Camelback Manager KSL Resorts Adds Blue Mountain, Pennsylvania to Its Portfolio

The emerging Poconos powerhouse would make a compelling Ikon Pass addition

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KSL Resorts, which began managing Pennsylvania’s Camelback ski area two years ago, will take over operations at nearby Blue Mountain ski area. The company has not provided a clear timeline on when the transition will take place, and did not clarify whether KSL Resorts is purchasing the mountain or partnering with it.

The move puts the California-based company in command of two of the Poconos’ largest mountains, both roughly equidistant from New York City and Philadelphia. In a Pennsylvania ski landscape currently dominated by Vail’s Epic Pass and its five mountains, the bundling of Blue Mountain and Camelback under common management could create a compelling addition to Alterra’s Ikon Pass.

Here’s a bit more about what this news means for Blue Mountain, Camelback, and Pennsylvania skiers:

A Poconos powerhouse forms

Hard by the Appalachian Trail, with the tallest vertical drop in the state (nearly 1,100 feet), and a pair of high-speed lifts – including a six-pack – Blue Mountain is an impressive hunk of real estate. The place has some interesting terrain, especially in the rare instances it has natural snow. It has a handful of official glades, but most of the trees are skiable, and they don’t go overboard with the grooming, leaving patches of bumps for a little variety.

Camelback is a bit shorter and probably a bit broader, with 800 feet of vert and a sprawling trail network served by a dizzying number of chairlifts. The ski area has added a new lift and expert trail in recent years, but the resort’s signature draw is the garish Kalahari hotel and waterpark, a monolith that sprouted incongruously from the homey Poconos in 2015. This combination of slopeside lodging and decent skiing is irresistible to families looking for a complete resort experience.

Just 30-ish miles apart, these two ski areas make fair competitors. Combined, they have the potential to be a regional force. The other ski areas in the region – Elk, Montage, and Big Bear – stand alone. Shawnee is a member of the Indy Pass, but it’s smaller than Blue or Camelback. Combine season passes at the two mountains – as the owners of Greek Peak and Toggenburg or Labrador and Song have done in New York – and you have a powerful story to tell to potential passholders.

That’s step one: somehow combine the mountains. Step two is to seek out larger opportunities on a national pass coalition. And that opportunity, for Blue and Camelback, is probably to join the Ikon Pass.

KSL Resorts: a master class in making a useless website

Spend some time on KSL Resorts’ useless website, and you’ll probably leave more confused about what the company is and what it does than when you started. The site is a garbage pile of corporate cliches dumped out the back end of the Jargonator 5000. “We believe there’s no such thing as a boilerplate solution,” proclaims one page of this website that is a Lego house of unreadable boilerplate. This is what happens when executives don’t hire people who tell them when they sound like nitwits.

Press about the company is rare. The industry news section of their website ignores the properties themselves and features self-serving missives about executive promotions. Local press about KSL Resorts’ takeover of Camelback is almost non-existent, suggesting the company failed to conduct any sort of outreach. They did not reply in any meaningful way to questions from The Storm Skiing Journal about their relationship with Blue Mountain. Bland and aloof, they seem to be trying to remain invisible.

All of which makes it very difficult to understand how or if KSL Resorts is in any way related to KSL Capital Partners, one of the two parent companies – along with Aspen-Snowmass owners Henry Crown – of Alterra Mountain Company. The best clue that they are in some way connected is the investments section of KSL Capital Partners’ website, which lists KSL Resorts’ Camelback and Outrigger resorts as part of the portfolio. Blue Mountain is not yet listed as a property on either company’s website.

But if KSL Capital Partners is involved in Blue and Camelback, that could be a very big deal for Ikon Pass holders.

