Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass facing near-peer competition from new Ikon Pass
February 5, 2018
EAGLE COUNTY — For the past several years, Vail Resorts has been the undisputed big dog of the mountain resort industry, driven in large part by sales of its various Epic Pass products. But there's a new player in town.
Over the past year or so, KSL Capital Partners and Henry Crown and Co. have created Alterra Mountain Co. Crown owns Aspen-Snowmass, and former Vail Resorts executive Mike Shannon is the "S" in KSL.
Alterra purchased Intrawest and Mammoth Resorts, as well as Deer Valley Resort in Utah. While controlled by Crown, Aspen-Snowmass remains a separate entity.
That group has created, through purchase and partnerships, a multiresort pass called the Ikon Pass. Starting with the 2018-19 ski season, that pass will be valid at 23 different resorts.
“We welcome new choices for skiers and riders, much like we did with the Mountain Collective and Max Pass and believe passes that offer great value with a simple message and ease of use for the guest can help the whole industry.”Kelly Ladyga, Vail Resorts vice president of corporate communications
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In addition to unveiling the pass, Alterra also recently announced that ski racing champion Mikaela Shiffrin has joined the venture as an investor and will be an ambassador for the pass.
Pricing for the new pass hasn't been announced yet. Alterra spokeswoman Kristin Rust said pass prices will be announced in the next few weeks.
That's a lot of resorts, but still it lags the number of resorts available to those who buy Vail Resorts' Epic Pass, which touts access to a total of 46 resorts.
Those resorts range from urban ski areas near Chicago, Minneapolis and Detroit to mountain resorts in Vermont, Colorado, Utah, California and British Columbia. Epic Pass buyers also have access to a group of resorts in Europe.
The idea behind both passes is similar.
Rust said people who buy passes for their "home" mountains can now expand their horizons.
The Ikon Pass was created "with the skier and rider in mind to explore bucket-list destinations," Rust said.
Ralf Garrison, a resort and ski industry adviser for more than 30 years, said the Epic Pass started the multimountain pass idea, and that idea changed the industry.
But consolidation isn't unique to mountain resorts.
"It's happening everywhere, and in all industries," Garrison said.
The travel industry is down to about four carriers with "significant influence" in the business, he said. There are only about five industry-influencing hotel companies.
In fact, the ski resort business has been a little slower to consolidate than other businesses.
Many resorts have been owned by families or individuals who have viewed ski area ownership as much as a lifestyle as business choice, Garrison said.
Still, consolidation isn't new, it's just been done in different ways.
Companies including Intrawest and — until a few years ago — Vail Resorts, also were heavily invested in real estate development.
But things change. Intrawest wasn't able to recover from the demise of the real estate model. Vail Resorts had the ability to pull out of real estate and focus on the resort business.
That came in large part from the 2008 introduction of the Epic Pass. In fact, most of Vail Resorts' ski resort acquisitions have come since the pass was first rolled out.
A new model
Now, Garrison said, the business model is attracting and keeping customers. Those customers are skiing at a good rate, but they're spending money on ski lessons and rentals, lodging, dining and more.
Given that Vail Resorts sold nearly 700,000 Epic Passes for the 2017-18 season, that's a big customer base.
Over the past decade, other consortiums have tried to roll out multimountain passes for independent resorts.
Telluride Mountain Resort is part of one of those consortiums, the Mountain Collective. But days after the Ikon Pass was announced, Vail Resorts announced that Telluride will be a partner in the Epic Pass starting in the 2018-2019 season.
In an email, Telluride CEO Bill Jensen wrote that "The Epic alliance offers a larger demographic base in Telluride's core destination markets."
That appeal to destination guests — who can vacation at multiple resorts with one pass purchase — could be a way to grow the industry, at least in terms of visitation.
Former Vail Resorts executive Andy Daly is an owner of the Powderhorn ski area near Grand Junction.
Daly said that competing pass products will be "great for skiers in general," offering a number of alternatives for guests.
That's the response from Vail Resorts to the introduction of the Ikon Pass.
In an email, Vail Resorts Vice President of Corporate Communications Kelly Ladyga wrote, "We welcome new choices for skiers and riders, much like we did with the Mountain Collective and Max Pass and believe passes that offer great value with a simple message and ease of use for the guest can help the whole industry."
Vail Resorts created the model. Now, Garrsion said, it's time to see what effect consolidation has on the broader mountain resort industry.
Consolidation, Garrison said, is "trying to build a bigger magnet — that's a metaphor for the power of a brand. Vail Resorts is the biggest mountain in town, and now other guys are looking for big magnets themselves."