In an unusual move for the ski industry, Arapahoe Basin works to reduce skier numbers

Skiers and riders head to the Black Mountain Express for a day on the mountain Wednesday, March 17, at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. Ski area officials have announced they’re continuing a multi-year effort to reduce the number of skiers on the mountain.
Photo by Ashley Low

Arapahoe Basin Ski Area’s ongoing effort to reduce the number of skiers on the mountain is bucking ski industry trends.

Summit County’s oldest ski area announced Friday that it would reduce the number of season passes it sells by 10% in an effort to preserve its “culture and vibe.”

While some Colorado ski areas have opted to partner with Alterra Mountain Co. or Vail Resorts and open their mountains to unlimited skiing and riding for Epic or Ikon passholders, A-Basin has taken steps back from the mega pass trend over the past two seasons.

Epic passholders had unlimited access to A-Basin for years as part of a partnership with Vail Resorts on various passes since 1998. Then in February 2019, A-Basin announced it would ditch the Epic Pass and its partnership with Vail Resorts, citing “a pinch on parking and facility space” as the reason for the breakup. The ski area joined with Alterra the following season, offering a limited number of days at A-Basin to Ikon passholders: seven days on Ikon Pass and five restricted days on Ikon Base. A-Basin also is on the Mountain Collective pass, which offers two days of access.

“This is not a new direction; this has been an ongoing project … ,” A-Basin Chief Operating Officer Alan Henceroth said Tuesday. “We do believe there’s a lot of people that want multi-ski area benefits, but we were able to join Ikon in a way that it was restricted. … The number of really big days was smaller last season than it was the year before.”

In an unusually transparent move for the ski industry, Henceroth released A-Basin’s skier numbers last March, one season after the switch from Epic to Ikon. He wrote in a blog post that there were 35% fewer skiers through February 2020 compared with the previous season. There also were 69% fewer Ikon and Mountain Collective passholders through February 2020 compared with Epic passholders in the 2018-19 season.

Henceroth said Tuesday that he was happy with the lower number of skier visits and felt A-Basin was in “perfect stride” until Colorado Gov. Jared Polis shut down ski areas across the state in March 2020.

When the pandemic hit, Henceroth said their focus turned to opening responsibly and in compliance with public health restrictions. In part due to capacity limits set by Summit County, the number of people at the ski area each day was less than it was last season. Henceroth said the ski area learned that it could do a lot of “interesting things” by controlling the number of lift tickets for sale each day. He also noted that the ski area sold a lot of season passes and has since taken a “good, long look” at its sales.

Skiers and riders walk through the base area Wednesday, March 17, at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area in Summit County. Chief Operating Officer Alan Henceroth said the number of people at the ski area each day this season is less than it was last season.
Photo by Ashley Low

The ski area’s operations plan for the 2020-21 season stated that A-Basin had a target guest number, which was not publicly released. If the ski area approached 85% of that number, staff planned to close the parking lots and announce the closure on social media. While A-Basin has tweeted that parking lots were full in years past, there have been no such announcements so far this season.

Looking ahead to next season, the ski area will limit the number of lift tickets sold each day and cap the number of available season passes at 90% of what was sold this season. As part of the change, all tickets must be purchased online and in advance — no lift tickets will be sold on-site — and the ski area anticipates selling out of weekend lift tickets on a regular basis.

“We know pretty clearly when things start to get a little too busy, so we’re really focused on just trying to get just up to that threshold without getting too busy,” Henceroth said. “And we think we can really do that with … reduction in season pass numbers and limiting lift ticket sales on a daily basis.”

Henceroth declined to provide specific numbers for pass sales or skier visits, saying the ideal number varies depending on whether people eat in the ski area’s restaurants, whether they drive separately or carpool and how much terrain is open. He said the ski area’s comfortable level of people each day will vary.

Overall, Henceroth said the ski area is prioritizing reducing crowds because it creates a better experience and makes it more likely that people will want to come back.

Customers talk with an employee at a lift ticket window Wednesday, March 17, at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. Ski area officials have said they will limit season pass and day ticket sales next season.
Photo by Ashley Low

Billy Wells, a Summit Cove resident, wrote in a Facebook message Wednesday that he loves what A-Basin is doing and saw a big difference in the number of people on the mountain since the ski resort left the Epic Pass.

“Easy to park, no long lines,” Wells wrote. “Still busy on the weekend mornings, but anytime after 1 or 2, the crowd(s) have thinned out. Now that being said, COVID has a lot to do with this. Next season may be completely different.”

Wells said it was still crowded at A-Basin when the mountain first opened this season and last, but as additional terrain opened up, people spread out, and there have been “very few days with long lines.” However, Wells noted that holiday weekends and powder days still bring crowds to A-Basin.

Summit County resident Jacob Deneault wrote in a Facebook message that he believes crowding is one of the most important issues in the county.

Deneault, who has lived in the area for over a decade, said that up until a few years ago, A-Basin seemed to hit its capacity only a couple of times every spring with full lots and cars parked along U.S. Highway 6. More recently, he said the ski area has been full almost every weekend during the peak season in normal years.

“It has gotten substantially worse,” Deneault wrote. “This year was obviously unique for various reasons, but I’m sure we’ll start to see caps get hit pretty soon.”

Timeline depicts acquisitions of local ski areas, pass partnerships and the switch of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area from the Epic Pass to a limited version of the Ikon Pass.
Graphic by Taylor Sienkiewicz / tsienkiewicz

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