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Ski industry slaloms through change

Resort consolidation and frequent-user deals have become common as ski hill owners try to hedge against unpredictable weather and get more people on the slopes

Holders of the MAX Pass are entitled to five days of skiing at each of 44 mountains across North America, including Mount Bachelor, a Central Orgeon resort with 3,365 vertical feet of slopes.

Adriaan Demmers spends most winter weekends as an instructor at Chicopee Ski & Summer Resort, a bunny hill near his home in Guelph, Ont. But the real estate agent and his wife also logged 57 days last winter on slopes from Maine to Utah, using a MAX Pass, which for $679 (U.S.) buys up to five days each at 44 mountains across North America. The industry average for a day pass is $113, meaning the Demmers would have broken even after six days on the slopes.

"It's not just about saving money," says Mr. Demmers, 58. "It's an opportunity to go to all these resorts."

MAX, an acronym for Multi Alpine Experience, led Mr. Demmers to peaks he might not have otherwise considered. One surprise was Mount Bachelor, an unpretentious Central Oregon resort with 3,365 vertical feet of slopes and miles of gladed trails. It was the first leg of his month-long journey that wound through Crystal Mountain, Wash.; Big Sky, Mont.; Solitude, Utah; and Steamboat and Winter Park in Colorado.

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This sampler-like twist on the season pass is perhaps the biggest ski industry game-changer to come along in recent years. Along with MAX Pass, the $489 Mountain Collective provides two days at each of 16 destinations from the Canadian Rockies to Australia, and Epic Pass, a lift ticket which costs $899 and offers seamless, unlimited access to 16 mountains owned by Vail Resorts Inc.

Mont-Tremblant in Quebec is among the North American resorts that U.S. companies have gobbled up during the past year in billion-dollar acquisition sprees.

The two are the largest players in a rising trend that offers skiers and snowboarders a break on expensive lift tickets, access to prime snow in drought years, and incentives to visit different peaks. They also signal a shift toward industry consolidation led by Vail Resorts and affiliates of its Colorado-based rival, Aspen Skiing Co.

In the past year, Vail Resorts bought Stowe in Vermont and, in a record $1.3-billion deal (U.S.), Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. in Whistler, B.C., the largest resort in North America. According to Matthew Brooks, a Macquarie Capital analyst who covers Vail and other travel industry firms, it fetched more than double the $565-million Vail has paid for all of its other mountain acquisitions combined since 2002.

Not to be outdone, in April, Aspen Skiing Co. (which owns Snowmass and Buttermilk, in addition to Aspen and Aspen Highlands in Colorado) teamed up with investment group KSL Capital Partners LLC to buy the six U.S. and Canadian resorts owned by Intrawest Resort Holdings Inc. for $1.5-billion. Those properties include Steamboat in Colorado, Mont-Tremblant in Quebec, and Stratton in Vermont. Then it acquired Mammoth Resorts' four mountains in California and Deer Valley in Utah. If the as-yet-unnamed company launches an answer to the Epic Pass next season, it will rival Vail's product both in number of mountains and geographical variety.

These acquisitions are a new phenomenon, in part because they're the fastest way to gain market share when barriers to entry such as environmental regulations and big infrastructure costs make it hard to add destinations. "They're not building any new mountains," says Mr. Brooks, the analyst. No major ski resort has been constructed in North America since Deer Valley and Colorado's Beaver Creek opened in the early 1980s.

In a record $1.3-billion deal (U.S.), Vail Resorts recently bought Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. in Whistler, B.C., the largest resort in North America.

Moreover, by expanding coast-to-coast, these big companies develop feeder streams of new consumers, who may otherwise overlook big-price-tag, big-name resorts for more affordable, family-run mountains.

Even independent mountains are banding together into consortiums such as Mountain Collective and MAX Pass. It's the only way to keep up. In the U.S. Northeast, the year-old Peak Pass now offers all-access to seven resorts in Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire, from Hunter Mountain to Mount Snow. Similarly, the western-U.S.-centric Powder Alliance, which started in 2013 with 12 resorts and has since grown to 16, gives season pass holders of any member resort up to 45 days of free skiing across the portfolio.

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Another incentive to consolidate is that having more mountains offers companies an insurance policy against bad snowfall.

"Good snow trumps a good economy," says Michael Berry, president of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association. Over the past two decades, he says, the total number of active annual U.S. skiers and snowboarders peaked during the worst of the Great Recession, from 2009 to 2011. Among the industry's hardest moments were the four years of drought in California, which left many mountainsides bare in the most populous state.

Vail Resorts also purchased Stowe in Vermont in the past year.

Vail has seen this first-hand: Its visitor count tumbled last year, thanks to late snow in Colorado. For a company that made roughly half its $1.6-billion revenue on lift tickets in fiscal 2017, that puts high stakes on good snowfall. "From a business perspective, [consolidation] locks in that loyalty and weatherproofs us for off-weather years," says Pete Sonntag, chief operating officer at Whistler Blackcomb.

Those who are willing to pay up front stand to win, too. With passes that include tony resorts in the Rockies alongside mountains that are easily accessible from such cities as New York, Boston, Chicago, or San Francisco, they can now buy a season pass for a favourite weekend spot and effectively nab a steep discount for once-a-year trips farther afield, where conditions may be more of a sure thing.

Most season passes pay for themselves after four to six visits when compared with one-day-ticket window costs, which are climbing faster than inflation. According to a presentation from the U.S. National Ski Areas Association, single-day weekend tickets on its member slopes averaged $113 last winter, up from about $90 in the 2013-14 season.

Among Aspen Skiing Co.’s holdings is Snowmass in Colorado.

They aren't money-savers for everyone. Even to experienced ski travellers such as Kary York, who has organized trips for seven years for the Seattle-area Sno Joke Club, the number of options can be confusing. For example, Mountain Collective's pass is limited to two free days at each of 16 mountains – additional lift tickets sell for half the window price. It's a great deal for a skier who can hop from resort to resort on weekends; for someone that spends a week-long vacation in one place, it may not pencil out.

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Families have further considerations in mind. While Epic Pass offers unlimited lift tickets across all its mountains, it costs $469 for kids aged 5 through 12 and has blackouts on certain weekends and holidays; Mountain Collective sells a limited number of $1 passes for children under 12; even its standard $99 price tag is cheaper than a kids' day pass at Vail's namesake resort.

Ms. York, whose day job is being an insurance industry headhunter, says she spends "a ton of time" navigating the options ahead of each ski season. As she put it, "You gotta read the fine print."

Vail Resorts, which bought Whistler Blackcomb, above, made roughly half its $1.6-billion revenue on lift tickets in fiscal 2017.

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