skip to main content
Got 2 minutes? I'd love your advice. Take the 2018 SlopeFillers Survey→

Perspectives
What 52 marketers think of ski resort consolidation.

divider image for this post
GREGG
BLANCHARD
       

I ask for more than just Y/N answers, I ask for some thought. Some insight. So being, I usually shoot for around 50 responses to my surveys. Sometimes that happens in a few hours, sometimes it takes a week for less-interesting topics.

As expected, this one hit that number fairly quickly after a big influx of responses on Friday (actually ended up with 52 because I didn’t catch it in time). Here are the results.

Who dis?
One of the questions I wanted to include was a flag for those that are heavily involved in this trend. So I simply asked those from a Vail or Alterra resort to raise their hands. I only ended up with 4, but I’m okay with that. Traditionally, Vail has kept their thoughts close to the vest and I’d expect Alterra to do the same.

As I mentioned in the survey, I’m not trying to spy on anyone or twist words, but I think it’s useful to see how those who are deeply involved in this trend look at it relative to the rest of us.

Good or Bad
Asked, “Overall, do you think consolidation will be good, bad, or have no effect on the health of the ski industry?” just 4 said “no effect”, 25 said “bad”, and 23 said “good”.

Of the 4 VR/Alterra responses, 3 said “good” and 1 said “no effect”.

The Upsides
Next, I asked “What do you think the biggest UPSIDE will be of the consolidation happening in ski?” Here are all 49 answers (one person didn’t fill the free-response stuff out and two said “nothing”). Note, I’ve added [VR/ALT] before responses from a Vail Resorts or Alterra respondent.

New lifts, snowmaking, restaurants, etc.

Exposure to a broader customer segment

more accessibility to non traditional demographics

Slight uptick in ski travel.

Expose more people to skiing beyond their local ski hill.Crowding at non-Vail/Alterrra resorts will not be an issue as the masses flock to long lift lines for low prices because they can ski at 84 mountains with one pass. ; )

Season pass pricing

The emergence of unique marketing niche’s for non-consolidated resorts to stake a claim to

If it helps a smaller resort survive economic or environment downswings, that could be good. But I am not sure that’s been the case yet with the acquired resorts necessarily.

More money infused into the acquired resorts for continued improvements

Multi-resort passes can lower consumer costs, or perceived costs, especially in the short term.

“Higher perceived value of multi-resort passes may increase number of destination visitors who decide to ski each year, or decide to ski for more than a day or two per season. Actual cost remains high, perceived cost decreases as competition between the conglomerates intensifies.

Better management leads to a more consistently high-quality experience across ski areas. On average, ski trips become more efficient (time-wise), less likely to be derailed by sub-par employees and processes, and more likely to more or less meet expectations that have been set.”

Influx of capital for improvements to ski resort facilities and lifts.

Increased levels of service

Access to capital / debt with market seeing sustainability / viability thanks to VR / Alterra success.

leveraging the economies of scale to help the resorts that are struggling

[VR/ALT] National-level Multi-resort pass initiatives that will ultimately drive frequency and hopefully attract more participants.

More season passes sold.

Affordability (Season Passes)

Freedom of choice for the travelling skier.

Ticket / pass price

Capital for long terms maintenance and resort quality

More investment, more options with a season pass

More targeted marketing by companies that have budgets of enough size to make noticeable noise in the market place.

Pass pricing competition. Increased investment in the skier experience (lifts, facilities, etc)

Providing a economy of scale for marketing dollars to support the conglomerate. More funding avenues available for capital improvements in smaller mountains. Subsidized operations to absorb climate change fluctuations.

On combined marketing effort to promote skiing, which will hopefully benefit the smaller resorts.

Greater flexibility for season pass holders that want to try different mountains.

Midwest and East coast skiers who travel west every year can use their passes at their local ski hill and also at real ski areas.

More capital for infrastructure improvements and investments

Passes are great for our core audience! Plus, the access to capital will be more readily available to improve the overall experience.

With conglomerate ownership usually comes big investment. Smaller resorts suddenly have access to major infrastructure.

[VR/ALT] Ski resorts stay in business, new skiers join the sport

[VR/ALT] More capital available to offer the best guest experience at large destination resorts.

More people will visit more resorts.

lower pass prices (at least initially)

Ability for capital investment in infrastructure.

