Boyne Resorts Buys Shawnee Peak, Maine, Boosting New England Footprint
North America’s third-largest ski company now owns 10 resorts across the continent
Boyne Resorts, the coast-to-coast ski empire anchored by Montana’s Big Sky, acquired Maine’s Shawnee Peak last week. The addition gives Boyne three ski areas in Maine, four in New England, and 10 total across North America.
“We are incredibly excited to welcome Shawnee Peak into the Boyne Resorts family, and it reinforces our commitment to elevate New England skiing,” Boyne Resorts President and CEO Stephen Kircher said in a press release. “With its rich history and accessible location, Shawnee Peak holds an important position in Maine’s ski industry and growing our sport. We look forward to building on what has been accomplished in its 84-year history.”
Shawnee Peak, while not well known outside of New England, is a strategically significant acquisition for Boyne, complementing their sprawling Sunday River, Sugarloaf, and Loon ski areas with a more approachable, family-oriented mountain closer to population centers.
While Boyne’s portfolio is a cornerstone of the Ikon Pass and all nine of its resorts have been on the pass since its inaugural season, it is unclear if Shawnee Peak will join them. Shawnee season pass access, for this season, remains unchanged and will not include access to any other Boyne resorts, as the company’s other top pass products do.
The purchase marks the first acquisition by one of America’s four largest ski companies since the Covid shutdowns in March 2020, which cost the industry up to $2 billion and sent many operators scrambling for capital. As with most BigCorp purchases, this is not a salvage job: Shawnee Peak has been well taken care of by the Homer family since 1994.
Here are some initial thoughts on what Boyne’s purchase of Shawnee means for the company, the ski area, its skiers, and the industry at large.
What is Shawnee Peak?
First, the basics: Shawnee Peak sits on 1,300 vertical feet served by six lifts (one quad, three triples, and two surface lifts). It has 47 marked runs on 249 acres, making it the sixth-largest ski area in the state behind Mount Abram (450), Black Mountain of Maine (600 acres), Saddleback (600-plus), Sunday River (870), and Sugarloaf (1,240)*. An average of 110 inches of snow falls on the mountain each season. It may be the smallest ski area in New England with two distinct base areas:
Founded in 1938 and in continuous operation since, Shawnee is the oldest ski area in Maine and the rare survivor in a ruthless Maine ski business littered with the carcasses of at least 79 lost ski areas. Though it is the smallest mountain in Boyne’s portfolio – its two Michigan ski areas, Boyne Mountain and Boyne Highlands, both top 400 acres – it hosts New England’s largest night-skiing footprint, dwarfing Boyne’s own operation at Sunday River. Seated on a distinct peak hovering over Moose Pond, it is a typically picturesque New England ski experience.
*Yes, I agree that some of these numbers seem wildly overstated (Black, Abram), and others seem vastly understated (Saddleback and, likely, Shawnee itself). But these are the skiable acres published to each ski area’s website. If you want to go fight with them about it, be my guest.
Bring on the eight-packs
The Homers invested significant capital into Shawnee Peak, replacing every chairlift on the mountain and substantially upgrading the snowmaking system.
But there is only so much they could do. Boyne has the capital, the knowhow, the contacts, and the experience to drive Shawnee to its full potential. This may, according to Kircher, include upgrades to the existing lift fleet, snowmaking plant, and baselodge facilities, but the most compelling opportunity sits Northwest of the existing trail network, where the Homers purchased 277 acres of raw forest that Boyne bought along with the existing ski area.
“Shawnee can be greatly enhanced,” Kircher said in an interview with The Storm Skiing Journal. “We've got some initial ideas, but like we do with all our acquisitions, we really like to fully digest what's on the ground and see it operate for a season and not jump to any conclusions. Our next steps are to infuse the different creative ideas we've worked on elsewhere and come up with a clear vision of where we're going to go with the property.”
