Can Skiing Be Politically Correct?

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I did it again. Open mouth, insert foot. Anyone who knows me gets that I’m one of the most politically incorrect people they’ll ever meet. Problem is not as many people know me as are offended by the things that come out of my mouth. It’s a good thing I’m a writer. My fingers are much more diplomatic. So why am I pissed at my lips? I say things – out loud- that most people just think. It’s like professional Tourettes. I love meeting people and getting to know who they are and what they do. Then I say something and I see the moment of disbelief flash on their face. Did she really just say that?

I stand up at the Park City Chamber Fall Ski Industry luncheon today in front of the panel of resort managers who are happy to paint a rosy picture of the ski industry and pat themselves on the back; and I say- “Several times the speakers have brought up that Utah needs to grow our season pass sales. Yet while places like Colorado and California are lowering their pass prices and creating multi-resort passes at bargain rates, Utah continues to increase theirs. What can Utah do to attract more passholders?”* I knew as soon as the words spilled from my mouth I had entered enemy waters. NSAA President Michael Berry shuts me down- “We don’t talk about pricing here. That’s a trade secret. It’s a complex process and we can just say that a lot goes into price structure.” The panel falls in line. Jamie Pentz, the publisher of Mountain Magazine who came to town for the event and to meet with advertisers (i.e. his panel peers) defends Utah’s practice- “The people in the Front Range (of Colorado) and the Sierras don’t play well together. They’ve created a dog-eat-dog world because they’re competing for skiers in the Bay Area and Denver. I can tell you that guests from Texas aren’t having the best experience at Vail with the extra 5000 skiers on the mountain. Utah resorts are all friends. They do play well.”

I’m sure if I wasn’t rubbing my butt from the spanking I might have uttered something about anti-trust and collusion. Good thing my tongue had gone limp. Pentz adds that Steamboat’s pass is $1200. As if to say it’s ok to have high pass prices. What he didn’t add was that for an extra $75 you also get unlimited skiing at Winter Park. Canyons’ Mike Gore adds something about value not necessarily being linked to cheap tickets and they move on. My question left unanswered. In fact, one guy passing me leans in and says, “Way to dodge the question, huh?” And I feel slightly validated. I wasn’t imagining things.

After the panel is released, I stand up and mingle. PCMR’s Krista Parry turns and hugs me. Says I look great. She reminds me that her hill actually IS doing something to encourage locals to ski. Not only did they create the STARTNOW program, but they added a tiered season pass to alleviate the sticker shock of going from paying $125 to learn to ski to plopping down $1500 for a pass. “We want to keep those people coming back,” she said. Yep, PCMR currently has the cheapest full season pass on the Wasatch Front at $825. Do I leave it there? Things are good, cut my losses. No. Referring to the unanswered emails I have sent her in the past two weeks because she wanted to get together, I then say, “You never call me back.” “I was gone all week,” she says. “But you never call me back,” I say with a lilt, now referring to countless other times over the years. “I do,” she says. And I reply, wait for it…….”Only when there’s a story involved.” SHIT. There it is again. Did I really just say that out loud? My Tourettes is not winning fans. There’s an awkward moment and then we have plans for breakfast next week. “You’ll call me to set a date?” I ask. “I will, I promise,” she says. I slither away.

I did have the opportunity to shake Mr. Pentz’ hand and engage him in a one-on-one chat. At first I wasn’t going to chance it. Seeing as how I had already muddied the water. But what the hell. My disease knows no bounds. We discuss how Salt Lake City is a much different animal from Denver or the Bay Area. Those people ski. Utahns don’t; at least not en mass. He nods in agreement. Maybe I’m not so obnoxious after all. While those Colorado Front Range resorts compete for Denver skiers, no one here really competes for Salt Lake skiers. They should. Utah locals take a backseat to destination guests. Earlier in the lunch they brought up that Utah is in the middle of the pack when it comes to overall skier visits across the country. Some asked how Utah could move up in the rankings. Berry said that in order to get people so amped about a destination that they tell all their friends and come back regularly, the community has to be behind it. Utah needs to support skiing. Skiing needs to support Utah.

