Tom Clyde: Vail Resorts is approaching ski town singularity, for better or worse
The news last week was that Vail Resorts had gobbled up four more ski areas. They bought Crested Butte in Colorado, Stevens Pass in Washington, Okemo in Vermont and Sunapee in New Hampshire. An industry that was once dominated by family-owned resorts has gone completely corporate. Thirty years ago, a slow, fixed grip double chair was the industry standard. Upgrading to a triple was huge, and then detachables. All that big hardware takes big money, and it just became necessary to operate on a bigger scale.
Skier numbers have been stubbornly flat. It’s not a growth industry. While skier days may not be increasing much, skier spending is. Sit down in any of the lodges around here and it’s not unusual to see a family of six with two private instructors hired for the week. You don’t see much duct tape patching leaking down jackets these days.
Given Crested Butte’s proximity to Vail’s mothership, they should know what to expect. But it is a different place now that its part of the Vail universe. It’s been 4 years since the implosion at Park City Mountain Resort opened the door to Vail. I got thinking about what’s happened here, and what Crested Butte can expect to see.
Vail is a different business model. They are ostensibly in the business of providing uphill transportation for skiers, and offering some ancillary services around that. But it’s almost the reverse of that. If I remember their annual report right, lift ticket revenue of all kinds — season passes and people walking up to the window — was only about 51 percent or so of total income. When the average ticket price was about $67 per person, company wide.
So while there a whole lot of locals who are skiing 75 or 100 days a year on a cheap Epic pass, there are also a lot of people who only use it once or twice. Ten days would get to about that $67 average, company wide.
The other 49 percent of income is from ski school, food and beverage, and ski rentals. If somebody spends $67 for the lift ticket, the expectation (and according to their auditors, the reality) is that they spend another $66 per day on that other stuff.
The end result is pretty clear. The resorts are managed for the people who are spending that extra $66 on the side stuff. That isn’t us. Financially, it is more important to clear a path to the $6 coffee than to get the avalanche control work done in Jupiter Bowl. The Jupiter skiers tend to be the people who use their Epic Pass so often that their day rate is down in the $10 range, and they aren’t buying $30 cheeseburgers. If the plan is to shake that extra $66 out of each customer, you need to steer them into the lodges. So the outhouse at King Con goes away. If you use the bathroom at Miners Camp, there might be a coffee break involved. It’s not a bad experience, it’s just a different experience, designed around a different customer. A customer who spends a lot more than I do.
Business is up. People skiing on the Epic Pass tend to think of the skiing as free, so they spend more on other things off the resort, too. Restaurants and retailers in town are happy. The slack periods in the winter are shorter and general occupancy is up all season. The other side of that prosperity is traffic on the streets, traffic on the mountain, longer lift lines, and fewer long-term rental units available for workers. The business deal on the PCMR and Canyons combination would have only worked if skier numbers increased dramatically. And they have.
A snowless winter like last year used to be catastrophic for local businesses. This time around, it seemed pretty painless. The Vail marketing machinery certainly had a lot to do with filling beds in a bad year.
Vail has been a very generous corporate member of the community. The key word there is “corporate,” and anyone who has dealt with them knows that things are more bureaucratic than they used to be. But Vail has given a lot to the community as a company, and CEO Rob Katz and his wife, as individuals, have been extremely generous. The PC Tots program is quite literally their baby.
So what should our friends in Crested Butte expect? Mostly the very mixed blessing of a level of prosperity that they never quite imagined and may not like. The mountain experience will be designed around the vacationing skier who will drop $66 a day in the lodge. That’s who’s paying the bills.
On balance, I liked things they way they were before. But if the industry only works if skiers spend $66 a day on stuff other than lift tickets, it’s clear that they can’t manage the place around me.
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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