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The Royal Treatment

Fall Line
posted: 12/11/2002

Ski slopes have long been a meeting ground of equals. It doesn't matter if you're a wealthy surgeon wearing Bogner or a waiter in duct-taped ski pants, on the slopes everyone is literally on the same footing. Pecking order comes down to turning power, not earning power.

Skiing's grand democracy is changing, as ski resorts nationwide are creating a new royalty through VIP programs that come with exclusive privileges. The lightning rod—for now—is the Beeline Advantage program at Colorado's Copper Mountain Resort. The program's main perks include line-cutting privileges at the lifts and rental shop, and the ability to board lifts 15 minutes before the area opens. You're automatically enrolled in the Beeline program if you stay in one of the resort's properties, a strong incentive to spend your lodging dollars with the resort. You also can be a Beeliner by purchasing a day ticket for $124 (versus $57) or a season pass for $900 (nearly a 400 percent premium).

Copper Mountain's president, David Barry, says the resort is using strategies pioneered by Disney and Universal Studios to give different customers different services and sees price differentiation as a benefit. Five years ago, a Copper season ski pass cost $900; this season the price is $239. "We've created a cheap season pass for customers looking for value," Barry says. "Now we've created a program for customers looking for exclusive treatment."

Barry says there is nothing discriminatory about paying more for exclusive treatment and maintains we all accept the concept when it comes to paying extra for exclusive meals or exclusive airline seats. He also says there isn't anything new about the concept of line-cutting. "Customers paying more for ski instruction have enjoyed this benefit for decades."

But Jim Horkovich, a Copper Mountain skier who owns a second home in the area, says the Beeline Advantage is discriminatory. Because Copper Mountain operates on U.S. Forest Service lands, he claims the program establishes a special class of access to public lands, which is illegal. Horkovich fears the program sets a dangerous precedent and is asking the Forest Service to swat Beeline down. "The concept is against everything that is fair and equitable to all for use of public lands. It is clearly not in the public interest."

Steve Deitemeyer, acting forest supervisor for the White River National Forest, will allow the program to continue, then revisit it after the season. "Any ski services must have a demonstrated need, be consistent with Forest Service use of the land and be in the public's interest," he says.

In truth, skiing has never been quite as egalitarian as skiers might like to believe. Ski school customers, skiers enrolled in guided programs and VIPs escorted by the ski patrol have long enjoyed line-cutting benefits without causing much fuss. And in recent years, any number of early bird programs at resorts such as Utah's Deer Valley have given those willing to pay $30 to $125 the chance to sample the night's powder before the masses arrive.

Then, too, there have been a few stratospheric line-cutting passes like Snowbird's Seven Summits Priority Pass. For $7,000, high rollers receive valet parking, ski lockers, sauna privileges, unlimited access to the mountain's first-tracks program and a variety of other perks, including line-cutting privileges. But with only a few dozen players springing for Priority Passes, the program has escaped public rancor.

Look at any major resort's menu of tiered passes and specialized services, and it's hard not to see price segmentation as skiing's future. Much of the rationale, according to Graham Wood, general manager of Vermont's Stratton Mountain Resort, is that boosting profits by growing skier visits can overcrowd facilities. Another way to grow the bottom line, Wood says, is "to grow the skier experience by offering exclusivity to those who can afford it."

To this end, Stratton Mountain has been the ttrendsetter in the East. VIPs wanting convenient parking can pay $525 per season for a permitted spot. A rich few have even purchased lifetime leases to underground parking spaces for $25,000. For lessons, the gilded crowd might consider the Exclusive Instructor Program, which for $7,900 provides a group of six with private instruction and line-cutting privileges every holiday and weekend day all season. Meanwhile, skiers who would like to be shielded from the commoners should check into the new Stratton Mountain Club, whose swank, 25,000-square-foot clubhouse will open at the base of the ski hill in February. The 12-month club includes a kids' lunch room, several private dining areas, a fine restaurant, a meeting room and a calendar of social events. Full membership lands you two season passes, lockers, ski storage, concierge service, access to the Stratton Sports Center—everything short of someone to turn your skis for you. Unfortunately, even if you're willing to front the $39,000 initiation fee and $7,500 annual dues for top "Alpine" status, you'll still need to get on the waiting list: Membership is capped at 300 and was sold out months before the club opened.

When it comes to VIP treatment, Colorado leads the pack. Vail, Beaver Creek, Telluride and Aspen all have private clubs, with lodges, dining rooms, limited memberships, initiation fees up to $35,000 and annual dues in the $3,000 range. Season ski passes are part of each club's package, but, significantly, members must queue up like everyone else in the liftline.

Stratton Mountain Club members won't have to suffer such indignities, as they enjoy "preferred access"—a euphemism for private liftlines. Operating on private land, Stratton Mountain is not subject to public directives, so if management opts to stratify services by class, there are no concerns about equal access.

And that's clearly the flash point. Most skiers, drawing on a fundamental concept of fairness learned in the school lunchroom line, chafe at the notion of buying line-cutting privileges. It will be tolerated for ski schools because numbers are small and the individual has, at least in theory, made a commitment to self-improvement. But a pure dollars-for-access trade rubs at skiing's basic tenet of equality. Will the slope's natural comradeship fade as VIP programs increasingly divide people into the haves and have-nots?

The U.S. Forest Service will wrestle with the legality of preferential access. The ski industry has a more difficult decision: Is it the right thing to do?

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