Original Article

With an explosion of customized lift tickets, season passes galore and revolutionary new online ticket companies, who bothers with the ticket window anymore?
by Paul Tolme, Contributor, SKI Magazine

Bay Area skiers Evan Reece and Ron Schneiderman came up with the idea for liftopia.com, a hot new clearinghouse for discount ski tickets, while debating whether to take a ski trip to Tahoe in 2005. “It hadn’t snowed much, so it wasn’t worth paying full price,” Reece says. “I said, ‘If I could get a ticket for 40 bucks I might go.’ It was an ‘ah-ha’ moment.”

Liftopia.com now sells discount tickets to 80 resorts, from California to the Poconos. Sales are modest—about 11,000 tickets last winter—but the founders hope to accomplish nothing less than revolutionize how people purchase lift tickets. The company is modeled after discount travel sites, such as hotwire.com, where Reece and Schneiderman worked before launching their business in 2006.

Here’s how you buy a ticket online: Select a search criterion (by resort, region, drive time, etc.), the dates you would like to ski and the quantity of lift tickets you need. Liftopia sorts the info and shows what’s available. After you purchase a ticket, you print a voucher that you present at the resort. Tickets can be purchased up to the night before arrival. The average discount is approximately 30 percent off the walk-up price. Resorts gain revenue by selling otherwise unused tickets. “This isn’t rocket science,” Reece says. “We help skiers find deals and help resorts make money.”

Liftopia and other similar outlets such as getskitickets.com represent the next evolution in the increasingly complex business of lift ticket sales. In the beginning, there were day passes and season passes. Then came early- and late-season rates, high-season holiday prices, senior discounts, high school passes, college passes, afternoon tickets—a proliferation of customized lift tickets.

When launched a decade ago, Vail Resorts’ Buddy Pass started a trend of deep-discount, multiresort passes. Now, Utah has its Salt Lake Super Pass and Tahoe has its Lake Tahoe Interchangeable Ticket, to name a couple. This winter, Vail offered perhaps the first season pass specifically targeted to destination skiers—the Epic Pass—good at all five Vail resorts. Vail alone has seven season pass options, niched to the level of a $199 April pass. All told, these efforts are known as demand pricing, which simply means that prices rise and fall to meet consumer demand. The airline industry has been particularly adept at this.

“Demand pricing is an integral part of our business,” says Stuart Rempel, senior vice president at British Columbia’s Whistler Blackcomb. “We have developed a model that fluctuates through the year and rewards people with volume discounts for multiday stays.”

Resorts, obviously, would like to sell as many full-price tickets as possible, but charging full price isn’t effective when demand is low, such as during early season or when snow is sparse, Reece says. “You also don’t want to give discounts when people would pay full price,” such as during busy holiday periods and big powder days.

So far, resorts like what they see. “They help us put butts on chairs in slow periods,” says marketing director Dave Dekema of New Mexico’s Angel Fire, which sold more than $100,000 worth of tickets through Liftopia last season. “It brings in deal-hunters and trains people to consider midweek and off-peak times.”

Some lift ticket deals are posted months in advance, others uploaded at the last minute as resorts fine-tune prices to match ever-changing market conditions. “If I see in the forecast that we’re going to have a bad-weather weekend, then I can offer steeper discounts,” says Thomas Prindle, marketing director at New Hampshire’s Wildcat Mountain. “But if it’s going to be a powder weekend, then I can adjust the rates up.”

On the resort side, one advantage of the system is that ticket websites might expose skiers to new destinations for a ski day—or a ski week. For instance, visitors to liftopia.com can search for lift ticket deals within a short drive of a metro area, such as Boston. “Wildcat would come up in that search, which might give us a new customer,” Prindle says.

Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin sold about 175 tickets through liftopia.com last winter, mostly to first-time visitors. “We don’t have a huge budget, so we’re always looking for ways to lure more destination visitors,” says A-Basin executive Peggy Hiller. “It also allows us to experiment with pricing.” Tickets that cost $58 at the window sold for as little as $35.

Web outlets might be the future of lift ticket sales. “Young people, especially, are comfortable with purchasing online,” says David Belin, director of Colorado-based RRC Associates, a research firm that specializes in the ski industry.

A-Basin is selling ticket three-packs through another new source: Costco. The warehouse discounter sold roughly $5 million worth of ski tickets last season. Savings are typically 20 percent off window price. “We try to beat all the deals out there,” says Claudia Augello, buyer for Costco’s ski program.

“It’s another way for us to generate sales,” says Dave Tragethon, marketing director at Oregon’s Mount Hood Meadows. A three-pack costs $160, which saves about $60. “They were popular Christmas stocking stuffers.”

Sniffing out deals is like discovering a powder stash. Medical equipment salesman Steve Conney of Boulder, Colo., grabs lift ticket coupons at ski shops and supermarkets. He also bought a Loveland Pass Card for $39 that entitles him to discount tickets and free days at the Colorado area. Last winter, Conney enjoyed two hours of midweek powder in Vail’s Back Bowls thanks to the resort’s $55 half-day afternoon ticket. “I consider that money well spent for two hours of deep pow with no liftlines.”

Jon and Dana Charette saved $150 by booking a catskiing trip last season through liftopia.com. This winter, they checked the site daily to find deals in Utah, where they booked a condo for midseason. The Charettes won’t be walking up to a lift-ticket window and laying down a credit card anytime soon. “It’s a tough economic year, and we wanted to do this trip on the cheap,” Dana Charette says. “We’re going to ski regardless of the economy, but anything we can do to save money is great.”

Even in midseason, there are lift ticket discounts to be found, especially in this tight economy. Here are some places to start:

>>>Resort Operators Buy in advance and often save big. Also, many resort companies offer discounts through their resort family. Here are contacts for a few of the bigger players: boothcreek.com, boyneresorts.com, intrawest.com, powdr.com, skipeaks.com, vailresorts.com.

>>>Trade Associations Their websites act as clearinghouses for deals: coloradoski.com, skinh.com, skilaketahoe.com, ski-saltlake.com, skiutah.com, skivermont.com.

>>>Retailers Stores are a new source for deals, so check everywhere from your favorite ski shop to your local supermarket.

>>>Hotels Anytime you book lodging, ask about bundling in your lift tickets.