Pond skimming already
March 18, 2016
It seems like ski season was just getting underway, and suddenly, it’s time for pond skimming. It feels like they are holding it on Presidents Day or something. I looked it up, and it’s right where it always is. Easter is early this year, but if there is a connection between the dates of Easter and pond skimming, I have not been able to figure it out. The pope has not returned my calls. I think they do the pond skimming three weeks before closing because they still have enough employees to put it together, there is still snow, and people still care.
So there are three weeks left. Winter staged something of a come-back earlier in the week, and the forecast says there is more snow coming but it’s done. It was certainly a better season than last year in terms of snow. It started strong, then fizzled in February. Those powder days in January seem like a long time ago. There are usually some big storms this time of year, so I’m not giving up yet. There’s nothing wrong with the spring corn snow if you get off the mountain before it begins to swallow people into the mush.
This was our first ski season as the biggest ski/snowboard resort in the U.S. That seemed like a big deal a year ago. I’m not sure it lived up to the hype. The improvements were so long over-due that they feel like they have always been there. The new lifts and new lodges were necessary to keep the resort functioning, let alone to stay competitive. But the combination hasn’t made much difference in where I ski.
I thought I would use the gondola and ski the Canyons side of things more often, or park at the Canyons base. In the end, I only made the trip over the ridge a few times. My friends act like an 8-minute gondola ride is a slow boat to China. There’s some fun skiing readily available on the other side, but getting to Ninety-Nine-Ninety or Super Condor is a chore. There may be only one Park City, but it still feels like there are two resorts. The integration is a work in progress.
I’m sure that Vail’s number crunchers know exactly how many people started at each base, where they skied during the day, and which condiments they used at lunch. That data will drive the next round of improvements. After last year’s spending binge, we will have to wait a while for any big changes. That’s probably fine, except the Pioneer lift is a relic. And some of the fixed grip chairs on the Canyons side. And another way up the mountain at the Canyons base, and — OK, I could pour another $50 million into it, but those are really First World problems.
Vail announced their quarterly financial results. Company-wide, earnings were up 21 percent. Lift ticket revenue was up 20 percent due to a combination of more tickets sold and a slightly higher price per ticket. Food and beverage was up 15 percent because I bought one of those little lamb-stew pies for lunch at Miners Camp. They reported "double-digit visitation and revenue growth" at Park City. Things seem to be going very well. Shareholder value has been enhanced.
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What about the local skier value? It’s become fashionable among locals to kvetch about the changes. Some things are different. The mosh pit lift lines are an annoyance that the prior management had solved. Parking is tighter, lift lines are longer, and the powder doesn’t last as long. Long-time employees grumble about conforming to new systems and an inflexible corporate hierarchy. As a customer, it felt like the place has been under-staffed all year — just like every other business in town. The tight labor market and housing crunch affected everybody this year.
On the other hand, grooming seemed better, both in quantity and quality. After the Christmas fumble, they are getting the mountain open after a storm pretty quickly. The restaurant expansions are nice, and the food is good if you have a home equity loan to pay for it. The Epic Local Pass was $579, so if you are skiing as often as most locals, you have access to the biggest hill in the country for about $10 a day. That’s an incredible deal. You just have to share it with a double-digit increase in people on the hill.
On balance, if somebody just came to ski, unaware of the ownership change, I’m not sure they would notice much difference between this year and last. I had expected to see more of a difference. We are all so used to the resort operating at about 40 percent capacity most of the time that it’s a shock when we’re not able to ski right into the chair.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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