Skiers deterred by lift-ticket sticker-shock in recent years have been given a gift this season that may eclipse even the glory of a blanket of fresh powder: price wars at the ski slopes.
In an unprecedented price-slashing battle, ski resorts along the eastern edge of the Colorado Rockies are offering the lowest season-ticket prices in 20 years. Some passes for unlimited skiing essentially cost less than $200 per person - or cheaper than four one-day lift tickets.
"We wanted to generate some excitement, and to bring back people who hadn't been skiing for a while," says Mary Nichols, spokeswoman for Winter Park ski resort in Colorado, which - for two weeks in September - offered a package of four season passes for just $795. (By comparison, last season the resort charged $800 for a season ticket for just one person.)
The move, which was copied by nearby Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, Keystone, and Arapahoe Basin days later, is an effort to bring locals back to the slopes. Visits from skiers who day-trip to resorts within a few hours of Denver have increasingly been replaced by "destination skiers" who fly in for week-long holidays. But as competition for the skiing dollar becomes more fierce, and the local population explodes, close-in resorts are battling to attract more of their homegrown market.
Although a boon to cash-strapped skiers, the low-cost passes are a testament to the economic challenges being weathered by the ski industry: Nationally, the number of skier visits has remained flat for more than a decade, and even the snowboarding craze of late hasn't managed to offset the slump.
Other price-slashing weapons
Cheap "buddy passes" aren't the only weapons in ski resorts' arsenals. Most ski areas here are also offering frequent-skier discount cards, a variation on airlines' frequent-flier programs. For example:
* Vail provides a free discount card for lift-ticket reductions of $10 or more at its five resorts.
* Copper Mountain charges $15 for its discount card - but offers a free day of skiing, and discounts on lift tickets thereafter.
* Winter Park's discount card guarantees a free lift ticket if used before Dec. 18, and thereafter provides a free lift ticket for every four paid days on the slopes.
In recent years, some observers have theorized that the ski industry's woes are largely a function of demographics - the advancing age of baby boomers, and their waning interest in strenuous sports. But others say the high price of lift tickets carries more of the blame. Undiscounted daily lift tickets can run as high as $61 at major resorts this year. And many people say countless would-be skiers and snowboarders are simply priced out of the sport.
Indeed, the response to this year's discounted passes has been enthusiastic. Colorado ski areas sold an estimated 100,000 buddy passes in the two weeks they were available. For anyone who planned to ski more than a handful of times, there was virtually nothing to lose.
"The response was beyond our wildest expectations," says Winter Park's Ms. Nichols. "We had people calling who said they hadn't skied in years, and were so excited about this. That was really what we wanted to hear."
Making up the lost money
Ski areas hope they can offset their losses in lift-ticket revenues with the "found money" skiers are expected to spend liberally at the resorts. "People will probably be more likely go into a restaurant for lunch now, or spend more money in the stores," says Ben Friedland, Copper Mountain spokesman.
But resorts are also hoping skiers will view the passes as more of a gift than a price adjustment that reflects the true value of skiing. Some in the ski industry, for that matter, have been openly critical of the price wars, suggesting they further the sentiment that skiing is overpriced. These critics say the discounts in the long run could boomerang against the ski industry.
As with any marketing decision, there are risks, says Lisa Bremner, spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country USA, the industry's trade association in Denver. "When you are giving this kind of deal to people, they may come to expect this," she says. But the potential benefit is that by generating interest, the industry will broaden its market.
Meanwhile, at Crested Butte ski area in Colorado, some 230 miles from Denver, taking such risks - and profiting from them - is nothing new. For the eighth consecutive year, the resort is offering free lift tickets, no strings attached, from Nov. 20 until Dec. 19, and again from April 5 to 18.
"This was a slow period for us, so we decided to enhance it by luring people up here to generate revenue from retail and restaurants," says Gina Kroft, public-relations director. "We don't make money, but we break even. And it brings hundreds of people up here for the first time, and they come back later and pay to ski."
One-day adult lift-ticket prices for the regular season at various ski resorts:
Killington, Vt. $54.60
Sun Valley, Idaho 54.00
Park City, Utah 53.00
Keystone, Colo. 52.00
Sugarbush, Vt. 51.45
Mammoth Mt., Calif. 49.00
Big Sky, Mont. 48.00
Holiday Valley, 37.00