Aspen mountain skier

A skier plows through powder on Aspen Mountain in this undated photo. 

The season pass war between the ski industry’s two 800-pound gorillas has transformed customers’ buying habits in just a few short years.

Lift tickets accounted for more skier visits than ski passes as recently as the 2018-19 winter season. That trend is now long gone.

The amount of business generated by season-pass users was greater than the business generated by lift-ticket sales for the first time during the 2019-20 season. Last season, season-pass use left ticket use flailing in the powder.

In the 2019-20 season, the number of nationwide skier visits generated by season-pass use was 45.5%, according to the Lakewood, Colorado-based National Ski Areas Association. Skier visits from single- or multi-day lift tickets were 43.5%.

A skier visit is the use of a ticket or season pass for any part of a day.

Last season, season passes accounted for 51.9% of visits nationwide compared to only 37.3% for lift tickets, according to NSAA. The remaining visits were off-duty employees and complimentary tickets.

“Ski areas of all sizes, from small to large, in all regions of the country saw an increase in number of season passes sold,” NSAA announced in its 2021-22 season assessment.

A big part of pass dominance is the competition between Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Co., the two heavyweights of the ski industry.

Aspen Skiing Co. remains an outlier in that trend.

“Most of our visitors are buying day tickets unless they’re on an Ikon Pass,” said Jeff Hanle, SkiCo vice president of communications.

For skiers and riders hitting the slopes for just a few days, SkiCo’s pricey lift tickets remain a better deal than the season passes. The peak single-day ticket price for Aspen was $204 during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday period last year. Day-ticket prices haven’t been announced yet for 2022-23.

SkiCo’s premier pass, without a chamber of commerce discount, currently costs $2,599. The price increases Sept. 17.

Alterra and Vail Resorts provide pricing incentives for even short-term visitors to buy a pass, Hanle noted.

“That’s what’s really driving that trend,” he said of pass use surpassing lift-ticket use.

Hanle couldn’t immediately provide information on SkiCo’s mix of season-pass use versus lift-ticket use. Even if he could, he said, he was unsure company officials would be willing to share it because of ­competitive reasons.

He said pass purchases and use have increased “the last couple of years.” Company officials believe that is due to a growing population in the Roaring Fork Valley. In addition to traditional growth, the valley has also experienced “urban refugees that came to Aspen and stayed” during the pandemic, Hanle said.

Many skiers and riders nationwide are scrambling this month to buy season passes at the best prices possible. Many ski conglomerates and individual ski areas offer early-bird discounts for purchases made by deadlines in September.

Vail Resorts is raising the price of its popular Epic Pass on Sept. 5. It is currently on sale for $859 for adults and the Epic Locals Pass for $639.

Not only is the company trying to entice purchases by raising the price soon, officials have warned that lift-ticket sales could be stopped when thresholds are met at individual resorts next season.

“Lift tickets will be limited. Planning to visit? Buy your pass in advance,” Vail Resort’s website warns.

Meanwhile, Vail’s chief competitor, Alterra Mountain Co., is currently selling its Ikon Pass for $1,179 for adults and $869 for the Ikon Base Pass.

With prices at or above $200 for single-day lift tickets at many top resorts, the passes are a bargain for any skier or rider who hits the slopes more than a few times per year.

The two companies combined control a major chunk of the industry — Alterra’s primary pass provides access to 50 resorts, according to its website. The four resorts under the Aspen-Snowmass umbrella are accessible for seven days via the full Ikon but not Ikon Base Pass. The Ikon Base Plus entitles buyers to five days total at Aspen Snowmass.

The Epic Pass provides unlimited access to 38 resorts in North America and three in Australia.

Resorts unaffiliated with the two conglomerates have come up with bundles to try to entice customers and remain competitive in the industry. SkiCo is part of the Mountain Collective Pass, which provides two trips each to several major resorts.

Sunlight Mountain Resort outside of Glenwood Springs is part of a consortium of small, independent resorts banding together through the Indy Pass. That pass provides access to 100 U.S. and international resorts this season.

The website for the Indy Pass proclaims, “Avoid the overcrowded mega resorts. Go Indy!”

Troy Hawks, marketing and sales director for Sunlight, said the resort joined the Indy Pass last season and is able to make a season-by-season decision on participation. Officials liked the result last winter.

“It’s a strong national product,” Hawks said.

He said the pass attracts existing skiers and riders. It’s attractive to people who want to explore, and it helps build awareness for Sunlight.

The resort also has separate reciprocal agreements that allows limited access to pass holders at Loveland, Monarch, Powderhorn and Ski Cooper, all other small, independent resorts in Colorado.

Even with the collective efforts, most of Sunlight’s pass sales are to Roaring Fork Valley residents, Hawks said. His best guess, he continued, is that local pass sales account for 60% of Sunlight’s business.

Last year was a record in pass sales for the resort, Hawks said. Sales so far this year are trending ahead of that pace.