This expansion could double Shawnee’s size. It would also likely be the extent of any future expansion – while the current ski area occupies just a fraction of Pleasant Mountain, the area skier’s right (south) of the current trails is locked into a conservation easement, making development improbable.
So Shawnee is unlikely to become a Sunday River-sized goliath, but it could evolve into something roughly the size of 370-acre Loon, Boyne’s impossibly busy New Hampshire resort that sits just over an hour away. The focus will remain on families and developing new skiers. “We’re excited to continue Shawnee’s tradition of being the top learning spot for Mainers,” Kircher said.
Give Boyne a year here, maybe two, to figure out what they have and formulate a vision. They will transform this place. This is the same company that orchestrated Sugarloaf’s expansion onto Brackett Basin and Burnt Mountain a decade ago, transforming what was already one of New England’s top ski areas into its most complete ski center. They are in the midst of adding an additional 400 acres on Sugarloaf’s West Mountain, and recently announced a massive expansion that could double the size of Sunday River. When they own land and can move unimpeded by bureaucratic obstacles, Boyne has shown a willingness to expand aggressively onto new terrain – typically with flashy new lifts to accompany it.
Building on the New England footprint
Just over an hour from Portland – Maine’s largest city – and half an hour from what may be New England’s best ski town in North Conway, Shawnee is a nice little ski area with a strategic location. The mountain’s appeal to Boyne, however, was its proximity to the company’s existing New England footprint. Shawnee is under an hour from Sunday River and just over an hour from Loon. Sugarloaf, two-and-a-half hours north, is a bit farther, but as a Sunday River season passholder told me on the Aurora lift a few years ago, by Maine standards that’s “right around the corner.”
Dropping a smaller mountain in the orbit of its monsters gives Boyne the kind of feeder system that Alterra uses to rope new California skiers in with Big Bear before they graduate to Mammoth or Palisades Tahoe.
“We felt that this was a real opportunity to expand our beginner and family programs – the stuff that we do to try to increase participation in the sport,” Kircher said. “We think it's an opportunity to really help keep the sports of skiing and snowboarding vibrant and growing in those communities where we're doing business and adding value to our most important relationships. We can really create a handshake between your home in Portland and your home at Sugarloaf, or your home in Portland, or your ski vacation or condo at Sunday River.”
While Boyne’s 10 ski areas are incredibly far-flung – their Cypress Mountain resort in British Columbia is a 3,062-mile, 49-hour drive from Shawnee Peak – Kircher favors building density wherever possible.
“When we went into new England back in 2007, we waited to go into the market with enough weight to make sure we could play in the game appropriately,” Kircher said. “We did not want to go into new England with one ski resort. We specifically waited until we could put three together.”
Building density is not a new strategy for Boyne. Its two Michigan mountains sit just 35 minutes apart. Cypress is three-and-a-half hours north of Summit at Snoqualmie in Washington – close enough to appeal to some common markets, and the company owned nearby Crystal Mountain for 20 years before selling it in 2017 (Alterra now owns it). While Big Sky and Brighton are isolated from their sister resorts, Kircher said he would consider future acquisitions in their orbit.
“If [a ski resort went on sale] in our neighborhood, we would definitely be looking at it,” he said. “We look for synergies and look for ways to create the flow of customers from incubation and through their whole life cycle of a skier.”
The same strategy would apply to any new markets Boyne may enter. “If we ever go to Colorado, it will be at a time when we can really put a footprint together,” Kircher said. “We've looked at Colorado several times, at several resorts there, but they were always kind of one-off small things. But at this point, we're not in Colorado because we couldn't put a meaningful footprint together there.” (Kircher mentioned that Boyne did, at one time, bid on Steamboat, but lost out to former Intrawest parent Fortress.)
Don’t expect Boyne to buy, say, Telluride anytime soon, however. The Shawnee purchase is probably the best indication of Boyne’s current strategy. “It's certainly not our thesis to grow our footprint,” Kircher said. “It's to re-invest and organically grow. Shawnee is a kind of a hybrid approach between the two, because it's so synergistic and it's in the backyard of our three other resorts. It’s really just an extension of our current operations in that footprint, and we think it actually helps us grow the sport in that important market.”