Ikon’t wait to shred PA

In March, I asked Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory about the possibility of an Ikon Pass/Camelback partnership on The Storm Skiing Podcast:

“We’ve actually had a lot of discussions about that, and, as you’re likely aware, KSL purchased Camelback not that long ago, and they’re getting their feet on the ground, understanding the opportunity. It’s a significant opportunity. Camelback and the very vertically integrated family destination fun that they provide, that includes skiing and the indoor and outdoor waterparks and all the other things that they do there, it’s quite a successful business. So we’ve had a lot of discussions about it … and so I think that that’s a great asset, and if there was an opportunity for Alterra to somehow be more involved, that would certainly be something that we would entertain and talk about.”

If you’re reading this outside of the New York-to-Philadelphia corridor, you’re probably thinking some version of, “Hey much respect here Bro but I really don’t give a squat about a pair of Pennsylvania speedbumps that get less than three feet of snow in an average year and that I’ll never go to.” Which is fair. But Alterra and the Ikon Pass need these speedbumps.

The megapass template of 10 years ago was to assemble the biggest, most kick-ass mountains on the continent and combine them on one pass. Vail, Beaver Creek, Breck, Keystone, Heavenly, Northstar, Kirkwood on the Epic Pass. Alta, Aspen, Jackson Hole and Squaw Valley on the Mountain Collective. But that’s no longer good enough. Skiers now expect their passes to include day-trip options to supplement their weekends in New England or their weeks out West.

This is no doubt what Alterra had in mind when it signed Windham as a limited Ikon Pass partner last April. As I wrote at the time:

Windham may at first seem like a curious partnership for Alterra. At 1,600 vertical feet and 285 acres, it is tiny compared to the other four non-Alterra-owned Ikon partners in the Northeast: Killington, Sunday River, Sugarloaf, and Loon. It is not a particularly interesting or aspirational place to ski. But it has an important location advantage that makes it a necessary and compelling addition to the Ikon Pass: it’s only 2.5 hours from New York City.

When Vail bought Peak Resorts last year, it blew up the company’s Northeast footprint from the regal trio of Stowe, Okemo, and Mount Sunapee to eight mountains across Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. While Mount Snow was considered Peak’s crown jewel, the acquisition of Hunter Mountain was just as important, as it instantly gave potential Epic Pass buyers in the sprawling New York City region an easy day-trip option to help cement their decision. While New Yorkers have a reputation for flooding the larger New England ski areas every winter weekend, they are also avid day-trippers, and Hunter, which is the largest Catskills ski area by most measures, is a Running-of-the-Bulls crowded testament to that enthusiasm.

The Hunter addition put Alterra at a considerable disadvantage in selling passes in this important market. Vermont access was more or less equal (Ikon offering access to Stratton, Sugarbush, and Killington compared the three aforementioned Vail mountains, though Epic offered unlimited access to those); Vail had the advantage in New Hampshire with four mountains – all unlimited – to Ikon’s limited Loon access; and Alterra had the clear advantage in Maine, where Vail has no presence, with access to bombers Sunday River and Sugarloaf. Western access was more or less equal on either pass. But the closest Ikon mountain was four-hours-if-you’re-lucky-and-don’t-make-a-potty-stop Stratton, and Hunter, while not in Stratton’s league size- or terrain-wise, is only a touch over two hours from the city. It was a powerful selling point when considering two passes of more or less equal price.

The addition of Windham instantly changes that calculation.

Vail’s Peak Resorts acquisition also came with five Pennsylvania ski areas, all of which Vail dropped into the unlimited tier on its $479 Northeast Value Pass. Buy up to the $583 Epic Local and you suddenly have access to all of Vail’s Western mountains. Some combination of at least two of these five mountains – Jack Frost, Big Boulder, Roundtop, Whitetail, and Liberty – are within day-trip distance for anyone along the New York-to-Baltimore corridor. This Ikon Pass desert houses an enormous population of skiers, many of whom want to ski every week. For them, Epic is the clear choice.

Dropping Blue Mountain and Camelback onto the Ikon Pass would instantly scramble this dynamic. Both mountains are considerably larger and more interesting (for the non-park crowd), than Vail’s Jack Frost and Big Boulder combo just down the interstate. Camelback’s slopeside water park razmataz is particularly appealing to families. And both tend to stretch the season a bit longer than Vail’s southern Pennsylvania trio. Even a five- or seven-day partnership would likely drive material numbers of Philadelphia skiers toward Ikon.

