In an Epic world of Ikon opportunities, where does a mom-and-pop ski area like Sunlight Mountain Resort fit in?
It’s a question that gets asked periodically of the unassuming 680-acre Glenwood Springs area, and more frequently following a year of aggressive, take-off-the-gloves season pass alliances and initiatives, including one that involves Aspen Skiing Co. through its separate ownership in Alterra Mountain Company.
Sunlight has been able to survive in a season when its skier visits — the industry metric used to measure lift ticket usage — will be down by about 25 percent, to around 70,000 skier days, according to general manager Tom Jankovsky.
Lift tickets for adults cost $65 and remain one of the most reasonably priced in Colorado, though many of Sunlight’s guests forego a stand alone day ticket in favor of a package that involves lodging and a hot springs soak.
Despite opening the season two weeks late and operating with only one chairlift and one trail through the Christmas season, “we’re going to come out of this year with a small profit,” said Jankovsky, the resort’s general manager since 1985.
That’s because Sunlight carries no debt, though some loyalists complain that few tangible physical improvements have been made in lifts or infrastructure since Ski Sunlight opened for the 1966/67 season; it was renamed Sunlight Mountain Resort in 1996.
On an overcast spring skiing day last week, miles of corduroy and wide open slopes stretched from the 9,895-foot summit of Compass Mountain. Nobody seemed bothered by the low-speed double Riblet chair that had a center pole and lacked a safety bar. Leftover stashes of powder from an earlier storm beckoned on the east ridge, as did the 2.5-mile classic Ute run that seems to meander forever.
By mid-morning, the outside deck at the base lodge was filling up with kids running amuck and skiers and riders of many different stripes stopping for a snack or an early beer from the cozy 1970s-era Last Turn bar.
Small areas have important role
While the ski industry may seem dominated by corporate interests, only about 20 percent of the country’s 480 ski areas are owned and operated by a parent company, according to Kelly Pawlak, president of the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). The little guys remain the industry’s bread and butter, not only for their value as feeder resorts to the behemoths.
“Smaller ski areas continue to be a draw for families and groups” for many reasons, Pawlak said Friday. Those include: affordability, proximity to home, strong teaching terrain and myriad learn to ski and ride programs.
Tyrone LeSane of Glenwood Springs learned to ski at Sunlight three seasons ago and was enjoying some mid-week turns and a cold brew with his friends on Thursday.
“If you’re a beginner, you don’t have to worry about people running you over,” LeSane said.
Areas like Sunlight and Powderhorn on the Grand Mesa are also “easier for families to acquaint themselves with the mountain layout and learn their way around,” Pawlak noted.
“Adults and children can quickly understand where they meet for lunch, where they parked their car,” she said. Another advantage is that lift operators and other personnel “know you by name (which) reinforces a sense of security and brand loyalty.”
Sunlight sells about 2,000 season passes annually, and those who purchase early receive a bonus “powder pass” that allows for early lift access when there’s 4 inches or more of freshies. Adult passes for next season are on sale now for $395 and will ascend in price over the summer and fall. Eventually the powder pass will cost an extra $100 for pass holders.
Next season’s Epic Pass, a concept started a decade ago by Vail Resorts, is also currently on sale. It offers a dizzying array of options allowing both limited and unlimited access to between 24 and 64 resorts, starting at $439, according to its website.
Meanwhile, the new Ikon Pass offered by Alterra opens the door to 26 destinations, including Aspen and Snowmass, starting at $599. Like Epic, there are different options and restrictions available at different price points.
Research from the NSAA has shown that despite “the allure of multi-area passes” people remain loyal to their home mountain.
“It is our experience that ski areas have a solid base of season pass holders that do not ski around; they stick to their home mountain and they tend to continue to buy season passes there despite the allure of multi-area passes,” Pawlak said by email.
“We have no data or reports from individual ski areas that indicates ski areas are closing due to season pass consolidation,” she added. The Ikon Pass is new, however, so its impact cannot yet be measured.
According to an NSAA-commissioned survey following the 2016/17 season, the smallest-size ski areas showed the largest increase in skier visits, 8.6 percent, that were attributable to season passes.
“There will always be a place for the smaller, home-town resorts and ski areas,” said Jeff Hanle, SkiCo’s vice president of communications.
“They serve their local communities and will always be a choice of a certain segment of destination/group business. These areas often provide the first introduction to the sport and continue to nurture local skiers and certain segments of group business, host events and competitions and keep people connected to our sport,” he added.
Sunlight’s GM agrees.
“A $150 lift ticket is a big dollar amount for those individuals that only ski three times a year,” said Jankovsky. He allowed that the Epic Pass and the introduction of the Ikon Pass “definitely changes the playing field. We have a strong local base that is there, but they do ski at Aspen and buy Aspen passes and possibly Vail passes.”
Stability opens doors
Sunlight is majority owned by two out-of-state families, the Lorentsons and the Bodnars, according to Jankovsky. He is also a stockholder in the resort and is optimistic that the younger family members on the board of directors are starting to become more active in contemplating Sunlight’s future.
Not shouldering big loans opens the door to new possibilities, including a new chairlift or eventual expansion into the permitted area that includes Williams Peak. A five-year plan shows a new lift — and not one repurposed from SkiCo as are the Tercero and Segundo chairs — on the mountain’s east side where most of the expert skiing now lies.
“We’ve gotten to a point where we’re stable as a company,” Jankovsky said, adding that the area’s financial operation has changed considerably since this country’s economic downturn.
“If we had gone through a year like this 10 years ago, we’d have to be going to back to the shareholders for a cash call,” Jankovsky said.
Sunlight’s bottom line is bolstered by ski rentals, food and beverage sales, ski school, the children’s center, a downtown Glenwood Springs retail store and snowmobile tours at the ski area.
“The next steps are to start upgrading the infrastructure and probably taking on some debt,” Jankovsky said. What the public doesn’t readily see are improvements like a new haul rope for the Tercero lift which ran in the five digits, or last year’s major kitchen remodel of the base lodge restaurant.
Potential suitors will occasionally inquire about the resort’s status: “We’re always for sale but not officially for sale,” Jankovsky said with a laugh, suggesting that there’s no impetus to unload the area. That said, Sunlight has about 400 potentially developable acres at the mountain’s base which might be seen as desirable to the right investor.
After a rough start to the season, Sunlight is coming off some solid spring break weeks, according to spokesman Troy Hawks. He is credited with Sunlight’s innovative marketing programs that garnered national attention while performed on a shoestring budget.
“Sunlight has some very well known and exciting programs they have developed like the Sunny 700 (which includes a ski pass and pair of skis) to their award-winning Ski, Swim and Stay packages,” said Chris Linsmayer, public affairs director for Colorado Ski Country USA, the state’s umbrella marketing organization.
When asked to reflect on a small area’s sustainability during this time of change, Linsmayer said that, “The ski industry is constantly evolving and has been for many years, so while this year’s news is certainly notable, it doesn’t change Colorado Ski Country USA’s role. We work with all of our member resorts, across the size spectrum, to promote them throughout the year.”
No promotion was needed to draw people to this week’s powder Monday, when about 350 skiers and riders, the majority of whom were pass holders, flooded the Sunlight trails. Weekends are a different story, as Front Range and other visitors take advantage of competitively priced packages that cost less than a single-day lift ticket at one of the major resorts.
Enjoying a morning kid’s ski lesson this week was 4-year-old Kaia Exelbert of Miami. Her mom Ksenia said they chose Sunlight for this inaugural visit to the slopes but would later advance to one of the four Aspen mountains.
Alpine races hosted here were on the rise this year and the Sunlight Winter Sports Club members have a homegrown product, Alice McKennis, who was feted before she competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. McKennis returned to her local slopes recently and was unobtrusive while skiing in Carhartt work pants, according to Hawks.
Uphill use of Sunlight is growing, with between 50 to 60 people climbing the slopes every week, Hawks said. He said the area’s policies follow those used upvalley and that SkiCo has been generous in sharing do’s and don’ts.
SkiCo’s Hanle said, “Uphilling is growing as a sport and an activity and as that community grows the chances for collaboration also increases.”
There’s just one week left to Sunlight’s lift-served season, which closes Easter Sunday with on-mountain services, beach volleyball, live music and a retail “yard sale.”A special two-for-$80 lift ticket promotion is available through the web site.
Next season, Sunlight’s 52nd of operation, Jankovsky will start the process of handing over the operating reins to assistant mountain manager Tom Hays, who will assume a much different landscape than did his predecessor more than 30 years ago.
Follow Madeleine on Twitter, @Madski99