Flurry of ski discounts follows first snow on highest peaks

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— Vail Resorts, intent on winning back skiers and boarders who bought cheap buddy passes last year, is offering its own discounted pass.

Vail officials believe late snow was the biggest reason for a 16.2 percent drop in skier days, but they aren't taking any chances.

And that's good news for Colorado skiers, who already had access to the best deals in the nation.

Bill Jensen, chief executive operating officer for Vail Mountain, acknowledged, ''Vail is not immune (to pressures from discounted prices).''

Jensen, who was at the helm of Breckenridge last season when it overtook its sister resort Vail as the nation's most popular ski resort, said Vail Resorts flagship mountain won't surrender the Colorado market.

For outsiders the spectacle is fascinating. ''Every day I see something new. The resorts seem to be eating each other up instead of going out to get the rest of the market,'' said Kip Pitou, executive director of Ski Utah.

With this year's discounted programs, a day's skiing will be as cheap as $10 or less at some resorts. Berthoud Pass, a small resort about 50 miles west of Denver, will charge less on days when there isn't any fresh snow.

Even Aspen, which once described itself as the Mercedes of ski resorts, is widely advertising discounted tickets.

Outside Colorado, resorts are generally holding the line on ticket prices, with season passes typically in the $1,000 mark in many premier areas.

The so-called buddy passes were introduced amid much fanfare a year ago, when Winter Park, 60 miles west of Denver, reduced season passes to about $200 apiece if four were purchased together.

The price was the same as a season lift ticket cost in the early 1970s, before the advent of high-priced, high-speed lifts.

Jensen noted Vail suffered not only from the price war, but from the publicity about October arson fires allegedly set by eco-terrorists, and from a weak Canadian dollar.

The World Ski Championships brought worldwide publicity but the specter of a resort clogged with ski racers and their entourages may have dissuaded skiers and boarders from coming, he said.

The late arrival of snow may have been the biggest turn-off.

''I think snow had a huge impact,'' Jensen said. ''If the snow returns to a more normal cycle ... I would expect an increase in skier visits on that basis alone.''

The success of the buddy passes has been the subject of much debate since the state's industry reported fewer skiers.

Several resort officials said the decline might have been even steeper without the special passes. They note the resorts must keep up with the competition, and selling the passes early helps their cash flow.

Despite that, major resorts from Aspen to Winter Park are confident enough to offer them again, creating a competition that analysts say has no match in the leisure industry, with the exception of airline fares.

Vail executives met over the summer with business owners, Front Range skiers and boarders and community groups. The message was: match the buddy pass.

The resort is offering 10-day and 20-day passes, with limited restrictions, for $269 and $499 respectively, or $26.90 and $24.95 per day.

Vail Resorts' buddy pass program pleased area residents. Last season, employees in one popular restaurant wore T-shirts saying: ''Where are our buddy passes?''

''It's about time. Why shouldn't locals be able to get the discounts in Vail that they were offering across the mountain in Copper,'' said longtime resident Flo Steinberg.

Winter Park, which once again led the pack by announcing it would re-offer the buddy pass next year, initially insisted the passes be bought last spring. Now it will offer them again this fall, at a slightly higher price.

''While we exceeded our sales goals when we offered the passes last spring we knew that many skiers would not be willing to commit their money six months before opening day,'' said Paula Sheridan, Winter Park marketing vice president.

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