About 10 days ago the ski resort formerly known as Windham Mountain started what has been widely criticized as a cryptic rollout of their new "Windham Mountain Club" brand with a series of updates to social media in a painfully slow process of sequential discovery ending 6 days later with the reveal of the new brand and logo. Needless to say, telling tens of thousands of skiers and riders to "say goodbye to Windham Mountain" felt sort of like a eulogy and kicked off broad speculation and mass confusion.
It's pretty much a foregone conclusion that Windham Mountain Club is due for ignominious recognition from SAM Magazine in their Best & Worst in Marketing awards, but they're working on righting that ship. We did however speak with longtime Windham Mountain Club President and General Manager Chip Seamans today in an effort to cut through the confusion and dispel some of the rumors that have been going around so that skiers and riders know better exactly what to expect this season and in seasons to come.
Windham Will Remain Open to the General Public
Let's make this perfectly clear; Windham Mountain Club is not becoming a private ski resort, though they do have a private club offering that is part of their business that they are going to grow and improve, and that offering has been the focus of their rebranding campaign.
The connotation of the word "club" in their new brand as well as the marketing campaign that was wrapped in mystery and had an air of exclusivity which really threw the Northeast ski world for a loop and opened them up to broad speculation about becoming fully private and exorbitantly expensive, but that's not what is going on. Chip Seamans made it clear that Windham is dedicated to their broader community, appreciates their role in it, and that there will "always be access to season passes and tickets by the general public." They did make it known in their initial release that they will remain committed to charitable programs like the SHRED Foundation, Adaptive Sports Foundation, and the Windham Foundation, and to local programs for school children. What Windham is trying to do is better manage their capacity on peak days and upscale their amenities in order to provide a premium experience not just on the slopes but also in terms of the overall experience. The club itself may be taking over the branding of the resort and receiving the present focus of their efforts, but the ski operations will not be exclusive to the club.
Seamans shared that pre-COVID the mountain on the businest of days would peak between 7,000 and 8,000 skiers but with COVID restrictions they were forced to bring that down to around 5,000 for the 2020/2021 season. Windham, like many resorts, learned from their experiences that season that they could in fact manage their capacity with restrictions on sales and provide a higher quality product and that most would appreciate. As of last season they had brought that capacity on peak days down even further to around the 4,500 range and this season they are looking for just an additional modest reduction on the busiest days to around the 4,000 skier level.
That's a reduction on peak days of almost half the number of skiers and riders on the hill since 2020, but since this target capacity is only reached on holidays and peak season weekends with good weather they can cap their capacity and provide a better overall experience by shedding traffic on just these peak days without dramatically impacting their overall visitation. Most of those changes have already occurred in previous seasons without hardly anyone noticing and it doesn't sound like it will be noticeable this season either except for incrementally shorter lift lines and less crowded lodges and trails. Windham's goal is to offer an alternative to the hurry up and wait environments that affect most larger resorts. That's an exclusive experience, but one that is still within reach of most skiers and riders. This is a first of its kind approach in the East, and there is space and likely demand in the market for a higher quality offering from end to end.
What Is This Change Really About
Let's make this simple. Windham Mountain Club as a brand may be confusing for a ski resort that isn't actually private, but it reflects the area of their business that they are most interested in expanding at this time. The club component is preexisting but it will be expanded from a 4-month membership to a 12-month membership which will cost $175,000 and bring with it amenities that will likely be unmatched in the Northeast. Their goal is to have this coexist with their general public operations for winter while becoming a true 4-season resort that offers quality and exclusivity. They will continue to make improvements to snowmaking, and grooming after already completing all of their planned lift projects; which along with grooming their general manager describes collectively as their "product". They are upgrading their food and beverage amenities including even the cafeteria. While there will still be the ever popular chicken fingers, they plan on making those even better, and there will substantial investments in their restaurants with reimagined and improved offerings as well and plans to operate on-mountain dining even during the warmer months. Further efforts to reduce and control capacity are also an important part of the reimagined Windham Mountain Club.
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This isn't exactly the Deer Valley model, though it seems close to it as far as the skiing and riding goes with more comfortable volumes of traffic and better on-mountain amenities. This isn't exactly the Yellowstone Club either, though the 4-season club component beyond the skiing will be upscale and exclusive, and will appeal to that same general market.
Changes for Day Tickets and Ikon Pass
Windham will use a combination of methods to optimize their capacity and their revenue per skier. This season non-passholders who wish to ski on Saturdays and holidays must purchase at least 2 sequential days of ticket (this does not apply to Friday- or Sunday-only skiers). This change will work to affect both the number of skiers on the hill as well as the type of skier who visits on weekends. This will move the weekend demographic away from day trippers and towards weekenders who tend to more often be families and higher spenders. Passholders will not be restricted, but the number of day tickets sold will be.
