Idle Lifts, Bare Slopes, Stunted Operating Hours: Vail Must Do Better
And also stop paying employees in onions and potatoes
I’ll start here: Hunter Mountain, last Wednesday. Thirty-one trails live, all the main lifts spinning but Westway. The Flyer six-pack going, the redundant summit slowpokes going, Northern Express going, all the beginner lifts on. A warm day, swarmed with holiday skiers. Liftlines long but orderly, fast-moving. Mr. Pass-Scanner dinging Epic Passes five skiers down the liftline like a laser-tag pro and dancing to the beats from Backpack Speaker Bro’s obnoxious rig. Not the Experience of a Lifetime, but better than anyone had any right to have expected given the rain and the warm spells and the Covid surge and the labor shortage. I had a good day.
Not everyone skiing a Vail Resort last week did. Attitash, with a quarter of its terrain open, and Wildcat, with less than 20 percent, lagged far behind some other New Hampshire resorts – sprawling Loon was 60 percent open, with eight lifts spinning; Pats Peak – just 20 minutes from Crotched, with roughly half its trails live – was nearly 100 percent open. At least New Hampshire Epic Pass holders could ski: none of Vail’s four Ohio ski areas opened, and neither did Paoli Peaks in neighboring Indiana. Their independent competitors – Snow Trails, Ohio and Perfect North, Indiana – opened, albeit with limited terrain (A Vail Resorts spokesman said that temperatures have been insufficient to pursue snowmaking at its Ohio resorts, which are not as cold as Snow Trails). Both of Vail’s Missouri ski areas – the only two ski areas in the state – sat idle.
And then, of course, there’s Stevens Pass, the beloved Washington State beauty humping off the top of the Cascades. Vail’s Waterloo. Perhaps. Per an Everett Herald report published on New Year’s Day:
Since the resort opened on Dec. 15, skiers and snowboarders have found parking is a nightmare, lift lines are endless, more than half of the mountain is still closed, and only one lodge and a few restaurants are running, according to interviews with season pass holders and employees. …
Many employees and patrons agree each hangup has one root cause: the resort’s failure to attract and retain enough staff. They blame Stevens Pass’ ownership, Vail Resorts, a Colorado-based ski conglomerate that reported $1.91 billion in net revenue last year.
Customers are demanding better treatment of resort employees and refunds of their season passes. An online petition, accusing the company of deceiving consumers in the name of profit, garnered about 20,000 signatures in just a few days this week. And since Christmas Day, at least a dozen people have filed consumer complaints against the resort with the state Office of the Attorney General.
In a statement posted to the mountain’s Facebook and Instagram pages, Stevens Pass General Manager Tom Pettigrew blamed the “staffing shortages facing everyone in the travel + leisure industry” and Covid’s Omicron variant as among the “difficult challenges” keeping the resort from operating at full tilt, despite a 70-inch settled snowbase from 150 inches of snow so far this season.
Nice try. But all of Stevens’ nearby rivals juked these challenges and opened the majority of their lifts and terrain. This image from Dec. 28 is damning:
Mission Ridge, I’ll add, gets half the snowfall of Stevens, and is currently riding on just a 25- to 30-inch base.
What happened? This story by The Colorado Sun’s Jason Blevins offers some context, gathered via an interview with Alex Kaufman, host of the recently retired Wintry Mix podcast and founder of the Epic Lift Lines Instagram account, which has stacked up 26,000-plus followers since its launch last year:
Kaufman, who this week handed control of the epicliftlines.com website and Instagram account to a new, anonymous administrator, said he was shocked and saddened by the tsunami of comments he’s received this month.
“They are from staff, former staff, locals, guests. Everybody touched by Vail Resorts has started realizing they could trust this faceless Instagram handle and they started pouring their guts out,” Kaufman said.
They told him how Vail Resorts gutted middle-management positions when it slashed spending during the pandemic. They showed how the company was stacking bunk beds into apartments, so four workers can share a room. They blasted the company’s new human resources app, which is replacing people and departments at all of the company’s 34 North American ski areas.
In the outpouring, Kaufman said, a theme emerged, especially at the company’s newly acquired resorts, which are lagging behind nearby resorts in Washington, Minnesota and New Hampshire when it comes to opening terrain.
When Vail Resorts acquires a new resort, they assimilate departments into the company’s headquarters in Broomfield. The career-types in each ski area’s finance, marketing and human resources departments are let go. They direct all hourly workers — there are tens of thousands of seasonal, hourly workers supporting Vail Resorts — to an app for all daily tasks, like tracking benefits, pay and COVID policies.
“They made a bet on automating everything and eliminated institutional knowledge and careers and, really, the culture at all these resorts in the name of efficiency. And it might have worked,” Kaufman said. “Then a pandemic came and they have a broken HR app that does not work as they try to navigate through a, quote, global talent shortage. The pandemic called their bet and now they don’t have veterans or institutional knowledge.”