Now let’s get this thing on the Ikon/New England Passes
For now, Shawnee gives Boyne a powerful story to tell in eastern New England. Well, it will, once the company inevitably reworks its pass suite to fold reciprocal benefits – typically three days at each of Boyne’s other ski areas – onto Shawnee season passes.
“That’s what we do everywhere else, so that I think on the unlimited Shawnee pass, we would do something like that, yes,” Kircher said.
While Boyne has pledged to continue offering a standalone Shawnee Pass, there is little reason to doubt that next year’s New England Pass – which grants unlimited Sugarloaf, Sunday River, and Loon access – will also include Shawnee.
“I would suspect that’s where we’ll go,” Kircher said. “But we have not made a decision, and it would certainly be next year before we’d launch that. We’re certainly going to take a hard look at that as an option, but we are committed to the local passes.”
What is less guaranteed, though probably all but certain, is whether Shawnee will, like Boyne’s other nine mountains, end up on the Ikon Pass. Even if Alterra is not pining for a mid-sized New England ski area, Big Sky likely grants Boyne considerable latitude to include whichever of its properties it wants on the pass.
It seems unlikely, however, that Alterra would make Shawnee a standalone announcement, as they’ve tended to bundle smaller partners – Windham – with giants – Mt. Bachelor. The most logical Batman to the Robin that is Shawnee would be Powdr Corp’s enormous Silverstar, a typical BC powder dump nearly three times the size of Sugarloaf. The mountain joined Powdr in late 2019, not long before the Covid shutdown and its zip-tying of the U.S.-Canada border, so it makes sense that they haven’t been in a huge hurry to drop the mountain onto the Ikon Pass alongside Powdr’s other alpha resorts: Killington, Copper, Snowbird, and Bachelor. But with travel restrictions relaxing, it’s time, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see both resorts added by the end of this year.
Alterra declined to comment on whether they would consider Shawnee as an Ikon Pass partner, saying that partner negotiations were confidential.
Currently, Shawnee passholders have limited options for skiing other resorts on their pass. Beech Mountain, North Carolina, lists Shawnee as a reciprocal pass partner, though there is no mention of this on Shawnee’s own site – just a note that a list of partner benefits would be coming in the fall.
Shawnee says, however, that the entrance of the Epic, Ikon, and Indy passes did not factor into their decision to sell. “Our customer base is not really looking for those types of products,” said Geoff Homer, whose family sold Shawnee to Boyne. “They just want to come skiing with their kids at their own pace – they’re not looking for an Ikon Pass.”
How much Maine is too much Maine?
There are, of course, logical concerns around pricing and monopoly power when one company controls a critical mass of a scarce resource. The New England Pass is already the most expensive pass in the region, with the no-blackout version starting at $1,199 for the 2021-22 ski season (the current price is $1,599). Boyne’s hefty arsenal – the two largest ski areas in Maine plus one of the closest large ski areas to Boston – justifies the price. Still, that starting price was $400 more than a full Epic Pass and $200 more than an Ikon Pass (the $1,499 Platinum New England Pass, which is no longer on sale, included an Ikon Base Pass).
Shawnee, for its part, has an expensive pass given the mountain’s size – at its current $825 price, it is the 11th most-expensive** single-mountain season pass in New England.
Boyne declined to provide any season pass sales metrics, so its unclear if Vail’s Epic Pass discount dinged New England Pass or Shawnee pass sales. It seems unlikely, given the lack of Epic partners in Maine (put Vail at the top of the list of possible buyers when Arctaris finishes the renovation job at Saddleback and puts it on the market, as they’ve indicated they will do). And with Boyne now controlling half of Maine’s large ski resorts, there may be little incentive for them to hold prices down.
