|Telluride, CO (photo credit: Ski, Esq.)|
A September 30 report by Mountain Travel Research Program shows very sluggish early season booking across the industry. (For more, see the excellent article on FirstTracksOnline entitled, "Skiers Are Having Reservations About Making Reservations.") To counteract this trend towards later bookings, a huge number of ski resorts are introducing fantastic early booking discounts, many of which center upon some type of "Snow Guarantee." The concept of a snow guarantee has become increasingly popular amongst resorts in recent years.
The premise is simple. In essence, the resorts are saying, "We know you're a bit gun-shy after last winter, but book now because we'll have snow. If not, we'll either let you cancel, switch your dates or somehow make it right." Sounds great, right? Well, as always the devil is in the details. What to look for and how to decipher ski resort legalese after the jump.
There's an old saying in the law, "a guarantee is only as good as the guarantor." Luckily in the ski industry, most of the guarantors are large multimillion dollar companies. They will be able to back their guarantees. However, the key is read the fine print closely because what you think of as meeting a certain minimum snow threshold may not be what the resort is actually promising. There can be a huge gap between the promise and a skier's expectations.
|Stowe, VT on a snowy day (photo: Ski, Esq.)|
Types of Guarantees
The first key to understanding the value of a snow guarantee is to understand whether the guarantee is subjective or objective. A subjective guarantee leaves it up to you, the skier/consumer, to decide whether the conditions meet your standards. In contrast, an objective guarantee is premised upon the occurrence or nonoccurrence of a certain easily-measured independent metric. It's a simple test. For example, the simplest example might be if the resort is open or closed - easy to measure and unquestionably objective. Either the resort is open or it isn't. Alternatively, a guarantee might hinge on a certain % of the terrain being open. Be sure to note how the resort measures this percentage. In trails? In miles? In acres? A resort could have 10% of its trails open, but only 1% of its terrain.
To decide whether the guarantee is worthwhile, examine the metric. The resorts generally draft objective tests to lock visitors in with as little open terrain as possible. So assume the worst - that the resort barely makes the threshold. If you would be satisfied paying the price of the reservation to ski that resort with X% of its acreage/trails/mileage/base depth open, book. If not, maybe consider shopping around.
It's important not only to consider when and how the guarantee snaps into effect, but also what you get if it does. Some resorts will allow you to cancel your trip for a full refund. Such a policy is the most consumer-friendly. You're free to find another resort altogether. Other resorts will simply let you rebook later in the winter. Keep in mind that just because a ski resort will let you switch your dates, doesn't mean an airline will. Factor airline changes fees into the cost if you're flying.
Let's take Winter Park as an example since their Snow Guarantee is, in some regards, one of the more skier-friendly in the industry and it was just release on Tuesday (10/15/12). Winter Park's deal, as quoted from their press release, is as follows:
•Book a trip to Winter Park for arrival/departure between November 14 – Dec. 20, 2012.
•If our snow is not up to your standards, you can reschedule your trip to Winter Park for later this season.
•Notification of plan to reschedule must be made 48 hours prior to arrival (by 4 pm two days prior to arrival).
•The cost of your early season vacation will be applied to the later dates, difference in cost to be paid by guest.
•Rescheduling will be on a space available basis.
•Rescheduled trip must be used by April 21, 2013.•No refunds. Lodging only.
Winter Park's guarantee is subjective. Note the language, "If our snow is not up to your standards." (emphasis supplied). On one hand, the subjectivity of the promise is great news. You can decide whether the conditions are as good as you like. On the other hand, you don't get a refund; you have to rebook at Winter Park at some point later that winter. Depending on your situation, that may or may not be feasible. If you've booked during a school vacation, you'd rather switch destinations than weeks. Also, switching weeks might be easy if you're driving, but if you're flying, it might not be worth the exorbitant change fees.
Mammoth's guarantee is by snow depth, making it an objective guarantee. See the chart below:
Again, the deal sounds pretty good upfront. The metric, snow depth, is pretty easy to understand. But this time the fine print is much more restrictive. The guarantee is qualified by the following language:
"If the minimum snow base depth as reported on the official Mammoth Mountain Ski Area Snow Report has not met the pre-specified minimum depth for the timeframe of your reservation (located in the chart above) by the first night of your stay, you may choose to receive a $100 gift card or move your reservations to later dates in the 2012/13 ski season dates without any fees or penalties (excluding differences in pricing between existing reservation and desired future dates)."
The first key issue with this promise is that you have to wait until the morning of the first night of your stay to determine whether the base depth exceeds the chart. By that point, it would be almost impossible to switch your reservation if you're flying. Secondly, if you do switch dates, you'll be subject to paying a higher rate later in the year if that time period is more expensive. Thirdly, the resort does not say that if you switch to a less expensive week, you'll get that lower rate. Fourthly, the offer is not good over Christmas vacation week. Considering the difficulty, hassle, and expense of last-minute rebooking, a $100 gift card seems like the most likely compensation for low snow depths.
In short, all guarantees are not created equal. Don't assume that a guarantee means if the snow is bad, you'll get your money back. Normally, that is far from the case. Remember guarantees that let you cancel your reservation entirely are the strongest. Read the fine print carefully and remember, their lawyers drafted that language to protect the resort, not you.
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