The price of a day ticket at ski resorts has been grabbing headlines as of late: $219 at Mammoth Mountain, $229 at Palisades Tahoe and $239 at Vail. Unofficial Networks ran an online story in November with the headline: Skiing Used to be Cheap … What Happened? While these dollar signs capture readers’ attention, they don’t tell the whole story and tend to single out the highest prices, say ski area officials at numerous resorts around Tahoe.
Not only are resorts taking a page from airlines and shifting toward fluctuating ticket pricing, but they are also encouraging consumers to buy day tickets in advance to save money, which has the added advantage for some resorts of being able to control the amount of skiers and riders on peak days by limiting tickets.
Going hand-in-hand with the rising price of day tickets is a shift toward a pass-oriented model at most California ski areas. While the move has been in the works for years, Covid accelerated the attractiveness of passes over day tickets for both resorts and skiers and riders.
“We have slowly and steadily seen a shift in more passholders and less day ticket holders,” said Ski California President Michael Reitzell, noting that in the last two years there have been more visits at state ski resorts from passholders than day ticket users. “Covid might have had an impact on it because last year you were in the best position to ski and ride if you had a pass.”
According to Ski California, 58% of visits in 2020/21 to California and Nevada ski resorts were from season passholders, the highest ever, and 34% were from day tickets, the lowest ever.
The Ikon Pass, which grants users access to Palisades Tahoe and many other resorts across the world, is seeing its highest percentage of year-over-year pass sales, according to Ikon Pass CEO Rusty Gregory. At Northstar California Resort, pass sales were up 67% in units from Aug. 1 through Sept. 17 compared to a similar period in 2019 (prior to Covid-19-caused restrictions).
Could climate change and diminishing snowpacks have anything to do with the trend toward a pass-based model?
“That is certainly possible,” Reitzell wrote in an email to Moonshine Ink. “A key to success in the ski industry is being resilient and building a business that can withstand volatility. Creating a customer base is certainly part of that.”
Vail Resorts, owner of Northstar, wanted to encourage consumers to purchases passes this year to such an extent that it lowered the price of the Epic Pass by 20%, taking the price back to what it was for the 2015/16 season. At that time, the Epic Pass only included 11 resorts in the U.S. Now, the Epic Pass has expanded to more than 70 resorts worldwide.
“A key reason for the price reset is to invite anyone who traditionally purchases lift tickets to now be able to enjoy the convenience and affordability of a pass product,” wrote Sara Roston, Vail Resorts director of communications for the Tahoe region, in an email to Moonshine Ink.
According to Vail Resorts, the full Epic Pass is now $819, down from $1,024 last season; the Epic Local Pass is $619, reduced from $774 last year; and the Tahoe Local Pass is only $523 compared to $654 in 2020/21.
“A key business strategy of ours is to incentivize pre-season commitment by increasing the attractiveness of the Epic Pass portfolio, as well as passholder benefits,” Roston wrote.
If you’re looking day-of, you can find a peak-day lift ticket for $209 at Northstar, but there are lots of ways to save money, especially by thinking ahead. One is the Epic Day Pass, which allows skiers and riders to ski up to any seven days at Heavenly, Northstar, and Kirkwood for $70 a day.
Vail Resorts, like many California ski areas, has also embraced dynamic ticket pricing, where the price of a lift ticket varies depending on the day of the week, holiday period, and how far in advance you purchase. Currently, you can save $30 by buying a ticket three weeks in advance for a Tuesday in December.
“Dynamic ticket pricing is something that has taken hold in a lot of industries,” said Reitzell, citing sporting events and airlines. “Maybe a midweek ticket on a Wednesday in April shouldn’t cost the same as a weekend in January.”
While walk-up tickets will be available this year at Vail ski areas, the company is limiting lift ticket sales during three holiday periods: Christmas and New Year’s, Martin Luther King Day, and Presidents’ Day, to prevent overcrowding.
“This will help manage the experience during what is always a popular time at our resorts,” Roston wrote, and “prioritize the mountain experience of our passholders.”
Vail’s decision last year to require reservations to ski at any mountain — a Covid protocol that has been discontinued this year — had a ripple effect on other resorts. Sugar Bowl saw such a big jump in pass sales after Vail’s reservation announcement that it brought them to a “tipping point,” said Jon Slaughter, Sugar Bowl executive director of marketing and sales.
