Catalate Bets That Ski Areas Value Company’s Technology More Than Their Own Dignity

Plus a story about goats

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So if I change my name, can I tell my bank that I no longer owe them my mortgage payments?

Back when I was a server at a college town Applebee’s, I had a regular named Chris who owned a small construction business. He had four kids and tipped well and was humble and a good talker and whenever I saw him and his wife walk in the door I would order his Guinness before they were seated.

One night he told me a story that still infuriates me 20 years later. Someone had contracted Chris to build a deck, and after he had purchased and moved all of the lumber and materials onto the property, the man cancelled the contract. When Chris attempted to retrieve the materials and his tools, the man said some version of, “No, all this stuff is mine. It’s on my property.” And apparently according to Michigan law that was true. Or he said it was, and Chris, without the resources for a lawyer, surrendered.

Acknowledging that I only heard one side of the story and I am not a lawyer does not alter my point here: sometimes you can be technically correct under the law and still be a piece of shit.

Which is a not imperfect transition to Skitude Group CEO Bent Grøver’s recent comments to SAM about Catalate’s posture toward ski areas that its predecessor, Liftopia, screwed over:

The deadline for creditors to file claims [for money Liftopia owed them for 2020 sales made through their platform] was in April. Grøver said every former Liftopia client, i.e., creditor, that filed a valid claim will get something when “the cash is divided out in a proportional manner against the size of the claim in July.” None of the creditors will be made whole through this distribution, but Catalate is offering terms to remediate that.

“After having bought the assets and built up Catalate and the team, we have said that we would like to, as a gesture, find a way to repay the full amount to those who want to do business with us,” said Grøver. “If they don’t want to do business with us, it doesn’t make sense for us to repay something that was lost to bankruptcy. We bought the assets. We didn’t buy the company, its debts, or revenue.”

Let’s back up. Last March, the world went to hell. Somewhere in society’s evacuation from itself, Liftopia misplaced several million dollars. Aspen, Boyne, Alterra, and Arapahoe Basin tried forcing the company into bankruptcy, a maneuver that would have compelled Liftopia to disclose its financial records. A judge dismissed the case on a technicality. In December, European tech company Skitude purchased Liftopia, promising that “proceeds from the sale will be used to pay creditors.”

That indeed seems to be the case. Every ski operator who made a valid claim that Liftopia owed them money will get some money. Probably. But not all of the money they lost. Because that money – the money that Liftopia collected on behalf of the ski areas that entrusted them with their digital business, the money that skiers paid thinking it was going to the mountains, the money that, as Aspen CFO Matt Jones wrote in an April 2020 email to Liftopia CEO Evan Reece, was never Liftopia’s to begin with – is gone.

Where did it go? Liftopia’s operating model was to take a cut of sales and pass the remainder along to its clients. This relationship worked well for years. Then Covid hit, and all of the money was gone. All of it. Poof. The company owed Aspen alone $2.3 million for Mountain Collective passes. “Covid ran off with it,” seemed to be Liftopia’s only explanation, as though the virus were a gremlin or an imp, a mischievous creature stowing heaps of looted dollars in its underground lair, a wicked force no logic could explain. Reece, impervious to embarrassment or shame, took a “Why are you guys being so mean to me?” posture as he ducked the media and fended off legal challenges. Thank goodness there was enough money left over for lawyers.

Reece, confoundingly, is now Catalate’s CEO. Because, according to Grøver, he is “good at converting interest into sales.” Grøver, apparently, is good at helping tech bros fail sideways. Reece, who has made no public expressions of contrition or remorse, and has barely acknowledged the vanished millions, is skiing’s Hugo Chávez, a spectacularly ruinous failure who torched his empire but refuses to cede leadership.

Like a cartoon syndicate, Catalate spells out its master plan with cackling glee: do business with us, or we will ruin your world! It’s a bold bet: that ski areas, tottering as they are in their fixed-grip wicket-ticket 1980s purgatory, will so desperately need Catalate, né Liftopia’s technology – and are so anxious to retrieve their stolen money – that they will trade their dignity to retrieve both.

This is what bad-people-who-think-they-are-good-people do: point out what a friend they are as they do something odious. “As a gesture,” Catalate will surely give you back all of your money… if you give them even more money. They’re doing it, they assure us, because they’re good guys, because, after all, they “didn’t buy the company, [or] its debts.”

