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While others grumble over hordes of newcomers, Telluride embraces Epic Pass skiers

Locals lament crowds of Ikon Pass skiers at some resorts, but Telluride bosses say it's the locals -- not Epic Pass customers -- who are skiing more days than ever

A sticker pasted at the top of Highland Bowl expresses an opinion about the new Ikon ski pass. (Erica Robbie, The Aspen Times)
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TELLURIDE — Local skiers are wailing in Big Sky. Sobbing in Jackson Hole. Whining in Aspen.

The source of the angst: the “Ikoneers,” aka the new visitors using the Ikon Pass.

But while the weeping is likely misguided — the surge in visitation this season seems to be largely homegrown, with skiing locals in growing resort towns celebrating the return of winter after a dismal 2017-18 season — at least one town is howling with glee over its inclusion in the Epic Pass.

“We are pleased; very pleased with our membership in the Epic Pass,” said Telluride ski area co-owner and chief executive Bill Jensen, the industry veteran who served with both Vail Resorts and Intrawest before taking the reins at the southern Colorado destination ski hill in 2015.

Jensen enrolled Telluride in the Mountain Collective Pass for 2017-18, which offered two days of skiing at more than a dozen ski resorts. He pivoted in 2018-19, becoming the first destination resort to partner with Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass, in a deal that allowed buyers of the unlimited, full Epic Pass seven days at his ski area.

It’s worked well for both the town and Telluride ski area. Skiers with the Mountain Collective pass skied two days. Skiers with the Epic Pass are skiing more than four days. And the biggest wave of Epic visitors is arriving midweek, taking over empty hotel rooms in a community that regularly fills on weekends. Jensen said he’s seeing about 350 Epic Pass scans every weekday.

“So they are coming midweek and staying in the community for four, five nights and our community lodging and restaurants are feeling that,” Jensen said. “We really believed that going with the full Epic Pass would bring a destination skier here. And we are seeing exactly that.”

More flights to southwest Colorado

Matt Skinner is the chief of Telluride’s Colorado Flights Alliance, which secured 15 nonstop winter flights from 10 destinations into Montrose Regional Airport in addition to a Denver flight directly into Telluride Airport. That’s up from eight destinations five years ago. He’s seen a 10 percent increase in air travelers coming into Montrose and Telluride this season, which means this winter the local community will pay airlines a lower fee — called a guarantee — that secures consistent air traffic into the regional airports.

“The way that the ski resort shaped the Epic deal, it really keyed into our core customer, which is that destination, longer-stay guest,” Skinner said. “It’s not our core goal to drive that weekender, drive-up traffic. We are focused on the destination play. The way the Epic is set up at this point seems to be bring that type of targeted skier to Telluride.”

Skier Nick Kenworthy plunders powder at Telluride ski area. (Brett Schreckengost, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Michael Martelon, the head of the Telluride Tourism Board since 2011, said Jensen’s deal with Vail Resorts is “most certainly” showing up in local tax revenue.

After a relatively flat December that was felt across the entire resort industry as wary ski vacationers remembered a dry Christmas 2017 holiday, restaurants, lodges and shops in Telluride and Mountain Village are seeing double-digit annual growth.

Lodging tax revenue for both towns in January was up 16 percent. Restaurant taxes are up 12 percent. February taxes are still being tallied.

“February is going to be off-the-charts and March is going to be off-the-charts,” said Martelon, who expects the 2018-19 ski season will be a record for Telluride, Mountain Village and the ski area. “The Epic Pass is really working for us. Not only is it working, but it’s uncanny how accurate Bill was with his estimates of the volume this deal would produce.”

Buyers of the Epic Local Pass — which limits skiing at resorts like Vail and Beaver Creek and is wildly popular among Front Range skiers — do not get access to Telluride. So very few of Telluride’s new Epic Pass skiers are driving to the resort, which is anchored in a decidedly car-unfriendly box canyon valley with a free gondola connecting Telluride and Mountain Village. The Epic Pass visitors Jensen sees are coming from afar: Minnesota, New York City, the southeast, Chicago, New England.

