When it comes time to throw stones in the ski world, there’s no easier target than Vail. A $3 billion-plus publicly traded company, Vail is an easy target because it’s a big target. Taking it down verbally is a rite of passage in many mountain communities. Just as a generation of Red Sox fans can’t mention Bucky Dent without giving him a middle name that starts with F, many denizens of ski towns across the nation find it impossible to say the word Vail without immediately following it with “sucks.”
Vail, there is no doubt, brings much of this on itself. Look no further than the recent diarrhea storm it recently created when it purchased Utah’s Park City Mountain Resort after the ski area inexplicably failed to renew the terms of its lease. Even setting aside that it was Canadian real estate developer Talisker, not Vail, that originally evicted PCMR, or that it was neither Talisker’s nor Vail’s responsibility to remind PCMR that its sweetheart lease was about to expire, the strong-arm tactics Vail employed in acquiring its nearest competitor for just slightly more than Randolph Hearst’s former Beverly Hills home were decidedly “un-bro” and left many people with a bitter taste. When Outside first reported that Vail acquired PCMR, the comment section of our Facebook wall overflowed with vitriol directed at Vail.
But before you grab a torch and join the lynch mob, I have something to tell you. Vail is not your enemy.
But before you grab a torch and join the lynch mob, I have something to tell you. Vail is not your enemy. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done more than my fair share of Vail bashing. I used to live in a town (Crested Butte) that sold “Vail Sucks” shirts in most storefronts. And if I were to compile a list my favorite ski resorts, there might—might—be one from the Vail Resorts portfolio on the list. But when it comes time to spew venom, there’s something else to remember. Unlike many entities that storm in and adversely affect our little mountain utopias (Talisker?), Vail is a ski company.
Not only is Vail a ski company, it is a successful ski company. The eleven areas the company runs survive. They attract people. They create skiers. At a time when the buzz in the long-struggling ski industry is about increasing the size of the pie rather than fighting over the pieces, Vail is actually doing that.
The Epic Pass, the game-changing multiresort season pass the company debuted in 2008, is one of the best deals going. It sells to people who wouldn’t ordinarily buy ski passes, and it inspires them take their vacations in the mountains. Season passes went from something only local ski bums and wealthy second-home owners bought to being a great value for recreational skiers who take only a few ski trips a year. The Epic Pass, which now includes 18 resorts worldwide, has also made it more economically viable for skiers to visit new resorts. If you live in Colorado and have an Epic Pass, for example, skiing at other Vail Resorts in California and Utah becomes much more affordable when you take the cost of lift tickets out of the equation.
Great, you say, but you’d prefer not to ski just at Vail’s resorts. That’s fine, but you still owe a debt to Vail. The Epic Pass has also ushered in a completely new era of affordable, multiresort passes. It’s now just one of more than a dozen different pass options being offered by various alliances of resorts across the country.
Vail is also making decisions based on its bottom line. The difference is it's better at being a ski business. Along with a more robust balance sheet, Vail is helping create a more vibrant ski industry.
Affordable season passes are not the only way Vail is actively enticing new skiers to the sport. In 2012, when Vail bought Kirkwood, the scruffy Tahoe-area resort favored by hard-core skiers, it did some sprucing up, adding an umbrella bar in the village and some renovations to the Kirkwood Inn, but the mountain’s off-the-grid vibe remains intact. Later that year, Vail bought two more resorts—Afton Alps near Minneapolis and Mt. Brighton outside Detroit. Movie buffs will remember Mt. Brighton as the ski area where T.J. Burke and Dexter Rutecki cut their teeth before moving west in Aspen Extreme. That’s significant because, just like in the movie, small areas like Mt. Brighton and Afton Alps have for generations been the gateway drug that hooks people on skiing. Over the past three decades, many have struggled to survive. Vail has invested $10 million each in these little hills.
Mind you, Vail isn’t pumping up these two ski areas as an act of philanthropy. It’s doing it to create a pipeline from the Midwest to its nine destination resorts. It’s doing it to pad its own bottom line. But that doesn’t necessarily make it an inherently bad company.
Consider the case of Boston millionaire Joseph O’Donnell. At one point in the 1990s, O’Donnell owned part of seven ski areas in New England, according to his bio on NewEnglandSkiHistory.com. Under his stewardship, four of those areas closed. Brodie and Timber Ridge are still dormant. Mt. Tom is now a quarry. Magic has been resurrected under new ownership but is still struggling to recover.
O’Donnell’s companies made business decisions, possibly appropriate ones under the circumstances. But the ski industry is tough, especially back East when it rains instead of snows, and O’Donnell and his business partners left a trail of dead ski areas and broken memories in their wake. Vail is also making decisions based on its bottom line. The difference is it’s better at being a ski business than O’Donnell and company. Along with a more robust balance sheet, Vail is helping create a more vibrant ski industry.
There are reasons not to like how Vail does business. If I were a competing resort—or a local community or environmental watchdog organization—I would keep a constant wary eye on the company. Vail is going to do what’s best for Vail’s shareholders; if they’re being honest, its board of directors will be the first to admit that. They certainly wouldn’t be alone in that respect, even within the ski industry.
Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen resort giants come and go. We’ve watched real estate–driven conglomerates steamroll into mountain towns, attempt to homogenize them, and leave bankrupt. In the meantime, the ski industry has seen no real growth in 30 years. Through all of this, Vail has been successful. You don’t have to love Vail for that, but that shouldn’t be a reason to hate it, either.
Derek Taylor was the editor of Powder magazine from 2008 to 2012.