How multi-resort ski passes reshaped Utah’s ski industry
Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan | Unsplash
It’s hard to be in a complaining mood while skiing “The Greatest Snow on Earth.” Yet two complaints are acute enough to break through the exhilaration with some consistency: Utah’s subjectively overpriced lift tickets and objectively overcrowded slopes.
If you think about it, on the surface, these two complaints don’t make sense. Simple economics says rising prices reduce demand. But, in addition to lift passes costing more than ever, the 2022-23 ski season logged 22 percent more skier days than the previous record.
One explanation for this apparent warping of a core Econ 101 principle may be a relatively recent solution to the price problem, which would seem to contribute to the demand problem: multi-resort ski season passes.
The birth of an icon
First introduced in 2008, the Epic Pass includes access to all 41 properties owned by Vail Resorts, including Park City Mountain Resort. A decade later, the Ikon Pass followed suit, offering access to all 17 Alterra Mountain Company resorts, including Deer Valley and Solitude, plus over 40 additional partner properties, including Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Snowbasin. These innovative passes reduce the cost of serious skiers’ participation in the sport by charging a flat rate for potentially unlimited skiing at top-tier winter sports destinations on five continents.
“The most important thing for our industry is the stability multi-resort ski passes provide. When you sell that many passes with all those options early on in the season, you’ve got enthusiasts locked and loaded around the country. We love those guests because, obviously, between paying for lodging, food, ski lessons and rentals, they spend much more than locals,” Rafferty says. “As for locals, before, you might wait for perfect conditions to go up and pay for a day of skiing. With an Epic or Ikon Pass in your pocket, if you’re on the fence, you’re more likely to go, so it motivates locals to ski more, which is also a good thing.”
Mike Maughan is president and general manager at Alta. He concedes that nothing in business offers 100 percent upside, including being an Ikon Pass resort, but he thinks the arrangement comes pretty close.
“The Ikon Pass motivates skiers to go on trips and visit new destinations they otherwise might not have considered, and that’s a big win for the ski industry as a whole,” Maughan says. “And it’s a great deal for pass holders because it gives them flexibility and brings down the cost if they ski more than a half dozen times each season. Also, there are days Little Cottonwood Canyon is not accessible due to storms or avalanche conditions, and this pass means they have options to go somewhere else. So it’s a win for skiers.”
As Maughan’s final example hints, skiing is a sport full of uncertainty because it is simultaneously dependent upon and occasionally victim to stormy weather. Multi-resort ski passes reduce uncertainty for skiers day to day but also reduce uncertainty for the participating destinations season to season.
“The Epic and Ikon Passes radically shift the economics of skiing in that they offset the risk of climate change. You can’t just go and buy one of these passes today. You had to buy it long before the snow even hit the ground, so the ski giants will have the money in the bank before they actually provide any sort of services,” says Mike Childers, a history professor at Colorado State University.
According to Nick Sargent, president of SnowSports Industries America, the multi-resort pass phenomenon coincided with the coming of age of groups temporarily priced out of skiing, now with more resources and a growing sense of winter-sports nostalgia.
"The Ikon Pass motivates skiers to go on trips and visit new destinations they otherwise might not have considered, and that's a big win for the ski industry as a whole. And it’s a great deal for pass holders because it gives them flexibility and brings down the cost if they ski more than a half dozen times each season. Also, there are days Little Cottonwood Canyon is not accessible due to storms or avalanche conditions, and this pass means they have options to go somewhere else. So it’s a win for skiers."
“[The 2022-23 ski season was] the best ever, and the multi-mountain pass had a lot to do with those numbers increasing despite concerns about the economy in what’s typically referred to as a wealthy person’s sport,” Sargent says. “The passes make skiing more affordable. What we’re noticing is people that participated in their youth but stepped away due to factors including the cost are getting back into it and coming back more frequently. The average participant skis five times a season. These passes are bringing them back eight to nine times, almost doubling their participation. The growth is coming from these historical users coming back, not new users.”
Whatever the source of the growth, the outcome is the same: more skiers sharing the same space.
“The multi-resort passes have highlighted the fact that we have more skier demand than we have skiing capacity. The big challenge confronting the industry now is to find new strategies for managing that demand and capacity in a way that continues to provide a great experience,” says Maughan, adding that Alta’s approach to striking the right balance is a parking reservation system that imposes a soft limit on mountain access.
Moving toward solutions
To better understand the degree to which Utah’s imbalance in demand and capacity has impacted the cost of skiing, consider the following.
In 1981, Utah logged about 2 million skier days. Had that number kept pace with population growth in the United States, today, there would be 2.9 million skier days. Instead, Utah saw roughly 7.1 million skier days over the 2022-23 season—a growth of 255 percent.
Over the same period, had Utah’s skiable terrain kept pace with this nearly quadrupling demand, today, skiers would have access to about 108,000 acres. Instead, the number is around 32,000.
In other words, demand remains high despite price increases because growing demand and unchanging supply are what’s driving ski pass prices higher.
Self-described ski bum and Brighton, Utah, resident Justin Pyper is bothered by the impact of the Ikon Pass on Brighton Resort—not just for the crowds.
“The people you meet on the chairlift or at the bar afterward who use the pass are different. They have a different mindset. Before, Brighton had a local vibe, and I feel like the dynamic has changed because the Ikon Pass brings in people who are just doing it because it’s cheap,” Pyper says.
Hoping to simultaneously protest and profit from this surge of outsiders, Pyper has created a brand called Utah Sucks, Don’t Move Here.
“Growth is inevitable—I get that. And I don’t look down on Ikon Pass holders. I understand why they do it. But as a local, I personally don’t see any benefits from it,” Pyper adds.
The potential for overcrowding is something taken into account when adding new destinations to the Ikon Pass, according to Matt Bowers, SVP of marketing and product for Alterra.
“We want to make sure we have the right scale, that a resort is not too big or too small, from a volume and traffic perspective. New partnerships create more sales and maybe that’s too many people. So we’re looking for a fine balance. It has to work for everybody,” Bowers says.
That search for balance appears to be successful, based on Rafferty’s perspective.
“I see the [resort-by-resort] growth data, and in Utah, it’s uniform. The eight resorts not on the Epic or Ikon Pass are growing as much, if not more, than those that are. If the others were way ahead of the rest, you might be able to make the case, but that’s not how it is,” Rafferty says.
Rafferty thinks the correlation between the arrival of the Ikon Pass and Utah’s five-year run of record-breaking ski seasons is coincidental. He urges the state to deal with the growing demand by expanding transportation infrastructure capacity, starting with the Little Cottonwood Canyon Gondola.
“Even if Utah’s rate of growth of skiing and snowboarding slowed, it would still be growing, and we’ve got to find a better way to move people into and out of the mountains. Some people want to stick their heads in the sand and hope that if we fail to improve our transportation infrastructure, that will keep people from coming. That’s not the case. It just means that those of us who live here get to suffer more on choked roads,” Rafferty says.
Utah’s skiing supply and demand impasse will see some movement soon. The Mayflower Mountain expansion will double the size of Deer Valley in 2025. What effect this might have on price remains to be seen, though it will most certainly increase Utah’s supply of Ikon Pass holders.