When the fight over ski pass prices began
September 30, 2012
ASPEN – Twenty-five years ago was the summer and fall of Aspen’s discontent.
There was mounting concern about funky, affordable, free-market housing getting gobbled throughout town for construction of high-priced condos and homes. Ski bums were upset, at least temporarily, about the razing of the old Little Nell nightclub at the base of Aspen Mountain. A fight over the size of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, now the St. Regis, was looming.
But the biggest source of conflict was Aspen Skiing Co.’s pricing policy. When Skico announced its intent to charge $35 for a daily lift ticket at Aspen Mountain the next season, a large share of town residents went ballistic. Skico was going to charge more at Aspen Mountain because it had installed the Silver Queen Gondola. The price was slated at $33 for Snowmass and Buttermilk. Aspen Highlands was independently owned and operated by Whip Jones at the time.
Skico defended its pricing policy by saying Aspen Mountain was one of the best ski areas in the world and should be priced to reflect it. Critics contended the company was being “elitist.” Some lodge owners even condemned the pricing as a death knell for middle-class tourists.
Hal Clifford, then a young reporter for the Aspen Daily News, coined the term “Mercedes Benz pricing” to describe Skico’s strategy. It was a name that stuck and became a rallying cry for opponents.
Season-pass holders were further rankled by a Skico decision that hit them in the pocketbook. Skico decided to increase the validation fee from $10 to $20. The base price of the pass was $475. Passholders had to pay the validation fee for 77 days of the season, drastically boosting the overall price of the pass.
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Opponents weren’t content writing angry letters to the editors of the newspapers. They organized Aspenites for Restoring our Community or ARC to give them a unified voice. The group collected 2,700 signatures of Aspen-area residents on a petition demanding a nonvalidated season pass and a lower single-day ticket price, according to an article in the June 11, 1987, edition of The Aspen Times Weekly.
More than 200 people turned out for a community forum hosted by representatives of the owners at the time – Miller-Klutznick-Davis-Gray – and then-president of Skico, Jerry Blann at the old Continental Inn. Tom Klutznick, one of the owners, announced at the meeting that Skico had no intention to roll back the daily lift ticket price despite a month of protests by critics.
Blann recalled for The Aspen Times in 2010 that he urged the owners not to hold the community meeting because it would undermine his authority as president and CEO of the company. “If you do this, I’m going to be incapable of managing this business,” Blann said he told Klutznick.
Blann recalled that he said little in the meeting and he resigned a short time later. He stayed in the ski industry and now heads Jackson Hole.
While Skico stuck to the $35 ticket for Aspen Mountain, the opposition effort bore fruit. Skico formed a 25-member advisory committee to offer input on issues affecting both Aspen the resort and Aspen the community.
Former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling was a member of the committee and a leading critic of Skico’s pricing. He and others championed a two-day-per-week pass, which Skico adopted.
“I called it the ‘working stiff’ pass,” Stirling said. Many workers didn’t have the option of hitting the slopes every day, so they needed a lower-priced pass for weekends.
Skico also did away with the validated pass, which led to a higher base price but did away with black-out dates and irritating fees. Skico is known for offering a variety of passes at different prices. That’s a direct result of the protests of 1987.
As part of his opposition to Skico pricing, Stirling went to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress to force a lower lift ticket price since Skico used public lands. The effort was fruitless.
Stirling said he received a few negative comments from constituents who claimed that it wasn’t the job of the mayor to criticize a private company for its pricing.
“I said it was exactly my role as a leader,” Stirling said. “I got more support than criticism for those positions.”
Stirling is generally complimentary of Skico’s current pricing policy though he said passes shouldn’t have risen in recent years because so many workers are still struggling.
Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle noted that the price of a full-season “premier” pass was reduced for the 2009-10 season and kept flat for 2010-11. It went up a modest percentage each of the last two seasons. Even so, it remains below pre-recession levels, he said.
Prices outstrip inflation
The price of the premier pass was $1,599 if purchased before a super-early deadline of Sept. 14. It’s now $1,879.
The premier pass prices for employees of a business that belongs to a chamber of commerce in the valley was $1,179 by the super-early deadline and is $1,549 now.
In comparison, the full-season pass was $725 for a non-chamber member and $475 for a chamber member for the 1993-94 season, the earliest prices immediately available. The inflation calculator at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website indicates that $725 in 1993 has the same buying power as $1,156 this year. The $475 paid for a chamber-member pass in 1993 now has the buying power of $757.
Skico passes clearly have climbed faster than the rate of inflation since 1993. Hanle said the company’s cost of doing business has risen faster than inflation as well. In addition, the company has made multimillion-dollar investments in infrastructure such as chairlifts and restaurants. There’s also more terrain – Aspen Highlands was folded into the Skico umbrella in the mid-1990s. And since that happened, Highland Bowl and Temerity have been opened at Highlands. As a result, Skico feels that the skiing and riding experience is better than it was 25 years ago, Hanle said.
While there are occasional complaints about Skico prices in letters to the newspapers, mass protests haven’t happened for a quarter-century. “It’s probably more complicated now then it was 25 years ago,” Stirling said.
The Skico ownership and management was “more brazen” back then, he said. Stirling believes Aspen is fortunate the Lester Crown family, owners of a minor share of the Skico in 1987, became full owners in the 1990s. He credited the company and management with keeping distinctive character of the four ski areas.
“I have to hand it to the ski company,” he said. “They’re truly one of the best ski operators anywhere in the country.
“Why isn’t there a hue and cry (over pricing policies today)? Because they’re a great operator.”
Rick Jones, whose family owned Aspen Highlands before it was purchased by Gerald Hines then folded into the Skico, wasn’t shy in the 1980s and ’90s of criticizing Skico. Now he is a supporter of the company. Like Stirling, he thinks Skico takes a different approach these days and avoids community antagonism such as in 1987.
Skico’s pass prices are “relatively reasonably priced,” Jones said. “It’s a good deal as far as I’m concerned.”
All the Front Range resorts offer lower-priced passes, but they come with substantially larger crowds and longer lift lines, Jones noted. Most skiers and riders in the Roaring Fork Valley realize the tradeoff and are willing to pay the higher price, he said.
Not everyone is happy. An Aspen native in her late 50s said she has many friends who live to ski and get value out of their pass because they hit the slopes so often. On the other hand, she’s also aware of longtime locals who have hung up their skis because they cannot get a pass through work and they don’t want to pay the price for one of the more expensive passes. Many of those people don’t complain about the prices because they figure it wouldn’t do any good, she said.
That’s the sentiment of a full-time Aspen worker in his late 20s. His name couldn’t be used because of his employment situation. He was critical of the price of the premier pass.
“It’s completely out of reach,” he said.
Most of his friends seek jobs that come with a full pass. Many of them land with Skico. The only way he can afford a pass, he said, is his employer covers the cost up front and deducts payments out of paychecks over 10 weeks.
He didn’t see the point of complaining about Skico’s prices. “The only thing you can really do is move,” said the former Alta skier.