My hope is more financial stability

Customers: Nice season pass options for destination visitors. Personal/Industry – None

Infrastructure investment, facility updating, assisting areas which may be faltering financially

More pass options for consumers

Destinations will see a skier that they might not have seen before, since they already have a lift ticket

[VR/ALT] Improvement to infrastructure (lifts, snowmaking etc)

Increased awareness on pass sales

Pricing

Increased economies of scale….but it is going to really hurt small areas

Ability of skiers/snowboarders to ski a wider variety of different resorts

More people skiing

Financial efficiency, more net income

The marketing within the ski world will be better

The trends are fairly easy to pick out of that overview:

  • More value/options for skiers
  • Financial stability and access to capital
  • Economies of scale

So that’s the positive.

The Downsides
Here’s what folks said about the other side of the coin. Interestingly, all the “upside” responses totaled 619 words. All the “downside” responses added up to 1,154 words.

“Smaller areas losing revenue

Crowding

standardization of ski areas.. i e most of Vail resorts feel very similar and ski similar

Give it 10 years and under-performing resorts (from a national/global scale) will be eliminated.

Where to start. Generally lack of competition is never a great thing and is generally not great for the consumer in the end. Feels great at first…look at all these resorts I can ski at, but in the end your wallet will feel the pinch. Vail & Alterra will have the money to purchase most any resort they choose and dominate all markets with a flood of resources that the little guys just don’t have access to.

The challenges of the smaller, independent ski areas are going to get larger and more difficult to stay competitive

Lack of competition in pricing and non consolidated resorts having to compete on pricing terms that are not feasible for their financial model

As a passholder, I appreciate how reasonable the cost becomes to ski at one of the resorts in my pass’s portfolio. Where I am getting bummed, though, is seeing how expensive it now becomes to ski a few days at a resort owned by the “other” group. I know I sound old and nostalgic saying this- but it feels like the ability to explore and discover new resorts will be whittled down to “what’s on your big season pass” as everyone migrates to Epic or Ikon. And that’s been happening for the past several years- it’s not a new dynamic w/intro of Ikon this year.

Loss of character, soul, local management, etc.

The arms race will inevitably leave small, independent resorts unable to compete and actually increase the barrier to entry for new skiers.
“Loss of some of the individuality of some ski areas is a big one.

More polish and consistency across resorts is a net positive for the *average* ski experience. However, it is probably a net negative for the top 10% of ski experiences. Average comes up, by eliminating poor experiences, but also by removing the random personalities and quirkiness that lead to the best experiences.”

Increasing day ticket price forcing out the occasional middle to upper middle class skier.

Smaller areas not having the resources to grow

Daily lift tix pricing pushing away minorities and quashing growth.

The commodification of the experience and lack of authenticity at the resort level

[VR/ALT] Tougher to survive and an independent resort without a network affiliation.

The focus on season passes will, through increased day pass prices, not promote overall growth of the industry.

Homogenization of the experience. Corporate delivery of a product that will be forgettable resulting in a next generation of skiers who will not be inspired to carry the torch of the frozen flame.

Loss of character at unique resorts.

Day ticket prices and price barriers for getting into the sport.

Loss of brand voice

Corporate feel and loss of old school ski vibe focused on fun

Less family owned vibe

A homogeneous ski industry that caters to the 1%ers. Small resorts doing the work of developing future skiers just to see the ones with the most disposable income going to Vail or Alterra.

Loss of a sense of uniqueness in some mountain communities. Some places actually have it, others think they do but they really don’t.

Loss of individuality and differentiation

Financial

Too much price control.

Eventual monopolies or oligarchies that control the price/experience of all mountains. Think about the telecom world right now. Eventually you’ll have no choice but to ski at a Vail or Alterra mountain…it’s already like that in parts of CO. Plus mountains will lose a lot of the local/community character of ski hills.

Homogenization of the skier experience no matter where you go. I think that base area revitalization will start to look just like all the other Vail or Alterra resorts, sadly.

Loss of FTYR local jobs and a struggle for smaller resorts to stay competitive. Also worried about a mono-culture and cookie cutter resorts.
“Passes are the worst for everyone outside of our core audience as they isolate those that don’t purchase. Basically saying “”sorry, you didn’t purchase one of our pass products, it’s going to cost your $125+ to ski here today!”” This also leads to the ongoing debate on the cost of one-day tickets, which grab the lion’s share of media attention every fall.

In addition, the marketing plans for the majority of areas are now so focused on season passes and they have little time, or budget, remaining to market the experience, lifestyle, and what makes each resort unique. Most importantly, why a beginner should put on a bunch of clothes, grab 25 pounds of equipment, and give it a try!”

