Investors have high expectations heading into the fiscal first-quarter report from Vail Resorts (NYSE:MTN). While the ski resort giant likely struggled with some COVID-19-related travel demand pressures at the start of its busy season, sales and earnings are still set to soar compared to the pandemic lows a year ago.

This week's earnings announcement will be packed with data about how well the business is balancing travel restrictions against a historically strong environment for upscale vacations. So let's take a look at some key metrics to watch for in the report set for Thursday, Dec. 9.

A family on a ski lift.

Image source: Getty Images.

Season pass sales

Ahead of the start of ski season in the Rocky Mountain area, Vail prioritized season pass volume at the expense of pricing. The big question heading into this report is whether that strategy is paying off. The company sold two-thirds more season passes in the fiscal fourth quarter than it did a year ago, after all, but total sales were up just 45%.

Ideally, this week's report will show the benefits of keeping traffic high at major resorts in and around Colorado. Higher visitor volume translates into more spending for lodging, dining, and the ski school, and gains there should all show up in Vail's revenue metric. Most investors are looking for sales to jump to about $200 million compared to just $132 million a year ago during the pandemic slump.

Season pass sales ideally will be strong, too, but we'll learn this week whether that strength powered higher volumes and improving prices.

Rewarding pass holders

Vail is trying something new this season in a bid to improve the resort experience on busy weekends while seeking to prioritize season pass sales. Lift ticket sales will be limited during peak ski weekends around Christmas and New Year's Eve, for example, so that holders of Epic and Value passes can have shorter wait times for lifts and other resort amenities.

Look for Vail's management team to predict how this approach might affect the quarter ahead. Ideally, the company can shift more of its business toward season passes, which would reduce the risks involved with potential bad weather during peak ski season.

The new outlook

Management will have more data by Thursday that might convince it to boost its outlook for the full fiscal 2022 year. Heading into the report, that forecast calls for net income of between $302 million and $367 million this year, even after Vail books an expected $150 million loss for the fiscal first quarter. Adjusted resort earnings should land between $785 million and $835 million this year, executives said back in late September.

With its busiest weeks ahead, Vail likely won't issue a precise forecast on these metrics on Thursday. But the impending close of its season pass sale window, plus early traffic levels as major resorts start welcoming guests, should allow for a clearer window into how fiscal 2022 will play out.

Vail likely isn't done dealing with challenges around travel restrictions and capacity limits in a few of its markets. On the other hand, the ski industry could see strong pent-up demand following last year's resort closures. Vail's comments about the rest of fiscal 2022 will help investors judge whether that optimistic growth scenario is on tap.

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