But hey if you could keep the chairlifts from falling apart that would be rad

Skiing in Pennsylvania, especially on weekends, makes the evacuation of the Titanic look organized.

Reader: “Dude, too far.”

Me: “Really?”

Reader: “Yeah actually that’s insanely accurate.”

As overwhelming social media complaints about Vail’s Pennsylvania line management this past season suggested, even experienced operators find the environment challenging. KSL Resorts is not an experienced ski area operator. Their other properties are mostly palm tree-flecked beach oases with swimming pools the size of Lake Ontario. They still seem to be adjusting to the vagaries of managing the complex machinery of a ski area.

Nothing made this more obvious than when a loaded chair fell from the Sullivan Express quad in March, sending a man and two children to the hospital. In the milquetoast template of KSL Resorts’ corporate communication, no information is available after that save for a generic corporate statement and a handful of for-the-sake-of-doing-something social media posts.

The mountain is doing some things well. The snowmaking plant is enormously powerful, and they bury the place – it was the only Pennsylvania ski area aside from Seven Springs that nearly reached April. But brushing away high-profile accidents without reassuring the skiing public that you’ve mastered the art of moving chairs from the bottom of the mountain to the top without them falling apart like a homemade cardboard derby sled only compounds the fallout from unpopular changes like Camelback’s decision to charge for parking in a region where ski areas rarely do.

All of which is a long way of saying that Camelback may not be Ikon-ready. Alterra knows how to run ski areas. KSL should ask them for help. So should Blue, which does many things – like snowmaking – well, but has some of the worst chairlift line management I’ve ever witnessed. Combine that with Pennsylvania swarms, and you have the opposite of The Experience of a Lifetime, which if Alterra intends to use the state as an experiential gateway to its larger destinations, it needs to avoid.

Skiing’s great consolidation continues as one more local goes corporate

Camelback has been under corporate ownership since 2013, when a real-estate investment company called EPR Properties bought it from a local businessman. Blue, for all its burly high-speed infrastructure, has remained a family operation, run since 2007 by Barbara Green, daughter of Ray Tuthill, who founded the ski area in 1977.

“We are excited to be joining the KSL Resorts family and confident KSL will successfully carry on the traditions of Blue Mountain Resort,” said Blue Mountain President and CEO Barb Green. “I look forward to partnering with KSL to further enhance Blue Mountain Resort and welcome their resort expertise and five-star approach to guest experiences. This is great for our employees, guests and the community, and will provide many opportunities for all.”

Translated into English, this quote says, “Running a ski area is an expensive pain in the ass and we need some help.” Green has been battling environmental groups for years to build a ski-in, ski-out hotel. The place clearly needs more lift and trail capacity. All of those projects and legal battles take money. KSL Resorts will provide it.

There are echoes here of Berkshire East’s purchase of Catamount three years ago. “To remain really competitive in the ski industry there's many things that need to be done, and we've been trying over the years to raise some capital to do these projects,” Catamount President Tom Gilbert, the son of longtime co-owner Bill Gilbert told The Berkshire Eagle at the time. “We realized we were not successful in raising capital and realized we needed to bring something in.” Berkshire East, owned by the Schaefer family, had just undergone a decade-long transformation into a booming four-seasons resort, stamping out the template and clearing access to the capital that Catamount needed to modernize.

That appears to be KSL’s intent as well. “We have the resort expertise to fully develop the mountain to its potential and enhance the guest experience with additional amenities,” said Shawn Hauver, vice president of asset performance for KSL Resorts, who added that Green would remain involved in operations.

While KSL Resorts’ template seems to be more in the fix-and-flip mode – their website lists far more “past properties” than current ones – they have invested significantly in Camelback and seem to intend to continue doing so. The two ski areas, combined under one entity and properly managed, could transform Pennsylvania skiing.