I’ll never forget the first day I skied at Vail. March 27, 2009.
Blue skies and sunshine make any ski day memorable, and the soft snow that was piled up in Vail’s vast, seemingly-endless Back Bowls, legendary by any standard, provided the icing on the cake. It was as if I had traveled to another planet. But also on this day a decade ago, before Twitter was a thing, lifties across the resort began their shifts by sharing some sad news via chalk and blackboard.
Normally reserved for temperature and wind-chill updates, the messages were chilling in their own right. It was here in a Vail liftline that I learned about the loss of skiing legend Shane McConkey, whose tragic accident in Italy’s Dolomites occurred too late to make the previous night’s local news. “RIP Cliff Huckstable” was etched in colorful chalk by one of Vail’s lifties.
McConkey lived in the Vail area for several years in the early 1990s, competing on the Pro Mogul Tour and delivering pizzas for Domino’s before his career exploded as an extreme skiing movie star and pioneering BASE jumper. Suddenly, he was gone.
A short decade later, skiing as we once knew it also is gone.
The new landscape
The corporate consolidation of skiing is impossible to avoid, and it is driven in large part by the number crunchers’ interest in us, New England skiers. It is our dollars, our loyalties, our love for skiing that they want to lure into their corral in order to guarantee their future success. Be flattered if you choose and take advantage of the benefits that come with it, for there are many. Or, be offended and disappointed, if you are, because like any big transformation, there will be casualties.
Vail Resorts’ purchase this year of Peak Resorts’ 17 U.S. ski areas brought its total number of owned-and-operated resorts to 37 worldwide. It is a deal that is sending reverberations across the industry, especially on the East Coast.
The new Vail properties in New England include Wildcat, Attitash, and Crotched in New Hampshire, and Mount Snow in Vermont. Already-existing Vail resorts include Stowe and Okemo in Vermont, and Sunapee in New Hampshire. The battle lines in the season pass wars with Alterra Mountain Company’s Ikon Pass are now redrawn. (New England resorts included in Ikon packages include Stratton, Killington and Sugarbush in Vermont, Sunday River and Sugarloaf in Maine, and Loon in New Hampshire).
What this all means for New England skiers is that they will need to assess their skiing intentions well before the season starts and consider how their plans apply most economically within the industry’s new landscape.
Are you a day skier who typically purchases lift tickets at the resort window? Count yourself among the casualties, especially if you want to ski a single day at one of the above “consolidated” resorts.
Are you a local traditionalist who only skis at the same resort and isn’t thrilled to see an influx of new guests invading your stomping grounds? You also are a casualty.
Are you a New England resort season-pass holder who enjoys making a trip or two out west each season? Are you relatively new to skiing with a desire to elevate your commitment in the coming season by finding the most economical way to do it? Are you already a pass holder and frequent skier at a newly acquired Vail resort? Chances are you will benefit big time in this new landscape.
When Vail acquired Stowe in 2017, the cost of Stowe’s season pass (now Epic) was cut almost in half from the previous season. Epic pass holders at Stowe also gained access to dozens of other Vail Resorts holdings in the U.S. and abroad. This sparked a downward pricing competition for season-pass products at other New England resorts, a clear win for frequent skiers.
“We are thrilled that skiers and riders living in and around some of the biggest cities in the country will now have access to both ski close to home and at renowned mountain resorts around the world — with just one pass,” said Rob Katz, Vail Resorts’ chairman and chief executive officer.
A 2019-20 Epic Pass gives skiers unlimited access to each of Vail’s 37 resorts, including Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Crested Butte in Colorado; Park City in Utah; Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood in Tahoe; Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia; and a couple dozen others in Australia, the Midwest and East. The pass also gives access to partner resorts like Telluride, Sun Valley, Kicking Horse and numerous others in Japan, France, Italy and Switzerland.
Still, these opportunities might not be perfect, i.e. cost-effective, for everyone. On Sept. 24, each of New England’s new Vail resorts — Wildcat, Attitash, Crotched and Mount Snow — announced their Epic transitions via simultaneous Facebook posts. Predictably, it sparked reaction.
