Name that ski town: It’s a little high-end, a little hard to reach, a little stubborn in its own way and long skied by locals and devotees lured to first tracks on the hill and empty mazes at the lifts.
Sound familiar? If you’re in the Wood River Valley this holiday season, it should—but we’re talking about Telluride, Colo. Tucked into a box canyon in the state’s stark and snowy San Juan Mountains, Telluride Ski Resort stands as another independent holdout in an era of increased consolidation across the ski industry. You can fly to it. No one really drives to it—the closest major city is technically Albuquerque, if you count five and a half hours in a car as close. Denver’s still more than six, past front-range playgrounds like Keystone, Breckenridge, Copper and Vail.
“Denver’s not even our market,” said Tom Watkinson, spokesman for Visit Telluride, the local tourism board. “Because of who we are, and where we are, we’re not going to get that traffic off the I-70 corridor. Telluride’s a weeklong trip.”
As of last year, it became such a trip for skiers on Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass, a multi-area ticket that grants holders access to more than 60 areas across the world. For the 2019-20 season, Sun Valley is one of them. Like Telluride, it’s an “amenity” to the pass, according to Sun Valley Resort President and General Manager Tim Silva—independently owned, yet under the ‘Epic’ umbrella.
At Sun Valley, a full Epic Pass nets you seven days on Baldy and Dollar over the 2019-20 season; the lower-price Epic Local Pass comes with four. Last year, somewhere between 900,000 and 1 million people owned some version of Vail’s flagship product. Nervous natives see the potential for mobs flocking to Friedman Memorial Airport or massing at the crest of Timmerman Hill. Resort management, though, sees an opportunity to stay relevant—and, in Telluride, a ready-made model for how to handle the prospective rush.
“In the last few years, the ski industry has seen a seismic change,” Silva told local leaders and business owners during a luncheon at the Sun Valley Inn in November. “Most all major resorts are owned by or affiliated with a pass program. We were beginning to feel like we were at the dance and everyone else found a partner except us. Given the direction of the industry, it was time to jump in.”
Since Vail launched the Epic Pass a decade ago, the company and its chief competitor, Alterra Mountain Co., have gobbled up or partnered with a massive chunk of the resort market to flesh out their offerings. Around 43 percent of skier days in 2018-19 were on some form of a pass program, Silva said.
Telluride CEO Bill Jensen believes Sun Valley made the right choice throwing in with Vail. A ski industry lifer—and, as of April, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Famer—Jensen worked at Sun Valley during the late 1970s. He worked with Silva, too, when both managed Northstar-at-Tahoe in California. Jensen is “really happy” with his resort’s partnership with Vail, and he thinks his old employer will be too.
“I think they were smart to do what they did,” he said. “On our front, it’s been a successful relationship. We didn’t have any negative experiences at all.”
The arrangement helped Telluride mine its main out-of-area markets, according to Watkinson—New York, Southern California, Texas and Chicago. In turn, the mountain averaged 350 people per day skiing on the Epic Pass during 2018-19— “kind of a nonevent” for on-hill traffic, Jensen said. Seventy-three percent of them lived outside Colorado, and they typically spent five nights in town.
The result: An extra $10 million brought into the local economy, according to Jensen.
“It wasn’t like we turned into Vail, with lift lines, crowds, things like that,” Watkinson said. “You heard some grumblings from locals, but we didn’t see a huge impact on the mountain. For revenue, though, it’s a shot in the arm.”
Other areas, though, were overrun by the whirlwind growth of Epic, according to Sun Valley’s Guest Services Manager Mike Fitzpatrick. This year, Arapahoe Basin ended its relationship with Vail Resorts, citing what COO Alan Henceroth called “a pinch on parking and facility space.”
Fitzpatrick took notes. At Sun Valley, he spearheaded changes to parking and signs aimed at easing congestion in the lot and on the slopes.
But the rush to places like A-Basin came from what Watkinson called the “drive market.”
“Day skiers pack the numbers,” he said—and Telluride doesn’t have that.
“I had to convince locals that people aren’t going to wake up in Boulder, see we got 16 inches, and drive seven hours to get here,” Jensen said. “That just doesn’t happen.”
He doesn’t think it will happen from Boise or Salt Lake City up here, either.
Longtime skiers weren’t always convinced. When powder over Presidents Day weekend got tracked out, they blamed Epic passholders. So, Jensen checked the numbers.
“We had 4,100 locals out there, and 600 Epics—who do you think was creating the lift lines?” he said.
Sun Valley isn’t as restrictive as Telluride. There, you need the full Epic Pass, the most expensive offering, to access the lifts. The ability to fence off some users drew Jensen to Vail’s option, as opposed to its major competition, Alterra’s IKON Pass, which opens partners up to all 600,000 or so passholders, he said. He understands why Silva opened the doors wider to Idaho, though.
“It may add a few thousand skiers over the course of the year, but it’s not going to overrun the infrastructure,” he said. “It’s going to bring in the destination business that, in fairness to your community, it’s been looking for. I think that these alliances allow us to remain competitive, against all the bigger resorts. I’ve candidly said, you have to pick one or the other. For us, Epic Pass was the way to go.”