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As Ski Resorts Merge, Do They Actually Offer Better Deals For Skiers?

Zach Dischner
A snowboarder heads downhill at Vail in 2011.

Jim Schmidt is the mayor of Crested Butte. This mountain town in central Colorado is home to the most recent in a slew of acquisitions by Vail Resorts. Schmidt is quick to clarify.

"They bought the ski resort, they did not buy the town, they did not buy our souls," said Schmidt.

That said, he says locals are a bit nervous.

"There certainly is fear among the community that a wall street company is now owning our ski area, and the different feeling that it brings," Schmidt said.

This purchase is part of a much larger trend in the ski industry. Vail started buying up other resorts in Colorado in the late nineties starting with Breckenridge and Keystone. It soon expanded to resorts in Europe and Canada.

Aspen Skiing Company wanted in on the action, too. In 2017 it partnered with Alterra Mountain Company, which owns resorts all over the globe.

Christian Knapp is with the Aspen Skiing Company. He says these partnerships and acquisitions make sense. Skiing is a capital-intensive undertaking.

"Lifts, snowmaking, staff - all those facets DO cost money," said Knapp.

It costs a lot of money, in fact. But he says the merger trend has enabled another development that helps them: the resort pass.

Vail started offering its Epic Pass a few years ago. A full pass can cost around $1,000 and gives you access to Vail's resorts across the globe, including Jackson Hole in Wyoming and Canada's Whistler Blackcomb.

And now Vail has competition. For a similar amount a full Ikon pass from Aspen and Alterra lets you ski in about 40 resorts worldwide.

Knapp says the industry loves this business model. The economy can waver, but passes are surefire income.

"These larger companies with scale with a pass product like Ikon are able to sell a significant volume of passes and create a network of people," said Knapp. "It's somewhat of a guarantee of business."

He says that steady business means steady money in a volatile industry with lots of overhead.

"You're seeing companies like Vail and Alterra be able to reinvest significant capital expenses back and to create a better experience into the product," said Knapp.

The entry of the Ikon pass into this niche market however may have created a headache for Vail. Sales of Vail's Epic Pass dipped this season and the company's public stocks took a substantial hit.

Vail declined to comment for this story but it has been an expensive year for the company with the acquisition of Crested Butte in Colorado and two other mountain resorts on the East Coast.

Dave Belan is with RRC, a consulting firm for the outdoor industry based in Boulder, Colorado. He says while this may be a headache for Vail, the competition is good for skiers.

"On average the consumer is paying less per ski day compared to 20 years ago, said Belan, "if you do ski quite frequently then these mergers provide products that are pretty good value."

As long as you're getting a pass, that is. A day ticket at Vail can set you back over $170 these days. Aspen, around $160.

But if you are going to shell out cash, how's the skiing? Belan says all this bundling is helping skiers find more and better snow as well. That's because the industry is dealing with a major problem: climate change and increasingly unpredictable winters.

"A company that owns multiple mountains in different parts of the country is going to give them insulation across varying weather patterns," said Belan.

And give pass holding skiers like David Zander more insulation too.

Zander's visiting Aspen from Denver today. As we ride up the gondola he tells me that he's tried the Epic pass, but this year he's trying the Ikon.

"It's the mountains where I want to ski. I want to ski Winter Park and Copper, but to bable to ski someplace like Aspen is just a huge bonus - to just kind of get out and ski here," he said.

There are downsides for skiers. Crowding at peak times has become more of an issue.

And there's concerns that mom and pop hills could lose their local flavor - and the few high-paying jobs they may have in a mountain resort town. When Vail bought Whistler it laid off dozens of administrative position in things like accounting and communications and moved them to company headquarters.

There's fear that this could happen in Crested Butte, too.

Mayor Jim Schmidt is wary of any potential changes.

"Vail has said over and over we don't want to make you into Vail. We're a unique and special place," said Schmidt.

Schmidt says he hasn't seen any big differences yet - with one notable exception.

"I've heard they don't sell shots at mountain bars anymore," said Schmidt.

So that peppermint schnapps will have to go in your hot chocolate, not in a shot glass on the side.

Zoë Rom is an Aspen-based writer and audio journalist. Southern story-teller turned mountain-dweller, she starts every day with a cup of strong coffee and a good story. Her work has appeared in Outside, Rock & Ice, Trail Runner, Backpacker, REI Co-op Journal and Threshold Podcast. You can reach her via email.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

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