(Bloomberg) — In the past few weeks, just as snow began to fall in the Rocky Mountains and the Alps, the two largest ski conglomerates—Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Group—released their plans for the season to come. Among the pandemic-inspired changes are reservation systems, insurance policies, unprecedented discounts, and strict crowd-control measures. Together, they aim to prevent the types of superspreading events and early season closures that struck the industry as Covid-19 swept the globe in March.
Yet the very protocols intended to give skiers peace of mind are causing many to reconsider taking annual ski vacations or getting season passes.
Among the key concerns: a new policy requiring Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass holders to reserve ahead, potentially nixing the ability to impulsively hit the mountain on a powder day. The precedent for such systems is limited. When Arapahoe Basin, a small operation in Colorado known for prime spring conditions, reopened for two weeks in May, its online reservations system crashed on the first day. The resort ultimately switched to a lottery scheme that prioritized passholders.
Alterra Mountain Co. is taking an alternate approach. On Thursday, it issued a statement saying that pass holders will get reservation-free, priority access over daily lift ticket buyers at its 15 North American resorts. Chief Executive Officer Rusty Gregory says the company used a complicated formula to determine the maximum capacity at each of its mountains this season. “Our goal is to avoid looking like the winter version of a Vegas pool party.”
Normally, value is the best reason to buy a season pass. Lift tickets can cost upward of $200 per day in the U.S. when purchased at the window, whereas early bird purchases on season tickets can offer unlimited skiing from around $500. Passes that offer unrestricted access to resorts around the world start at roughly $900. But with uncertainty as to how long mountains will remain open, whether they will be accessible to travelers, and whether reservations spots will be easy to come by, value is less of a sure thing. Todd Burnette, a spokesperson for Mountain Collective—which currently costs $489 and offers access to 23 independent resorts, including Mammoth and Aspen Snowmass—notes that most Americans will find two or more resorts within driving distance if they’re wary of flying. “Your pass can pay for itself on one weeklong road trip,” he says.
Consumers are not yet sold on a season that promises longer lift lines, limited dining options, parking reservations, and possibly no après-ski scene. Early bird discounts—which typically knock $100 to $200 off full prices—usually end by Labor Day, but most of the passes have raised prices nominally, if at all.
Dan Sherman, chief marketing officer of Ski.com, says insurance policies—newly baked into the price of all the multi-mountain passes—should help. “If you break down each policy, there is really no risk,” he explains optimistically.
So Which Pass Is Best for You?
Here’s how the three major multi-mountain passes stack up for the 2020-2021 season.
Best for: Covid-19-conscious skiers willing to plan ahead for a guaranteed safe ski day.
Cost: $999 for an unlimited pass
Access: 79 resorts in total, including unlimited access to 37 resorts in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, plus free days of skiing in Japan, Chile, France, Italy, Switzerland, and Austria.
Reservations policy: Passholders can make ski reservations for the year, beginning on Nov. 6; those without a pass have to wait until Dec. 8. Throughout the season, passholders will be able to make as many week-of reservations as their pass type and availability allow.
Insurance: All 2020-21 Epic Pass purchases include insurance coverage. If any resorts close, or stay-at-home orders are issued during the core season that runs from Dec. 8, 2020, through April 4, 2021, pass holders will be eligible for a full or prorated refund.
Best for: Skiers who want the flexibility to roll a pass over to next year if the ski experience isn’t up to par.
Access: 43 resorts in total, including unlimited access to 15 in the U.S. and Canada, plus up to seven free days of skiing in 28 destinations, including Japan, New Zealand, Austria, Chile, and Switzerland.
Insurance: The standard-issue Adventure Assurance allows pass holders to defer an unused purchase until the 2021-22 season, and offers proportional credits if any of 37 eligible destinations close due to a Covid-19-related event from Dec. 10, 2020, to April 11, 2021. A separate policy offers higher reimbursement rates if a self-selected local mountain should shut for the season prematurely.
Reservations policy: Alterra-owned destinations, which include Stratton and Deer Valley, will not require reservations. Partner resorts not owned by Alterra, such as Arapahoe Basin, Jackson Hole, and New York’s Windham Mountain, will be able to set their own policies.
Best for: Beginners or skiers who want to sample a few days at a variety of mountains and who aren’t timid about travel.
Insurance: A relaxed refund policy gives pass holders the option to receive a full refund at any time prior to Nov. 16. But if mountains close in December, you’re out of luck.
Access: Two free days at each of 23 destinations, including resorts in France, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and Chile, plus 50% off additional days.
Reservations policy: Only certain destinations, including Arapahoe Basin and Jackson Hole, will require reservations.
While none of the companies release sales information, many consumers have already made up their minds about how they’ll buy this year—regardless of their proximity to the mountains.
Kristin Weber, a graphic designer in Boulder, Colo., and mother of three children aged 12, 14, and 16, says the early bird discount on the Ikon Pass allowed her to save nearly $400. “Even with the uncertainty of the pandemic, it still made sense to buy,” she says, citing the ability to defer her passes until next year, if necessary.
Jack Foersterling, an editor at a bicycle advocacy nonprofit in Denver, also went with Ikon—though he’s bought an Epic Pass for each of the past six seasons. “The insurance, at first glance, seems like a nice system,” he says of the Vail Resorts offering. “If there’s a worst-case scenario and resorts fully shut down due to Covid-19, you get some of your money back. But it offers little to no assurance for how many days you might get to ski if reservation numbers tighten.”
Opting out of a pass entirely is Drew Saunders, another Colorado resident who works at mountain sports company Oberalp North America. His overriding concerns about what skiing would look like this season were not overcome by recent announcements or insurance policies. Among his worries: long lines, limited parking, and limited access, due to reservation requirements. Instead, he says, “I’ll be focusing on backcountry skiing.”
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