Aspen Skiing Co. hopes to match last winter’s Ikonic season

Scott Condon for the Aspen Times Weekly

Aspen tops SKI’s rankings

Exposure to new skiers and riders via the Ikon Pass apparently paid off for Aspen Skiing Co. last season.

Aspen Snowmass was named the top resort overall in SKI Magazine’s annual reader survey for 2020. “Last season, after joining the Ikon Pass, a number of first-time visitors noted that Aspen Snowmass is truly worth the hype, and that the people of Aspen and Snowmass are friendly and welcoming to everyone,” SKI wrote in its assessment of the rankings. SkicoAspen Skiing Co. tried in vain for years to get SKI to consider its four ski areas as one. Once SKI relented, it paid off in the standings. Aspen Snowmass also was top ranked going into 2018-19. In this season’s rankings, Aspen Snowmass ranked number one for accessibility due to free bus transportation to all four mountains and the airport; number one for grooming; and number three for lifts. Perhaps as a result of Skico’s efforts to market to a younger crowd, Aspen Snowmass also was ranked number one as a spring break destination, combining après ski, nightlife, value and challenge. Here are the top resorts in SKI’s rankings for 2020: 1. Aspen Snowmass 2. Sun Valley 3. Whitefish Mountain Resort 4. Steamboat 5. Deer Valley 6. Whistler-Blackcomb 7. Telluride 8. Beaver Creek 9. Breckenridge 10. Park City

The business numbers from last ski season are impressive and perhaps daunting for resort operators aiming to keep pace.

Aspen Skiing Co. set a record with 1.55 million skier visits.

Skico’s sister company, Alterra Mountain Co., debuted its Ikon Pass to smashing success.

Colorado resorts racked up a record 13.8 million skier visits.

“I think the bigger the platform players like Vail and Alterra become, the bigger gaps that we’re leaving (will) begin to be exploited by the well-positioned, wily, independent resorts.” — Rusty Gregory, Alterra CEO

U.S. resorts tallied their fourth-best season with 59.3 million skier visits.

So how do they top that?

“That’s a good question,” said Katie Ertl, Aspen Skiing Co. senior vice president of mountain operations. “It’s a very high number to match.”

Skico’s prior record was set 21 years ago in winter 1997-98. Last season’s showing was the result of timely snowfall and exposure to a new wave of skiers and snowboarders via the Ikon Pass.

Snowfall amounts were about average on the Aspen-Snowmass slopes going into the end of February, then wave after wave of snowstorms during the first half of March produced epic powder days. The ski season also seemed busier to Roaring Fork Valley skiers, Ertl speculated, because so many storms fell during weekends.

“It was the timing that was so amazing to all of us,” she said.

Many Roaring Fork Valley residents are stuck at their jobs on weekdays so they are weekend warriors on the slopes. When there is powder on Saturdays and Sunday, people respond in a big way.

At one point last season, Skico’s season pass use was tracking 40% higher than the prior season, when snowfall was below average.

Add Ikon Pass users to the mix and Skico experienced lift lines longer than Roaring Fork Valley residents were accustomed to. The affordable pass, which provides access to more than 40 resorts at about $1,000, attracted a lot of first-time visitors to the slopes of Aspen and Snowmass. Many of them were from Colorado’s Front Range.

Ikon Pass use accounted for about 9% of Skico’s total skier days, Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle said in June. That would mean about 139,500 skier visits.

Skico officials expect another big boost from the Ikon Pass this year, assuming decent snowfall.

“There are people who had Aspen-Snowmass on their bucket list for years,” Ertl said. “Ikon got them up here.”

There was enough grumbling about crowding that Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan felt compelled to address it in some public forums during the summer. Some Roaring Fork Valley residents blamed Ikon Pass users for creating the lift lines. Kaplan countered by saying big powder weekends brought out the locals. There would have been crowds even without the Ikon passholders, he said.

And besides, Kaplan said, people have been concerned about bringing in new customers and increasing business to the valley. The Ikon Pass is achieving that, he said.

Ertl said Skico did face some “volume impacts” last season and is working on ways to increase the guest flow this season. The company ponied up extra funds to expand its contract with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority for bus service. Weekend service will be dedicated this winter for direct bus service between the Brush Creek-Highway 82 Park and Ride and Aspen Highlands, for example.

In addition, watch for more phased openings of terrain on big powder days. Last year, the Deep Temerity lift was swamped with a crowd on a Saturday when Aspen Highlands was blessed with 16 inches of snow.

“We opened the entire Bowl all at once,” Ertl said.

In similar conditions, the ski patrol will open the Deep Temerity and Highland Bowl terrain phases to spread out demand.

Skico has also increased the capacity of the Cloud 9 lift at Aspen Highlands and the High Alpine lift at Snowmass to 1,800 passengers per hour from 1,200.

