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Swells on the slopes
Ski resorts target an ever-more upscale audience.
January 14, 2005: 12:40 PM EST
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Money talks everywhere. But on American mountains these days, it practically shouts.

Across the country, ski resorts are courting affluent customers as never before. Offering an array of special services -- at a price -- the resorts seem intent on separating the swells from the riff-raff.

At Copper Mountain in Colorado, for example, you can purchase a Beeline Advantage ticket, which lets you cut ahead of other people waiting in lift lines. To get one, you either need to stay in the resort's expensive lodging, or pay $124, nearly twice as much as a regular daypass.

Although they are put at the front of the line, Beeliners still must share the lift with other skiers. For the truly well heeled, there are ways to avoid commoners entirely.

When Saudi prince Al-Waleed visited Jackson Hole last year, Ski magazine reported, the Four Seasons hotel arranged for the mountain's gondola to run exclusively for the prince and his 35-person entourage.

(Alas, Wyoming in winter proved too cold for the desert royal, according to Ski. So in the end, Prince Al didn't even use the service.)

Even that level of exclusivity pales in comparison with what's being offered by the Yellowstone Club outside of Bozeman, Montana. There, developer Tim Blixeth has turned 9,856 foot Pioneer Mountain into a members-only resort.

With a limit of 850 families, it's a quiet spot on a big mountain. "Thirty people riding the lifts constitutes a busy day," a Yellowstone employee told Montana Living.

To join, you need a net worth of at least $3 million, pay a $250,000 initiation fee, and fork over $16,000 in yearly dues. All that doesn't even get you a house, but rest assured: Blixeth is building a members-only frontier town called Big Springs.

Valet parking and heated boots

To be sure, skiing has never been exactly cheap.

The necessary equipment is pricey compared to, say, a soccer ball. For most of us, just to participate means traveling to a destination, at some expense.

Once you get there, your wallet gets more exercise than your thighs. A one-day lift ticket at Aspen or Telluride costs $74. And slopeside cafeterias make popcorn at the movies seem reasonably priced.

Even so, middle-class skiers can find ways to economize, from buying discounted season passes to picking up last year's equipment during end-of-season sales.

There are no discounts for the new luxury amenities, however. Want to park near the entrance at Vail? Forget just getting there early, because the best parking spaces cost $100,000, sold as condos in a heated lot.

Tired of the lunchtime crowds at the base lodge? Join one of the increasingly common private clubs, whose membership policies prevent "just anyone" from walking into the lounge.

V.I.P. status will cost you, though. At Stratton in Vermont, initiation fees are $49,000. At Colorado's Beaver Creek, the most exclusive club charges $75,000 to join, according to Ski.

In return for the cash, members get prime reservations at restaurants and concierge services galore. Valet parking, equipment tuneups, and Sno-Cat rides to distant slopes are common at such places.

The size of the general skiing population hasn't grown much in recent years. To increase revenue, then, resorts have had to figure out ways to extract more money out of the people who do ski.

So it's a safe bet that higher-priced amenities -- and the stratification they cause -- will continue to multiply. But community-minded souls needn't worry, because a mountain doesn't know from money.

After all, a steep patch of ice cannot tell if your ski jacket came from Prada.

The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to:  Top of page


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