Catalate did, however, buy the old CEO, which was likely a far larger liability than the company name that they partially shed (Liftopia lives on as a consumer brand). It could prove to be an enormous strategic error. Ski areas seemed to universally like Liftopia’s technology. But, after kick-starting skiing’s shift to ecommerce 16 years ago, the company collapsed just in time to miss the industry’s Covid-inspired mass movement online. There are plenty of other online sales platforms, and as ski operators fled Liftopia, they found one or another that worked just fine.

Like the lumber thief in my opening anecdote, Grøver is, under the law, correct: debts lost to bankruptcy are forfeit. That does not mean that you are not a piece of shit if you refuse to repay it unless someone surrenders their memory, good sense, and pride to sit down at the slot machines with you again. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t some suckers who won’t give you another shot. Hell, with Reece’s track record, he could be president one day. But if anyone in the ski industry takes the chance with Catalate, they know exactly what they’re wagering.

Mountain Creek’s new lawnmowers have four stomachs and horns

OK so let’s find a place to direct our passion that isn’t rage at an internet shyster. Sometimes Twitter is horrible and sometimes it can make your week and the latter is what happened when I saw this tweet from Mountain Creek Marketing and Brand Manager Pat Morgan:

The animals – 20 goats and sheep on loan from a local farm – have been stationed beneath the resort’s mountain coaster to clear out a forest of weeds and undergrowth.

“They have absolutely laid waste to that footprint in the past few days,” Morgan said in a follow-up call. “They just eat the entire time.”

The use of goats as natural lawnmowers is a nationwide industry. Iowa-based Goats on the Go rents out herds in several states. New York City used goats to clear damaged hillsides after Hurricane Sandy, and Nassau County on Long Island deployed them last year to clear brush. The New York Times explained why goats are so efficient:

[Goats] are great climbers and are an environmentally safe approach to clearing the land, said [Prospect Park Alliance President Sue] Donoghue. Roundup herbicide – a cheaper, faster solution – is sometimes used in projects like this, but the Alliance went with the goats instead. And they were also very popular with park visitors.

They ate the invasive species down to their roots, forcing the plants to use all their energy to grow new shoots, only to be eaten again and again, [Prospect Park Alliance Chief Landscape Architect Christian] Zimmerman explained. The plants grow back smaller and smaller, until they don’t have the energy to grow back anymore.

In Mountain Creek’s case, the animals also appear to be saving the resort money. “In terms of a labor cost, it would be pretty significant to be out there weed-whacking and lawn-mowing,” said Morgan. “It’s no secret that you can’t find employees these days, so if you can get a little help on this natural approach, it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Mountain Creek is so happy with the animals that they plan to double the herd soon. They will stay all summer, moving over to the South Peak area once they’ve cleared the land beneath the mountain coaster.

The animals can’t completely replace the resort’s mowing operations. Mountain Creek runs a substantial mountain bike park on Vernon Peak, which would likely preclude the use of goats on most trails.

The goats are penned by day to keep them from wandering and to keep predators away, and sleep in a trailer with water and treats at night. They’ll return to the farm before ski season.

And now I’ll give Vail Resorts some unsolicited writing advice

Vail pulled a Catalate with its recent parking plan at Mount Snow, framing an unpopular decision as a big favor to all of us:

As part of our ongoing effort to improve the guest experience at Mount Snow Resort, we are implementing a new parking plan for the 2021-22 winter season. Premium parking for a daily fee will be available each day in Lot A and Upper Carinthia. On weekends and holidays, Lot B, Lot C, Sundance, and Lower Carinthia will also be paid parking. Lot D, Lot E, and the Tiered Lots – which comprise nearly half of the resort’s total parking – will remain free daily, and all lots will be free after 1 p.m. throughout the season. Payment will be handled electronically through an application accessible via smartphone. These changes will help ensure faster, more efficient parking for all our valued guests, especially at our busiest times. More information coming soon.

Yes and as part of my ongoing efforts to improve this newsletter, I’ll start including minutes from Bulgarian legislative sessions on lettuce futures. Tell your friends. In the meantime, I rewrote Mount Snow’s new parking policy so it didn’t sound like a 1950s trust-me-this-is-good-for-you TV dad whooping his kid’s behind with a leather belt:

Look, we all know this place is a mess. Skiing here on weekends is like jumping out of the back of a jumbo jet with a team of confused paratroopers who all decide to go at once. There’s no way it can work. And now that we’ve lowered Epic Passes below the price of a meal deal at Burger King, it’s only going to get worse. So we need another way to control crowds. Paying for parking is a good way of doing that. We know you are going to hate this decision. That’s why we are setting aside two parking lots in New Hampshire for your free daily use. We know it’s a long way away, but it will be worth it to have The Experience of a Lifetime. We promise.

