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I have a good friend who came from humble origins, earned a college scholarship, embarked on a successful business career and retired at 65. Last January, as he was about to turn 70, his friends and family planned a surprise birthday party at his home. He was scheduled to return from a Colorado ski vacation just in time for the festivities. But as the big day neared, the would-be honoree decided to extend his break-so he could ski for free with his new senior status.This sent the birthday planners into a panic. The only solution was to reveal the secret; the birthday boy was crushed. And though he probably could afford to buy a small ski area of his own, the decision was easy. He wasn’t going to any 70th birthday party. He was going skiing. For free. And rightfully so.
Last season, when Vail Resorts decided to follow Aspen’s lead and end its free skiing for seniors, Vail Resorts CEO Adam Aron laid out the policy with laser-like precision. He noted that Vail’s resorts, rather than offering bargains just to seniors, were making skiing affordable to everybody with across-the-board discounts. He pointed out as Baby Boomers age, and more seniors are skiing, it’s unfair to ask others to subsidize them. He stressed that while other travel industries may offer senior deals, they don’t give it away. And he added that the cost of running a resort is skyrocketing, margins have been squeezed and the new deal for seniors-a $99 season pass-was a heck of a bargain.
This pitch made perfect business sense. Yet this isn’t about business sense. It’s about the cruising billboards that seniors become on the mountain. It’s about the payback for staying with a sport that through much of their lives was not affordable, not hassle-free and maybe even a little dangerous.
In a sense, it’s also about money-just not lift-ticket revenue. Seniors stoked by the allure of free skiing may bring their grandchildren, blanketing the resort in green. They often love it so much that they’ll buy property, making a year-round commitment to a ski town. That way, the next senior turning 70 can have his surprise birthday party at home. In the mountains.