Steve Willette of Bennington, N.H., posed this conundrum to Crotched Mountain’s page: “So I get a pass every year. I’ve skied at Crotched since I was a kid. I have no desire to ski all these other mountains. I see that out west they offer a local pass to several areas that are specific to just one mountain. Any chance of getting a Crotched-only pass?”
The response probably wasn’t what Willette was hoping for: “We don’t really see that being a direction we’d be looking to head, but we’ll see what happens after this coming season.”
Brandon Chabot of West Dover, Vt., posed this question: “So I can still just purchase a Drifter pass? I don’t want to be paying a fortune when the only mountain I shred is Mount Snow. The reply: “Yes, the Drifter is good for 2019-20.”
Like the Drifter, all seasonal Peak passes purchased by skiers like the Ranger and Traveler will continue to work as planned for the 2019-20 season, but come next season, Peak passes will be a thing of the past. Those pass holders are being encouraged to upgrade to an Epic product (Epic Pass, Epic Local, Epic 4-Day, Epic 5-Day, Epic 6-Day or Epic 7-Day), with final cost adjustment dependent on the date of the original purchase. Many skiers posting to these resort Facebook pages were enthusiastically looking forward to reaping the benefits of their new pass options.
Capital gainsRegulars at Crotched Mountain shouldn’t worry that Vail Resorts will be building massive hotels at the base any time soon. What they can look forward to, however, is investment in mountain infrastructure that will improve the on-snow experience. This is what each of the new “Peak” resorts can expect.
When the acquisition was first announced over the summer, Peak Resorts president and CEO Timothy Boyd said the deal would create new opportunities for guests. “During my time in the industry, I’ve come to know and respect Vail Resorts and believe they will build on our accomplishments and further improve the experience that our loyal guests enjoy both on and off the mountain,” he said.
“Going forward under Vail Resorts’ leadership, we expect guests will see a continued focus on the customer experience that will further the appeal and growth of our resorts and the strong affinity of our guests.”
While capital improvement plans for Vail’s new Peak Resorts are still not public, the company has pledged significant investment during the next couple years. Vail’s stated development strategy is to focus on its core — resort operations and base areas — thereby shifting away from being the developer of real estate projects. Instead, they seek out third parties who can lend their expertise to develop by working with local communities and governments. “We have a vested interest in ensuring that projects enhance the entire resort community and carefully consider our guests and local residents,” Vail states.
Katz said the company’s annual ongoing capital expenditures are expected to increase by $10 million to support the addition of the Peak Resorts ski areas. After closing of the transaction, Vail Resorts plans to invest approximately $15 million over the next two years in one-time capital spending to elevate the guest experience at these resorts, he said. Past improvements have included the remodeling of restaurants and base area expansions.
“The ski areas within the Peak Resorts portfolio exemplify the spirit of our sport as well as our company’s mission to provide an experience of a lifetime to guests,” Katz said. “We’re thrilled to welcome the resorts and their employees into the Vail Resorts family and invest in their continued success.”
“Ultimately, we’ll see more visitors in Vermont now that we have three Vermont resorts accessible via the Epic pass,” said Molly Mahar, president of Ski Vermont, the trade organization serving its 20 alpine and 30 cross-country members throughout the state. More visitors means a boon for local businesses operating in proximity of these resorts.
Philip Gilpin, owner of the West Dover Inn in Vermont, told the local NBC affiliate shortly after Vail’s acquisition of Peak Resorts was finalized that he was seeing a lot of new interest. “We’ve already had a lot of phone calls from people that have the (Epic) pass from Vail and they’re interested in skiing Mount Snow, which they’ve never skied before,” Gilpin said. “We’re excited here at the inn. We think it’s going to be a good thing for the town.”
This is good news for “Vail Resort” towns, but for the smaller, independent ski areas and surrounding towns that aren’t linked into a ski pass option as attractive to consumers as Epic or Ikon, the pressure is mounting. Still another concern is the bigger-picture expense of a sport that is in dire need of building a more diverse participation base. An Epic pass ($969) with all the bells and whistles offers the biggest bang for the buck when compared to the rising cost of day tickets, but neither option is ideal for attracting the numbers of new families into the sport that the industry is hoping for.
I’m sure in a decade from now it will all look so very different. One thing that will never change is how I remember my epic first day in the Back Bowls of Vail on a late March day in 2009.