Vail must fix this. And it can. As Open Snow predicts up to 70 inches of snow on a collision course for Stevens Pass by this weekend, here are a few first steps the company can take to avoid widespread passholder mutiny:
Own the problem
We don’t need Vail to tell us the world is broken. We already know that. Yes Covid hit like an asteroid and now dear lord you can’t even get a box of Pop Tarts without it being a whole process. But just own the problems and acknowledge that your efforts to run ski resorts over the Christmas break weren’t good enough.
Example: this note from Geoff Hatheway, president and part-owner of Magic Mountain, Vermont, a mid-sized ski area sandwiched between Vail’s (impressively wide open in spite of conditions) Mount Snow and Okemo, on their endless chairlift drama:
Sorry for the late-night email but we wanted to relay the latest news so you can plan your holiday week. Despite our best efforts on Red Chair being load-tested and approved before Christmas, there is just too much work on the new drive by Larry Wollum of All Ski Lifts to get her ready until 12/28 for Vermont state inspection. Summit skiing will begin on 12/29. Our team here has done everything they can and we've spared no expense to move this process along in concert with Pfister Mountain Services after the new haul rope delivery was delayed by a month. I'm personally disappointed in not being able to usher Red Lift along more quickly despite the hurdles presented. I know our staff did everything they could, so any frustration out there should solely be directed at me [Emphasis mine].
And if you want to throw a concession in there, that’s not going to piss anybody off. Hatheway continues:
Tickets for 12/26-28 will now be lowered to 50% off the ticket window price (now just $39 online) since it is mid-mountain skiing and riding for those 3 days to start the holiday week. For those who already purchased online, we will credit the difference in price or credit the ticket to another day or provide a full refund. Your choice. For Indy pass holders, your reservations can also be moved or canceled if desired.
This is how a once-abandoned mountain squeezed between three of the best-capitalized resorts in New England (it’s also just 15 miles from Alterra-owned Stratton), has more than quadrupled its season passholder base in the past five years even as the ski area enters its fourth season of trying to install a summit quad.
Vail itself offers precedence for this sort of humility. In December 2020, then-CEO Rob Katz issued an apology for sclerotic customer service in the wake of its Epic Pass sales period:
Weighing heavily on my mind is the frustration I have heard from too many pass holders and guests regarding their customer service experience with our call centers. If you are included amongst those who have been unable to reach a customer service agent for help, or encountered long call center or chat wait times, I want you to know we have heard you loud and clear. And we agree. It is unacceptable, and I personally apologize to you for your experience [Again, emphasis mine].
Vail’s competitors just spent Christmas week kicking its butt in several important ski regions. The company needs to acknowledge that and promise to do better.
Stop telling us why the meltdown at Stevens Pass is not your fault and start telling us how you’re going to fix it.
Example: Two winters ago, it was Alterra’s Crystal Mountain, not Stevens Pass, that was teetering on the edge of dysfunction. After a dry early season gave way to a series of monster storms, eager skiers toting cheap Ikon Base passes parked the mountain out before 8 a.m. and froze highway 410 into a 40-mile-long traffic jam.
Crystal responded immediately. First, it stopped selling walk-up day tickets on weekends. Last March, it dropped Ikon Base Pass access from unlimited with no blackouts to five days with blackouts. Then the mountain instituted a paid parking program and, last weekend, began requiring parking reservations. None of these solutions were perfect, but, as GM Frank DeBerry said in the memo announcing paid parking, “we decided to tackle our new transportation plan with thought, strategy and consideration, rather than sticking our head in the snowbank and pretending traffic wasn’t an issue.”
What’s Vail’s plan for Stevens Pass? Right now, its head seems to be firmly in the snowbank. How will they fully open the mountain, organize parking, and tame liftlines? The company announced in August that it would limit day-ticket sales for peak days throughout the season, but as of Dec. 24 – the day Stevens’ GM issued his social-media statement – the ski area’s website was not showing a single sellout for the Christmas-to-New-Year’s peak period. Shouldn’t shutting down day tickets be step number one when season passholders can barely get on the lifts? Should Stevens be unlimited with no blackouts on the Epic Local Pass, which went on sale in the spring for just $583?
When Crystal CEO Frank DeBerry came on The Storm Skiing Podcast in October, I asked him whether he had to clear the January 2020 lift-ticket freeze with Alterra. He acknowledged that he did, but emphasized that Alterra didn’t push back on the decision and ceded a lot of local operations calls to its mountains. Broomfield is an awful long way from Washington. Perhaps this local problem has local solutions?
This isn’t the Irish Famine, so stop paying employees in onions and potatoes
“Stevens Pass is run by people who are deeply passionate about what this mountain has to offer, and I want to thank our team who has been working tirelessly, not only to prepare our mountain for opening, but also to keep it running,” read Pettigrew’s note.
To reward these loyalists, Stevens put together a breadline ration packet straight out of Dickens. From the Everett Herald:
When the opening of Stevens Pass ski resort was delayed two weeks last month due to weather, lift operators were told they would get free groceries to help make up for their deferred income, according to one employee.
A few lifties got a $25 gift card to one of several grocery stores, most of which were more than an hour’s drive from the resort.