Earlier this year, Jensen hosted the managers of Idaho’s Sun Valley and Utah’s Snowbasin ski area, both of which are owned by the billionaire Holding family. The family enlisted their resorts on the Epic Pass for the 2019-20 season. The resort operators spoke with local businesses, ticket scanners and mountain managers. Sun Valley, like Telluride, is a pure destination resort, far from a major metro area, with a vibrant army of local skiers who pay premium prices for season passes — $1,800 at Sun Valley and $2,100 at Telluride.

“I think they had already made the decision they were going with Epic when they came here, but they visited with everyone and they said ‘Boy if we could do what you guys are doing, it would be a game changer for us,’” Jensen said.

“IKON(not) wait for you to leave”

Jensen said Telluride is having a great year. But it’s about the same as 2015-16, when the resort had no pass partners. His Christmas holiday traffic this season was exactly the same as that year, largely because Telluride and Mountain Village have a fixed supply of lodging.

“We only have so many beds, and you just can’t be here when we are full,” Jensen said.

He’s heard a bit of grousing from local skiers about lift lines on big weekends, like the three-day Martin Luther King Day holiday, which fell during a healthy snowstorm. And here’s where Jensen drops some stats that, if this was the local Telluride Daily Planet, would be in the top paragraph of this article.

Giuseppe’s Restaurant atop Telluride ski area. (Brett Schreckengost, Special to The Colorado Sun)

There were 1,400 more local season passholders on the mountain MLK Saturday than a normal winter Saturday. When Telluride sees these snow-driven surges in visitors — drawing an additional 1,000 to 1,500 skiers — about 80 percent of the extra skiers are using a Telluride season pass, Jensen said. And the ringer stat:

“Our season passholders have skied 50,000 more days this season than they did last year,” Jensen said. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. We are passionate about skiing, and when the snow arrives, we go skiing.”

Over at Wyoming’s Jackson Hole and Montana’s Big Sky, local skiers are bemoaning the influx of visiting skiers riding with the new Ikon Pass. The pass debuted this season with unlimited access to all 14 of Alterra Mountain Co.’s wholly owned resorts and up to seven days at 23 partner resorts. Big Sky General Manager Taylor Middleton last week penned an open letter to his local skiers encouraging them to embrace the newcomers. He noted a message he read from recent British skiers who were troubled by “a negative reaction” to their visit, as well as the sale of a local bumper sticker that read “IKON(not) wait for you to leave.”

“So here we are,” reads Middleton’s letter on the Explore Big Sky news website. “We want a thriving economy without falling into that old ski town trap of not wanting others to come after we arrived. We want more and faster lifts, but don’t like anyone else skiing our favorite line. The conundrum, of course, is that our community is stronger with many guests and the services they help us afford.”

In the Jackson Hole News & Guide last month, local skiers blasted the Ikon as the source of long lift lines and crowded slopes. The article noted that the remote Wyoming ski area — another pure destination resort far from any major city — is tracking toward a record 700,000 skier visits, with about 100,000 of them using the Ikon Pass. Locals will account for about 300,000 visits.

Aspen Skiing this week reported that about 9 percent of its skier visits so far this season at its four Roaring Fork ski areas were Ikon passholders and overall visitation was pacing about 20 percent above the dry 2017-18 season and about 4 percent ahead of the 2016-17 season. A senior vice-president with Aspen Skiing — which is owned by the Crown family, a partner in Alterra Mountain Co. — told the Aspen and Snowmass Rotary Club last Wednesday that local season pass use is up 40 percent, according to the Aspen Times. (The article included a photo of a sticker atop Highlands Bowl that read, “Stop Ikonisizing Aspen.”

Sun Valley and Snowbasin took the extra step of allowing two days — with blackout dates — for Epic Local Pass skiers, maybe hoping to draw weekend visitors from Salt Lake City, where Epic Pass skiers access Vail Resorts’ sprawling Park City resort.

“I’m not doing that here. Vail asked if I wanted to do two Epic Local days and I said no. Because they are all going to show up on a Saturday and Sunday on a crazy weekend with a ton of snow and I’m going to get 1,500 Epic Pass people and 1,500 season pass holders and all of a sudden, everyone will be going ‘What happened to Telluride?’” said Jensen, who expects to see about 9,000 to 10,000 Epic Pass visitors this season. “I’m not interested in growing our volume. That’s not what we want. We want to offer this great experience and want to maximize our yield and help grow business in our community.”

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