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What Price Is Right?

t's difficult to believe that anyone pays full price to ski anymore. Smart skiers everywhere are buying passes at ski resorts that offer deep discounts to those who put their money down earlier rather than later in the season. In some cases, skiers are anteing up as early as March.

Colorado has been the epicenter of this often cutthroat price war. In the past three years, Colorado skiers and riders have become accustomed to getting season passes at big-name resorts for less than $250. "It's not only a great trend for the Front Range, but for skiing in general," says Martin White, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Vail Resorts. "We all benefit with more people coming to ski."

The Vail Resorts Buddy Pass, valid at Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin, cost anywhere from $209 to $249 last season. (There was also the Colorado Pass, which cost $299, and also included 10 days at Vail or Beaver Creek.) In 2000-01 alone, Vail sold more than 103,000 discount passes, says White; for 2001-02, he would only say, "We did very well."

A former V.P. of marketing with Delta Airlines who has also done stints at U.S. Air, Continental and United, he's a big believer in applying airline strategy to the ski business. "You're going to see more yield management in this business, as ski areas use price to move volume," predicts White. Yield management is airline-speak for getting the most revenue out of each seat by modifying prices based on what the market will bear at any given moment. The application at ski resorts is simple: Charge skiers $30 a day instead of $60, and you'll get a lot more of them. Resorts then make up in volume what they lose in lower fees. And skiers are left with more money to spend on lunch, logo-wear and cocktails.

The Colorado trend is catching on on the West Coast as well. At Mammoth Mountain, Calif., you can buy an unrestricted season pass for $399 from April 1 through May 31. After that, the cost jumps to $1,600. With daily lift tickets costing $56, the decision is a no-brainer. After eight days of skiing, you've gotten your money's worth; which is why, on any given day, 30 percent of the skiers on the mountain are skiing with a Value Pass.

In just two years, Mammoth has established one of the most successful pass programs in the country. Before it introduced the Value Pass, Mammoth typically sold 1,500 passes per season. When it launched its Value Pass program in 2000-01, the resort sold 26,000 passes. In 2001-02, that number increased to 27,000. Management is so pleased with the program that it's going to sell the same unrestricted pass this season at the same price. "Our Value Passes reward those loyal skiers and boarders who make a commitment to their home mountain," says Rob Perlman, Mammoth's marketing director.

This coming season, Value Pass benefits only get better. Mammoth skiers and riders can use the same pass to ski June Mountain, Mammoth's sister resort, 20 miles north. They also get 50 percent off daily lift tickets at other Intrawest resorts, as well as retail and rental discounts at Mammoth. From Mammoth's viewpoint, it's a win-win situation: Customers arrive satisfied¿and with more money in their pockets. "Our retailers love it," Perlman admits.

There are still regions where discount passes at big resorts are rare; specifically, in the East and in Utah. In these places, you have to be willing to ski the smaller areas. For example, the best East Coast pass deals are found at Snowshoe, W. Va., and Jiminy Peak, Mass. At Snowshoe, two years ago, skiers were shelling out $598 for unrestricted season passes, regardless of whether they committed their money in June or in October. Back then, the resort averaged a paltry 350 pass sales per season. These days, those who ante up before June 1 pay just $398. The result? Last season, Snowshoe sold 1,100 season passes. At Jiminy Peak, the discount pass is restricted to weekday and night skiing, but for those with flexible schedules, $257 is a fair price to pay for a late-season/next-season pass. Elsewhere in the East, skiers have to dig deep to find deals. At Sugarloaf USA, Maine, for example, state residents with a valid I.D. can purchase cheaper lift tickets on Wednesdays. Stratton has the Stratton Express Card, a direct-to-lift picture pass that is scanned at the lift and offers a varying discount depending on when you ski.

Utah skiers are subject to a similar scenario, with the best deals being found at small areas, midweek and by locals. For example, Brian Head Resort, in Southern Utah, caters to families with its unrestricted $799 "Family Pass" good for either two adults and one child, one adult and two children or a married couple. Each "family" must live in the same household. (A regular adult season pass is $499 per person.) Salt Lake City skiers will want to consider the Sundance Resort unlimited all-season pass. It costs $450 if you buy it before Oct. 31. Buy it now and it can be used this summer for all lift-served mountain biking, as well as at the nordic center next season.

For skiers, the good news is that industry insiders say that the cost cutting is not likely to end anytime soon. "In Colorado, the major resorts have started a discounting cycle on season passes that will be hard to break," says Craig McCarthy, director of sales and marketing for Brian Head Resort and another veteran of the airline business. "In less price-sensitive situations, resorts will likely offer the best deals in the early fall months, with significant price increases once the season approaches. In addition, we'll see more 'specialty' season passes to attract revenue for off-peak periods, such as spring and midweek, and very small, if any, discounts will be offered at peak times, such as Presidents' Day and Christmas," McCarthy says. Like many in the industry, he says that each resort's competitive situation will dictate what kind of pass deal it chooses to offer.

Like airline frequent-flier plans that foster brand loyalty, all of these deals, discounts and passes reward the frequent skier. Resorts realize that owning a pass makes it much less tempting to head to a neighboring peak.

So where's the catch? Most of these passes have to be bought in-state at specialty sports shops such as Colorado Ski & Golf and aren't available on the Web. Hardcore East Coast skiers have been known to use frequent-flier miles to fly to Colorado to buy a pass, but is it worth the time, hassle and money? Sure¿if you own a place or come out for weeks at a time. If not, a better choice might be opting for a plan like the Vail Resorts "Perfect 10," which offers 10 days of skiing and riding at its four resorts for $319. Certainly not as good as the Buddy Pass, but not bad.

The best way to keep tabs on the blizzard of passes, cards and staggered price deals is to visit individual websites frequently and sign up for email bulletins. And note that there's an added value to these passes that you might not have anticipated: "When we introduced the Value Pass, the mood really switched on the mountain," says Perlman of Mammoth. "Skiers could make a couple of runs and be content. No one was racing just to get their money's worth."

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