Let the ski pass wars begin: Vail Resorts face competition

Deer Valley, in Utah, is a skiers-only resort that was bought by Alterra Mountain Company late last year and is now part …

by Fiona Carruthers and Pip Coates

Talk about the snow fight of the season. As the June 9 opening of the 2018 Australian ski season approaches, Vail Resorts HQ in Colorado will be watching closely as to how sales of its Epic Australia Pass track given the world’s largest ski company is finally facing a direct "pass wars" threat from the new Ikon pass.

"This [northern hemisphere] spring was the first time we competed against the Ikon pass and they’ve brought a lot of attention to the season pass concept, which we think is a good thing," Vail Resorts chief executive Rob Katz told The Australian Financial Review. "We feel confident what we offer skiers is compelling, particularly as it’s a global product."

In the blue corner, you have the Ikon – a product of the recently formed Denver-based Alterra Mountain Company – with 26 North American resorts, including such jewels as Aspen Snowmass, Jackson Hole, Steamboat and Revelstoke – at $US999 ($1193) for the 2018-19 ski season, or for $US899 until June 7. That pass (there are lower-priced variants with more conditions) gives unlimited access to all resorts owned by Alterra, plus up to seven days at a number of other independently-owned North American resorts.

In the red corner, for $US899 is Vail’s Epic Pass, which is a decade old this year. It includes such resorts as Vail, Beaver Creek, Whistler Blackcomb, Breckenridge, Keystone, Park City, Heavenly, Northstar, Kirkwood and Stowe, plus limited access to the smaller, quirky resorts such as Telluride and Crested Butte; as well as restricted access to 30 European resorts – and five consecutive days’ skiing at Hakuba in Japan.

Jackson Hole in Wyoming, North America, has long been popular among keen Australian skiers and snowboarders and is …

Given Vail has owned Perisher since 2015, that’s included too, making it the only truly global pass at this stage. When purchased in Australia before June 12, the Epic is cheaper at $889, albeit with slightly different terms and conditions.

The Ikon Pass does not include NSW’s Thredbo Resort, but plans in that direction are under way. Thredbo is included on the long-standing Mountain Collective Pass, priced at $US429, where the Ikon and Mountain Collective passes share overlapping American resorts, most notably Aspen. The buying and partnership spree is just the beginning, says Alterra’s Bob Stinchcomb, senior vice-president, sales. "We’re starting in North America, but definitely looking to grow beyond that."

‘Exciting’ development

Sydney-based ski holiday specialist Travelplan welcomes the Ikon pass. "That Epic pass is a powerful juggernaut," says managing director Toby Withers. "We see real potential for the Ikon in the Australian market. Aspen has been our No. 1 destination for 15 years, so to have them on the Ikon pass is exciting."

He qualified that for now, though, Ikon is best suited to the North American market: "We’d like to see a link-up with a resort in Australia. As soon as they can find a way to make that work, it will be very successful."

Revelstoke in British Columbia, Canada, is accessible on the new Ikon pass.

Alterra’s rapid growth began when KSL Capital Partners – the owners of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows and Henry Crown and Company, owner of Aspen skiing company – purchased Intrawest, Mammoth Resorts and Deer Valley in 2017. In eight months, Alterra has bought 12 ski resorts throughout the US and Canada, including CMH Heli-skiing & Summer Adventures, the world’s biggest heli-ski operation.

As for Vail’s Mr Katz, he’s not losing sleep yet. "The [recent] announcement that Hakuba in Japan has joined the Epic Pass will further energise sales in Australia – and we are already seeing results from that," he said.

For more ski coverage, see The Sophisticated Traveller, inside today’s Financial Review and the AFR Weekend tomorrow.

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