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

After almost six months of courting by a suite of suitors after Arapahoe Basin’s divorce from Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass, resort boss Alan Henceroth has found a new home with Alterra Mountain Co.’s Ikon Pass. 

“We were looking for partners and resorts who were in sync with ours and the Ikon resorts are some of my favorite resorts in the world,” Henceroth said. 

The 2019-20 Ikon Pass will offer seven unrestricted days at Arapahoe Basin and the Ikon Base Pass will offer five days, with some black-out dates. It was the limited days that elevated the Ikon partnership, Henceroth said. 

“We really liked that restricted part,” Henceroth said, noting that after a decade with the wildly popular Epic Pass, his resort was enduring weekends of clogged parking and over-burdened facilities. “We think this is really going to hit the sweet spot for us. Business is still going to be great, but we are going to be operating at a level that is more in sync with what most of our guests want and most of us who work here want.”

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Vail Resorts owned Arapahoe Basin for a hot minute in 1997. The U.S. Department of Justice didn’t like Vail’s acquisition of Keystone, Breckenridge and Arapahoe Basin and, citing antitrust concerns, forced the company to sell the resort. Canada’s Dundee Resort Development bought Arapahoe Basin and the resort became Vail Resort’s first partner when the Epic Pass debuted in 2008. 

Arapahoe Basin, with its loyal following of steep-loving skiers, thrived under the Epic Pass. The resort has spent more than $40 million on upgrades in the last 15 years, including the expansion into Montezuma Bowl in 2008, new chairlifts and restaurants and last season’s game-changing 468-acre expansion into the Beavers and Steep Gullies. 

In 2008, the year the resort joined the Epic Pass, Arapahoe Basin paid the U.S. Treasury $274,000 in revenue-based rent for use of White River National Forest land. In 2016 — the last time the Forest Service broke out individual payments from resorts on public land — Arapahoe Basin paid $484,000 in rent, a 77% increase in revenue in a decade. 

The growth in traffic taxed the resort’s parking, which is limited to only 1,950 spots. In February, Henceroth announced Arapahoe Basin was leaving the Epic Pass and quickly offered a $449 unrestricted pass for loyal skiers. He said he was willing to talk with potential pass partners but that Arapahoe Basin could compete as an independent.

“Not everyone wants that huge-resort experience and we are going to play with that,” he said in February.

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)

With the debut of Alterra Mountain Co.’s Ikon Pass last season, the pass war heated up, with Vail Resorts selling more than 925,000 Epic Passes. Alterra sold more than 250,000 Ikon Passes in its first year. 

The two operators are scouring ski country for partners, enrolling resorts on their passes in a fight for skier loyalty. Last month Vail acquired 17 mid-sized resorts in New England and the Midwest, hoping to foster a new wave of Epic Pass vacationers.

The Arapahoe Basin switch is the first time a resort has abandoned the Epic for the Ikon. But as the pass battle matures, it is unlikely this will be the last time a ski area decamps for the other side. With the resort industry dividing into two distinct harbors, the future likely will see independent resorts testing the waters of each. 

Arapahoe Basin’s move to Ikon certainly anchors Colorado as the battleground. The Ikon now offers skiing at six resorts in Colorado: Aspen Snowmass, Winter Park, Steamboat, Copper, Eldora and Arapahoe Basin. The Epic also offers skiing at six: Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Crested Butte and Telluride. 

Erik Forsell, the head of marketing for Alterra Mountain Co., said Arapahoe Basin will appeal to Ikon’s Colorado skiers as well as skiers eager to travel to Colorado. He studied Ikon pass usage trends over 2018-19 and saw skiers traveling for diverse resort experiences. 

“We have been surprised at people trying all these different flavors of resorts,” Forsell said. “Arapahoe Basin adds even more flavor to the Ikon Pass.”

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

Arapahoe Basin joins Ikon’s stable of steep-and-deep destinations, like California’s Squaw Valley, Alta-Snowbird in Utah and Jackson Hole in Wyoming, while appealing to Colorado skiers who appreciate the resort’s easy access and terrain. 

“Really it comes down to the importance of Colorado and trying to offer a product that competes in this market. Whether skiers are moving from state to state or staying in Colorado, we wanted to give a lot more options to such an incredible, important market,” Forsell said. “It’s such a good fit for us. It matches up so well with a lot of our other partners.”

The specifics behind of deals are some of the most closely guarded secrets in the ski business. Partners like Arapahoe Basin get a certain amount of money for each visit and that amount can vary. Alterra did not release any specifics about the deal. 

Read more outdoors stories from The Colorado Sun.

Arapahoe Basin’s benefits from the partnership with Vail Resorts for the Epic Pass was likely anchored in volume. Its deal with Alterra for Ikon Pass use is not. The Arapahoe Basin agreement with Alterra mirrors Vail Resorts’ arrangement with Telluride, which offers seven unrestricted days to skiers with the full Epic Pass.  

“We think we are going to do better with this deal,” Henceroth said. “The people who want to ski an unlimited number of days, they can buy our pass and those people with the multi-resort aspirations, the Ikon Pass is going to be perfect for them.”

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins