Northeast Mountains Push Pass Deadlines and Introduce Payment Plans

Meanwhile, we wait for Vail and Alterra’s response

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Deadlines extended, payment plans introduced, refunds (mostly) not allowed

Closing in on four full weeks since the last Northeast mountains shuttered their lifts for the season, most have pushed out their early-bird season pass deadlines from the traditional mid- to late-April dates to something a bit farther into spring or, in some cases, summer. Acknowledging the man-we’re-all-screwed economic times, many have introduced payment plans. So far, few have dropped prices. Most – with one important exception – are standing by hell-before-refunds pass policies. Here’s a non-exhaustive look at where some of the larger mountains in the region are sitting deadline- and payment plan-wise (all prices and deadlines are for unlimited, adult passes as of April 12).

Several New Hampshire mountains have pushed out their best-price pass deadlines and introduced payment plans. Gunstock actually (smartly) dropped its price by $100 to $519 and extended its deadline to May 10 and introduced a four-part payment plan. Everyone else appears to be holding to their original prices: Pats Peak ($469 by May 3, four-part payment plan), Cranmore ($659 by May 31, four-part plan); Cannon ($729 by June 30, no plan); Waterville Valley ($897 by May 31, no plan). Bretton Woods ($839) is still promising that you can ski the rest of the 2019-20 season for free! if you renew by April 20. Thanks dudes.

The White Mountain Super Pass ($979) – unlimited at Cannon, Waterville Valley, Bretton Woods, and Cranmore – cut $20 off the full price and extended its deadline to May 31.

Notable here is that most Northeast ski areas are either not mentioning refunds at all or are stating explicitly that there are no refunds for any reason even if the sun flares up and devours the Earth. Jay Peak ($729 by June 8) is the exception here, guaranteeing refunds for any reason up until Oct. 1. The Jay/Burke combo pass is $829. Burke alone is $639, also by June 8.

Elsewhere in Vermont, Killington’s ($999 unlimited skiing only/$1349 Beast 365 with Ikon Base Pass) deadline is June 30 – though that may have been the original deadline anyway. Pico’s ($439) deadline is, oddly because it doesn’t sync with parent K-Town’s, June 11. Mad River Glen is sticking to its $749 price and April 15 deadline.

ORDA pushed the deadline for its Ski3 pass ($759), good at Belleayre, Gore, and Whiteface to Aug. 12 and introduced a payment plan. The deadline at both Windham ($1,099 with an Ikon Base Pass; don’t bother with the standalone $949 pass) and West Mountain ($499) remains April 30.

In Massachusetts, the deadline for the Berkshire East/Catamount pass ($479) is May 31. Butternut’s $299 pass is available until Aug. 31.

In the Poconos, Camelback does not appear to have made any concessions either in its due date (April 12 – today), or price ($599). Blue Mountain has extended to April 30. Montage is confusingly still advertising that its $299 price is good until March 31 – so, like, 12 days ago. You have until Nov. 2 to get a $300 pass at Ski Big Bear. Elk is the best mountain in the region, but it’s hard to see how they justify a $795 season pass either in this pass era or this economic environment – you have until Oct. 14 to buy, though, if that’s your spot.

And then there’s #OKBromley

Bromley is holding firm to its ridiculous single-mountain $925 pass price, which is like #OKBromley. Good luck with that even without an economy-devouring plague wrecking the industry. But, hey, you have until May 15 to decide between Just Bromley or around-the-corner Stratton plus access to four of the six best mountains in the Northeast (Killington, Sunday River, Sugarloaf, Sugarbush), on a $699 Ikon Base Pass, or Okemo-Mount Snow-Wildcat and a boatload more on Vail’s $599 Northeast Value Pass. Sister mountain Jiminy Peak still thinks it is worth $869, and has extended but not committed to a deadline. I suggest that the Fairbanks Group invests in a calendar – these are 2014 prices in a 2020 world, and sticking to these them is a recipe for bankruptcy.

But what about that elephant standing right next to you, dude?

What we don’t have yet is insight into how Vail and Alterra are going to handle Epik/Ikon pricing and deadlines. Vail has at least indicated that they will take some action, stating in a March 15 email to passholders signed by CMO Kirsten Lynch that they were “identifying an approach that acknowledges this past season and retains your loyalty for the future” by “the end of April.” What that means, I have no idea. The passes are already very inexpensive (just compare them to the prices for single-mountain access listed above), so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some kind of renewal discount – which Alterra already offers – rather than a direct price drop. This would somewhat appease* Angry Ski Bro, who is still wicked pissed that he was SCREWED out of a quarter of the season by the CORPORATE CRIMINALS who are DESTROYING skiing. But it’s Vail, and they might get creative here – they have a way of keeping customers pretty happy.