The competition doesn’t seem worried. “We’re actually feeling pretty good,” Saddleback GM Andy Shepard wrote via email when asked whether he was concerned about unfair competition after Boyne’s Shawnee pickup. “That purchase now leaves Saddleback as the only one of the Big Four*** in Maine that is independent. We believe there are people that will gravitate to us because of that.”
**The 10 most expensive single-mountain season passes in New England are, at current prices: Waterville Valley ($1,188), Jiminy Peak ($1,156), Bretton Woods ($1,099), Bromley ($1,080), Burke ($1,009), Mad River Glen ($999 – sold out), Cranmore ($959), Jay Peak ($869), Saddleback ($849), and Cannon ($839).
***This is the way that I had framed the question to Shepard – as Shawnee being the fourth largest ski area in the state, behind Saddleback, Sunday River, and Sugarloaf. This was my assumption without checking stats, which I did not do until after communicating with him.
So does this mean Boyne is buying Jay Peak?
It’s been a long time since I’ve written a Skiglomerate acquisition story. The last big four purchase prior to Shawnee was Powdr Corp’s pickup of Silver Star in 2019. Alterra bought Sugarbush the month before that, and Vail’s last addition was the 17-mountain Peak Resorts portfolio in July 2019. Could this be the start of a new wave of consolidation?
It’s impossible to say. Did Covid freeze the resort rollup, or did the big boys just run out of things to buy? Vail, Alterra, Boyne, and Powdr own more than 70 ski areas between them. A lot of the rest are too small, too medium, too remote, too dysfunctional, or too not for sale. We may be entering a period of relative stability, with an occasional pickup like Shawnee-to-Boyne.
Or maybe not. Jay Peak is “actively engaged” in sales discussions with several potential buyers (Boyne is not one of them, Kircher confirmed, though he said that Boyne did in fact bid on Jay in the last, pre-Covid round of purchase offers). Someone will buy it. Probably someone big. Will that finally push Smugglers’ Notch – the largest remaining independent ski area in the Northeast – off the ledge? How about Bretton Woods or Waterville Valley?
There are plenty of candidates, and that’s just in the East. Five large indies surround Lake Tahoe. Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington are filled with them. Sun Valley, Snowbasin, and Telluride seem bound for Vail. We’ll see.
For now, we have Shawnee nudging Boyne back up to a double-digit portfolio, a status the company lost with the Crystal sale. Shawnee is no Crystal, but it is a nice little mountain in a really good location, and it will be interesting to watch it evolve under Boyne.
The longtime owners say farewell - “It’s bittersweet”
In an open letter, former owner Chet Homer explained why he had decided to part with the mountain he had owned for 27 years:
Despite rumors since my first year of ownership in September 1994, I have never solicited nor received an interest in taking over my stewardship of this great ski area. At a recent casual lunch with industry friends, one mentioned if you ever were to consider a transfer of stewardship we would be very interested. I was caught off-guard, but after discussion with my family we agreed to pursue only if the interested party was upfront with a fair offer, would provide enhanced employee opportunities, continue with capital improvements each year and continue the family friendly atmosphere that I think we have established. They agreed.
This should end up being a good deal for just about everyone. Passholders will likely get access to Boyne’s larger mountains across the continent. Shawnee employees – all of whom Boyne is retaining – will have the sort of upscaled benefits that larger companies can offer, as well as opportunities for year-round employment and to transfer to and work in different regions of the country.
“Shawnee employees will have a lot of opportunity to grow and move within the system,” Kircher said. “Whether you want to move to Montana at some point, learn a trade and then move somewhere else. We do a lot of that amongst the teams across the network.”
Still, the family is in the process of saying goodbye. “It’s bittersweet,” said Geoff Homer, who is Chet’s son and who will still be involved with the ski area’s operations. “It’s been a part of our family for 27 years. But the deal has gotten positive feedback from our customers and people inside and outside the industry. Everybody’s spoken very highly about what we’ve accomplished. And so we feel pretty happy about that.”