Not since fat skis were invented back in the late 1990s has anything so pleasantly surprised the Tahoe skiing community. Last month, Squaw Valley Ski Corp. announced its new pass prices for the 2009-2010 season, and about blew the socks off most skiers and riders. In honor of two upcoming anniversaries, Ski Corp. dropped the price of its adult season pass by as much as $1,000. Alpine Meadows and Homewood soon followed suit. But will Squaw’s unheard-of-low prices and Alpine’s early closing this month hurt Alpine, driving loyal skiers to Squaw?

Squaw’s new value pass comes in four price ranges: Bronze ($369), which has holiday black-out periods and excludes Saturdays in January and February; Silver ($469), the same as Bronze but includes Saturdays; the $949 Gold, a full adult pass; and Platinum ($1499), which comes with lots of bells and whistles like early-ups and skiing with Johnny Mosley.

The Bronze pass is the lowest-priced pass Squaw has offered since 1980, when a full pass cost $400.  

The passes are intended to honor Squaw’s 60th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the resort hosting the Winter Olympics. But the slow economy was also a factor.

‘One of our intentions was to be able to reach a demographic we had never before been able to penetrate,’ said Ski Corp. spokeswoman Savannah Cowley.

The reduced prices seem a tacit recognition on the part of Squaw that skiers’ wallets have likely tightened since last year, and most would not be willing, or able, to fork out $1,449 for a regular adult pass.

Squaw had originally thought that the ultra-cheap Bronze pass would be the biggest seller, but Silver has turned out to be the most popular. By the end of March, 65 percent of the passes sold were Silver.

‘We thought that Bronze would resonate with a huge market, but it seems the extra $100 to get the Silver is seen as incremental,’ Cowley said.

Squaw, which won’t release the exact number of passes sold, said that they sold as many passes on the first day, March 20, as in the following five days.

‘The first day was off the charts,’ Cowley said. ‘There was a sense of urgency. Then it leveled off.’

The reason for that urgency is that Squaw is only selling a limited number until May 11. However, the value passes will most likely sell out before that date. Cowley said Squaw will give three days notice before they raise prices.

There has been some concern that the passes are so popular that the mountain will be overcrowded next year. But Cowley said one reason the resort is selling the value passes over a short period of time is to prevent that from happening.

‘It is really important to us that we don’t compromise the mountain experience by squeezing water out of a stone,’ she said.
Cowley also noted that Squaw is able to handle many more skiers than it has in the last 10 years. In the ‘90s, Squaw used to get 15,000 skier visits on peak days. And while Cowley said she expects Squaw to sell more season passes this year than ever before, lift ticket sales will probably go down as weekend warriors purchase the value pass instead.

Almost two weeks after Squaw announced their value pass, Alpine Meadows and Homewood (both owned by JMA Ventures) came out with their own. The $649 Unfiltered Alpine Homewood pass is over $400 cheaper than last season’s full pass. The next level down is the $429 Slightly Filtered Alpine Homewood pass, which has some black-out dates, followed by the new Midweek-Plus-Sunday pass, for $299 (compared to last season’s $574 midweek, which excluded Sundays).

The last time Alpine offered a pass this cheap was 20 years ago – $550 for the 1989-1990 season.

Alpine, which is even offering financing on passes, said the economy was a key factor in offering cheaper rates.

‘We had some very, very passionate conversations that we really need to be a part of this community,’ said Alpine spokeswoman Rachel Woods, ‘and that we need to offer products the community is able to afford.’

Of course, keeping up with the competition also came into play.

‘It’s smart on a business level that other resorts look at what their neighbors are doing,’ Woods said. ‘That holds true not only for this year, but every year.’

But did Alpine’s cheaper passes come too late? Rachel Crus, who’s been an Alpine pass holder on-and-off since 1999, and whose husband John has had one even longer, bought Silver and Bronze passes at Squaw for her family. Although Crus said she was contemplating switching to Squaw even before the value pass was announced so her daughter could do Mighty Mites next season, the early drop in prices helped make the decision for her.  

‘When they came out, I was online at 9 a.m.,’ Crus said.

Woods said she is not worried about too many Alpine skiers defecting to Squaw: ‘There are people who love both mountains and they will make a choice, and those who specifically love Alpine Meadows, they will remain here.’

Other Alpine pass holders, especially those who bought the ski area’s $159 spring pass valid since March 28, may be upset by the mountain’s closing date of April 19, its earliest one in the last 10 years. (Squaw is set to close May 10.) Last year, Alpine was open until May 4.

Woods said skier numbers this time of year don’t justify keeping the mountain open. As warmer weather sets in, people start to lose interest in skiing and opt for other sports, like cycling or tennis, instead. Shutting down the mountain early also helps JMA keep prices low for next season.

‘It’s financially responsible at this point,’ Woods said. ‘If we save what we can on this side of 2009, we can keep prices reasonable for next year.’