Vail’s communication since the crisis began has been, in my opinion, quite transparent. They acted quickly to shut down mountains, provide what support they could to employees, and admit that they were in for a financial ass-whipping. Alterra has been less open, with no official word since the March 14 shutdown announcement outside of a letter to employees announcing furloughs and cancelled capital projects. Still, I have word from a highly reliable source that Alterra is “working on their plan,” and will announce it “soon.” With the April 22 deadline looming for the best Ikon Pass prices, I expect details on whatever they are going to do – or at least an extension of the deadline – this week.   

And I think they will do something. Alterra got a little cocky plucking Aspen and Jackson Hole out of the Ikon Base and making them a $150 add-on while still raising the pass price by $50 (this is more justifiable for Northeast skiers, who gain unlimited, blacked-out Stratton and Sugarbush access, up from just five days at each last season). While their $100 discount on kids’ passes and $899 (with renewal discount) full pass prices are already more than fair, there is room for softening on the base pass side, and that is where I think we may see some movement, even if it’s not a re-add of Aspen and Jackson Hole (which I frankly find unlikely).

What is probably more important than prices, however, is how each company articulates their refund policy. While I haven’t really addressed this yet, there is a chance that the 2020-21 ski season will not happen. Like, at all. Explain to me how a weekend lift line or lunchtime lodge at Okemo or Killington or Hunter is going to function in a vaccine-less COVID age of social distancing. It is too soon to go too deep into that, but if the season doesn't happen, how are those hundreds of thousands of passholders compensated for their then-useless purchases? Ending a season early is one thing – you still had well over four months to ski in most regions, and it’s hard to argue that you didn’t have a fair shot at using the pass. Not having a season at all is an entirely different thing altogether, and Alterra and Vail will both have to address this possibility. The question here is probably whether they include refund-in-case-of-no-season language as an upsell via their modest existing insurance add-ons, or if they just flat guarantee that no season equals a refund as part of the purchase. Alternately, they could offer deferrals to the following season, which would help keep both from collapsing in the event of a complete seasonlong shutdown.

Whatever Vail and Alterra do, it is only going to make this pass sales season more difficult for the Northeast independents that still haven’t figured out that they are operating on an expired model.

Meanwhile, Boyne’s New England Pass ($1,549 with an Ikon Base Pass; $1,169 without) deadline has been extended, vaguely, to June according to Loon’s website (the main New England Pass site still says April 30).

*This is actually untrue. There is no way to appease Angry Ski Bro other than to set him up with a job as Senior Ultimate President-God of Halo and Beer Pong, a keg of goldschlager, and a duffel bag full of sleeveless T-shirts.

The Freedom Pass is dead, probably, maybe

Magic President Geoff Hatheway told me on the podcast recently that the three-free-days-at-each-partner-mountain Freedom Pass would not be an add-on perk to Magic season passes when the mountain announces its lower-priced 2020-21 menu later this week, and another ski area owner that’s participated intimated to me that the pass was dead altogether. And, indeed, long-time member and purported organizer Bolton Valley does not mention the Freedom Pass anywhere in the perks section for its season pass ($549 by April 27 – payment plan available). Another longtime partner, Plattekill ($669 by April 30), offers three days each at Homewood in Tahoe, Ski Cooper (Colorado), and Lee Canyon (Nevada). The site promises more mountains “coming soon,” but there is no reference to the Freedom Pass (hopefully they can shore up some partnerships in the region).

Black Mountain, New Hampshire ($499 by May 31), however, is still advertising Freedom Pass benefits, as is McIntyre, N.H. ($259 by May 1) and Lost Valley, Maine ($395 by May 25). Greek Peak ($550 by April 30), which is not listed on the actual Freedom Pass page, nonetheless advertises the benefit. Yawgoo ($349 by May 1), also still advertises all of the Freedom Pass mountains as partners, without explicitly calling out the pass. It also lists several non-Freedom Pass mountains as three-free-pass partners, including Crystal in Washington and Greek Peak and Toggenburg in New York. It is unclear whether Whaleback passes for next year are even on sale, as the site indicates that Freedom Pass benefits will come with “19/20” passes. Between an early closure after their summit chair stalled out and the economic apocalypse of COVID descending, I’d say Whaleback is a top candidate to not re-open next season or for a very long time. Dartmouth Skiway also does not list next season’s pass prices yet, though considering that it is owned by Dartmouth, which had a $5.73 billion endowment as of last season, it would likely be one of the last ski areas in the world to go bust.

