The Two-Sided Coin Of Vail Purchasing Your Local Ski Area

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Over the past few years, it feels like we’re in the movie Highlander for skiing. The concept being that these ski areas must either be bought or die until only one remains standing. It’s a difficult subject to approach to say the least but we did it back in 2018. Instead of adding emotions into the discussion, we took a look at the “Gold Star” things Vail has done as well as a few of the not so popular “Business Decisions.” Four years later, we circle back to see what has changed.

The Gold Stars

Wilmot Mountain Resort – Long Overdue Upgrades to the Lifts & Snowmaking

Wilmot Mountain Vail Resorts
Photo – Courtesy Rick Drew

About 65 miles north of downtown Chicago is a small ski area by the name of Wilmot that’s been family-owned since 1938. It wasn’t until Vail showed up with its pocketbook that LONG overdue upgrades could finally be made. As part of the 2016-17 season, they dropped over $13 MILLION into improvements. ALL the lifts were replaced and lift capacity had increased by 45 percent. And to top it off, they also decided to renovate the lodge’s Iron Kettle restaurant with a new bar and lounge. This has been the story line pretty much with every resort purchased

Kirkwood Mountain Resort – Long Awaited Ski Patrol Hut

KirkwoodFor those unaware, most of Kirkwood’s ski resort is in Class A avalanche territory. This means when one of the fabled Sierra storms comes barreling through the U-shaped canyon depositing feet of snow, it takes a ton of patience and time for the ski patrol to open up the resort. Luckily, as part of the 2013-14 season, the long awaited upgrade of the structure at the top of Chair 10 was made. The new two-story building allows them to store a vehicle used for clearing snow and allow ski patrol & operations to use it as a place of refuge, protecting them in the event of large storms. In Coop’s words, “By having this facility up there, it’s really going to add to our ski patrol and mountain operations efficiency.”

Park City and Canyons – Combining both resorts to make the Largest Ski Resort in the U.S.

Crescent Lift – Photo Credit: Rory Gillaland

As of the 2015-16 ski season, Park City and the Canyons resorts were combined to make the largest resort in the United States at nearly 7,300 acres in size. The centerpiece of this connection is the interconnect gondola named Quicksilver. It allows people to ski down three new runs on the Canyons side or gate-accessed terrain into Thaynes Canyon on the Park City side.

Breckenridge – Approval of 4.5 percent Sales Tax Increase On Lift Tickets To Go To Road Improvements

Asking a company to help fund parking projects can be a tough pill to swallow. But, the town of Breckenridge and Vail Resorts actually came to a precise agreement. Vail Resorts guaranteed the tax will raise at least $3.5 million a year to do just that. The Denver Post reported that the goal of these taxes is to help improve congestion during peak times.

Cheap Season Pass

Powder Day at Heavenly Ski Resort Lake TahoeLet’s be honest… with Vail picking up resort after resort, the options of unlimited skiing are simply endless. $899 for an Epic Pass will get you unrestricted access to 18 blue-ribbon ski resorts across North America and one resort in Australia, multiple days in Japan, and the Canadian Rockies. Talk about a great bargain for those who want to be flexible on where they ski.

The Business Decisions

Park City Mountain Resort – Removes Night Skiing Completely

When the sun set at Park City Mountain Resort, they used to offer night skiing until 8 pm. That was until December of the 2015-16 season. Over subsequent years after Vail purchased the resort, they’ve continued to reduce the hours until they officially removed it as part of the 2017-18 season due to financial reasons. However, they continue to offer night skiing ONLY to youth clubs that use it to train.

Kirkwood Mountain Resort – Closes a Month earlier

Lake Tahoe Powder May
Riding fresh powder at Kirkwood after closing

This Lake Tahoe staple has always been known to close late in the season. As an example, the 2003-04 season had over 130″ of snow in April and another 30″ in May allowing Kirkwood to stay open through Memorial Day weekend. While even after a Miracle March in 2018, the decision was made to close the resort on April 8th even though the snowpack was deep enough to allow skiing into the normal late April time frame.

