Tom Clyde: Tighten your boots, there are moguls ahead
November 21, 2014
Opening day. PCMR will start the season off on Saturday. In most ways, it’s a completely normal opening. There hasn’t been a lot of snow yet, so it will be the typical opening with Payday, Three Kings, and First Time. If things go well with the storm forecast for the weekend, we might get Bonanza. In that respect, it’s business as usual.
On the other hand, nothing about this year is business as usual. Vail took over pretty late in the season. The new general manager, who seems like a very capable and experienced guy, hasn’t had enough time to find the coffee pot. Stepping into the top job with that short a time to figure it out is an unbelievable challenge. Fortunately most of the next level of long-time management people are still here. Any ski area is a complicated bit of business, and something as big as PCMR — well it just gets a lot more complicated as it gets bigger.
So I’m looking at the opening with some trepidation. Not a lot will change this year for the simple reason that there wasn’t time. There are some things at PCMR that are long overdue. With the uncertainty over the last three years, it didn’t make sense to spend anything on improvements. The deferred maintenance and lack of investment are beginning to show. They may have had time to slap a coat of paint on things this fall, but that’s about it. Vail didn’t do a lot different with Canyons last year, pending the cessation of hostilities. We will see some big changes as Canyons and PCMR are combined. There will certainly be more to it than stringing another horizontal lift that connects from PCMR over to the existing horizontal lift at Canyons. A year from now, we will begin to experience the full Vail-ness of it all.
Because they aren’t open yet, the focus has been on little things, and any hint of corporate giant-ism has stoked our deepest fears. They’ve already gone Starbucks, and the local company that used to provide the coffee is out in the cold. A less publicized change is that Vail serves Pepsi. That’s not enough to have me driving around to Alta, but Pepsi? The Texans like it.
Vail runs a lot of resorts, and runs them very well. Pepsi notwithstanding, the on-mountain experience ought to be as good as ever. They know what they are doing. Blaise Carrig, one of Vail’s top managers, spoke at Rotary this week. He knows Park City from his years as manager at Canyons. I felt a lot better about the whole situation. He made it clear that Vail understands and respects the uniqueness of each ski town they operate in. He said there is a distinct character and feel to each resort, and they strive to maintain that. The phones are all answered in a call center in Colorado, where they never deviate from the approved script, but the goal is to let each mountain do what it does best. The quality of the experience should be consistent throughout the corporate system, but the experience on each mountain should be unique. At least that’s the official corporate policy.
That’s a challenge. Preserving and respecting the unique cultures between Breckenridge and Park City would be hard enough when fitting them into the corporate mold. There are also unique cultures at Canyons and PCMR. It will be interesting to see how they go about merging those, or whether they remain distinct in some ways.
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I’ve skied PCMR since it opened 51 seasons ago. I squirted ketchup on the ceiling of the Summit House when I was a ski school brat. That mountain is part of my home. For many years, my ski day often began with a powder suggestion from Phil Jones or hug from Jenni Smith on the plaza. I realize that most customers didn’t get a hug from the general manager, but lots did. Any local who gets their 100 days a year will have similarly personal connections to the resort. It is part of us, and we are part of it.
The easy part for Vail will be building more restaurant seats, fresh paint and new lifts. Most of their destination customers will be thrilled with that. They don’t sell over 400,000 season passes without getting most stuff right. That hard part, at least for locals, will be maintaining those personal connections. Reasonable or not, there is a sense of ownership and belonging that comes from skiing PCMR for 50 years. It’s going to be tough to find a balance between a hug from the manager and being just one of 400,000 in the database.
Tighten up your boots, there are some big moguls ahead.
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.