When the ski season was cut short in March, the National Ski Areas Association projected $2 billion in losses to ski resorts. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has buried the ski industry in an avalanche of turmoil and uncertainty. The losses from the premature end to the ski season, the anticipation of travel restrictions, and overall uncertainty associated with the upcoming season have had a wide-ranging ripple effect on businesses within the industry. This month, two prominent digital properties in the snow space became the latest casualties.
OnTheSnow.com, an online provider of snow reports, ski resort guides, gear reviews, and additional editorial content, announced on July 9 that it would be shutting its doors. In a statement released on the website, OnTheSnow cited a changing media landscape as well as the financial struggles induced by the pandemic as the nails in the coffin for the media entity and its European subsidiary, SkiInfo. In the statement, OnTheSnow noted that it would explore selling or partnering with existing media outlets if there “is an opportunity to allow for a consistent or enhanced online experience.” When reached for comment, OnTheSnow Director of Global Operations Michelle Lang provided the same statement found on the website.
OnTheSnow had been in business for over 50 years and operated under the Vail Resorts portfolio after being purchased by the resort management company in 2010. The company filled a unique niche in the ski media landscape, providing reports, reviews, and guides to a more general consumer than the core ski publications.
“While hardcore and passionate skiers and riders had several outlets to turn to for their fix, urban-based ski travelers had OnTheSnow to plan their trips, gear purchases and more,” recalls Dan Kasper, who was the OnTheSnow senior managing editor from 2011 to 2013. “During my time at OnTheSnow, Joel Gratz was just getting OpenSnow off the ground, so back then OnTheSnow was the best option for comprehensive snow reporting from resorts around the globe.”
At its peak, OnTheSnow was the most heavily trafficked website in snowsports, with 23 million unique global visitors in 2011. Since then, emerging snow forecast websites, like the aforementioned OpenSnow, PowderChasers, and Snow-Forecast, as well as shifts in the behavior of media consumption cited in OnTheSnow’s statement contributed heavily to the brand’s down-turn.
Another digital property Liftopia has also catered to a broader ski audience since it was founded in 2005. The San Francisco-based company sells drastically discounted online lift tickets, and is most successful in executing advanced-ticket sales to smaller independent ski areas. The popular multi-destination ski pass, The Mountain Collective, has been sold through Liftopia since its creation in 2012.
On June 2, however, Aspen Ski Co., managing member of The Mountain Collective, along with Arapahoe Basin, Alterra Mountain Company, and Cypress Bowl Recreations, filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition against Liftopia, citing $3 million in unpaid debts stemming from lift tickets and other products sold on its platform. If the petition is successful, Liftopia would enter Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and the represented ski companies would have access to financial records and the ability to propose a repayment plan.
Jeff Hanle, director of public relations at Aspen Ski Co., pointed out to The Aspen Times that current unpaid debts and lack of assurance that those debts would be paid moving forward as contributing factors in the decision to file the petition.
“Without assurances that its debts were generally being paid currently, could be paid in the future, and in the absence of any concrete plan for ensuring that the business could ultimately satisfy its debts and function as an ongoing concern outside of Chapter 11, we felt we had no choice but to take the steps we did to protect the interests of all of Liftopia’s creditors, most directly, those of the Mountain Collective member resorts,” Hanle said.
A June 30 article from The Storm Skiing Journal noted that both Magic Mountain, Vermont, and Plattekill Mountain, New York, were both still owed money from Liftopia’s March lift ticket sales, although none is participating in the bankruptcy petition.
“[Liftopia’s] platform and people have been very strong through the years, so their non-payment/cash flow issue is disappointing, to say the least, especially for a small business like ourselves, given the financial hit we’ve all taken at the end of the season with COVID-19,” Magic President Geoff Hatheway to The Storm Skiing Journal. “We’ve been patient, but I’ve also pushed [Liftopia CEO] Evan [Reece] to start with some type of small re-payment to give his customers confidence, as with each passing month, that important commodity gets eroded.”
Hatheway added that it is hopeful Liftopia will get the financing to pay Magic back and make it through the turbulent time caused by the pandemic. He noted that although Liftopia stated it would fix its payment process to resorts and implement a way to handle reservations for 2020-21, Magic would look into alternatives if Liftopia is unable to handle its financial troubles.
Liftopia is countering the motion from Aspen Ski Co. and its fellow petitioners, stating that the petition fails to meet the criteria required to force the company into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company argues that the creditors overstated claims by $86,000, which should disqualify the petition.
On July 16, Joshua Morse, the lawyer representing the ski companies, filed documents that opposed Liftopia’s motion to dismiss, but agreed with Liftopia’s revised debts, acknowledging, “the Petitioning Creditors do not dispute that the Debtor is best situated to calculate the amounts that it owes and have requested the Debtor’s consent to amend the Involuntary Petition to reflect the Debtor’s revised calculations.”
Morse’s document also notes, with regards to Liftopia’s motion to dismiss the petition, that, “rather than taking responsibility for its financial missteps when faced with the reckoning of the Involuntary Petition, the Debtor, in what can only be viewed as an attempt to buy time, has filed the spurious Motion.”
Robert L. Eisenbach, the lawyer representing Liftopia, declined to comment when contacted by POWDER.
Liftopia’s Contact Us page notes that due to the pandemic, the company has furloughed several employees, asking customers to be patient in response time to questions, indicating it’s taken a hit financially during the pandemic. While documents and statements do not indicate whether the pandemic was the root cause for Liftopia’s failure to pay its debtors, on top of an ongoing legal battle with millions of dollars hanging in the balance, the effects of COVID-19 will have on the willingness of consumers to purchase lift tickets in advance are sure to impact the company, which will still be able to operate regardless of the resolution of the lawsuit. The motion to dismiss will be heard on August 6 in the Northern District of California Bankruptcy Court.
With two major digital properties taking critical hits, OnTheSnow shutting its doors and Liftopia being pressed into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the ski industry continues to navigate the pandemic. The struggles for two entities that, in large part, made skiing more accessible to the masses, reveal a picture for what skiing is at risk of losing when the next ski season rolls around.