Better? I think so. Please attribute.

And now I’ll give Vail Resorts props for their gender diversity efforts

There are some things, however, that Vail is doing very well. One of them is the company’s promotion of women to leadership roles throughout the organization:

I reached out to Vail after that tweet, and Director of Corporate Communications Jamie Alvarez told me that their gender diversity efforts are “intentional and explicit.” Nine of the company’s 37 resorts are run by women. By industry standards, that’s enormous. Women also lead Ski Patrol at Park City, Crested Butte, and Stowe, and hold many other senior roles throughout the company, including 45 percent of director-or-above levels in the corporate offices and nearly half their board of directors.

“We know intentional representation in leadership roles is critical to creating an inclusive culture,” Alvarez said. “Vail Resorts has invested heavily in leadership development programs, including those designed to advance women throughout our business.”

These deliberate efforts are, I think, necessary to make skiing more accessible and appealing to more people. I don’t have an exact demographic breakdown of who reads this newsletter, but from the email addresses I see, it’s a lot of Bills and Gregs and Justins and Carls. Fewer Jennifers and Kims. The way we tell the story of skiing matters. If it’s by men, for men, that’s all we’ll get. But skiing should be for everyone. Having more women running more parts of the ski experience is probably going to help send that message.

The Vail GM-level appointments are part of a small wave of such promotions this offseason – Alterra bumped longtime Sugarbush VP of Guest Services and Safety Amber Broadaway up to president and COO of Utah’s Solitude.

“This is a loss for [Sugarbush President and COO] John [Hammond] and Sugarbush but wonderful for Amber, her family and the Solitude community,” said former Sugarbush President and COO Win Smith. “One of the benefits in selling to Alterra Mountain Company that I was hoping for was career growth beyond just what would be available at Sugarbush (three other former colleagues of mine have also moved up into AMC jobs).

“Amber is very talented and did an excellent job at Sugarbush. It’s great to see another woman advancing to lead a ski resort. I am also proud to have been part of the selection teams that recommended Kelly Pawlak to succeed Michael Berry as President of the National Ski Areas Association and Molly Mahar as President of the Vermont Ski Areas Association. Their leadership this past year guiding the industry through the challenges of COVID-19 has been exceptional. The industry still has a long way to go in creating greater diversity within in senior leadership teams, but these are meaningful steps forward.”

Ski season should never end

I’ve called Big Snow American Dream – the 16-story Rockies-in-a-can snowslope hard by the Jersey Turnpike – the most important ski area in America, and I mean it. It’s close to lots of people. It’s affordable. It’s well-run. It’s unfortunately also attached to the slow-motion disaster known as the American Dream Mall, a Ferrari lashed to the decks of the Titanic.

If it was a standalone outfit, I’d feel a lot better about its long-term survival odds. Which makes the ambitions of Alpine-X, an aspiring indoor ski hill operator run by a pair of former Great Wolf Resorts executives, interesting. The company hopes to build as many as 20 year-round slopes around the United States on disused landfills.

Even without Big Snow’s fabricated hill, the facilities will be fabulously expensive. The first project, in Fairfax, Virginia, carries a $200 million estimate. It won’t be done until 2024 at the earliest.

The U.S. needs more indoor ski areas, especially in places where it never or rarely snows. With their unchanging temperatures and year-round season, they can reach people who would otherwise never think to try skiing. Can they successfully scale that model at $200-million-per-facility? I don’t know.

This tram accident makes the crew at Catalate look like kindergarten Christmas carolers

Fourteen people died when a tram fell in Italy last week, the deadliest lift accident since a U.S. military plane clipped a tram cable near Cavalese in 1998, killing 20. Earlier this week, Lift Blog published this sobering report:

The owner and two employees of the Stresa-Mottarone cable car operating company were arrested overnight, charged with manslaughter and intentional removal of precautions against accidents at work. Prosecutor Olimpia Bossi said two devices were found blocking the crashed cabin’s emergency track rope brakes in the open position. Company owner Luigi Nerini, director Enrico Perocchio and service manager Gabriele Tadini reportedly admitted this had become common practice to avoid downtime when brakes were malfunctioning. The brakes on cabin 3 had not been operable since April 26th. “It was a conscious choice dictated by economic reasons,” said Bossi, who is coordinating the criminal investigation.