Boston Mills – Shorter Hours

skier doing moguls at Boston Mills in Ohio on a sunny day
Photo by: Matthew Zabransky – Image appears courtesy: Midwestskiers.com

In past years, the slopes at Boston Mills normally would’ve been open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekends. Due to staffing shortages, they’ve decided to reduce the hours and keep two of the sister resorts closed in the region. At Boston Mills, they’ve limited their hours from 3:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

Park City Mountain Resort – Removal of Volunteer Ski Patrol

Over the last several decades, Park City Mountain Resort has had a volunteer ski patrol working alongside the paid staff. As of 2017, the resort decided to remove the ninety volunteer patrollers, who traditionally helped staff the mountain during busy times like weekends and holidays. The reason? Supposedly, it was to improve the customer experience. Based on this winter, it did the total opposite and aggravated the paid patrollers. So much so that they actively voted to strike against Vail. The good news is that it led to a better contract.

Whistler – Alienating the Locals

Whistler Peak

Even after one season, you can see a major alienation of the locals. Simple things such as the adoption of an on-mountain app that features Fahrenheit and inches rather than Celsius and centimeters. Or Whistler Blackcomb’s tickets being priced with a base rate in U.S. dollars instead of CDN. If that wasn’t enough, they’ve cancelled Whistler’s popular one- and three-day prepaid lift tickets, which were discounted exclusively for Canadians and Washington state residents.

Delayed Openings – Steven’s Pass

A few hours south in the state of Washington locals are even more upset. Many skiers were frustrated that the ski resort was not open entirely. Especially when other resorts such as Mt Baker or Crystal in the the region were fully open. According to a resort spokesperson, “Heavy snow and avalanche dangers” were the reason for limited operations. As of Tuesday February 1st when we looked at Steven’s Pass’s Lift & Terrain status page, it stated that on that particular day they still were only open with five lifts and 40% of the terrain skiable. The community has boiled to the point that there are now 81 consumer complaints filed with the Washington Attorney General’s Office as well as an online petition with more than 40,000 signatures.

Goal Of A Corporation Is To Make Profit Not About The Skiing

No matter how you look at it, Vail is a profitable publicly traded company. That means they’re held accountable by shareholders not skiers/snowboarders. So, what’s the problem with that? The issue is Vail is trading at 81.76-times its earnings while the stock market average is 32-times earnings. This means investors expect HIGHER earnings than what it’s doing today. You can’t sustain the price of $278 per share (as of February 1st) unless you continue to reduce expenses, buy more resorts, and increase prices.

Bottom line… expect your seasons to get shorter, less lifts to run during slow periods, and possibly pay more in the future – A LOT more. When? Not in the next few years the way they’re buying spree is going, but once they stop buying, expect those prices to catch up to them in the form of lift tickets, lodging, and everything else.

Heavy Is The Head That Wears The Crown

No matter what category you’re in, being Numero Uno is always difficult. Translation: There are many naysayers. In an era of ballooning infrastructure costs and more inconsistent winters, you need diversity to “weather” the storm. That’s what Vail offers these ski areas. A chance to stay afloat without worrying about a bad winter.

So, is Vail bad or good? It depends on your viewpoint. If you’re a visitor from New York or Chicago and only get a handful of days in, then it’s awesome. If you’re a local that skis 100 days/year, you might have a different perspective.

12 thoughts on “The Two-Sided Coin Of Vail Purchasing Your Local Ski Area

  1. THE PROBLEN WITH vAIL PURCHASIG THESE RESORTS IS THAT THEY HAVE. TAKEN KIDS SKI SCHOOLS AWAY AND TURNED THEM INTO TWO HOUR LESSONS. MANY PARENTS WHO BRING THERE CHILDREN FOR A SKI SCHOOL LESSONS TO A RESORT GET TO SKI FOR THREE HOURS WITH THERE FAMILY AND NOT WITH THE YOUNG CHILDREN.. THIS IS AN ADVANTAGE SO FAMILY CAN ENJOY OTHER TIME. ANOTHER THING VAILL HAS DONE IS THEY HAVE UNDERMINED SKI INSTRUCTORS TOTALLY. ALSO, THEY HAVE TAKEN THE FAMILY RESORT AWAY FROM SMALLER RESORTS THAT PEOPLE ALWAYS GATHERED AT. I COULD GO ON AND ON, BUT VAIL ISN’T THINKING ABOUT FAMILY SKI VACATIONS THEY ARE ONLY THINKING ABOUT MONEY.

