Plenty of room to grow winter
By Mark Reaman
Crested Butte Mountain Resort executives expected some “concerns” from the local skiing population when they announced last week that they were partnering with the Vail Resort Epic Pass, but the blowback was beyond their expectations. The CBMR Facebook page on which the ski resort made the announcement was filled with comments deriding the partnership.
Some examples from social media:
“You have just ruined ‘We are not Vail…’”
“For a ski resort that has long prided itself on being the ‘anti-Vail,’ even launching an ad campaign directly saying that in the early 2000s, you’ve sure changed your tune and sold out to them mighty quick.”
“Nail in the coffin.”
“Did I read this right? EPIC Pass holders get 7 ‘free’ days at CBMR and CBMR pass holders only get 1/2 price tickets at VR properties? That’s some amazing negotiation skills there Muellers… what a joke.”
“Way to sell your soul to the devil, CBMR. So disappointed. Was hoping you would go with the IKON pass.”
“Shame. The day that will live in infamy, when Crested Butte associated with the resort that is the antithesis of everything it should represent. This is about losing ski culture, not just a cheap pass. My heart breaks.”
“Say goodbye to the short lift lines, empty mountain, and general quaintness of the town. It was nice while it lasted. R.I.P., ‘Colorado’s last great ski town.’”
“We know we will never make everyone happy but we were honestly a little surprised by the reaction,” said CBMR vice president Erica Mueller. “We are looking at this as more of a national and international partnership that will get Crested Butte’s name out there and give people a reason to come and ski Crested Butte. What many may not know is that the majority of Epic Passes are sold outside Colorado so while I think this will draw some people from the Front Range like the Rocky Mountain Superpass+ did, it will expose us to a broader audience and not be as drastic of a change as some may be thinking.
“But the concern that this will draw hundreds of thousands of new people here next season is not possible,” Mueller continued. “There are only so many beds here. We have a finite capacity in the Gunnison Valley. Crested Butte is still at the end of the road and we aren’t suddenly a day resort for Denver. People still have to stay overnight and treat this like a ski vacation, just like they did with the RMSP+ partnership and not a place to take off for a half day to ski and be home for dinner. The Epic Pass won’t draw day-trippers or people who read the snow report in the morning and decide to come ski for the day in Crested Butte. That is not our reality here and that is in part what makes and will always make this place special.”
Mueller said the way skiers and riders purchase ski passes has changed over the last decade since Vail first introduced the Epic Pass. This year, Aspen’s Alterra Mountain Company is offering a similar pass called the Ikon that represents different ski areas across the country. Mueller said those two pass proposals were the “big dogs” in the ski industry and a ski area that was not hooked up with one or the other had a big hill to climb.
While the Epic represents scores of resorts across the world with 15 of them offering full season pass availability, there are other resorts in the same boat as Crested Butte where a limited number of days, in this case seven, are offered. Telluride is part of the Epic Pass under similar conditions as Crested Butte.
“There are international skiers that might now see a chance to come in from, say, Australia and spend some time in Colorado, and in fact I have already seen comments and emails that people in Australia are now going to plan their trip here. They can ski Vail and then go to Telluride and then spend several days at Crested Butte,” explained Mueller.
She emphasized that ski season in Crested Butte is rarely, if ever, full, except the holiday times and spring break. “We have opportunity to grow and need to in order to be a sustainable business,” she said. “The option of not partnering up with one of the big super pass sponsors would likely lead to a decrease in winter visitors over time. This resort and community are dependent on visitors to this wonderful valley, so that approach was not an option in our eyes.”
Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association executive director John Norton said more skiers coming to the valley in the winter have plenty of places to find lodging. “There is tons of space in the winter season,” he said. “It is a very different story from the peaks of summer. In January 2017, for example, we saw 54 percent occupancy and with the snow this year we were down to 47 percent. We are getting clobbered this season. February went from 60 percent last year to 50 percent in 2018. Now, that is still a lot better than, say, 2014, when January was at 27 percent and February was 35 percent but the bottom line is that it is not that crowded here in the winter ski season anymore.”
Mueller said the partnership would also help fill in some of the holes with better group business. “Anymore, ski clubs across the country decide where to go based on which pass they buy in a particular year,” she explained. “They plan their vacation trips around them. That sort of group business comes around during normally slow times in a ski season. It can help fill the area on a more consistent level through the season. It can help people work when they might normally not be getting hours. These are the opportunities we need to seek out, so we can remain a viable community.”
Mueller said she couldn’t release specific details but said CBMR would receive some compensation whenever someone with an Epic Pass is scanned at CBMR. As for the other major complaint that the reciprocity aspect of the deal seemed to favor Vail, she said that’s not necessarily the case.
“At the end of the day, it is Vail’s goal to sell ski passes, while ours is to attract visitors in the winter months to our area. Because of this, Vail is only open to the deal that we ended up with, which is the same as their other partnerships, such as Telluride and Resorts of the Canadian Rockies,” she said. “Similar pass partnership products don’t allow for any reciprocity benefits for their partner resorts’ pass holders at this time, so we felt the discount was at least of some benefit for our pass holders. But the main point of the pass was to fill the hole that we would lose when the Rocky Mountain Superpass went away. We want people to come here in the winter.”
CBMR had been in talks to be part of the Epic Pass before the Ikon was made public. Once the Ikon Pass was announced and then Telluride’s partnership with Epic became known, Mueller said CBMR saw the inclusion of Telluride as a welcomed surprise because Telluride was in a similar situation as CBMR.
“As the ski industry has evolved and pass partnerships continue to be on the leading edge, it would have been a scary reality to not be aligned with one or the other. We felt we would end up going back to about 2011 skier-day numbers, which were not sustainable for us and I would argue not sustainable for our community. For any business to go that far backward would be frightening. We can’t go back there if we want to do things like the Teo expansion, think about a new lift or base area lodge.”
While Mueller said there is no perfect solution, she emphasized that the ski industry has changed. “If you don’t play ball you’re in trouble,” she said. “Epic is 10 years old and reciprocity passes like the old Hidden Gems Pass have changed the industry. It has become the way of the world.
“Skiers from around the world are like us,” she concluded. “They want to explore places and this gives them such an opportunity. It helps expose more people to other areas and now a new group of people has a reason to explore Crested Butte. That doesn’t mean Crested Butte will change. We still have the best mountain with a ton of variety and a community character that is unparalleled. We think those that like a place like Crested Butte now have a chance to explore a really unique area.”
Meanwhile, Monarch Mountain announced this week it has no plans to join any super pass partnership and will remain “independent.” In a press release that came out Monday, the resort stated, “Monarch will remain the independent, family friendly, authentic Colorado ski experience that we all know and love. Remaining independent will strengthen Monarch’s ability to be unique, to ensure creative innovation, raise guest experience and keep skiing affordable.”
Season passes are now available for the 2018-19 ski season at the cheapest prices of the year. CBMR’s Peak season pass is available for $669 until April 8, the Epic Pass is available for $899, the Epic Local for $669 and Monarch Season Passes are $399 if purchased before April 8.