Aspen’s senior skiers have no complaints about $499 Silver Pass

82-year-old Dixie Paul leads a group of seniors down the slopes at Snowmass on Feb. 22.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times |

Over the Hillers

There is an official ski group for Roaring Fork Valley residents and visitors ages 50 and older.

The Over The Hillers group meets every Tuesday inside and upstairs at the Ullrhof Restaurant at 10 a.m., according to Ruth Waldman, a longtime ski ambassador for Aspen Skiing Co. and leader of the ski group. The group heads out to ski at 10:15 a.m.

“The group was formally a part of the Over The Hill Gang International, which had its headquarters in Colorado Springs,” Waldman said. The group is now sanctioned by Aspen Skiing Co. It shouldn’t be confused with informal ski groups that use a variation of Over the Hill in their name, she said.

Sometime in the late 1990s, Aspen Skiing Co. officials realized they had a problem looming with the coming wave of aging baby boomers, and it required careful consideration of pricing strategy.

The boomers, who were 36 to 54 years old at the time, were the bread and butter of the ski industry. Many of them were fit, hit the slopes a lot and had the disposable income necessary to pursue an expensive hobby.

Skico up to that time had treated customers ages 70 and older extremely generously — charging only $25 for the Young-at-Heart Pass, which provided unlimited skiing during the season. But by the late 1990s, executives in Aspen and throughout the ski industry realized they would lose a huge source of revenue in the future if they let the oldest generation of skiers on the slopes for free or, in Aspen’s case, for only $25.

But the tricky part was raising prices in a way that wouldn’t alienate their prime customers and give them incentive to leave the sport.

“As near as I can tell, the ski company wants us here and treats us well.” — Richard ‘Dixie’ Paul

By and large, ski areas accomplished that goal. Some ski areas allow skiers free access once they hit a certain age — anywhere from the 50s up to 80 years old.

“There’s no consistency,” said Mike Stebbins, a Montana skier who writes an occasional blog at The Senior Skier Network.

Even areas that charge seniors seem to make it a reasonable rate.

“I don’t know too many seniors who gripe about the prices they’re paying,” Stebbins said.

Aspen Skiing Co. eliminated the Young-at-Heart name in the 1998-99 season and set the stage for price hikes in coming years.

In 2000-01, Skico unveiled the Silver Pass for those 70 and older and boosted the cost to $99. The price has regularly increased over the past 17 seasons and now stands at $499.

“We think we’re at the right place right now with that age group,” said Jeff Hanle, Aspen Skiing Co. vice president of communications.

An internal pricing committee looks at pass prices each year and typically adjusts them by a few percentage points. The Silver Pass has skyrocketed by $400, or 400 percent, over the past 17 years. In comparison, the Premier Pass has climbed $550, or 42 percent, over that same period to a price of $1,849.

Employees who work for a business that belongs to a chamber of commerce in the Roaring Fork Valley have experienced a price increase from $949 to $1,349 for the Premier Pass, an increase of $400, or 42 percent.

The Silver Pass price draws high marks from seniors, even if it has jumped so drastically percentage-wise over the years.

Richard “Dixie” Paul, 82, is a retired pediatrician from the Pittsburgh area. He and his wife have owned an Aspen condominium since 1991 and now typically spend a month or more in town between mid-February and late March.

“As near as I can tell, the ski company wants us here and treats us well,” Paul said.

He paid $534 this year for his Silver Pass, including the price of insurance. He called it “a very good deal.” The Silver Pass provides unlimited access to the slopes with no blackout days as well as perks such as reduced price lift tickets for friends, discounts on group lessons, rental equipment and lunch at on-mountain restaurants.

“I ski almost every day,” Paul said. “I still ski some double-black diamonds.”

Sometimes he skis with a grandson or other visiting family or friends. Other times it’s with an informal group of retirees living in the Aspen area. The Over the Hill Gang he skis with hits Aspen Highlands on Mondays and Wednesdays and then Snowmass on Thursdays. To join the group you just have to show up at the ticket office at 10 a.m.

Paul said all of his skiing companions buy the Silver Pass and feel it is a good deal.

“I hear no complaints,” he said.

