I’ve been talking about the potential upsides of the Indy Pass from a high level view, but I wanted to dig in with the results, lessons, and path going forward with the man behind the pass, Doug Fish. Here’s what he said.
Gregg: Doug, let’s start with a quick high-level recap of year one. How’d it go for the Indy Pass compared to your hopes or at least expectations?
Doug: Our first season was fantastic by all measures:
The bottom line is that we proved the concept for a multi-mountain, two-day pass targeting casual skiers with a low cost of entry. We are looking forward to expanding our resort partnerships and reaching more skiers and riders.
Gregg: What has been the response from resorts with the model of an agency running the pass? Has that response changed from the first year to the second year in terms of how open folks are to signing on?
Doug: The resorts who signed on all seemed comfortable with a non-resort entity running the pass but I suppose there were a few GMs who were uncomfortable with the concept and chose not to join. We never heard that complaint specifically, however.
This year we are gaining more traction from resorts that were originally skeptical and I attribute that to the growth of the brand and the fact that we’ve delivered on every promise we made.
Gregg: I’d imagine your 2020/21 gameplan was just about ready to launch when COVID-19 came front and center. Talk a little bit about what this pandemic has meant to your strategy.
Doug: As with any startup you have to be nimble and we never expected to have a firm gameplan in place until after our third season. The pandemic has certainly affected our strategy for 2020-21.
Specifically, we have come out with a very generous and simple buyer protection program that we call Get America Skiing Promise. It provides automatic credits to passholders who use their pass less than four days. We also canceled a planned Buddy Ticket discount that would have been difficult to implement with a reservation system.
The other impact is that several resorts who may have signed on this season want to give it another year due to all the uncertainty with limited capacity and operations. Time will tell if it also affects our sales.
Gregg: Smaller resorts are well known for reciprocal pass perks. What do you see happening in that regard as the Indy Pass grows? Are mountains keeping those and adding Indy? Replacing with Indy? Other?
Doug: Through our marketing work for a variety of resorts, we are very familiar with reciprocal passholder agreements which we think will go the way of the straight ski and the single chairlift. We also think the pandemic will hasten their demise.
Owning an indie ski resort is a tough business and getting tougher every day. Between competition, consolidation, climate change, and flat participation levels, margins are getting squeezed and you just can’t afford to give away your main product for free.
Vail and Alterra are definitely not giving it away for free.
Yet 100,000s of free or deeply discounted lift tickets are given to season passsholders from partner resorts every year. Inevitably, the more popular resorts get more of the incoming visits and are increasingly forced to make their margin on food and beverage or lodging. Season pass holders after all, rarely rent or take lessons.
To make matters worse, peak weekends are getting more crowded and in some cases, completely parked out. This season, due to COVID, governments may require reduced capacities which could make every weekend seem like a peak weekend.
Can resorts afford to give away free or half-price tickets on these busy days? Are they “importing” more reciprocal visits than their passholders use in return? Would their customers stop buying season passes if the reciprocal deals went away?
This year the Indy Pass is offering a $129 add-on for their partners’ season passholders (including employee passes) which will provide two days at all resorts EXCEPT their home mountain. We can offer this great value because average redemptions will be lower than non-passholders’ who don’t spend most of their days at their home mountain.
The beauty of this program is simple and far more equitable:
Every resort’s situation is different and some reciprocal agreements will never go away, but the time has come for indie resorts to re-evaluate their pass partnerships and decide if they should be replaced by a revenue-positive model.
Gregg: Let me circle back on the agency-run pass partnership model again. I think it’s easy for resorts to think that the overhead of running a pass is all in the marketing and pre-season planning, but from my perspective one thing that’s been frequently overlooked is the performance data. You’re sharing numbers and insights that other passes have struggled to identify. How important has the data you’re collecting been to both getting last year’s resorts to stay and new resorts to come on board?
Doug: The data we generate is critical to our success and a key value proposition for our partners. Our eCommerce and cloud-based tracking system, developed by our partner Entabeni Systems, is very sophisticated. With over 4000 hours of development time invested it can’t be duplicated by any single resort. It stores and tracks every single visit along with demographic information for each passholder, and allows us to extract some very valuable marketing data.
For example, we know that more than 80% of the visits to three of our Northern Rocky Mountain resorts originated out of state. And, more than half of those visits were on non-peak weekends or holidays. With detailed information like this, we can predict passholder behavior, pinpoint our messaging in regional markets, and add incredible value for our partners.
Vail is the best marketing company in snow sports because it has embraced data marketing and probably has contact info and consumption behavior on 90% of all skiers in North America. If non-affiliated resorts wish to compete in the next decade they must embrace technology and utilize the power of data.
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