There was once a time when Tim Baker’s only connection to New England was when he found himself on the losing end to the Patriots in the 2001 AFC Championship game.
Baker signed with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent wide receiver that season, after playing four years at Texas Tech University. The Steelers went 13-3 in 2001 and appeared to be Super Bowl-bound. That is, of course, if it weren’t for the Patriots, who derailed Pittsburgh en route to their first of six Lombardi trophies.
These days, the 44-year-old Baker’s New England ties are a bit more satisfying. Earlier this year, he was named Vail Resorts’ vice president and chief operating officer of the Eastern Region, a role in which he will oversee Vail’s properties in the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and Northeast, which includes seven properties across Vermont and New Hampshire.
We caught up with Baker to discuss Vail’s mission and hopes for the 2021-22 skiing and riding season in the Northeast.
New England Ski Journal: How does somebody go from an NFL wide receiver out of Texas to a ski industry executive?
Tim Baker: Like so many people who make a life of the ski industry, I followed a path that was completely unexpected, but ultimately it was one that combines a love for the industry and a willingness to tackle new challenges and terrain. As my football career ended in San Diego, I began a career in real estate development, first joining Vail Resorts as a project manager of base area real estate in Breckenridge and Keystone. This was when Vail Resorts was in the real estate business like many of the other large ski area operators at that time. When we exited the real estate business in 2008, around the time we launched the Epic Pass, I moved into operations, starting at Keystone, followed by eight years in multiple roles at Beaver Creek and eventually as GM of Crested Butte Mountain Resort. That led to the opportunity I have today, to lead the 23 resorts that make up Vail Resorts’ Eastern Region.
NESJ: How are you adjusting to the new role, and how much of a crash course did you have to do in order to learn about the ins and outs of the Eastern resorts?
Baker: The adjustment has been incredibly positive. We have a strong set of leaders across the region who have done a great job supporting my steep learning curve for the unique culture and characteristics of our mountains in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. I couldn’t be more excited for the 2021-22 season to kick off — our snowmaking is poised to fire up in full force and the season is just around the corner.
NESJ: Vail made huge news in the spring by announcing that the cost of the Epic Pass would be reduced by 20 percent. What was the genesis of that company decision, and how have sales translated?
Baker: Since we launched the Epic Pass 13 years ago, we have been on a journey to offer incredible value and access to passholders in exchange for a commitment before the season starts. For the stability and longevity of our industry, sport and company, we want all skiers and riders to move to a pass product, and we are doing everything we can to incentivize that decision. No one should have to buy a lift ticket. This bold price reset is the latest iteration of our Epic for Everyone commitment to broaden engagement in the sport. We believe the new prices will contribute to the growth and vitality of our sport by taking a step toward making it more accessible to more people, and will give everyone the opportunity to move to a pass with the best value and more options.
This reset in price has been embraced by skiers and riders to a degree that is reflected in strong pass sales leading up to the season. People recognize that this really is the best value in skiing, and they appreciate the opportunity to visit the entire network of resorts they love. Year after year, our passholders choose to invest in us — and we’re incredibly grateful for their loyalty and support.
NESJ: Does it feel freeing to do away with the reservation system this year?
Baker: We are proud of how successfully our resorts implemented the reservation system last year. Because of COVID-19 physical distancing requirements and capacity restrictions on our lifts and gondolas, it was necessary to have a mountain access system to manage lift lines as we were able to move less people up the mountain. Looking ahead to the season, in addition to the absence of these restrictions, we have extensive learnings from last season around lift loading efficiency and have implemented new strategies that we believe will reduce wait times. As with everything, our focus in this area is on improving the guest experience.
NESJ: Vail is investing some $320 million into new lifts across its properties. In New Hampshire, there’s some question as to why the project at Attitash Mountain Resort will see the replacement of the east and west double-double chairs instead of the summit triple. What thought went into that, and is there any hope for the triple ever getting an upgrade?
Baker: Vail Resorts has a long history of reinvesting back into the guest experience through industry-leading investments in lift infrastructure and digital innovations. Our team continuously identifies opportunities to enhance the guest experience. In our largest single-year investment, we selected projects that will have a material impact on reducing wait times and improving uphill capacity as we seek to deliver on our mission of providing an experience of a lifetime to our guests.
