
Boosting season pass sales is particularly important to Stevens, which has no on-mountain lodging and relies on day-trippers from Seattle for revenue. The more of those skiers who buy season passes, the more of its revenue is set in stone. Danforth says 40 to 50 percent of yearly skier visits are from season pass holders, a far higher tally than at a tourist-oriented resort such as Whistler-Blackcomb.
Stevens’ reliance on season pass revenue doesn’t make it the only one to seek these collectives. Multi-resort passes and deals for passholders have been popping up across the country during the past year. The Epic Pass gives skiers unlimited access to Vail Resorts’ 12 ski areas across California, Utah, Colorado, and the Midwest for $769. Mountain Collective, a group of ski resorts known for advanced terrain, offers a pass good for two days of skiing at each of its seven members, including Whistler and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, for $399.
There are no special prices for Powder Alliance passes — a skier receives the benefit just by purchasing a standard-price season pass at an Alliance mountain. At $499, Stevens Pass offers a season pass far cheaper than top-flight resorts, whose adult season passes can cost more than $1,000.
Stevens Pass was one of the original Powder Alliance members, and the the group has expanded to include an eclectic mix of resorts throughout the West. Some, such as Crested Butte in Colorado, are well-known but remote areas that rely more heavily on destination skiers than Stevens Pass. Other remote areas such as Angel Fire in New Mexico can use a group pass like Powder Alliance to boost awareness.
At Stevens, though, the goal is to increase season pass hauls. Thus far, the Alliance incentive is producing results. Danforth says the share of high-yield unlimited season passes increased last year while sales of lower-margin weekday-only season passes diminished, and overall sales were up.
This season, season pass sales are holding steady, a positive sign after a woeful winter that saw skier visits in West Coast states drop 25 percent. The resort doesn’t provide total season pass sales for competitive reasons.
“We basically held steady last year in a market where ski visits were down (25) percent,” Danforth says. “We think programs like this help us. Coming off a year where skier visits are down (that much), we’d expect our pass sales to be down, but we’re roughly 200 ahead of last year.”
Getting more customers on the hill would help ski areas, but with global warming shortening seasons and other external factors playing a role, season pass deals like the Powder Alliance could ensure resorts like Stevens Pass keep what ski area customers remain.