What happens when the weather’s bad, the economy tanks, flights are grounded? It’s the locals that will keep ski areas alive. The Ski Utah 5th and 6th Grade Passport program is an ok start – especially when out-of-towners can also take advantage of it- but who has to take the kids to the mountain? Moms and dads. Skiing is a family sport yet there are no deals for the rest of the family. Guess what? Mom just may decide that gas, time and a full-price adult ticket outweigh that free pass for Junior. Pentz is starting to see my point(s).

We talk about his publication. Mountain started three years ago. “I saw the direction Bonnier was taking SKI and Skiing and didn’t want any part of it,” he explains. “How could I go to advertisers and ask them to pay more for less?” And now I interject, “So how is your publication different from SKI?” Yikes! Really? I asked that? Pentz is insulted. I should already know the answer, of course. He rolls his eyes and humors me with an explanation but I have now become irrelevant. “We have a voice they don’t. They can’t touch what we do. For one thing, we don’t teach. There’s no instruction in our publication. We thought we’d appeal to destination travelers but we sell through 90 percent of our issues at Whole Foods. Locals are reading us too. ” Gotcha. It was nice meeting you, I’d love to write for your magazine, do you have a card on you? I conclude and quickly exit.

As I sat in my car in the Chateaux Parking garage, I dropped my head on the steering wheel. You would think that after all these years, after all this time swooning around the ski industry, I would figure out this tact thing. I guess it is getting a little better, I thought as I revved the engine. A person next to me this morning smelled like a brewery but I didn’t say a word; I thought quite a few but they never escaped my head. I haven’t given up hope that one day I will control my Tourettes completely. For today, I take heart in the little triumphs.

*For example, you get unlimited skiing at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows combined for $799 while Deer Valley’s season pass is more than $2k this year.

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13 comments

  • Jill, I just want to give you a hug and thank you for being you!!!!! Someone needs to challenge the status quo with Utah ski resorts – sure the greatest snow on earth creates hubris, but high prices AND building out the ridges between big and little cottonwood canyons and the park city ridge too? Surely the millions in capital costs will attract enough skiers to absorb the investment and lower ticket prices.

    Keep speaking up my friend. There is always room for an independent voice who doesn’t cower to local politics – Oh, did I mention how much fun you are at parties?

    Brad C

  • Good for you for taking on the big boys and making them squirm….at least a wee bit. Especially in Utah. It is so crazy expensive there and it wasn’t always that way. I learned to ski in Utah because it was cheap.

    Of course, these days we are spoiled in Colorado. I just pouted about plunking down $369 for an unlimited season pass at Winter Park. After reading your story and the price points in Utah, I feel better. Way ‘mo better.

    Thanks for taking the time to send the story. I love how your write.
    -Joan

    • Groups of beginners go at the pace of the seowlst learner. Those lessons are the cheapest. If you think you will learn very quickly, you will still need some guidance in order to stop you going beyond what you are capable of and hence losing confidence. If you intend to just sit at the beginners slope all day, and just get used to standing on skis and moving slowly then you will be fine on your own. If you want to learn faster, you will need at least some basic guidance regarding what you are doing right and wrong. Book a one to one lesson for an hour in the morning, and another in the afternoon. In between these two hours practice what you have been taught. It will give you and others around you confidence.Bear in mind that most of the serious accidents occur in learning. It is not just you that you have to be aware of, there are other bigger idiots than you out there on the slopes.Being supervised in an all morning lesson will protect you from yourself, as well as others. Was this answer helpful?

  • Love it and agree. Someone needs to speak up – does anyone even thing about the current state of the economy? Not only can no one afford to ski, but with the highest season passes Utah is sure to lose skiers.

