International ski passes for Australians: Epic, Ikon, Mountain Collective compete

Ski resorts, like theme parks, like to lock in their customers: sell them a pass for the ride and you secure their business for equipment rental, restaurants and retail, accommodation and more.

Perisher kicked it off in Australia with their Freedom Pass earlier this decade, then they were bought by the business that started the trend world-wide; Vail Resorts.

That put Perisher's lifts on Vail's Epic Pass and in the words of Vail CEO Rob Katz, "that first year, when all of the people in Australia could ski Perisher and, essentially for the same price, ski all of our resorts in the US, that was a big deal, that was pretty transformational."

It certainly was – they recorded 68 per cent growth in season pass sales. Vail almost immediately achieved two of their objectives in the purchase: lock local skiers in to Perisher and lock travelling Australians in to visiting Vail resorts.

It's difficult to quantify, but the industry estimates there are anywhere between 1 million and 2 million Australian skier visits to northern hemisphere destinations.

Vail keep on adding to the benefits of the Epic Pass for Australians; they bought the Canadian giant Whistler in 2016 and more recently struck a deal with Hakuba in Japan to have that included on the pass.

It was inevitable that Vail's competitors would respond. Thredbo, the second biggest snow destination in NSW after Perisher, joined the Mountain Collective; an international co-operative where members would give access of varying duration to season-pass holders of other member resorts.

Then came the Ikon Pass, a more serious competitor backed by the Alterra Mountain Company, owners of the Aspen Skiing Company in Colorado. As well as access to major US destinations such as Aspen and Jackson Hole, Alterra have negotiated lift access for Ikon Pass holders at Niseko in Japan, which is about as popular with Australians as Bondi Beach. Thredbo is also on the Ikon Pass.

Katz acknowledges the competition, but believes he still has the edge. "We think that's great, its great for the ski market to have multiple options. We obviously have been a big believer in season pass programs, we really started them! It's terrific for us to see other people emulate our approach.

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"In Australia, obviously there's a big difference with the Epic Australia Pass – you get unlimited skiing at Perisher, where with the Ikon Pass you only get a few days (at Thredbo) so I think it's really built for quite a different market.

"Even when you come in to the US, with the Epic Australia Pass, you get unlimited skiing at so many resorts in the United States, that I think that also makes a difference with the Ikon... but there's scope for both."

Victorian skiers might look wishfully at the Epic pass and wonder if they could access it at their own areas, but Katz isn't all that encouraging.

"That's something that we'll continue to look at and explore. I think our preference is to have a resort that we do control and manage, but if you look through our program, we do have a couple of partners where it does make sense, even if we don't own the resort, for us to provide access. You know, it's a case-by-case basis, but we do like to offer skiers the most skiing that's possible."

One potential advantage when Vail purchased Perisher was for staff, snow instructors, patrollers and others who could move between the company's destinations in different hemispheres and maintain some continuity of employment. But it's the more recent purchase of Whistler in Canada that has given the greatest gains there.

"We see some great connections between Perisher and Whistler," Katz said, "We have people that go back and forth to the US as well, but obviously the US just at the moment has more visa challenges, so it's a little tougher to make that happen, but we see a ton of people who go back and forth between Whistler and Perisher, so that's an opportunity and an advantage for us."

Ski area operators always have an eye on growth. "I think there is growth in the business," Katz said. "There's an opportunity for the US to grow even more as we broaden the people who ski, that's one of the things our company really has to take on, that's introducing people to the sport, especially in different parts of the country and with different racial groups.

"We're also going to see an opportunity to grow the sport in places like China, both in terms of skiing in China and in outbound travel. I think India, Brazil, all the developing markets, what you see is that folks really take a liking to skiing once they get exposed to it – that's one of the challenges in front of us and one where we're pretty well positioned to help the whole industry with," Katz said.

Like the US, Australia's ski industry was founded by individual entrepreneurs, many of them European immigrants with some understanding of hospitality, the sport and the challenges and opportunities it presented.

"A lot of those folks were critical, you know our company (Vail Resorts) was founded by two people who were part of the 10th Mountain Division of the US Army fighting in World War II.

"They were amazing pioneers and none of this would exist without any of them, but I think that it's important to also have some of that 'next generation' of innovators and pioneers."

Even if corporations now tend to dominate the industry, and the corporations become fewer and ever-larger, Katz argues this has not diminished the contribution of individuals or the opportunities available to them, it has merely changed the nature of their involvement; the innovators now focus on the way you bring people into the sport and the technology you use with the sport.

"In equipment, you see tonnes of small companies doing amazing things with new equipment and apparel, and the apps that people are putting out there that skiers and riders can use.

"With equipment, which of course started with Jake Burton (and the development of snowboards), that jump started our sport, all of the athletes doing amazing tricks and new things, that's all given our sport real oomph and power.

"The entire advent of action sports on-mountain and terrain parks and freestyle skiing and snowboarding, I don't think it's big companies that have invented all that. It's where the individual shines and that's kept the sport lively and relevant, especially to the younger generation."

The flip side of the "stay small" coin is that without scale, there is insufficient capital to invest in infrastructure and snow making and snow grooming technologies.

"One of the challenges for our industry has been weather fluctuations and I think having some geographic diversity and stability (has allowed us to) be able to invest and take risk.

"That's one of the things that our company and others have been able to do, whereas it was becoming harder and harder for individual resorts to be able to be the innovators because many of them were a little too nervous to take risk," Katz said.

"The key is for us not to lose sight of our own history and the core things that make the sport special."

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