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What really led A-Basin to quit the Epic Pass cash cow? “Parking is our pinch point.”

Resort revenues doubled in the decade Arapahoe Basin was part of the Epic Pass, but parking problems outweigh the benefits of cash flow

The Pallavicini chairlift carries skiers and snowboarders up the mountain at Arapahoe Basin on Feb. 9, 2019. Loveland Pass winds its way up to the Continental Divide in the background. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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The deluge of weekend Epic Pass skiers has forced Arapahoe Basin to abandon its decade-long partnership with Vail Resorts.

“We are pretty darn full on weekends and we don’t need any more people on weekends. If anything, we could probably whittle those numbers down a little bit,” Arapahoe Basin’s longtime leader Alan Henceroth said Monday, the day the resort announced it had pulled the plug on the Epic Pass partnership for the 2019-20 ski season. “Our parking is our pinch point.”

Arapahoe Basin, a local’s favorite with a rowdy selection of daunting steeps and a rootsy vibe, has thrived for 10 years under a deal with Vail Resorts that included the 1,428-acre ski area on the industry-dominating Epic Pass. Last fall the company sold more than 825,000 of those passes, offering skiing at 65 different locations.

Vail Resorts once owned Arapahoe Basin for a hot minute. But the U.S. Department of Justice in 1997 forced Vail Resorts to sell the ski area near the summit of Loveland Pass, citing antitrust issues after Vail acquired Ralston Resorts’ Summit County ski areas: Breckenridge, Keystone and A-Basin.

Vail’s Summit County ski areas have partnered with Arapahoe Basin on various shared passes since 1998.

Arapahoe Basin, which is owned by Canada’s Dundee Resort Development, was Vail Resorts’ first partner resort on the Epic Pass, which now includes access to privately owned, independent resorts such as Telluride, Sun Valley and Snowbasin.  

The partnership worked well for Arapahoe Basin, which has spent $40 million in upgrades and expansions in the last 15 years, including the 468-acre push into the Beavers and Steep Gullies that debuted this season.

The year before Vail Resorts unveiled the game-changing Epic Pass in 2008, Arapahoe Basin paid the U.S. Treasury $243,000 in revenue-based rent for use of the White River National Forest’s public lands. In 2016 — the last time the Forest Service broke out individual resort lease payments — Arapahoe Basin paid more than $484,000.

That’s a nearly 100 percent increase in rent in the first eight years under the Epic Pass. (Ski areas pay rent to their federal landlords based on gross revenues. After sharing individual resort payment information for more than a decade, the U.S. Forest Service last year said it would no longer disclose those payments, citing resort operators’ “trade secrets.”)

The doubling of revenue at Arapahoe Basin between 2007 and 2016 marks the largest increase of any resort in Colorado during that period.

“We are still on the same trajectory,” Henceroth said.

After years of flourishing, Henceroth said it’s time for Arapahoe Basin to leave the Epic Pass, largely due to the parking pressures that accompanied its growth. It’s a roiling world for independent resorts these days, as ski areas across North America divide into two camps, either aligning with the Epic Pass or Alterra Mountain Co.’s inaugural Ikon Pass.

The popularity of those passes — the two companies easily sold more than 1.1 million of the passes across the country last season — is fueling record traffic at ski areas, especially on the weekends.

Arapahoe Basin has 1,950 parking spots. It’s not enough. Even though there are rarely lift lines, the number of cars flooding the resort on busy days has caused safety issues, with cars spilling from parking lots onto the precarious mountain highway near the resort. A new parking plan has worked to ease the car crowding by encouraging carpooling this season, but the Colorado State Patrol last weekend began cracking down on cars illegally parked on U.S. 6.

The resort is working to lure skiers beyond weekends. Last year Arapahoe Basin — a little more than an hour’s drive from Denver — started selling a $299 weekday pass that has been received “extremely well,” Henceroth said. “We are going to keep pushing more and more of our visitors to weekdays.”

The proliferation of passes has clogged the high country in recent years, with weekend traffic jams and parking issues flaring up at nearly every resort on the Interstate 70 corridor.

Epic Pass crowds overwhelmed Boulder County’s Eldora ski area in 2013-14 and the resort ended its pass partnership after only one year. The resort now is part of the Ikon Pass and parking remains an issue, with drive-up skiers occasionally turned away on peak days.

The resort in December reversed course on a plan to charge $20 for parking for cars with fewer than three passengers and now offers free RTD bus passes for visitors coming up the canyon from Boulder.

Henceroth said Arapahoe Basin is hoping it can compete in the shifting resort industry by elevating its stand-alone appeal. He said his resort is ready to endure a decline in visitation as it leaves the Epic Pass, but he hopes he can entice Arapahoe Basin loyalists to buy his own pass.

Skier Nathan Hahn makes his way drown a run at Arapahoe Basin on Feb. 9, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“I definitely think there’s interest out there for Arapahoe Basin for a whole lot of reasons. Obviously the big resorts are doing great because that’s where the majority of people like to ski,” he said. “But there is an increasing and growing demand for the Lovelands and Eldoras and Arapahoe Basins and Wolf Creeks of the world. Not everyone wants that huge resort experience and we are going to play with that.”

Arapahoe Basin, with its peak at 13,050-feet, typically has one of the longest seasons in North American skiing, with its opening day often arriving in October and lifts turning into May.  

Vail Resorts earlier this season announced it was investing in snowmaking upgrades at Keystone, allowing the resort just down the hill from Arapahoe Basin to be the first to open every ski season, an early-bird perch typically owned by either Arapahoe Basin or Loveland.

Vail also announced it was extending the season at Breckenridge through Memorial Day, giving the resort operator a potentially six- to seven-month ski season at its two Summit County resorts.

On Monday Vail announced a Keystone Plus Pass to replace its Keystone-Arapahoe Basin Pass, with unlimited access to Keystone, spring skiing at Breckenridge and five days at Vail Resorts’ Crested Butte Mountain Resort for $369.

Henceroth said he was open to talking with any other resorts about a pass partnership.

“It’s gotta be the right thing. It has to work for our guests. It has to work for our employees and it has to work for our business,” Henceroth said. “We are not in any hurry to jump into something. It’s going to take several months for us to figure out.”

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