Don Flaks, 83, has maintained an interest in skiing for more than 60 years.

“I never stopped,” he said. “I actually ski more now because I live here.”

He and his wife, Marcia, retired to Missouri Heights in the midvalley a few years ago. An injury has limited Don’s time on the slopes this season but he hopes to get out there soon and resume skiing with a group of friends.

“I ski with a lot of younger guys — in their 70s,” Flaks said with a laugh. “Quite a few people my age in the valley are skiing.”

For the most part, he said, his friends and acquaintances are “very appreciative” for the Silver Pass. “I don’t know anyone who qualifies who isn’t satisfied,” he said.

He feels the $499 price is a bargain for unlimited skiing.

“You ski five or six times and you cover it,” he said, comparing it with the price of walk-up, single-day lift tickets.

It’s not only wealthy retirees who find the price of the Silver Pass affordable. Chad Federwitz, manager of Pitkin County Senior Services, said many people who use the services of the agency have touted the affordability and accessibility of skiing of Aspen-Snowmass.

They can use Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses, city of Aspen transit service and the senior van to get to the slopes.

Pitkin County Senior Services offers its programs to people age 60 and older and works with people from across the socioeconomic spectrum. Federwitz said it was his impression that there remains good participation in skiing among local residents in their 70s.

“We have people who ski all day and take a break to come here for lunch,” he said.

Federwitz said he hasn’t heard a lot of people complaining that skiing should be free for senior over a certain age.

The National Ski Areas Association, a national trade association for the ski industry, compiled a list prior to last winter of resorts that let seniors ski for free. Many of the roughly 130 resorts were small operations scattered throughout the country.

However, at that time, some big names also provided free access to the slopes. Alta, Utah, and Taos, New Mexico, let seniors 80 and older ski for free. Snowbasin, Utah, set the age at 75 while Whitefish in Montana sets the mark at 70 years old.

In Colorado, only four resorts let seniors ski for free in 2016-17, and the ages of admittance were all over the map. Monarch Mountain set the age at 69 while Arrowhead was at 70. Sunlight Mountain Resort and Wolf Creek Ski Area set the ski-free age at 80.

Kelly Pawlak, president and CEO of National Ski Areas Association, said each ski area is unique and has its own brand, so they will tailor programs for baby boomers that best fit their skier demographics, resort layout and history.

“Some will take advantage of this age group and be more aggressive with programs and pricing and others will be more conservative,” Pawlak said. “A lot of this has to do with the demographics of the ski area — who they are attracting to their slopes.

“For instance, a ski area that attracts a younger age participant may not focus on boomers,” Pawlak said. “On the other hand, a resort that has a strong senior population or a resort layout that is attractive to seniors could gain business by offering an attractive package designed for this market segment.”

Data from a study commissioned by NSAA, based on surveys with a representative sample of resorts, show that baby boomers and pre-boomers accounted for about 20 percent of national skier visits in 2016-17.

Aspen Skiing Co. has extra incentive to keep seniors satisfied. The resort’s demographics tend to skew older than the industry as a whole, Hanle confirmed. Aspen also has tremendous return business and customers who are loyal, he said. They bring multiple generations of their families to trips in Aspen-Snowmass, so their importance outweighs their skier visits.

But the importance of aging baby boomers also forces Skico to work hard to be in position to replace them as they age out of the sport of skiing.

“Kids 6 and under ski for free because we’re trying to grow the sport,” Hanle said.

That topic within the broader ski industry hits a sore spot with Stebbins. He posted a blog in February 2017 titled, “Have Senior Skiers Been Abandoned? The Wrinkled Irrelevants.”

Stebbins said “geezers” are a lot more important to the ski industry than most executives appear to realize. The sport loses roughly 19 percent of participants between ages 45 and 54 for a variety of reasons. Therefore, it should be doing more to retain skiers who have stuck with it to age 55. Pricing is only part of the picture, he said.

“I will suggest that with advancements in equipment, technique, medicine and health maintenance, a 45-year-old skier has 30 years or more of participation left,” Stebbins wrote. “Is the industry willing to write off senior skiers with 30 or more years left as customers? The evidence is clear that it is.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with information about the Over the Hillers ski group.