As Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Company continue to battle over some of the best mountains in the West, more and more resorts are picking sides.
Before the 2018-2019 season, notable longtime independent mountains Crested Butte and Telluride hopped aboard Vail's Epic Pass, while Steamboat joined Alterra's Ikon. (This year, Vail and Alterra appear to be battling it out primarily through flexible pricing and discount options for shredders who don't have a cool $700 to $900 to throw down.)
But not every resort is satisfied with the duopoly forming, one that even stretches to Canada and Japan.
In a surprise move, Arapahoe Basin severed ties with Vail Resorts last month over concerns that its mountain, which is independently owned, is being overrun with too many Epic Pass holders. Many local skiers and riders celebrated the news, piling on to comment threads online to say that they feel the move protects "The Legend" — that relaxed, local vibe along with relatively uncrowded steep terrain that characterizes A-Basin.
Another common refrain: hope that A-Basin and its independent next door neighbor, Loveland, will team up on a joint pass for next year.
Even as local skiers and snowboarders in some towns like Aspen are now grumbling about increases in traffic as their favorite mountains join mega-passes (indeed, in Aspen's case, Ikon users have accounted for 9 percent of visitors to the four interconnected mountains in the region so far this season, and visits are up 20 percent), most resorts are not going the way of A-Basin; they're staying on board the mega-passes for next season. But like A-Bay, Loveland remains defiant.
Loveland marketing and communications director John Sellers dismisses any possibility of Loveland joining the Epic or Ikon passes. "Over the years, our phone has rung a few times," he concedes. "But we've been fortunate to grow on our own, so joining a mega-pass is not something we've really considered. The Ikon Pass is new. But over the years, the Epic Pass has partnered with other mountains, and we've closely watched how that relationship has impacted those mountains. For us, the volume consideration — the number of people — is what's made [joining a larger pass] a non-starter.
"If you're overloading the mountain and opening it up to potentially hundreds of thousands of other pass holders, it's going to have a noticeable impact on operations and the experience at the mountain," he continues. "We just don't want to alienate or frustrate our core customers."
Just as A-Basin cited overloaded parking as a reason for leaving the Epic Pass, Loveland's executives also see a scenario where, especially being the closest mountain to Denver along I-70, its lots and bottom lifts would be inundated with pass holders, especially on days when Loveland Pass or the Eisenhower Tunnel are closed.
Sellers says that one reason Loveland hasn't had to attract extra customers through a mega-pass is because there's a particular "life cycle" of customers who ski and snowboard there. Many Front Range skiers and snowboarders, he says, learn to ski at Loveland as kids. When they reach their young-adult years, they may join a pass like Epic because they want to ski with their friends and that's what everyone has.
"But then we start to see people coming back," Sellers says. "And certainly not everyone, but a lot of people come back when they start to have families of their own. They're teaching their kids and are interested in coming up and having a great ski day with their friends and their family. And maybe making it home in time to make dinner is more important than having a hundred different dining options near the mountain. People's priorities change."
Those priorities also may not include $700-plus season passes. Loveland's all-access pass this year was $419 and included access to the Powder Alliance, which offers benefits at eighteen other mountains. Loveland has also partnered with sixteen other mountains across the West in offering nearly 100 free days.
"So we've been adding value to our season passes in that route instead of joining one of these larger pass options," Sellers says.
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As for the most enticing potential partnership of all, teaming up with A-Basin?
A-Bay spokeswoman Katherine Fuller wrote in an email to Westword, "There are no new partnerships to announce. In the coming months, A-Basin will be discussing opportunities with several resorts and resort groups."
Sellers is also mysterious about the potential of a union.
"As of right now, there's nothing planned. But I will say, 'Never say never,'" Sellers says. "We evaluate all opportunities as they come through, and there certainly have been more recently with the rapidly changing landscape. Never say never."