We wish we could do every project all at once, but for next season our company identified 19 lift upgrades across our resorts that would have material impact on moving people around the mountain faster and easier. New projects are announced each year as a part of our company’s continuous commitment to reinvest back into the guest experience.
NESJ: In what ways will the new lifts improve the experiences of skiers and riders at Vail’s New England-based resorts?
Baker: The aim of Epic Lift Upgrade is to significantly improve and enhance the guest experience and make getting on and around our mountains easier, faster and more enjoyable. These projects were selected because we recognized significant potential to materially reduce wait times, increase uphill capacity, and create more lift-served terrain. Take, for instance, the new high-speed, six-passenger lifts being installed at Okemo and planned for Stowe. These projects will significantly increase access to key terrain and greatly improve guest flow throughout those resorts, in part by alleviating pressure from some existing lifts. The new lifts will serve a specific area, but the benefits from them will be felt across the mountain.
NESJ: Were there any local projects that were put on hold during the pandemic that will resume in the future?
Baker: Nothing worth noting. There were some projects delayed a bit by supply chain issues here and there, but overall our teams did a great job keeping everything on track.
NESJ: What are some other improvements that you might like to see coming over the next few years for Vail’s New England-based properties?
Baker: Epic Lift Upgrade is one step in our ongoing commitment to investing in our Northeastern resort network. We’ll keep looking at ways to provide an even better guest experience through improvements to lifts and other resort infrastructure.
NESJ: With seven New England resorts in its portfolio, is there any future opportunity for Vail to grow its holdings in the region?
Baker: We do not comment or speculate on future acquisition opportunities, but generally we are always looking for opportunities to enhance our overall network strength, laddering back to our strategy of finding ways to make our Epic Pass products more valuable to our guests. One of the things that makes New England special is the unique character of each of its ski areas, and that’s evident in what our acquisitions in this region have brought to our network to date: The iconic beauty and history of Stowe; the rugged, naturalistic adventure of Wildcat; Okemo’s charm and allure as the perfect destination for families. Having all these resorts in our network further strengthens the Epic Pass as the best pass option on the market today.
NESJ: The images of long lift lines at Vail properties made all sorts of headlines last season. Were they taken out of context in some cases? Are those a byproduct of the success of the Epic Pass, or do new infrastructure plans, such as the new lifts Vail is planning on, hope to aid some of the issues?
Baker: Physical distancing in lift lines last season certainly contributed to the perception of longer lines. With physical distancing requirements and capacity restrictions removed, guests will naturally see lift lines and crowds reduced. Additionally, we have extensive learnings from this season around lift loading efficiencies and are implementing new strategies to materially improve wait times.
That said, yes, some of the primary benefits of the Epic Lift Upgrade projects will be better dispersion of skiers and riders onto the mountains and better flow throughout the resorts. Take Mount Snow, for example. The replacement of the Sundance and Tumbleweed triples with a six-passenger lift will increase uphill capacity there by 70 percent. We’re replacing a pair of 37-year-old, fixed-grip lifts with a high-speed, detachable six that can move 1,200 more people per hour. It’s a case in which six equals a lot more than three plus three, as long as you look at it from the right perspective.
NESJ: What went into the thought process behind Vail’s indoor COVID policies this season?
Baker: As a company, the health and safety of our guests and employees is our top priority. We are fortunate that the core of our business takes place outdoors in vast mountain settings. However, as we welcome guests from around the world to the indoor experience at our resorts, we feel it’s important to do our part to combat the spread of COVID-19 and to keep our guests, employees and communities safe. The key guest-facing components of our policies include requiring face coverings while indoors, and requiring vaccinations at our indoor cafeteria-style restaurants. We are also requiring that all Vail Resorts employees be vaccinated. While we always follow local public health guidelines, given our focus on safety, we will also institute our own policies where we believe it is necessary
Our safety protocols were designed to support a long and enjoyable ski and ride season, and most importantly, to help keep our guests, employees and communities safe as we navigate this pandemic.
Eric Wilbur can be reached at [email protected].