Windham is also increasing their ticket prices and already has the Northeast's most expensive full access pass which presently sells for $1,899. Having invested heavily into snowmaking, undertaking 5 different lift projects in as many years, and now looking to upgrade their amenities with premium options, this isn't at all out of line with ski industry norms, it's just new to the Northeast. Day ticket prices will be released later this week and the increases in price were characterized as in line with industry norms which of course are already designed to be prohibitively expensive for many but with dynamic pricing to encourage advance commitment for a discount.
Ikon Pass holders will not be required to reserve for two days if they wish to ski Saturday as that system doesn't presently offer them that capability. All Ikon Pass usage will require a reservation this season, and those reservations will be limited and will likely sell out on the busiest days.
As far as the future for Windham and Ikon Pass, it obviously doesn't make sense to trim visitation while deeply discounting access from a multi-pass, but Chip Seamans shared that they are currently exploring their options and might move off the Ikon Base Pass onto a more expensive tier as many others out West have already at places like Jackson Hole, Aspen Snowmass, and Crystal Mountain among others. It is certainly possible that they exit the Ikon Pass after this season which could blow a hole in the NY Metro market for that pass after recently adding on Camelback and Blue Mountain starting this season.
New Base Area Development
Windham is currently working with various government agencies on approvals for their plans and are continuing to make adjustments. The original plans included a hotel which they have since removed and will soon be presenting modified plans again to the town. They hope to start working in phases in the summer of 2024.
This development primarily involves converting much of their parking lots and nearby areas into a housing. They will expand the parking lot next to Wisper Creek and likely make more use of the overflow parking just opposite the access road. This will happen over a period of years and with their capacity being incrementally restricted more by season recently, their need for parking space has diminished and should continue to do so to some extent.
Some have noted the addition of gates at both of their egresses as a harbinger of restricted access and paid parking, but Seamans did confirm that at present there are no plans to institute general paid parking beyond the typical premium offerings. We're happy to hear that of course as we generally view required paid parking at East Coast ski resorts to be a form of bait and switch designed to limit pass usage and increase profits with additional required charges, but more importantly skiers and riders absolutely hate paid parking in drive-to markets and it tends to damage hard-earned goodwill.
Why Is Mountain Biking Going Away?
Windham has invested heavily into their mountain biking operations hiring the world's most respected trail builders, Gravity Logic, and has hosted international competitions, but that doesn't always translate into profits. Next summer they are hopeful that they will start work on the changes to their base area which will be disruptive to summer operations. They also of course have a new and expanded vision for their actual club. We inquired directly as to the reasons behind the elimination of mountain biking operations after this season, wondering if the decision was related to the profitability of mountain biking operations, the construction disruptions, or their new vision for a more upscale club offering was the cause of it being eliminated, and the answer was all three.
Mountain biking may be one of the fastest growing sports at present but it is still an investment for many operations that is partly justified by helping to keep critical staff employed year-round. With Windham refocusing their efforts on the club aspect of their operations and introducing things like a spa, fitness center, an adventure center, an outpost on the Hudson River, and large investments in their golf course, understandably the downhill mountain biking doesn't fit in. Seamans did however indicate that some other forms of mountain biking will still be a part of their activities going forward. This is a loss for the Catskills mountain biking community which we hope will be filled by someone else, but this decision seems to make sense for Windham and we can't fault them for their choice.
They Fumbled the Launch But the Plan Seems Sound
Their marketing department and public relations firm got a crash course in ski social media in the last 10 days. Skiers and riders can be an outspoken bunch and rumors can run faster than than a ski without a brake on the internets. Teasing skiers with a lack of information while presenting big changes and talk of exclusivity can lead to many wrong assumptions. It's unfortunate that this occurred but they'll surely work to fix that going forward. Welcome to ski social media. It happens, but this will be forgotten soon enough.
Windham Mountain Club has already proven themselves to be one of the best operators in the Northeast and offer a great product with some of the most modern infrastructure around. This change is a big deal for them, but to the average skier and rider the only negative impact will likely be somewhat higher pricing that isn't necessarily out of tune with the broader industry. It's one thing to increase ticket prices in order to encourage infrequent skiers to buy full passes to crowded resorts, but it's another thing to increase ticket prices in order to provide a top notch experience while also offering expensive passes. There is demand for having access to fast lifts, great snowmaking, expansive terrain, great amenities, and short lift lines, and Windham seems well positioned to take this next step drawing on the expertise of their new owners. We think this may be a net benefit for their customers as well as their community and many of the concerns that evolved from the confusion of the launch were actually based on rumors and assumptions.