Those smaller resorts are now a tiny part of a big machine. My concern is that they will lose their character in a bid to make them profitable and, if they aren’t profitable enough, we’ll see closures. Also, there are concerns for staff well-being. Vail have a reputation for ‘downsizing’ existing resort staff.

[VR/ALT] Day ticket prices increase

[VR/ALT] Even higher and more affordable daily lift ticket rates. Not new to the industry but will be more apparent now with the duopoly of Vail and Alterra.

This will likely kill many small resorts – the incubators for beginner skiers and riders.

Loss of character/ passion at the resort level, generic experience driven by corporate branding guidelines and policies. Small business and unique/ strong local communities encourage entrepreneurship.
Lack of culture and identity at many destinations/resorts.

Innovation may be harder and if something goes wrong it has much bigger consequences

Customers: Increased pass rates, and pushing smaller resorts out of business. Personal/Industry: Reduced opportunity to move jobs within the ski industry since they (vail especially) seem to higher top jobs from within.

Higher ticket prices and loss of affordable small family-owned and operated resorts. (I’ll champion Crystal Mountain, Michigan here as an example of a solid, well-run single family-pwned resort.)

Lift ticket prices going up and difficulty to find good entry points for beginners and new skiers

No new skiers. The perception that skiing is an expensive sport affecting those potential skiers, especially those nearby to larger resorts where the window pricing is only rising to push people to their pass products

[VR/ALT] Prices go up. Loose the family/person touch

increased prices (non-passes ie lift tickets, lessons, F&B, etc) at Vail / Alterra and the other areas will have to lower pass prices (and raise day ticket prices to cover loss of revenue) to compete. will this ultimately turn away folks that aren’t ready to commit to a season pass?

Loss of character

squeezing the small area, yet demanding them to grow the sport for their future.

The potential to drive more resorts out of business

More people skiing

homogenization of the resorts as efficiencies are implemented

The loss of small ski areas feeding new participants into the sport

Tell me if you read different on either one of these questions, but the trends I saw here were:

  • Chance of smaller resorts to struggle and close
  • Increased cost of tickets/skiing pricing out skiers
  • Loss of character/soul of ski areas

…pleasant surprise.
This may surprise you, but if that’s the collective concern of 50 of you, that’s actually much better than I imagined.

Partly because the perceived cost of skiing is fixable with better education/marketing as an industry and I’ve long though that the perception of “character” or “soul” within certain resorts is mostly an idea that exists only in industry/core skiers. Specifically those looking to confirm a bias against VR.

Don’t get me wrong, I see as many downsides as anyone, but if losing the “soul” or “character” of resorts (something I think only we care about and, to a large extent, exaggerate / falsely-project on resorts based our bias towards their owners) is our worst-case scenario, that’s a good sign to me.

That said, I really appreciated the VR/ALT group’s candor around pricing and how hard it will be to say independent in this climate.

Tomorrow…
So, yeah. Really interesting stuff so farb. But if you remember, I asked one more question in that survey.

It’s the summer of 2023 (five years from now), describe what you think the ski industry will look like. What will be the same? What will be different?

This was a really interesting one to me and I wanted to review it alone, so we’ll tackle that tomorrow.

This post was getting long anyway :)



  • Brad Scanlan

    “Partly because the perceived cost of skiing is fixable with better education/marketing as an industry and I’ve long though that the perception of “character” or “soul” within certain resorts is mostly an idea that exists only in industry/core skiers. Specifically those looking to uconfirm a bias against VR.”

    After reading this paragraph, a few things became painfully obvious to me, and anyone else that is remotely familiar with the realities of the industry. Number 1, the writer is absolutely out of touch, and his lack of understanding of the actual perils that face the industry is obvious. To think that you can “educate away” the ever increasing cost hurdle being created in our sport is stupifying. Second, if you do not understand the true importance of “character and soul” in ski areas, and how that positively affects sport growth and our ability to gain lifetime enthusiasts, then the fact is you have never experienced a true mom and pop area with real charm, and for that I am sorry. Lastly, this writer’s VR bias (though he is trying to hide it) is showing hard core. May I please see your free season pass? Hard to be a real writer with such a heavy bag full of bias on your back…

    • Hey Brad, thanks for your comment. A few replies to your thoughtful remarks.