Alterra anticipated selling 250,000 of the Ikon Pass last season, according to a report in The Colorado Sun. Rusty Gregory, CEO of Alterra Mountain Co., said there’s been strong growth in Ikon Pass sales for its second winter. Additional destinations have been added to the mix.

“We’ve given people a lot of reasons to buy the Ikon Pass,” Gregory told The Aspen Times. “The retention level (repeat buyers) was astounding, actually.”

He also expects strong repeat business in Aspen-Snowmass among Ikon users.

“I think people will be back because Aspen’s a great place,” Gregory said. “Year to year, it will have a lot to do with the conditions and the economy.”

Adrienne Saia Isaac, director of marketing and communication for the Denver-based National Ski Areas Association, said snow remains the “biggest driver” for the ski industry.

“When it snows, people come skiing. After a great season, we see that effect often trickle into the next season in the form of advance pass/ticket purchase and advance bookings in general,” Isaac wrote in an email. “The same can be said after a low snow year — the trend is generally to see a decrease in early purchase until people see it start to snow again.”

For those reasons, there are no guarantees that skier visits will grow this season at Aspen-Snowmass or the 15 resorts that Alterra owns.

“It’s really less about growing,” Gregory said. “We’re a private company and obviously we want to do well, but we’re not focused on quarter-to-quarter growth. We’re really just focused on the brands we own, the brands we partner with and using Ikon in a way that helps make those brands available to people.”

The Ikon Pass and the Epic Pass — which is offered by Alterra’s chief rival, Vail Resorts — are transforming the North American ski industry. Former Steamboat ski area executive Chris Diamond wrote about the reshaping of the competitive landscape in his book, “Ski Inc. 2020,” which went on sale Oct. 29.

He figures that somewhere around 1.35 million individuals purchased the Ikon and Epic passes last season. That is roughly 16% of all people estimated to participate in skiing and riding in the U.S.

The total number of skier visits accountable to the Ikon and Epic passes “likely approached 16.2 million, or 30% of U.S. visits,” Diamond wrote. That assumed people used their passes 12 days on average.

Looking at the bigger picture, the resorts owned by Alterra and Vail along with their affiliated resorts accounted for about 50% of all the visits in the U.S.

Skiers and snowboarders are getting a good deal, Diamond argued, because they can ski at numerous resorts for significantly less money than what many individual resorts previously charged for season passes.

The industry giants are using pricing to drive consumers to the passes. Vail’s peak, walk-up, single-day lift ticket price was $209 last season. Aspen charged $179. The average weekend, adult ticket industry-wide was $129.

Data show skiers and snowboarders are embracing the passes.

Single- and multi-day lift ticket sales accounted for 55.5% of skier visits in 2008-09. By last season it had fallen to 43.5%, according to the annual Kottke End of Season Survey commissioned by National Ski Areas Association.

Meanwhile, season pass use accounted for 43.4% of all visits last season, up from 34.7% a decade ago, the survey showed.

“That’s the trend for today,” Gregory said. “I don’t think (the growth in pass sales) will continue at the pace that it’s been at. It will balance out in the near years to come.”

Ikon and Epic aren’t the only games in the industry, but they are the biggies. Gregory said he is asked all the time if there is room in the industry for independent resorts.

“I think the bigger the platform players like Vail and Alterra become, the bigger gaps that we’re leaving (will) begin to be exploited by the well-positioned, wily, independent resorts,” he said.

While there is little doubt that the relatively inexpensive passes are benefiting people committed to skiing and snowboarding, the ski industry continues to seek ways to draw new blood. Ski area operators with the support of NSAA offer inexpensive introduction packages to skiing.

Diamond wrote in “Ski Inc. 2020” that the “mega-passes” of Alterra and Vail will help bring in newcomers because “bring a friend” discounted passes are often available.

Nevertheless, the retention rate for people new to skiing and riding hovers around an “unacceptable” rate of 19%, Diamond wrote.

Gregory said Alterra isn’t focused on passionate skiers at the expense of newcomers.

“I think resorts are doing a reasonable job offering beginner, entry-level packages for individuals and families, but I think it’s something we need to continue to focus on,” he said. “We certainly are at Alterra and through our individual resorts. You’ll see over time that we’re going to focus on that company-wide.”

Back to this season — nobody knows for sure what will unfold. Skico’s Ertl said she is focused on improving the guest service experience from the parking lot to the chairlift to the ski line. Snowfall and other factors will determine if business increases or not.

“We’re taking it day-to-day and working with what’s in front of us,” she said.

The latest lodge occupancy outlook for Aspen and Snowmass Village shows the winter pacing flat to last year. That’s not all that bad, considering last year was a record.

December is strong at 6% ahead of last year’s pace at this time while March is 4.6% behind, according to Stay Aspen Snowmass, a central bookings agency owned by Skico.

Gregory spent 40 years in operations at Mammoth Mountain. He said that experience taught him that no season is the same as the prior ones due to shifting circumstances.

“I’m super excited to see what this season is going to be like,” he said.

Aspen Times Weekly

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