Forget everything you may have learned or thought about multi-area passes. They were designed for a world that at least temporarily, no longer exists. The passes offered by ownership groups and an inspired co-operation between resorts were designed to get skiers going to more places, more often. Get an Ikon or an Epic pass and you could ski at your favourite, local resort and then travel to other resorts on the same pass. Brilliant. The passes meant that you were no longer tied down to, for instance, tracking up and down the Sea to Ski Highway to Whistler Blackcomb weekend after weekend. You could ski Whistler one weekend and then hop on an airplane to Vail and use the same pass to ski there at no extra cost. You had unlimited access to some resorts, others were available for limited periods depending on the kind and cost of the pass.
This coming season is going to be different. Skiers will look for an alternative to flying. They are likely to avoid hotels where possible and get used to a whole new way of getting to and enjoying the slopes.
If you liked to put your boots on in the warmth of a day lodge, think again. The number of people permitted in day lodges will be restricted by social distancing and boot changing may be one of the first activities to go. Anyway, who wants to be inside with the dangers of a circulating coronavirus? This season it’s going to be boots-on at the car. Then there’s lunch and apres ski. Think cold (possibly newly heated) patios rather than saving that precious spot inside the lodge at a communal table. Utensils are going to be handed out individually wrapped. You’re not going to be helping yourself to anything whether its coffee or salad buffets
It’s going to be a whole new world: social distancing in the lift line, social distancing on lifts and particularly in gondolas and everywhere, staff will be disinfecting, cleaning and sanitizing. You get clues as to what’s going to happen from what operators and season pass sellers are doing. The Ikon Pass led by the Alterra Group of resorts (Mont Tremblant, Blue Mountain) is offering to put the cost of your 2020/21 ticket to the following season if you decide not to ski (or if skiing becomes unavailable). Its rival, the Epic Pass group which includes Whistler Blackcomb and Vail is offering the benefit that pass holders will have priority in making reservations to ski. That’s right: reservations. Skiing may be about to become the new golf. You book your tee time; now you book in advance to ski and yes, it’s possible that there will be timed tickets too.
That assumes not so much that resorts are going to be crowded so that the lift line is twenty minutes long but that they may become too crowded to accommodate the required social distancing. Is that likely?
It’s very difficult to tell. So far, the Ikon group has not indicated that it will be seeking reservations, but that’s so far. It may be that, at some resorts, lines develop just to get on the mountain before you get anywhere near a lift.
What should we expect? It will vary depending on the type of resort.
It may be that many skiers, particularly occasional day and weekend skiers may give the season a pass or go less regularly and perhaps ski for a day instead of two or three days.
Destination resorts like Vail and Whistler may have fewer skiers from distant locations especially if the border between Canada and the US remains closed to non-essential travel but local traffic for season skiers may increase and resorts like Tremblant and Blue Mountain and the Alberta resorts may see more local business.
For dedicated, regular skiers, it’s likely that many will decide to forgo air travel and hotels and ski locally and local resorts could get busy. It’s surprising how much local skiing there is. Even the flatlands of Manitoba and Saskatchewan have interesting local hills. They are small with limited vertical, but may see increased busines as skiers forgo air travel.
What does this mean for the Ikon and Epic passes and the slightly different Mountain Collective? The Ikon and Epic will, I suspect, be used as single mountain passes just like the season passes of old. The slightly different Mountain Collective will compete with its single day discount ticket-seller Liftopia for local mountain skiing.
My own example is that the skiers in my ‘social bubble’ – extended family discussed earlier this year how and where we were going to ski. For the past two years I’ve bought an Ikon Base pass (US$749 = CA$981) and skied Alta in Utah, Revelstoke, Lake Louise, Sunshine and my local hill Blue Mountain, two hours’ drive out of Toronto where our kids learned to ski and race. Since the kids grew up, Blue Mountain, which is all of 220 metres (720 feet), was an occasional weekend trip only. I used the Ikon pass to travel.
Were we going to take a plane to British Columbia or Alberta? Probably not but, if we returned to Blue Mountain, rented a chalet within walking distance of the slopes, we could drive to ski, put our boots on in comfort, return to our social bubble for lunch, dinners and apres ski, well, at least beer and wine. If the summer is anything to go by, then lots of skiers are going to take the option of skiing locally. In Ontario, the trend to holidaying locally this summer has put the cost of renting a lake cottage through the roof which may be the biggest drawback to the idea of skiing at your local hill. The rush for local summer rentals could be repeated in the winter. If you’re nervous of hotels and want to rent, do it soon.
Because the Ikon Pass is now the only pass available to ski everyday at Blue Montain, it makes sense to buy it. This also applies to anyone whose local hill is Mont Tremblant for which, like Blue Mountain, the Ikon Base Pass offers unlimited visits. The added benefit is that if I have the time and it is possible to rent economically at Mont Tremblant, I can go there too and if travel opens up, Revelstoke and the Alberta mountains become an added possibility.
With the Epic Pass (US$979) you get the same kind of deal at Whistler and, if you want to drive, you can also ski for seven days at Fernie, Kicking Horse, Nakiska or Kimberley.
The Mountain Collective pass which offers two days of skiing at multiple resorts (US$469) and 50 percent off all subsequent tickets doesn’t look as attractive although it’s worth comparing with the cost of discounted tickets through its sister organization Liftopia.
For those whose local hills are Lake Louise, Sunshine or Mount Norquay, the multiple resorts passes only offer a maximum of seven days skiing so they don’t really make sense. A season ticket either to one of those hills (Lake Louise CA$998 until October 15) or to all three (CA$1,492 If it’s a renewal or $1,792 full cost) may be the way to go, but also consider the various cards you can buy that include some days of skiing and discounts for subsequent tickets.
Working out the cheapest option is often complicated and depends very much on how often you are going to ski. Many areas offer very affordable midweek passes and if you are in driving distance of the ski hills in the Eastern Townships, their cost of lift tickets remains a bargain and they offer some of the best skiing east of the Rockies.
It’s going to be a different season but, so far at least, it looks like it is going to happen, maybe not as in previous years, but hey, maybe the virus will, as someone said, ‘just disappear’. Unfortunately, that’s not likely, but by the end of the ski season, the world may look quite different.