Seems like everywhere you look lately, you see a Vail Resort.
And that’s hardly an exaggeration. Vail recently announced its entry into a long-term lease with the affiliate companies of Talisker Corporation for Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah. Vail takes over ski area operations and Talisker Corp. retains the right to develop 4 million square feet of real estate at the resort. The transaction also incorporates the potential for the lease, without additional consideration, to include the land under the ski terrain of Park City Mountain Resort that’s adjacent to Canyons and is currently owned by Talisker and subject to pending litigation.
This gives Vail Resorts its 10th ski area in five states and its first in Utah. Let’s add ’em up: Vail (of course), Breckenridge and Keystone in Colorado; Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood in the Lake Tahoe area of California and Nevada; Canyons in Park City, Utah; Afton Alps in Minnesota and Mt. Brighton in Michigan; and the Grand Teton Lodge Company in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Granted, Vail must be doing something right. The company makes a ton of money, and Vail is consistently rated the #1 skiing destination by SKI Magazine. What’s more, a lot of people — at least from what I’ve seen on the internet — are positively delighted by this new development. Thanks to its deep pockets, Vail will most likely make many critically needed investments in the Canyon’s infrastructure. It’ll add another ski resort to the Epic ski pass. And it definitely beats having the Canyons fall into disrepair or bankruptcy. No one wants that.
Still, a part of me feels a bit unsettled. Okay, so I’m the kind of person who doesn’t love chain stores, fast food franchises, or shopping malls. But despite Vail’s outstanding reputation, having a single company control such a large portion of the ski market may not be all it’s cracked up to be. After all, is bigger always better? I’m not so sure.
So in spite the accolades being heaped on the acquisition by the ski world at large, I have a few thoughts I’d like to share:
• Vail is just too damn big. A string of acquisitions has made it the gorilla of the ski industry. Should something go awry (i.e. remember the American Ski Company?), we’re left with a huge mess on our hands. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen, but one never knows…
• Following up on the above, Vail has a huge amount of power. This is nothing new, but it’s even more true now. And contrary to what you might think, this can result in fewer choices for skiers. I can illustrate this with something that has nothing to do with skiing, but with which I’ve had a bit of experience; the book business. A buyer at a major chain of bookstores didn’t like a particular book by an author I know. So they didn’t give it the table or shelf space it deserved. And though the book did okay, it didn’t do as well as it would have if this particular retailer — excuse me, if this particular buyer — had decided to give it more of a push. Translate that over to skiing. The implications are enormous in everything from retail space to what’s sold on site. Not only is this not particularly good for local businesses, but it creates a more homogenous culture that I believe detracts from the skiing experience. This may not trouble you, but it does trouble me.
• As the industry giant, Vail can do whatever it wants to regarding policy and price. Right now things are looking pretty good for Epic passholders. They’ll be able to use their passes at Canyons, Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood Right. But it also presents a problem for smaller areas who can’t offer something similar. I know, I know. That’s how the market works. The big get bigger at the expense of someone else. But it can be unsettling, and we may not be happy with the results.
• Vail is a publicly traded company, and as such, its main responsibility is not to skiers, but to its stockholders. Even with lift ticket prices approaching astronomical levels (a single-day, walk-up-to-the-window rate at Vail this year was $129), lift tickets make up only a small portion of the company’s total business. The bulk is taken up by real estate, travel arrangements, and other peripherals. As Rob Katz, Vail chairman and CEO, said in the company’s press release, “We will…leverage our guest database and domestic and international sales and marketing efforts to continue to drive Canyons’ growth. Talisker has an outstanding track record of high-end resort development and we look forward to working together to create something truly extraordinary with Talisker’s four million square feet of remaining approved residential and commercial density at Canyons.” Of course, Vail is smart enough to know that good skiing — and a good skiing infrastructure — attracts customers. Hopefully, they’ll continue to keep that in mind as they move forward.
I don’t mean to sound negative. Like everyone, I’m for whatever it takes to keep skiers happy and the ski industry successful. As a business that’s held captive to the caprices of Mother Nature, the industry certainly has its challenges. Let’s hope for the best.