      “The writer is absolutely out of touch, and his lack of understanding of the actual perils that face the industry is obvious. To think that you can “educate away” the ever increasing cost hurdle being created in our sport is stupifying.”
      This is a really common perspective on ski and it’s usually because the numbers you’re looking at are averages. Meaning, you see that the average window rate has gone up some big percentage and assume that’s a reflection of skiing as a whole. But averages, remember, are made up of points above the average and below. In this case, Vail’s window rates are far above average (the near-$200 ticket) while small and mid-sized resorts are well below (the $30-$50 ticket). In fact, when you compare those non-luxury resorts’ window rates to inflation, they haven’t gone up at all.

      Even more, those above average resorts that are raising window rates are at the same time heavily discounting advanced-purchase rates. So, yes, it is an education problem: educating skiers that if they don’t want to pay increasing prices for tickets they should a) buy in advance and b) avoid luxury resorts where that pricing strategy is being utilized.

      “Second, if you do not understand the true importance of “character and soul” in ski areas, and how that positively affects sport growth and our ability to gain lifetime enthusiasts…May I please see your free season pass?”
      If by “free season pass” you mean season passes to Nordic Valley (Utah’s smallest ski area) that I’ve held for multiple years now and purchased with my own money, then you’re spot on :) I love small ski areas more than most and am not just a huge advocate for them, but it’s where I choose to spend my dollars each winter to support them. But, I’ve also seen a great “vibe” at mid-sized and large resorts, including, yes, mountains own by Vail Resorts. To clarify, “soul” and “character” are great things it’s just that if we’re collectively looking at all the potential downsides of all this and pointing to “losing the vibe/soul” as our biggest concern, well, it could be a lot, lot worse.

      • Brad Scanlan

        Twist it how you may, but the facts are there if you care to use them as non-anecdotal evidence to the otherwise. Call it an “average”, or call it a trend, but we are losing skiers much faster than we are bringing them in, and the NSAA speaks to this yearly, without a solution in sight. Your reassuring (or “educating”) some parent of 4 brand new skiers, without equipment or an inclination to come back a 2nd time, that they should buy Epic passes because it is the “economical” route is baseless. You really just don’t understand what it takes to make a new skier into a lifelong sport enthusiast, but the mom and pops do. And as they die off due to purposeful market strangulation, along with the charm of the sport, you will understand, along with everyone else that will be excluded from participation in our amazing, lifetime sport, based solely off of wealth, demographics and location.

        • Brad, I think you may want to reread my reply. We’re on the same side. You said I was suggesting “that they should buy Epic passes because it is the “economical” route” and my actual words were “they should buy in advance and avoid luxury resorts.”

          You’re saying “price-conscious families shouldn’t buy epic passes” and I’m saying “price conscious families shouldn’t ski at vail resorts.” See what I mean?

          This is a big topic and I am totally with you that NSAA needs to do more for smaller areas (actually got to chat with NSAA’s new president a few weeks ago to make that exact case and she was totally on board). We can’t change what Vail/Alterra are doing, but we can educate skiers that there is a great, affordable alternative in smaller areas.

          • Brad Scanlan

            But we can change what they are doing. You brought up education. We should be educating the populous to spend their dollars where they count in an effort to push back against ski monopolization. This has to happen before the areas that are catering to the “soul of the sport” are gone forever. The days of opening new ski areas in our country are behind us. We need to support and recognize these vital smaller areas before the opportunity to do so is no more. Also, smaller ski areas need to be doing more to be on the same team with other smaller areas. This is a tough business now for those that try to go it alone. Margins are tight, skiers are getting more scarce, and those that “get it” are retiring off. Where will the next generation of skiers come from? Not VR. But maybe a better question to ask is where will the next generation of knowledgable and savvy ski area operators come from? Those that are not driven solely by their shareholders angst for big dividends that is…

          • Very much agree. I’ve publicly criticized VR many times for not putting nearly enough emphasis on growing the sport. I think what MRA/Jamie.Dave (any relation, btw?) has done (I’m assuming based on your comments on the MRA link to this post that’s where you came from) is a great start and I’m hopeful that it can be complimented by other endeavors to educate the masses and help magnify the voices of smaller mountains,

          • Brad Scanlan

            Not related to Dave Scanlon (different spelling), but am a fan of what he and Jaime are trying to bring awareness to. If I know their stance the way I think I do, then they are pro charm and soul all day long, and they also believe it to be a vital part of our industry.

          • Ah, gotcha. Absolutely, I’ve worked with Jamie on a couple things (I actually donated some time to design/build the website for Manitou Mountain, if you remember that project). They are absolutely pro soul / charm. I love it too. That’s why I buy my pass at a small ski area every season.