Chairlifts are in some ways like airplanes – big, complicated, powerful machines that can mess up your world if shit goes sideways. We’ve largely eliminated commercial plane crashes in the United States – the last mass casualty event was Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo in 2009, which killed 49. American ski lifts, while not as complex or scrutinized, still face substantial amounts of regulation and inspection. That’s good for all of us. Can you imagine the lift maintenance crews at Jackson Hole or Jay Peak deliberately modifying a safety device to keep the lift moving? Neither can I. That thing is not moving one inch out of the terminal until it’s 100 percent operational, no matter how much we whine about it.

KSL needs to get its shit together at Camelback

Not that U.S. lift operations are accident-free. It was just two months ago that a moving and loaded chair fell from Camelback’s Sullivan Express lift, injuring a father and two children (you can donate to their Gofundme here). Occupied chairs also detached from lifts at Washington’s 49 Degrees North and Michigan’s Indianhead this past season. In both of the latter cases, the chairs were decades-old Riblet lifts (built in 1972 and 1964, respectively).  

Camelback’s lift – a 1995 Doppelmayr detachable quad – was considerably newer and more sophisticated. And while an isolated incident doesn’t necessarily implicate a resort’s safety culture, Camelback should be on notice from state inspectors after a zipline accident last week:

An 8-year-old girl was injured Friday afternoon when she fell from a zip line at a Pocono resort, leading to the closing of the attraction while state officials investigate.

At 12:37 p.m., officers from the Pocono Township Police Department responded to Camelback Resort in Tannersville, Monroe County, Chief Kent Werkheiser said.

He did not release the girl’s name, but said she was not from the area. He also did not have an update on the girl’s condition.

KSL needs to tighten that ship up, and fast.

Where did all the Rollerbladers go? We now have answers.

I don’t have anything to say about this Ski Magazine story tracing the symbiotic relationship between skiing and rollerblading except to say that it was amazing and you absolutely have to read it:

Stump’s films helped anchor rollerblading in the ski industry, but Rollerblade’s team athletes were soon taking the sport to new heights, borrowing from skateboarding a street and skatepark style that was beyond the imagination of 1980s skiers.

“We rocked the ski industry,” Horvath says. “The (SIA) ski show was a big show for us. You had all the ski industry there. We had a big halfpipe. We were like rock stars at the show.”

That push into skateparks not only laid the foundation for modern-day freeskiing, it also set off a furious backlash from skateboarders that would relentlessly unravel the sport.

“I don’t think it’s incorrect to say that skateboarders mocked rollerblading out of existence,” says Dave Carnie, former head writer of Big Brother magazine and one of the leaders of skateboarding’s cadre of anti-blading zealots.

Full read recommended.

Look the workers can just sleep in their cars, Brah

I can tell you as a member of corporate America that some version of remote work for the two-iPhones-and-a-vacation-home set is here permanently, which means the urban-to-idyllic-rural migration is probably just starting. That’s a problem. As Blevins writes in The Colorado Sun:

As buyers continue to snatch up homes across Colorado, an unprecedented housing crisis is unfolding. Workers are losing their rental homes as new owners or investors pay record prices move in or convert them to their work-from-anywhere homes or short-term vacation investment homes. At least two communities are pondering radical strategies to slow the rapid shifts in housing that many see threatening the vitality and even existence of communities that rely on armies of workers.

In Frisco, leaders are pondering a first-ever official emergency declaration as they liken the unfolding housing crisis to a devastating flood or wildfire. In Crested Butte, workers are whispering about a strike in the middle of the busy summer season.

Either mountain towns are going to have to find a way to build a lot more permanently affordable housing, or the resorts towering over them are going to have to use their legal and financial might to plant ever-more university-style dorms nearby to house their workers.

Elsewhere

Ski includes Magic and Smuggs in a list of five affordable resorts. This Freeskier article might make you rethink sand-dune skiing as a summer hobby, but the photos are stunning (even if I disagree with the “skiing is useless” premise in the story’s preamble). Blevins patches together a report on this season’s Colorado skier deaths as the state’s ski areas continue to fight laws that would require them to report on-mountain fatalities. An update on Hickory (that place will never have a stable future without snowmaking). The Pennsylvania DCNR is seeking an operator to revive Denton Hill, which has been closed since 2014. I’d like to stop caring about the Jay Peak-Burke fiasco but it just goes on and on and here’s another update. In case you missed my conversation with Berkshire East and Catamount owner Jon Schaefer:

This week in skiing

No skiing. Season over: