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Vail’s new Epic day pass lowers pre-purchased lift tickets to as low as $89

The latest salvo in Epic-versus-Ikon season pass brawl targets occasional skiers who balk at $200-plus lift tickets

An Eagle County 6th grader enjoys a snow day on Monday, March 4, 2019, at Vail ski area. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
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Vail Resorts on Tuesday dropped a new product that the resort conglomerate hopes will end the persistent argument that skiing is too expensive.

The “Epic for Everyone” offers pre-purchased lift tickets for as low as $89 a day, extending to infrequent skiers the same discounts delivered to Epic Pass buyers who paid as much as $900 this season to ski as many days as they want.

“We have really, I think, taken the window lift ticket out of the picture. So at this point there is really no reason — as long as you can plan ahead a little bit — that you can’t be skiing for around $100,” said Vail Resorts chief Rob Katz, who 11 years ago created the Epic Pass that stabilized the resort industry’s notoriously seasonal revenue flow by encouraging skiers to buy discounted season passes long before the lifts began turning.

While this could be seen as yet another missive in the Epic-versus-Ikon season pass brawl that is transforming the resort industry, Katz said the Epic Day Pass comes from years of ticket-window numbers showing a decline in visits by day-ticket buyers who, while not skiing entire seasons, still are important to the resort business.

The new Epic Day Pass for next season gives skiers a chance to pre-purchase one-to-seven days of skiing for prices that are about half the walk-up ticket price at most Vail-owned ski areas. Starting at $106 for a one-day restricted pass — meaning it can’t be used over major holidays — and $125 for an unrestricted day pass, the new Epic Day Pass targets skiers who maybe don’t want to commit $939 for a 2019-20 Epic Pass, but also balk at Vail’s day lift ticket price, which peaked at $209 over Christmas.

Vail ski area’s 2018-19 day lift tickets peaked at $209 over the Christmas holiday. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

“There has been this critique over the years saying ‘Yeah this (Epic Pass) is great for the enthusiast.’ But for the first-time skier, for the infrequent skier, the occasional skier, somebody who just wants to kind of dabble … we haven’t really had a product for that person,” Katz said.

Vail Resorts sold more than 925,000 Epic Passes for 2018-19, a combination of the full unrestricted Epic Pass, the Epic Local Pass that limits access to some resorts, and its four-day and seven-day passes. There were about 100,000 $99 Epic Pass for military veterans and their families in that total as well. Alterra, a privately held company that owns 14 ski destinations but doesn’t release stats like the publicly traded Vail Resorts, said it sold more than 250,000 Ikon Passes in its debut season, which corralled about two dozen additional destinations as pass partners.

So it’s safe to assume that Ikon and Epic-passed skiers accessing about 80 of the world’s top ski resorts bought about 1.2 million season passes. Those passes have transformed the resort industry, which less than a dozen years ago was hoping for snow to lure skiers whose spending would support investment the following season.

Now, pass revenue rolls in long before the season begins, enabling Vail Resorts  — now a stable of 20 owned ski areas including its recent acquisitions of Australia’s Falls Creek and Hotham ski areas — to invest without relying on hordes of skiers chasing hit-or-miss powder.

Katz said while the Epic Pass has done a good job of capturing visitors who plan to ski five or more days, the daily lift ticket prices have triggered a decline in visits for just a day or a weekend. In fiscal 2018, the company reported that 47 percent of its lift revenue came from Epic Pass skiers, but the guests using day lift tickets skied only, on average, 2.3 days during the 2017-18 ski season.

Vail ski area harvested 26 inches of snow in two days over the first weekend in March. A skier enjoys the powder in Game Creek Bowl on Sunday, March 3. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

“So now we’ve got all these other people who still are skiing at our mountains and who are so important to us and our sport, but we are seeing their frequency is a lot lower. This was more about that. How do we reach out to those folks?” Katz said. “Both with the Ikon or without Ikon we are always trying to come up with something new, to make the pass better, more valuable, with more access.”

The Epic Day Passes will be mailed to skiers, eliminating the need to stand in line for a day lift ticket. Cutting wait-times is a high priority for Vail Resorts, which has added high-speed lifts across its network of resorts.

“We’ve really been able to reduce those lift line wait times and now we have got to reduce the other lines and any kind of waiting, whether you are in a lift ticket line or waiting for food or rentals,” Katz said. “We have to reduce all that.”

So what can resorts do to reduce the clogging of Interstate 70 every wintery Saturday and Sunday? Vail Resorts announced the new “everyone’s welcome!” strategy only two days after a snowy storm blasted the Interstate 70 corridor on Sunday, doubling or even tripling travel times between resorts in Eagle and Summit counties and metro Denver.

It’s not uncommon for skiers stuck in their cars to target the Epic Pass — and now the Ikon, with access to Winter Park, Steamboat, Eldora and Copper Mountain — as the source of the traffic. But Colorado’s population growth and storms that ice roads and even send avalanches over the interstate certainly play a role as well. As do the overwhelming number of cars flooding resort communities every winter weekend, a deluge that recently prodded Arapahoe Basin to abandon its long-term relationship with Vail’s Epic Pass, citing parking capacity.

Still, Katz said “we collectively need to do a much better job on carpooling and getting people out of their cars,” noting proposals for more buses and even bus lanes to help ease the winter-weekend congestion on I-70.

“There’s a cultural piece here which is about getting everyone out of their own car, which becomes really critical,” Katz said.

MORE: Crested Butte may be the gem in Vail Resorts’ portfolio, but its lifts must be fixed before it can shine

As if sensing competitor news in the season-pass brawl, Alterra Mountain Co. on Monday announced plans to invest $181 million at its network of resorts for the 2019-20 season, part of its plan to spend $555 million across its resorts through 2023. The new investment includes a $15 million replacement gondola at Steamboat and a new six-person high-speed chair to replace the fixed-grip three-person Sunnyside lift at Winter Park.

Last week Alterra Mountain Co. announced the Ikon’s price for 2019-20 with early buyers allowed unlimited spring access starting April 8 at Winter Park, California’s Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows and Mammoth Mountain, Washington’s Crystal Mountain, Utah’s Solitude and Quebec’s Tremblant.

The full Ikon Pass for next season — good for unlimited access at 14 destinations and seven-day access at 23 partner destinations starts for early-season buyers at $949, or $919 for renewing passholders. Last spring the Ikon debuted at $899 and reached $999 in the fall. The Ikon Base Pass — with unlimited access to 12 destinations and five-day access at 25 partner destinations — will run $649, or $619 for renewing passholders. That’s up from its spring 2018 pricing at $599.

The full Epic Pass — with unlimited access to 20 ski areas and limited access to another dozen North American, Japanese and European ski destinations — is launching at $939 for 2019-20, with the cost climbing as the season nears. That’s up from $899 for the Epic Pass last spring. The Epic Local Pass — with unlimited access to 10 ski areas and limited access to another 11 destinations — will cost $699, up from $669 in March 2018.

The Epic Day Pass allows skiers to choose between unrestricted or holiday-excluded day tickets — from one day to seven days — at all 17 of Vail Resorts’ North American ski areas. Prices range from $106 for a one-day restricted pass and $125 for an unrestricted one-day ticket to $621 for seven restricted days and $731 for seven days anytime of the season. Skiers who bought a day lift ticket this season can apply the value of that ticket toward an Epic Pass or an Epic Day Pass with four or more days.

Rising Sun