“With no warning, we had to cut off pass sales,” he said.
Combined with the state’s rule last season limiting tickets to advance sales only, Sugar Bowl’s decision to restrict pass sales created an uncrowded mountain experience.
“We went through the season like, ‘That felt really good around here,’” Slaughter said. “On a given day or Saturday or powder day, we can figure out how many passholders show up and adjust how many tickets are for sale.”
Because of the success of limiting day tickets and passes, Sugar Bowl decided to continue both policies this season, while also offering loyal customers first dibs. After giving existing passholders a two-week window to renew their passes in March, the resort opened pass sales to 2019/20 passholders before cutting off sales this spring.
“We already had a number in mind, and it got us to that number much faster,” said Slaughter. “We’ve never been sold through 80% of passes in February. Normally, maybe 50% sold through after March. The whole model got upended.”
Sugar Bowl did not reopen pass sales to the general public until the beginning of October. By mid-November, the resort had sold 88% of the new batch of passes. Once this allotment of passes sells out, that’s it for the 2021/22 season.
While Slaughter said ski areas had been emphasizing passes over day tickets for the last 15 years, when Vail introduced the Epic Pass in 2008 it was a game changer.
“The Epic Pass was priced so affordably it was foolish to buy a day ticket,” he said. “That’s been the model [ever since].”
Like Vail, Sugar Bowl is also using dynamic ticket pricing.
“A lot of customers see that headlines come out every year that Vail now has $259 tickets, but in reality, we are all doing online dynamic pricing similar to the airlines,” Slaughter said.
Sugar Bowl releases day tickets roughly a month at a time, where customers can save up to 40% depending on how far in advance they purchase and for what day. Each monthly release kicks off with a 96 Hour Sale with an extra 10% discount available on lift tickets, bringing tickets down to as low as $78.
“We were moving toward advance ticket sales, but Covid supercharged it,” Slaughter said. “Before Covid, 30% to 40% of lift tickets were sold online, to 100% last year. We decided this is the best path for us moving forward.”
While Palisades Tahoe had a cap on day tickets last season due to Covid, that is not the case this year, according to Palisades Tahoe spokesperson Alex Spychalsky. Walk-up tickets will be available but the resort is encouraging customers to buy in advance to save time and money. Compared to the steep price of $229 for a peak day window ticket, the Tahoe Super Midweek 4-Pack brings the price down to $88 a day. Even just purchasing a ticket online the day you want to ski will get you $10 off, and customers can avoid lines by printing out the ticket at one of the many new kiosks around the base area.
“Everyone talks about day tickets looking at the window rates, but our marketing team is doing everything we can to get you to not pay window rates,” said Spychalsky, noting that the average price of a lift ticket purchased online or as part of a pack is 30% lower than Palisades Tahoe window rates.
Like Vail and Sugar Bowl, Palisades Tahoe has embraced dynamic ticketing. Ticket prices are tiered and once they sell out at one tier, it bumps tickets to the next price. Day ticket prices have been increasing about 7% a year mainly due to the rise in cost of operations, according to Spychalsky, and Ikon Pass prices have been increasing about 4% per year. Ikon Pass sales, which started at $700 this spring for the base pass (now $879), are not limited but go off sale Dec. 9. After that, the only option is the pricey Palisades Tahoe Season Pass at $1,300.
Palisades Tahoe says it will continue to focus on both passes and tickets to meet the demands of all their customers.
“I think with the shift in pricing there has been more of a gravitation toward season passes but we know there are people who don’t ski multiple days a year so we don’t want to block them,” Spychalsky said.
Smaller resorts like Diamond Peak are not emphasizing season passes, nor is it using dynamic ticketing. Instead it’s focusing on incentivizing pre-purchasing to reduce wait times at windows by offering a $10 discount.
Nevertheless, Diamond Peak has been affected by the bigger trend in the ski industry toward a pass-based model. According to Diamond Peak spokesperson Paul Raymore, pass sales have increased on average 30% a year for the last three seasons.
“When the Epic and Ikon passes were first developed, we worried about what the impact might be on smaller resorts such as Diamond Peak,” Raymore wrote in an email to Moonshine Ink, “but so far we’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that our passholder base has seemingly grown even more loyal versus less so.”