A glimpse of the Northeast’s future at Ragged, Wachusett

New Hampshire’s Ragged – which extended its $299 deadline to May 3 and introduced a payment plan – is about the closest I can find to an East Coast mountain buckling to the reality of cheap Epik/Ikonic giga-passes and offering a too-cheap-not-to-buy pass with generous add-on benefits. The pass includes unlimited access to Pacific Resorts Group sister mountains Powderhorn in Colorado and Wisp in Maryland, and creatively restricted access to Wintergreen in Virginia and Mt. Washington Alpine Resort in British Columbia. Probably more relevant to 100 percent of passholders is half off weekdays and 25 percent off weekends at Jay, Pats Peak, Butternut, and Whaleback (holidays excepted on all).

Yes some of these are benefits that aren’t really benefits in the sense that they aren’t things you would realistically ever use. Like unless you have a very specific circumstance where your college roommate from Grand Junction has a condo at Powderhorn, that’s probably about your 18th choice when you plan to fly all the way out to Colorado to ski. It’s a nice little mountain, but you would have to pass literally every other ski resort in the state to get there – it’s like Colorado’s version of Burke. It’s also sort of the same as all of us having season passes to Winter Park and Squaw Valley every year on our Ikon Passes, when the majority of us will be lucky to ski one of them every five years for like four or five days at a go.

As far as the other mountains in the region go – well, they look fine. Maybe worth a weekend apiece if you’re a completist, and at 700 (Wisp) and 1,000 (Wintergreen) vertical feet, they likely ski big enough to be fun in good conditions. I haven’t skied either, but I have spent a lot of time in that region, and it is studded with the kind of fantasyworld terrain you’d expect to find on the cover of a Tolkien novel. I would worry about crowds so close to D.C., however, and there is a reason that the first rule of Northeast skiing is never drive south to ski. The unlimited Ragged access is really more for the southern passholders than the Mid-Atlantic access is for the New Hampshire ones.

So the Northeast discounts are probably what are more relevant to Ragged passholders here. I do see those migrating from discounted to free tickets in the very near future, however – this has been a key survival strategy for small Western mountains in the megapass era, and now that that that era has arrived in earnest in our region with the barnstorming $599 Epic Northeast Pass and unlimited (with blackouts) Stratton and Sugarbush access on the $699 Ikon Base Pass, Northeast independents are going to have to get creative, as I’ve written in the past. Jay Peak has already done this with Saddleback, with passholders of one receiving two reciprocal days at the other. It is likely that this coalition of reciprocity continues to expand. Wisp, actually, is already part of one such coalition of fellow Mid-Atlantic mountains, with passholders getting one free non-holiday, non-Saturday-during-the-good-months lift ticket each at Seven Springs, Hidden Valley, and Laurel Mountain, all roughly an hour away in Pennsylvania.

Still, in spite of the limited utility of some of these benefits, this is pretty good progress toward a more appealing small-mountain Northeast pass world. Wachusett is another example. As the closest not-a-speedbump mountain to Boston, it serves a very specific market but will nonetheless have to work very hard to continue justifying a $599 standalone pass that is the same price as the Northeast Epic. It has a good jump here, with a very strong list of partner benefits, including, for some reason, three free days at Taos. That makes a nice vacation incentive, and what amounts to half off weekdays at Stratton, Whiteface, Gore, Sunday River, Killington, and Jay Peak is one of the strongest lineups in the east. Still, I think you need to get to free to make this a fair fight against the Ikonasaurus Epikurius Rex.

Elsewhere

Wildcat General Manager Brian Heon will start as the new GM of Sunday River on May 1. Current GM Dana Bullen will remain on as president, focusing on, “operational and financial performance, real estate development, and long-term growth strategies.” It will be very interesting to see who Vail appoints to manage its wildest Northeast mountain – they have proven adept at this, absorbing both Tahoe rebel Kirkwood and Crested Butte without vacuuming out their character, so don’t worry (too much) Wildcat skiers.

Powder is still churning out plenty of coverage on the COVID-19 fallout: 2,500 skiers are suing the Austrian resort of Ischgl for “knowingly exposing them to the coronavirus”; should you ride this out in your ski crib?; more ski companies are retooling to produce protective gear for front-lines medical workers; the staying-at-home series continues with pro skiers Christina Lustenberger and Sander Hadley.

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