Utah’s Powder Mountain passes on fully private skiing model, pursues public-private hybrid

December 29, 2023, 12:05 pm

Powder Mountain, Utah.

VAIL, Colo. — If every single Powder Mountain season-pass-holder (there are only 3,000 of them) showed up to ski on the same day, and the ski area 20 miles northeast of Ogden then sold out its hard-capped 1,500 day-skier tickets, that unlikely scenario would still equal just one third of Park City Mountain Resort’s ever-elusive Comfortable Carry Capacity, or CCC.

In this day and age of discount season-pass mania and corporately-owned conglomerate ski behemoths, that much lower CCC seems to be turning some heads in an industry beset by bad press and even legal wrangling over crowding, parking, housing, labor and other issues.

It turns out people notice when you cap your season passes at 3,000, sell them out and put people on a wait list for a mountain that boasts “biggest in the nation” status at 8,464 skiable acres (Park City checks in at 7,300 skiable acres). Powder Mountain was 2023’s surprise No. 1 in the West winner in the once monthly but now annual SKI Magazine, while Park City was ranked 15th.

Netflix cofounder turned Powder Mountain savior Reed Hastings, in a recent letter, admits that “sadly, Powder has been struggling financially,” but then promised a $20 million capital infusion to fix three old public chairlifts at the ski area that’s all on private land as he pursues an innovative real estate play that will turn part of the vast mountain private for homeowners. The private skiing will fund the public skiing, and allow for limited season pass and ticket sales.

“We believe this blend of public and private skiing secures us decades of exceptional uncrowded skiing for all, funded partially by real estate,” Hastings wrote. “To stay independent and uncrowded, we needed to change, and we didn’t want to join the successful but crowded multi-resort pass model (i.e., Snowbasin) or sell to a conglomerate (i.e., Vail).”

Powder Mountain Resort Chief Creative Officer Alex Zhang, in a phone interview with a Vail-based ski reporter, damned the discount ski pass tsunami with faint praise: “You guys built a pretty creative and innovative model [with the controversial advent of Vail’s Epic Pass in 2008], but I think no one could have predicted the intense demand for it and its sort of second-order effects, which pretty much just means things are very, very, very crowded.”

Powder Mountain’s 3,000-acre, independently-owned neighbor to the south, Snowbasin, at first joined the Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass family of some 40 unlimited ski areas globally (plus another 23 limited-access partners) but then switched to Alterra Mountain Company’s Ikon Pass family of 14 unlimited resorts and 39 limited-access resorts that offer up to seven days. Snowbasin and Deer Valley are both limited-access Ikon areas, while Park City is an unlimited Epic Pass area.

Price is one of the greatest drivers of discount season-pass success, with millions of takers at around $950 for an unlimited adult Epic Pass and $1,300 for an adult Ikon Pass, while Powder Mountain checks in at just under $1,295 for the season and around $229 for a day ticket, with $19 night skiing all season. But what price would you pay for untrammeled powder?

“The real sort of headline or the strategy of this quote unquote innovative model that we’re pursuing is quite direct in our eyes in that most ski resorts that are independent have one or two paths,” Zhang said. “They either open themselves up to the larger sort of multi-resort pass model, which is a great model, it just leads to crowding, or they go fully private.

“But we believe there’s an interesting business model that is a lot more sustainable for both the customer, the skier, as well as for the team and the local community that we’re employing, through this public-private hybrid blend.”

The percentage of that blend hasn’t been determined yet, Zhang said, meaning it’s still unclear at this point what percentage of those 8,464 skiable acres – the majority of which are accessed by snowcat – will be devoted solely to the private skiers whose real estate investment will fund upgrades to the very old-school amenities at the rest of the resort.

“The idea is that the private skiing is one of the main pillars of real estate sales,” Zhang said. “And the real estate sales go to fund improvements for the public side — new lifts. We’ve upgraded Paradise Lift, which was a very slow lift that now we’ve upgraded to a high speed. We’ve upgraded Timberline, which is one of the oldest lifts in the state. So just all these public improvements that have been needed but there wasn’t enough capital for under previous ownership, we’re now able to improve those, as well as lodges and renovations and facilities.”

For now, Powder Mountain has taken all of its for-sale lots off the real estate market as it fine tunes its overall plan and gears up to announce that strategy next summer and seek county approval. “We’re working very closely with the county on everything,” Zhang said.

Powder is not interested in the fully private model of another neighbor to the south, the fully private 3,000-skiable-acre Wasatch Peaks Ranch, which is facing a possible public referendum after several local residents objected to its county rezoning approval in 2019. Pure, high-end privacy is not what Powder Mountain is going for, Zhang said.

“I don’t think we’re interested in that either because such a core component of Powder Mountain is the soul and is the heart and is the vibe of the place and … we want to protect that, we want preserve that,” Zhang said. “This is a model of preservation where all those beloved spots like the Powder Keg, which is this amazing local bar, all these places, that’s what makes Powder Mountain special. And the people and the community that choose to spend time here is what makes it special. This, we believe, is a way to keep the overall picture sustainable because I also believe no one wants like a totally empty resort. I don’t think that’s as exciting.”

For future real estate inquiries, head to Powder Mountain’s real estate tab on its website.

Editor’s note: A version of this story was first published in the Park City (Utah) Record.

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David O. Williams
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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