Why Colorado’s ski industry wants you to buy lift tickets like you do airplane tickets, but who’s being left out?

Vail Resorts recently announced prices for next ski season’s Epic Pass and Epic Pass Local, which are now on sale for $909 and $676, respectively. That’s an 8% increase compared to the season prior for unlimited access to some or all of Vail’s skiing destinations. But for folks who plan to ski five days or more at Colorado’s biggest resorts, that’s about as cheap as it gets.

According to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), daily lift tickets in the Rocky Mountain region have increased from an average price of $97 in 2013 to $197 in 2022. That figure aggregates prices from Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

In other words, skiers who don’t buy passes in advance pay significantly more than those who do, especially if they buy them on busy days. That’s because more resorts have embraced the idea of dynamic pricing on daily tickets, meaning the cost at the box office window fluctuates depending on consumer demand and other factors. While the practice isn’t new, it has become more widespread thanks, in part, to pandemic restrictions that forced resorts to limit crowds.

Advocates say dynamic pricing enables ski area operators to prepare for and provide guests with a better experience, but others see it as price gouging. One ski area in Arizona, for example, recently came under fire when the price for a daily pass exceeded $300 following a big storm.

VAIL, CO - JANUARY 20: Vail local Colby Fauser skis down a run in Sun Down Bowl on Vail Mountain in Vail, Colo. on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. Fauser is a nurse at Vail Health Hospital. Vail Mountain got almost 11 inches of fresh snow through the week. (Photo by Kelsey Brunner/Special to The Denver Post)
VAIL, CO – JANUARY 20: Vail local Colby Fauser skis down a run in Sun Down Bowl on Vail Mountain in Vail, Colo. on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. Fauser is a nurse at Vail Health Hospital. Vail Mountain got almost 11 inches of fresh snow through the week. (Photo by Kelsey Brunner/Special to The Denver Post)

So far, Colorado hasn’t hit that mark, but it may not be far away. Walk up to the ticket window at Vail Ski Resort the week of March 13 and you’ll be paying $275 for a day pass. Steamboat Springs Ski Resort is also charging $275 per day on select dates in March.

“It’s very much like buying an airline ticket or booking a room in a hotel,” said Melanie Mills, president and CEO of trade group Colorado Ski Country USA. “As a ski area sells more and more tickets for a particular week, they’re able to say, ‘I’m managing my inventory and I’m going to raise the price because I’m focused on maintaining the overall experience.’”

The move away from daily ticket sales toward advance purchases began with the advent of the Epic Pass, Mills said. Prior to its debut in 2008, when it cost $579, season passes were extraordinarily expensive and typically granted skiers access to a single resort. A decade later, Alterra Mountain Resorts introduced the rival Ikon Pass, launching an annual competition to bring skiers to their slopes.

Others, such as the Indy Pass and Mountain Collective, have come online since. Colorado Ski Country USA also sells passes and discount cards that can be redeemed at its member resorts.

Jeff Blumenfeld, vice president of the International Skiing History Association, lauds the passes as “phenomenal” deals for frequent skiers but acknowledges that they “penalize the day skier, the person who just wants to come and try.”

“It’d be like me trying to take up skydiving,” Blumenfeld said, comparing the costs for someone trying the sport for the first time. “You have to take a lesson, you have to get in an airplane, you have to go tandem. And to do it continually, it’s expensive. Skiing requires that,” too.

In the Rocky Mountain region, season passes accounted for 55.7% of total skier visits to resorts during the 2021-22 season, while daily/multi-day tickets (those that must be used within a certain time period) accounted for 31.4% of visits, according to NSAA figures. The remaining share includes packs of tickets that can be used any time, off-duty employees and comp admission, said spokesperson Adrienne Saia Isaac.

Nationwide, season passes were used 52.3% of the time, while daily or multi-day tickets accounted for 36.9% of visits.

In the old days, skiers could find discounted lift tickets at gas stations, grocery stores or in coupon books, a concept known as variable pricing. But technology has drastically transformed the way consumers buy tickets — as well as offering resorts the flexibility to manage crowds, Mills said.

“You can have lower prices during time periods when business levels are lower. And if you want to ski during a time when it’s very popular and during peak periods, the price is going to be higher,” she added. “And now we have the tools to make those changes pretty rapidly.”

Casey Ognevyuk, right, scans a ticket in Vail in December 2009. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)
Casey Ognevyuk, right, scans a ticket in Vail in December 2009. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)

“A much better way to do it”

Dynamic pricing has become commonplace for hotels, airlines and concert venues. However, the practice is also being adopted in less expected places. Cinema behemoth AMC Entertainment recently announced plans to charge different ticket prices for seats within its movie theaters. Seats with better “sightlines” will soon be more expensive than those in the front row.

Depending on where they plan to go, skiers may or may not see dynamic pricing at work. On Vail’s network of resort websites, skiers can plug in the first day they anticipate skiing and compare the online price to what they’d spend at the walk-up window. But prices also fluctuate by the week.

In early March, the price to buy a daily ticket online for mid-March at Vail Mountain was $262, while late March cost $247 (versus $275 at the window for both weeks); an early April ticket was $208 (versus $245 at the window). The more tickets you buy, the steeper the discount.

