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Heli Skiing, Walmart, and The Epic Pass Era

In case you have not heard, KSL recently purchased a multitude of big ski resorts adding to their extensive portfolio and is expected to follow the Vail Resorts Epic Pass model.  Vail Resorts and KSL now own many of the best ski areas in the US, and follow a Walmart-style approach to skiing by selling very popular inexpensive season passes to the masses that provide a tremendous amount of skiing at all their resorts.  On the surface, this seems like a huge win for skiers in the US with more skiing for less money and endless road trip possibilities with a single season pass.  Not surprisingly, the Epic Pass is incredibly popular and driving record profits to Vail Resorts, which is why KSL wants in.

Walmart is also quite popular and profitable by focusing on selling at a high volume which allows them to offer the lowest prices.  Walmart is always busy, and so is Vail Resorts.

If you don’t care about massive crowds, then the Vail Resorts model is a great thing for skiing.  If you are a mid-sized or small ski area that is reliant solely on skier revenue to make ends meet, the Vail Resorts model presents several challenges.  Typically, when a new Walmart opens, it puts pressure on the smaller independent hardware and grocery stores.  The smaller stores cannot compete on pricing and many go out of business.  The hardware or grocery stores that offer a unique or boutique product continually adapt and survive, and many even thrive by offering products that Walmart cannot.  Perhaps it’s a unique birdfeeder that sells well and keeps the small business open.

Mid-sized and small ski areas struggle in the Epic Pass era as they can no longer sell enough lift tickets or season passes at their actual value. It becomes impossible for independent ski areas to price their tickets at what it costs to provide the product, let alone make a profit.  Mid-sized ski areas that have other profit centers, such as lodging, food and beverage, continue to do get by as best they can, but it gets harder every year to compete with Vail Resorts.

For ski areas that are strictly reliant on skier revenue, it’s even more challenging.  The Vail Resorts/KSL model has effectively devalued lift tickets, as many people scoff at paying for skiing at window rates when their Epic Pass covers so many areas.  Why would anyone pay for a day ticket during a road trip when a cheap season pass comes with so many places to road trip to?

At Silverton Mountain, the Vail Resorts/KSL model has put pressure on the ski area to adapt every season.  Initially, Silverton Mountain offered season pass holders a bunch of free days at other premier ski areas through pass partnerships, and they sold well.  As other independent ski areas adapted to the Epic Pass era, the Mountain Collective and MAX Passes sprouted up as many mid-sized resorts banded together to try to compete with Vail Resorts.  Silverton Mountain cannot accept the volume of skiers that the Mountain Collective brings with it, and because of this, this ski area lost many season pass partners over the past five seasons.

Without sufficient season pass and day ticket revenue to cover costs, Silverton Mountain’s unguided season was slowly reduced and eventually the ski area had to make major changes to unguided skiing based on the financial reality of the current market. Silverton Mountain can no longer sell enough unguided passes at a price people are willing to pay to cover the rising costs of doing business. Silverton Mountain loved these early additional unguided days as much as you.  When people ask, “why not more unguided skiing?” or “why the need for heli skiing?” the answer is more complicated than one initially might imagine.

Luckily, Silverton Mountain has other popular products to offer, like guided skiing and heli skiing, which allows the ski area to continue operating.  These products are what keep the 45 amazing employees working at this ski area.  These products are the unique birdfeeder that keep the mountain operating in the Epic Pass era.  The opportunity to ski at an independent ski area shrinks every year, and the Vail Resorts/KSL/Walmart model is only one of the major contributing factors.

In regards to heli skiing, there is so much misinformation being circulated regarding Silverton Guide’s recent heli approval that it is impossible to explain it all.  But the most common misconception is heli skiers will be dropped above backcountry skiers, and the heli will be detonating explosives above them, both of which are simply not true.  Silverton Guides has been operating heli skiing for many years in Silverton and San Juan County in areas much closer to popular backcountry areas, including Red Mountain Pass, and has never placed heli skiers or explosives near touring skiers. Silverton Guides has always been a good neighbor, and will continue to be so for every season to come.