          • Coming late to the party here but I can testify that Gregg has a keen understanding of the importance of brand character and appreciation for small resorts. #skismall

          • P.S…can we get an Inntopia Season Pass for that?

  • Mj Moylan

    How much did Vail pay you? Soul and character are overrated. Of course someone with no soul or character would think that

    • Hey MJ, thanks for the comment. No pay from Vail Resorts :) I buy my pass like everyone else and choose to spend my dollars at Nordic Valley (Utah’s smallest ski area). See Brad and my discussion for more of my thoughts there.

      Re: “Soul and character are overrated” not what I’m saying at all. This speed and size of this wave of consolidation is something we’ve never seen before and could lead to some pretty serious issues – significantly slowing growth due to VR/ALT’s lack of effort to grow skiing, pass pricing wars like we had in Colorado 15 years ago that hurt every resort, mass closures of ski areas, etc. – if the collective wisdom of resort marketers sees a few resorts losing some of their vibe as they get acquired, what I’m saying is not that losing that vibe is a good thing, what I’m saying is that it could be a lot, lot worse.

      • Mj Moylan

        I read your replies. You are disgusting. You think that soul and character are not important. That’s what you said. Read your own article. Someone paid you to take this stance. It’s a bad look.

        • Oh, MJ :) But if you ever find this person who is supposed to be paying me to take this stance, let me know. Who knew I could make a living off of taking stances!

          • Mj Moylan

            But your clarification takes s completely different stance? And doesn’t align at all with what you said in the article. Not at all. So what did you mean? And why would you say it that way and not mean it? You can get mad at me saying one word about you. But you wrote this clearly one sided piece. Did you expect everyone to think that you and all of this is awesome?

          • Hey MJ, in my post I said ” if losing the ‘soul’ or ‘character’ of resorts is our worst-case scenario, that’s a good sign to me.” and I clarified by saying that there are much worse outcomes we could face from all this, so compared to the rest, it’s a good sign if marketers think that a handful of resorts getting acquired and losing their vibe is our worst-case scenario.

            You clearly love small ski areas that have soul. I do too. It’s a big reason why I buy a pass to a small ski area each year. But my view is simply that I’m much more worried about those resorts closing or other more serious situations.

          • Mj Moylan

            It’s not worst case scenario. It’s happening. And it’s bad. We see which side you’re on. Also talking with marketers only, kinda makes this whole article shady anyway. You and this article are a sham.

          • Mj Moylan

            Also they are concerned about the closing of smaller ski areas and you seem to just skip over that one.

          • Mj Moylan

            So you don’t care about ski areas closing? Seriously this article is very poorly written and defended.

          • Have a great day, MJ.

        • Mj Moylan

          Seriously reread that part about soul and character. You either wrote that really poorly or you don’t care about soul and character. You say quite matter of factly you think they are exaggerated, or lied about, Possibly? Terrible

          • Sure, could always say things a little better. That’s life, right? But when someone clarifies their position and you reply by calling them “disgusting”, not sure I’m speaking to someone who is really that interested in reading things they way the were written. See what I mean?

  • Tim Reiter

    Soul is one thing, viability is entirely another. Small resort operators are the true evangelists, converting the most, on the most local level. Constantly looked to by the mega-resort as the feeders, fewer and fewer soldier on. What was this about biting the hand?

    This is what is being/ will be lost by the consolidation and price fixing. While the MegaCorp’s can undercut and sell in bulk, quality overall suffers. Small operators must then compete for consumers, as well as the staff. How hard is it to retain and develop employees already? At the lowest possible price points, and with programming and scholarships devoted to bring local youth into the sport, the margins decrease year over year.

    Another point not often considered, is what these conglomerates do to vendor pricing. Having worked on both the operator side, and the vendor side, I know full well that there’s power in buying (selling) in bulk, and the big orders drive the pricing (and availability) that affect, or even close-out the little guy from contending for product. From bamboo to snowguns. Everything.

    All that said, I am eternally optimistic. Never will a VR/ALT resort have that “Cheers” feeling, that brought, brings, and retains so many to the sport we love. We should just be working collectively to preserve it.

    • Absolutely. Well said, Tim. The price fixing / price wars topics is definitely one of those “could be much worse” scenarios.

      And the vendor pricing point is a good one. More eggs in one basket combined with smaller fees than if they were signed individually can put a vendor in a tough place if the relationship turns sour.

Get the weekly digest.

New stories, ideas, and jobs delivered to your inbox every Friday morning.

Take the 2018 ski resort social media marketing survey→