Still, a five-day ticket for a ski trip beginning April 3 would have set you back $900 online – about the same price as an Epic Pass.

“We typically set our lift ticket prices at the start of the season, and re-evaluate, if needed, as the season goes on,” Vail spokesperson Sara Olson said by email.

“Another note on lift tickets is that they are fully refundable,” she pointed out. “And we know some guests are willing to pay more for that flexibility, whereas passes are non-refundable but offer better value, more flexibility, and more choice.”

Comparatively, privately-owned Telluride Ski Resort charges $209 per day during some weeks and $219 during others. In December, before all of the resort’s terrain was open, tickets ran $162 per day. (A spokesperson declined to comment on the company’s pricing strategy.)

On Arapahoe Basin Ski Area’s website, customers can compare lift ticket costs on a monthly calendar where prices vary day by day. Weekends typically carry a more expensive price tag and the calendar notes specific dates when inventory is low and prices are expected to increase.

A snowboarder heads in after making ...
A snowboarder heads in after making some runs during opening day at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area on Oct. 23, 2022. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Chief Operating Officer Alan Henceroth said A-Basin has used dynamic pricing in some form for about six years, but that it’s only one piece of a complicated equation to determine the cost of lift tickets.

“Generally speaking, the further in advance that you purchase, the cheaper it’s going to be. And the price goes up closer to the actual ski day,” Henceroth said.

A-Basin is continually striving to manage what Henceroth calls its “comfortable caring capacity,” or the maximum number of skiers it can support based on parking capacity, lift and trail occupancy, and how many pass holders might show up to the mountain. On a sold-out day, the resort can host up to 4,140 skiers, Henceroth said.

“We had a period where we did have too many people visiting on our busy times. Parking was a mess, the highway was a mess, lots of frustrated guests, lots of frustrated employees,” he said. Raising prices aims to disincentivize skiers on peak days.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state required ski resorts to limit their daily guests in order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. To do that, A-Basin capped the number of season passes and daily lift tickets it sold, while also requiring skiers to buy online in advance.

“It forced us to do some things that we had maybe been afraid to do in past,” said Henceroth. “We were afraid people maybe would not do it and not come, if they couldn’t walk up to the ticket window. And really it’s a much better way to do it.”

Skiers wait in the lift line ...
Dean Krakel, Special to The Denver Post

Skiers wait in the lift line at the Paradise Bowl chair lift at Crested Butte Ski Resort in January 2018. ((Photo by Dean Krakel, Special to The Denver Post)

Cost can be a barrier to entry

Advance ticket purchases not only help resorts prepare for guests during the season, but also for future investments in the business, Vail’s Olson said.

“Our passes have created incredible stability for our business in an industry that used to be ruled by weather,” she said. “By locking in revenue ahead of the season, we can better plan and reinvest in our resorts (lifts, snowmaking, etc.) and our employees (we invested $175M into employee wages and benefits this year).”

Vail estimates 70% of this season’s traffic will come from pass holders.

The “vast majority” of A-Basin’s visitors use some sort of pass or multi-day pack as well, Henceroth said. Less than 1% of guests pay the highest possible window ticket price, he added.

Still, there are folks being left out of the equation. Patricia Cameron is founder and executive director of Blackpackers, a nonprofit that seeks to diversify the outdoors by curating recreational excursions for people of color. This season, Blackpackers is hosting three ski trips that will bring more than 200 beginners to A-Basin.

According to a 2021-22 NSAA survey of 300,000 skiers, snowboarders and snow bikers, 89% identified as white, while just 1.5% identified as Black or African-American.

The costs associated with skiing are among the biggest barriers to entry, Cameron said. Even if buying a season pass is the most economical option, it requires a large investment upfront, as does acquiring the necessary equipment and clothing. Which is why the organization loans out gloves and goggles and covers the cost of a half-day lesson and gear rentals.

In addition, newbies to snowsports may not have the institutional or generational knowledge to seek out pricing specials. “What does savvy mean? You mean somebody who can look for deals on something they know nothing about prior? How do they do that?” Cameron asked.

Blackpackers has a partnership with A-Basin that includes a special discount on lift tickets, so dynamic pricing doesn’t affect the program. But most of the skiers Cameron brings to the mountain say they wouldn’t be able to afford to try the sport without support from her organization.

“That’s one of the reasons why we exist — to give people chance,” she said. “If we can make dynamic pricing for the weather, why can’t we make it for equitable purposes?”

Accessibility is top of mind for the NSAA and its 330 member resorts, according to Isaac, the Lakewood group’s spokesperson, who points to some of Colorado’s small and medium-sized ski areas like Sunlight Ski Resort and Wolf Creek Ski Area where lift tickets are often cheaper.

No matter how big the resort, however, ticket prices will likely continue on an upward trajectory — though Ski Country USA’s Mills said she doubts they’ll cross the $300 threshold anytime soon.

“That’s a pretty significant difference from what a full-price day lift ticket anywhere in Colorado costs today,” she said. “If I’m reading the tea leaves in front of me I’m not seeing that as very likely in the foreseeable future.”

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