A new multi-mountain ski pass generated controversy across the West this year. Does it deserve the hate?
By TIM SOHN
By most metrics, it was a banner ski season for Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
The mountain recorded an all-time-high 715,100 skier visits for the 2018-19 season, surpassing the previous record of 634,500 set last year. Mother Nature played a big role. After a relatively dry winter across the West last year, Jackson received over 500 inches of snow this season, up from 330 inches last year. The powder dump drew lots of skiers, but so did the new Ikon Pass, a multi-resort season ticket introduced this past winter by Alterra Mountain Co.
Alterra is a private company and doesn’t release numbers, but sales appeared to have exceeded its pre-season projection of 250,000 Ikon passes. “It’s exceeded what we thought it would do,” says CMO Erik Forsell. “We set out to positively disrupt the ski industry, and it’s definitely done that.”
But beneath that powdery façade — amid a resurgent year for the industry and a wildly successful debut of the Ikon pass — there was a backlash brewing among locals at places like Jackson who felt crowded out of their home mountains. Infrastructure struggled to accommodate the new visitors: Traffic jams were frequent, parking lots overflowed and lift lines (especially for Jackson’s iconic tram) stretched. Even the bars were packed. Worst of all, the slopes themselves were overrun (to local eyes) with skiers pushing way beyond their skill levels — dubbed “Ikonic skiing” by observers.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Ikon was originally seen by many skiers as a useful and necessary counterpoint to the corporatised Vail empire and its Epic Pass. Introduced in 2008, Epic gives holders unlimited access to Vail’s 18 mountains and to an ever-expanding selection of partner mountains. As sales approached one million passes annually, independent resorts outside the Vail ecosystem seemed to face an existential threat: Give up their independence and a bit of their character to join forces with Vail, or risk losing out on skiers.
Enter Alterra, which went out of its way to court independent mountains for Ikon precisely because they are places with character. The pass, which ranges in price from US$699 to US$999 (RM4,136), granted access to 37 mountains, with unlimited days at Alterra-owned resorts — including Steamboat, Squaw Valley, and Stratton — and a limited number of days at popular independent mountains, including Jackson, Aspen and Big Sky. But those sorts of places also tend to have the most territorial locals and acute infrastructure challenges.
In Jackson, the backlash began with muttering in the lift lines and bars. The chatter was echoed and amplified online and in the local press. Mocking stickers appeared, one with a modified Ikon logo reading “Ikon’t Ski”. Social media played a role as well, with the anonymously run @Ikonoftheday Instagram account featuring snaps of long lift lines, overflowing parking lots, and unwitting pass holders committing various crimes against skiing.
Submissions were soon coming in from other mountains. In Utah, the usual 20-minute drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon to Alta and Snowbird routinely turned into a two-hour slog. Lift line waits in Big Sky grew unbearable. Aspen had a sticker bloom of its own: “Stop Ikonisising Aspen” read one. During a particularly snowy February, tensions mounted. There were multiple reports of locals shouting such things as “Go back to Vail!” at unwitting Ikon skiers. The Jackson paper observed that locals “long ago switched from mumbling behind the offending visitors’ backs to complaining aloud in their presence”.
By early March, the situation had deteriorated to such an extent that the heads of Jackson, Aspen and Big Sky all published open letters in their local papers stressing civility. “We all had a first day of skiing here,” wrote Aspen CEO Mike Kaplan. “The mountains are open to all, and everyone on them deserves respect.”
The resorts contend that Ikon isn’t entirely to blame for the problems. Yes, the pass attracted more skiers than expected, says Anna Cole, communications manager at Jackson Hole, but the larger number of skiers merely highlighted existing pinch points. “I think what we learned this year — and we’re still learning and will be analysing all this data — is that there are more improvements to be made to our infrastructure,” she says. “Especially when you have record-breaking snow and record-breaking visitation.”
Jeff Hanle, director of public relations for Aspen Skiing Co, argues that the sheer amount of snow was primarily responsible for the huge turnouts, especially since so many storm cycles lined up with weekends. “A lot of pieces came together all at one time,” he says. “Maybe people weren’t ready for that, so the easy scapegoat became these new people (Ikon pass holders).”
Jackson Hole estimated that only 8% of its attendees this season have been first-timers brought by Ikon; by comparison, local skiers still made up 39% of the skier population, and local season pass utilisation was up 7%. Aspen reported that Ikon visitors accounted for less than 9% of the season total on average, with a high of 15% on weekends, but season pass use was up a whopping 40% this year.
Even non-Ikon mountains experienced a surge of visitors, a welcome change in an industry that’s faced downward trend lines in recent years. “This is a benchmark year, a once-a-decade sort of season,” says Bill Jensen, a 45-year ski industry veteran and CEO of Telluride, which estimates that 8% of its skiers this year utilised the Epic Pass.
Backlash aside, Ikon’s arrival has been great for powder chasers. Mega-passes offer skiers greater choice than ever, at far lower prices — explaining why, of the estimated 9.2 million skiers and snowboarders in the US, well over one million bought either Ikon or Epic passes this year.
That popularity has made them essential for mountains, too. Signing onto a mega-pass programme has seemed, to many independent resorts, the only way to avoid being left behind. “It can be hard to make it in a small resort town,” wrote Big Sky GM Taylor Middleton. “We want a thriving economy without falling into that old ski town trap of not wanting others to come after we’ve arrived.”
Mary Kate Buckley, Jackson Hole’s new CEO, agreed in an opinion piece of her own. “If Jackson Hole had chosen not to participate in one of those passes, skier visits might have dropped to levels at which we could not sustain our operations,” she wrote.
To many locals, the argument rang hollow. “This is an unbelievable falsehood,” wrote @Ikonoftheday in a caption below a screenshot of Buckley’s statement. “(T)he truth is that JHM (Jackson Hole Mountain) is uniquely capable of surviving as a standalone resort, but the powers that be apparently do not want it to.”
Mountain managers are taking steps to make Ikon work for everyone. Some of those steps, such as cutting marketing and promotional efforts late in the season, after most sales have taken place, seem more like stumbles. But every resort says it has learned from this year’s experience. Jackson Hole has made transportation and parking priorities, partnering with Teton County and the Teton Village Association to invest in new solutions. But in an industry that depends on snow and the fickle skiers that follow it, big capital expenditures can be tricky.
“The biggest question looking forward is: What is the snow going to do?” says Forsell. “As we learn and grow, we’re focused on how do we tweak and craft this product to keep it positive.”
One way to keep it positive is to turn local critics into converts. Next season’s seasonal pass purchasers at both Jackson Hole and Aspen will include a code for a free Ikon base pass, eliminating the “if they can ski at my mountain, I should be able to ski at theirs” complaint. It will be up to the individual skier whether to activate the Ikon part of the pass. But given the convenience and the chance to chase snow at other mountains, many local skiers are likely to end up gritting their teeth as they realise they’ve become Ikon skiers. — Bloomberg