Portland-native Doug Fish doesn’t need much of an excuse to go skiing. Some digital marketing work he was doing for Montana’s Red Lodge Mountain seemed like perfect justification to visit his daughter, who was attending Montana State, and get in some skiing.
“It was a good chance to see my daughter, connect with Jeff Schmidt, the General Manager, and ski the resort while writing it off,” he laughs.
A week later he was having a “powder lunch” on the chairlift with Jeff and enjoying a nice day on the slopes. Later he bumped into a couple that had driven 20 hours from Minneapolis to ski there. They told Dan it was “the first and best place they found,” and come out every year, usually hitting Red Lodge Mountain and Bridger over a few days, then drive back.
“A 20-hour drive to ski once a year, wow!” Doug thought. “The guy was sporting 20-year-old skis—straight as an arrow—and 10-year-old Columbia Sportswear,” he recalls. “There seemed to be a market out there,” he thought, “And this guy was it.”
The next person he talked to was from Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Same story. A passionate, part-time skier who takes four ski trips a year and skis about six days,” he says. “He can’t justify a season pass and he’s not going to spend a thousand bucks on an Epic or IKON Pass—he definitely can’t justify $200 for a day pass,” Doug notes.
There was a market for these guys, he was sure of it.
It was 2018 and Doug was ready for a change. He was a lifelong skier and had a history of creative endeavors from working for the largest concert promoter in the Pacific Northwest in the ’80s, starting his own advertising agency in the ’90s—there was a short corporate hiatus—before founding his marketing agency for small-to-mid-sized companies he had been running successfully for nearly two decades. Somewhere in between he also found time to combine his talents and create “Snowvana,” the Pacific Northwest’s most popular season kick-off festival for snow sports enthusiasts.
“There was a major disruption in the ski pass industry at the time,” he recalls. “Alterra formed the Icon Pass, Max Pass disappeared, Mountain Collective was in disarray and the Powder Alliance was feeling the disturbance.”
There was an opportunity in the market to create a pass for that casual—yet no less passionate—skier from Grand Rapids who wouldn’t spend $200 on a day pass, but would spend $299 dollars for a pass to various small to mid-size resorts.
The following January, Fish hit the road in his trailer with his black lab and an idea to pitch at the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) conference in Snowbird. His Indy Pass would appeal to skiers wanting to visit two to three resorts within a day’s drive he believed. He visited 25 independent resorts that month (signed up 10). By August, he had 34 resorts joining the cause. Today Indy Pass features 76 independent resorts in the U.S. and Canada with plans to top out at 100.
“We need to limit the number of resorts in each region to make it work,” he says. “You can’t create too much density.”
Doug notes that the passion of small resorts is vital to creating an authentic ski experience, especially as big corporate, homogenized ski resorts price out many skiers and snowboarders. There is a lot to love about these smaller, independent resorts from better food, lower prices and fewer posers.
It didn’t take long for the idea to make its way across the Pacific. Brent Potter and Luke Cummings from Japan Ski Tours reached out to Doug with the idea of introducing some of the great independent ski resorts in Japan.
“Having grown up in Japan—and later radicalized as a ‘skier bro’ in the big mountains of Colorado—I relished the intersection of ski culture and Japanese culture. Over the years, guiding on the mainstream ‘Japow Circuit,’ I started to see Big Money moving into what were previously charming Japanese ski towns. Just like in Waikiki, Bali or Cancun, the authentic feel that made the location famous was starting to dissipate with locals increasingly becoming priced out,” Brent notes.
Doug felt the vibe was right and when they announced some Japanese resorts would be joining the pass, it made quite a stir stateside. “There was a lot of bucket list excitement,” he exclaims.
The resorts chosen for the inaugural year are all in the Tohoku Region—the northern part of Japan’s main island of Honshu. Many of these off-the-beaten path resorts have a ton to offer but can’t compete with the marketing budgets of large, foreign-owned resorts alone. But together under the Indy Pass, they might have a fighting chance.
“As the trend of conglomerates and hedge funds moving into ski towns and buying up independent resorts and family businesses continues, purists would argue it strips the authentic spirit from these communities. Independent resorts uniting to form ‘a Resistance’ is a hopeful way forward,” says Brent.
“Tohoku is home for me,” shares Luke. “I grew up here and the region is still quite remote and traditional. We’ve always sought to tie in cultural Japanese elements to our trips and Tohoku is the perfect place to do this. Our hope is to help create a healthy revival of many of the ski resorts and towns in the region by partnering them with Indy Pass.”
“Of all the ski regions in Japan, Tohoku is most inline with the Indy brand, so it is the perfect place to start,” Brent adds. “Skiers at the big corporate resorts have a severe case of ‘back in the old days it was so much less crowded/expensive,’ but in Tohoku we’re still in those good old days!”
When approaching resorts, they looked for those that punched above their weight class and offered varied terrain that would appeal to each kind of skier.
“Shimokura is a little hidden gem with great pow and side country for the backcountry skier; Okunakayama is ideal for families while Tazawako has fun groomers and side country. Geto brings that classic deep powder experience people come to Japan for,” Brent says.
Proximity is also important and the four resorts are all within striking distance so people can maximize their experience on and off the mountain. Indy Pass plans to add a few more ski resorts in Tohoku while expanding into other regions such as Nagano and Hokkaido. Similar to North America, this would give Indy Pass holders access to a network of ski resorts across Japan and independent resorts access to a market they otherwise couldn’t tap into.
Back in the U.S., Indy Pass tied up with the team at Teton Gravity Research for their recently released film, “In Pursuit of Soul.” Fittingly the film focuses on 12 independently owned and operated ski resorts, their histories and contributions to skiing and mountain culture in their region. Those same stories exist in Japan through independent resorts, villages and locals that are the soul of skiing in Japan.
Indy Pass holders receive two lift tickets at 81 resorts for just $329 for adults and $139 for kids. Indy+ Pass is $429 for adults and $189 for kids but has no blackout dates and includes 25% off a third day of skiing at any Indy Pass resorts. Get your Indy Pass here and visit Japan Ski Tours to find out more about Luke and Brent’s tours for Indy Pass holders in Japan.