In the hierarchy of ski resorts, there's a sense of prestige associated with having the most expensive lift tickets.
But with the economy in a funk and day-pass prices hovering beneath $100 at the nation's most trendy mountains, there also must be a corresponding breaking point where prestige gets trumped by practicality, right?
Not necessarily. You can expect the industry's top tickets to blast past the century mark within a season or two. But at the same time, resorts will continue to expand features and price points, with the tradeoff for skiers and snowboarders being flexibility and more individually tailored options for spending time on the slopes.
"We've come a long way in terms of a business model to create pricing strategies," said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, a trade group that represents 326 Alpine resorts nationwide. "And at the same time, I think the consumer today is much savvier and thorough in their analysis."
When defending the pricing structure, resort executives point to the significant advances in snowmaking, grooming, and transportation up the mountain, which have vastly enhanced the customer's experience.
"That's the other side of the equation that you have to factor in - the huge difference in product," Berry said. "People are nostalgic for the good old days, but the quality of the experience doesn't even compare."
Still, some resort has to have the highest ticket price, and just like last year, that distinction is between two Colorado luxury resorts. Vail and Beaver Creek both charge $97 for a one-day, adult lift pass during peak periods of operation. Last year, the rivals were deadlocked at $92.
In fact, Colorado has a stranglehold on the marketplace in terms of most expensive tickets. Aspen/Snowmass is once again third in the nation at $96. Breckenridge, Keystone, and Telluride all charge $92, and Steamboat is not far behind at $91 (prices as of earlier this week).
It's not shocking that Colorado mountains outpace all others in terms of pricing. Kelly Davis, director of research for Snowsports Industries America, said that's because those properties have massive amounts of diverse terrain, huge vertical footage, plus a highly honed level of service that guests expect when paying top dollar.
"I think the brand of those resorts is well established," said Davis. "I think it's in line with the overall economy."
The pecking order of regional mountains is largely unchanged from last season, with the top four remaining the same.
Stowe, at $89, raised its top ticket $5 to retain its ranking. Killington is now $82, an increase of $3. Stratton went up a buck to $79. Okemo climbed to $77, up $3.
Rounding out New England's most expensive tickets are Mount Snow and Sugarbush (both $75), Sunday River and Bretton Woods (both $74), Loon ($73), and Sugarloaf ($72). Of the top ten, only Sugarloaf did not raise its peak price from last season.
When Gilbert's Hill in Woodstock, Vt., opened the nation's first rope tow 75 years ago this week, a lift pass cost $1. Within 20 years, the first primitive tows had been replaced by more modern lifts, and tickets nationwide rose to about $5 by 1954.
The New York Times reported that in 1963, when the price at Stowe climbed from $6.50 to $7, "there were howls heard in those Green Mountain precincts."
The $10 lift ticket came and went around 1972. By 1985, the Times reported that the average cost of a lift ticket was $26, citing one industry expert who said "no one knows yet how much people will pay to ski."
Stowe is believed to be the first New England mountain to charge $50 for a lift ticket, back in 1996-97. Ten years ago, Vail had the most expensive lift ticket in the country, at $61. Colorado resorts regularly top the list, but as recently as 2002-03, Vermont's Stratton Mountain led the nation at $72.
Although the price represents a formidable psychological barrier, the $100 lift ticket now appears inevitable. So when will it happen?
"When the market will bear it," said Davis.