  2. I have not seen to much on the positive side of Vails purchase of Hunter Mountain. They certainly don’t make snow the way the original owners did. Terrain and lifts not open when weather has been good. Hunter no longer hosts events like Tap New York,Mountain Jam, Taste of Country and the annual October fest. Along with skiing these events were the economic generator for the rest of the mountain top. Such a shame. This could have been a great partnership between the Mountain and the Town of Hunter.They just don’t seem to care.

  3. IN NEW HAMPSHIRE there has been minimal if any snow making at Wildcat Mountain.
    We were told to go to Attitash….
    People who are life long Wild-caters are not happy

  4. Epic pass includes 3 resorts in Australia. Perisher in New South Wales & Falls Creek & Mt Hotham in Victoria.

    Catch 22 is that many Australians will only ever ski or board 5 days a year (midweek), as it’s a major treck for Australians not living near the Australian resorts.

    As a result of season passes being forced on these people who don’t live near Sydney or Melbourne, most now head to New Zealand. Recently announced 5 & 6 day passes that cover 3 of the main NZ resorts are from AUD$358 (around USD$51/day) & AUD$372 (just over USD$44/day) respectively & can be used over a 14 day period. Epic need to come up with a better deal for these Australians, perhaps a pass for those skiers/boarders who don’t live in the 2 states, where these resorts are. Could be a simple as having to produce a drivers licence from other than those 2 states in Australia.

    1. Jane,

      Wow, thank you so much for giving us the scoop on what’s happening in Australia. So interesting that it’s causing a great migration to NZ for those that don’t live near the resorts.

  5. The “Vail” impact to smaller local mountains has been negatively received. Changing the fun, inclusive family vibe to corporate big flash big cash isn’t the model for every mountain.

    They do not support programs like ski racing that bring people and revenue to the mountain multiple times a week. Instead are focused on the occasional skiers who are not frequent enough to spend money and will not have a connection to the mountain.

  6. Senior mgmt so out of touch about an employee crisis going on right under their noses.
    But how could they know, all too busy passing out detachables and talking pass sales.
    I see a serious blind spot in their thinking from what I see. Where’s the snow? A lack of any plan to automate a serious portion of each areas snowmaking. A season of no natural snow will come. Then we’ll see how great that pass is and those cool 6-packs.

  7. The lack of focus on operational efficiency is mind-blowing, they literally waste money then cut corners on areas that need investments. Its true reflection that Corp is focused on profit and that in future that can potentially come from increased pass charges but VR increased profits can also come from operational efficiencies and reduction in operating cost and there is a lot VR could do. Locals are screwed in this whole takeover…and we can all moan, complain but what are we really going to do? Not buy a pass when the mountains are so close? I doubt it… We are all going to grudgingly buy them and complain about how it was much better in days gone by.. Best we can hope for is that increase in pass charges comes with a premium product…see Deer Valley and how fabulous is it…and pricey too mind you…modelling it, could be the best we can hope for..

  8. All the improvements in the world won’t matter if you can’t afford to go there anymore. Epic bought my local mountain, and the prices have skyrocketed. When Snow Time owned the three sister mountains, there were many season pass and discount card options. You could buy a season pass for ~$400 that was good for just one mountain. You could spend a little more for one that was good for all three. You could buy an Advantage Card (like a discount card). Or a Night Club Card. Three session passes for $150. There were options for every budget. Now? Night tickets are almost $70 a pop. The cheapest Epic Pass starts at over $600. That’s great that it gets me entry into all these other Resorts, but visiting them requires taking time off work and paying for travel and lodging. That’s time and money that I don’t have. I just want to ride my local mountain weeknights after work without breaking the bank.

  9. VR’s centralised HR department and consistent wages across there US resorts is great for smaller NE and mid West resorts but it’s horrible for their big resorts in CO, CA, BC etc. $20 doesn’t cover the rent in Vail, Whistler, Beaver Creek, CB etc. These big resorts are going to be horrible this year for both workers and visitors.
    VR have hired thousands of young people knowing full well there isn’t nearly enough affordable housing in towns like Vail and Whistler. Kids are going to blow their savings chasing a dream which is going to turn into a nightmare.
    There will be a record number or employee no-shows and huge epic pass crowds. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the chaos that is going to cause.

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