    None of it seems strategic. If only I could go market one of those resorts, ha.

    xoxo,

    Kim

  • Great post Jill. Thanks for not only taking the time to ask these questions, but to post in detail about your conversations as well.

    I lived in Vail for 2 years and the EPIC pass was an unreal deal. Now in SLC I ski backcountry 95% of the time… However if there was a reasonable pass price for one of the BCC/LCC resorts, I’d buy it in an instant.

  • Well, at least you didn’t bash someone’s religion! Foot in the mouth or not you ARE right and Utah resorts NEED/HAVE to start taking notice of the locals. Locals can drive the economy in a downturn when traveling is tight. Utah resorts don’t think locals matter because they are not making the big dollars off them. But, I have learned, over the years, that sometimes a few big dollars don’t add up to hundreds of pennies.

    This is NOT L.A. or New York, this is Salt Lake City. Families are important and being conservative is a way of life. However, many Utahns believe in the old addage “A family that plays together, stays together”. Utahns love to play, but with big families and smaller incomes, playing has to be affordable. I guarantee that locals would ski more if it was more feasable.

    “Cater to the locals who pay taxes in the state….huh? What? You mean have deals to encourage the nothings in the valley to head up in the canyons?” I can hear the big boys now. Bringing up money that is 15 minutes away is not a stupid idea. Is it better to fill your resorts up and make some money than NO money! Every time I ski, whether the ticket is free, full pop or discounted, I end up buying gloves, poles or something that someone has left behind and I spend 30-40 dollars a day on food. It’s not like they are not making any money.

    I remember when I used to bartend, we were given an allowance each night of free alcohol (of course, we had to account for all sales) But, the owner new that by taking care of her locals she would make MORE money. You buy someone a free drink and they stay and spend three times what they would have and come back the next night. Point is, resorts are NOT losing money by encouraging locals to stay. Yes, some resorts are making a small effort but, These so-called local deals are insulting. Especially this one…

    INTRODUCING
    CANYONS FAMILY PASS

    New this season, Canyons Resort is offering a Family Pass. When you purchase a regularly priced Adult Full Season Pass, you’ll receive 50% OFF on the purchase of up to two Utah Student Passes (Ages 7-17). To receive this special offer, simply purchase an Adult Full Season and then contact the Canyons Season Pass Office at (435) 615-3410 to receive this special discount on Utah Student Passes.

    When I saw this I about fell off my chair. What a deal! Hmmm, in my book a family pass should include a MOM and a DAD or at least 2 adults and at least 2 kids. This is Utah, you want the locals to purchase passes, ski on your mountain, buy food etc. then I would consider a discount for ALL of the dependents in a family. Just sayin….

  • First, let me say thanks to both you and the Tourette’s that plagues you so often. I feel badly that you must deal with such a curse, but it seems more a curse of telling the truth when it needs to be said. You’re telling those clowns what they need to hear, and carrying the flag for all of us normal folk that don’t wear custom-tailored Bogner tights to get groceries. Thank you.

    I was just talking about pass prices with my father last night. I grew up skiing in Tahoe (99% of the time at Kirkwood), and loved the pass rates that hovered around $300. I learned to ski, learned to race, and learned how to enjoy life more than ever before. I skied my guts out and loved every second of it.

    Now I live in Utah. Our economy has come out the horse’s rear end, and there is a lot less money to be spent on items like passes. What do the Utah ski resorts do? Raise prices. What did Tahoe do? Lower them. Are these the same Utards who are in charge of the liquor laws?? I’m Mormon, btw, and yeah I think those laws are stupid. Many friends still living in Tahoe are skiing the new Squaw+Alpine behemoth this season for less than my super rad industry pro-deal pass to the Bird would cost.

    Last week, my parents again paid ~$300 each for full, no-blackout passes to the ‘Wood.

    I want to go home.

