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Mar 24, 2021

Vail's 2021 Epic Pass goes on sale—at 20% cheaper than last year

Barry Schwartz discusses Vail Resorts


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The 2020-21 ski season isn’t over—parts of Colorado are currently sitting under a foot of fresh snow—and yet Vail Resorts Inc. is inviting skiers to start thinking about next year, offering unprecedented deals on its 2021-22 annual passes.

The new passes go on sale on March 23, with limitless skiing from US$583. That’s a 20 per cent markdown from the past five years, when prices started in the mid-US$700s; 2020’s price topped out at US$729. Powder hounds will recognize this as an unmistakable deal—akin to a so-called error fare when shopping for flights. But it’s far from accidental.

“The landscape is changing. The consumer is changing. The environment is changing,” says Chief Executive Officer Rob Katz. “If you’re not in motion, you find yourself behind the eight ball. For us that means providing value in return for loyalty and higher engagement—and providing real value, where people really feel like they are getting an unbelievable deal.”

The US$583 season pass does just that. But it comes with a little fine print, as do most of these things. That price offers unlimited, unrestricted access to what Vail Resorts calls its 29 “Local” resorts, including Keystone, Crested Butte, Heavenly, Northstar, Stowe, and Hunter Mountain. For unlimited skiing and boarding at all of the company’s 37 North American resorts, including Vail and Park City, consumers will need to opt for the highest-tier Epic Pass, selling this year for US$783 (rather than last year’s US$979, which also makes it 20 per cent cheaper). For that price they’ll also get a certain number of skiable days at each of Vail’s partner resorts in places such as Australia, France, Italy, Japan, and Switzerland.  

Generally, Vail Resorts’ ticket prices climb as the season approaches, and the company wouldn’t release plans for how they’ll change as the year progresses. A spokesman describes the strategy as a “price reset” rather than a flash sale or temporary discount.

In the hours after announcing the reset, Vail’s stock dropped 4.5 per cent. Before the pandemic, shares were valued at US$251; by late March 2020, that number had plummeted to US$152. But a season filled with surprise wins brought the company steady growth, with shares rising nearly 110 per cent, from US$152 to US$319, in the last year.

The announcement of Vail’s new pricing structure should drive competition industrywide. Last season the company’s top competitor, Ikon Pass, run by Aspen-based Alterra Mountain Co., charged US$1,049 for access to 43 resorts, making it the most expensive season pass in the industry.

Mountain Collective, a band of indies offering a more eclectic type of season pass, charged US$489 for two free days at each of 23 destinations around the world; squeezing its value relies on frequent travel, and that pass, unlike others, didn’t offer comprehensive insurance. (Neither company has released pricing on those passes for the 2021-22 season.)

With Vail Resorts promising to extend the insurance policy it introduced during the pandemic—which allows buyers to get a full or prorated refund to cover any resort closures—the new Epic Pass feels like a safe bet with potential to become the best all-around deal.

Katz says the insurance policy was one of the innovations that helped Vail Resorts’ sales grow 20 per cent in units despite the uncertainty of the pandemic, because it made skiers more comfortable investing. “That was really the underpinning to our success this year,” he says about the increase in advance sales. “No doubt about that.”

The company’s success in recent months comes in relative terms: Vail saw declines in sales across all its categories in the second quarter of 2021, including an 11 per cent decrease in lift revenue and drops of 45 per cent and 58 per cent in ski school and dining sales, respectively, as a result of COVID-19 limitations.

But advance ticket sales kept declines from being worse, according to Katz. “That’s something we did well this year and that we will continue to double down on to ensure that we keep moving people into making a longer-term commitment to our resort,” he says. Even with hopes that the pandemic’s clouds will part by the time next winter rolls around, the importance of these tickets remains: Before COVID, season passes were a strategic way to guarantee business without certainty of good snow. While the coronavirus may fade, climate change will not.

There will also be deals for the flaky or less-committed skiers among us. Whereas a single-day lift ticket at Vail currently costs US$218, the same pass will run US$87 when purchased in advance for next season. A seven-day lift ticket, offering flexibility for anyone who plans only one ski trip a year, will have options starting from US$67 a day.