    • Thank you for sharing! It’s a wonder that the resorts don’t hear this dialog. It’s like they have us on mute. It would be one thing if they said prices are fixed and it wouldn’t work to reduce $$ or create combined passes for the same rate. Maybe I’d believe it if it wasn’t working everywhere else. I get that the skier base is much bigger in Denver and the Sierras than in SLC but continually raising prices won’t bring in more revenue. It will eventually squeeze out the folks that have been buying passes for years. Right now, you have to average about 15 days to make a pass break even. My boyfriend blew off buying a pass the last two years because he’s lucky to get in 10 days with a full-time job. So what’s the point?
      I’m lucky that I’m a ski writer and most resorts are extremely generous with me. I don’t get paid much to write about Utah skiing so I wouldn’t be able to afford it without their support. They might think I’m biting the hand that ‘feeds’ me but just because I think the light needs to shine on pricing doesn’t mean the resorts around here aren’t f*&king phenomenal. I want everyone to be able to appreciate them.

  • Well, I’m no shill for anyone but it is a complicated market here. Some thoughts:

    1. Yes, our season passes are extraordinarily high compared with some other significant U.S. destination markets, such as Colorado. As a consumer I personally wish our pass prices were much lower than they are. However, our walk-up day ticket rates are among the lowest of this country’s major ski destinations.

    2. Colorado has a much larger local market to draw from (i.e., the Denver Metro area) and more competition (i.e., a larger number of Front Range resorts), hence there is a lot of cannibalization going on to try to get a share of the local skier’s dollar. That’s what has caused the substantial reduction in season pass prices along the Front Range in recent years.

    3. Not only is the local population much smaller, but a substantial portion of the Wasatch Front population doesn’t ski, making our local market even smaller. It reminds me of when I lived in Vermont, where skiing was largely an out-of-stater sport. Those of us who live here and ski primarily moved here from somewhere else for just that reason.

    4. Because of this smaller population, the local resorts just can’t sell the sheer volume of season passes that the Colorado resorts do. What they can’t earn in volume they need to make up for in price.

    5. There’s a more significant differentiator between resorts here. There are some resorts that have a significant leg up on the others in categories including snowfall, terrain, amenities, etc. This has produced far more local customer affinity to one resort over another than occurs on the Front Range.

    • interesting points you make. Maybe it’s just me, but I honestly don’t see as big a difference between resort patronage in Sierras vs Salt Lake City as many here do. And everyone uses the word ‘complex.’ Why is this so? It seems fairly simple to my simple mind. Marketing tactics and business models aren’t rocket science.

      I didn’t start skiing until I was 14 years old, and many of my friends hated winter altogether and just stayed inside until summer. I see the same thing here in Utah in my circle of friends, and it’s about the same ratio. MANY Tahoe locals don’t ski at all, just like here. The only meaningful differentiation I can think of is the fact that sierra resorts get a consistent stream of visitors from the Bay Area. But just like Utah, it’s always the small but fiercely loyal group of locals that keep lifts firing up every winter, even though they don’t form a large percentage of the local population.

      It just seems like resorts here would want to at least make an effort to 1) get youth hooked on snowsports early on, and 2) keep them coming back year after year. But the resorts seem to insist on pricing them right out of their sport when they move out of mom and dad’s house and start paying on their own. That creates what I hear most frequently here in Salt Lake: a bunch of adults that used to love skiing, but it just got to be too expensive a luxury, so they gave up and went another direction. I hear it all the time.

      As you alluded to, there are two schools of thought: drop ticket prices and get more traffic but less money, or raise prices due to less patronage, and get your profit that way. If both paths earned the same amount of money, I’d definitely choose the latter were I a resort manager. It seems that it would be far easier for resorts to form lasting ties between skiers and the resorts that they frequent, which ensures the future patronage of the resort, and might possibly get more non-skiers to pick the sport up. Right now, it’s a rich-man or ski bum’s sport. Just my thoughts though.

  • Totally agree and can’t believe nothing has changed still. Good for you for standing up.

  • I must say I really liked the insightful write-up and this whole entire site looks great.
    I am going to be coming back for a second time to read even
    more.

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