If that wasn’t enough of a perk, all of them got some food, too.
Inside each package was a box of cereal, oatmeal, a few single-serving plastic fruit cups, some potatoes, an onion or two, and a loaf of bread, the employee told The Daily Herald.
Every ski area in the region is facing the same labor market, and every one staffed up enough to open all or most of its lifts. Step one of having a lift-served ski resort is having functioning chairlifts. This is not new to Vail. The company has the resources. They have to get more people. Vail raised starting pay to $15 an hour at Stevens last year. Perhaps that’s too meager in a world where you can sling French fries for more than that in many cases and not have to drive to the top of a mountain pass to go to work. Vail needs to get creative here. Raise pay, mix in some MTN stock, offer family Epic Passes. Then throw in a free puma and a ride on Rob Katz’s jet. I don’t know – the answer is out there, buried in 170 inches of snow. Figure it out.
Deliver to expectations
At least five Vail resorts announced curtailed operating plans in the past weeks. New Hampshire’s Crotched, a sort-of party resort that has historically stayed open until 3 a.m. on select weekend nights, will contract its schedule to five days per week and shutter night skiing by 9 p.m. Snow Valley, Missouri, announced that it would only operate Fridays through Sundays. Unlike New Hampshire skiers, who have several other Vail options within driving distance, Snow Creek is 274 miles from the nearest Vail-owned ski area – Hidden Valley, on the other side of the state. The closest competition is Mount Crescent, Iowa, 165 miles to the north. The ski area will only offer night skiing on Fridays. Hidden Valley in Missouri and Mad River and Boston Mills in Ohio will all open this weekend with reduced hours for the season.
Granted, the Snow Creek Epic Pass was just $255 when it went on sale. It topped out at $279 in December. That is a good deal for any mountain. But that wasn’t really the agreement, was it? Snow Creek has, what, a 12-week season? It’s supposed to be full-throttle for those 84 days. And now it won’t be. Crotched’s cheapest season pass was the Northeast Value Epic, which started at just $479. But with the mountain out of commission two days per week, the value seems somewhat compromised; a 20 percent price cut for a 30-percent-plus service cut. That stinks.
Vail has had some wins this year. Jack Frost was the first ski area to open in Pennsylvania. Its Tahoe resorts blew wide open following invasion-level snowfalls. Okemo, Mount Snow, and Hunter are performing on par with or ahead of their peer mountains (I’ve skied all three this season, and have been impressed with how much they’ve opened in spite of marginal-at-best Northeast weather). Peak Rankings published a comprehensive breakdown of Vail’s performance against its geographic competitors, which showed the company performing on par with competitors in many ski regions. And Vail inherited solvable but time- and capital-intensive issues such as “older equipment that can require significant maintenance” at its northern New Hampshire resorts, as a Vail rep told the Concord Monitor earlier this week. I expect the company to invest significantly in snowmaking in the coming years to guarantee better early-season conditions in New England (Hunter, Okemo, and Mount Snow are in such good shape largely due to the incomprehensible sums their previous owners pumped into snowmaking plants).
But there are shorter-term fixes, and Vail has to find them. It must do better.
And at least throw a steak in with the potatoes next time.
Passes: The WNEP ski card is back on sale after a 2020-21 hiatus – the card gives skiers one day each at Pennsylvania’s Montage, Ski Big Bear, Sawmill, Tussey, and Shawnee, as well as Swain in New York, for $119; Only five Indy Pass partners will require reservations this season (Magic in Vermont “recommends” them): Cannon, Castle, Lutsen, Powder Mountain, and Silver. Links here.
Business: Vail now officially owns Seven Springs, Hidden Valley, and Laurel in Pennsylvania, giving it possession of eight of the state’s 22 public ski areas. White Pass has new owners after the co-op board voted to sell the ski area. Cat skiing could be on its way to New Hampshire. Aspen posts decent holiday numbers. Stratton turns 60.
Lifts and maps: Lift Blog’s wrap-up of 2021 North American lift projects. Magic is left without a summit lift after Red upgrades go sideways and Black remains unfinished. A New Year’s Day rescue of 21 Sandia Peak employees who were stuck on the tram for up to 17 hours.
Housing and labor: An astonishing 21 percent of housing units in Utah’s Summit County are short-term rentals.
Covid: A Covid outbreak among Killington staffers.
Kids: with Sierra-at-Tahoe out of commission until at least spring, Vail Resorts is providing students who earned the ski area’s Straight A Pass with Tahoe Local Pass access to Heavenly, Kirkwood, and Northstar.
Stoke: A profile of independent (and pretty rad) Royal Mountain, New York (The Storm is quoted in the article). Incredible spring skiing… on the Greek isles. Here’s a dude who skis with a cat on his shoulder. Too much snow in Tahoe. New York Ski Blog hits West, Oak, and Gore. Ski’s best “long reads” of and top skiing news stories of 2021.
This week in skiing
I typically don’t ski at all Christmas week, but this year I skied almost every day.
December 26: Mountain Creek and Mount Peter
A thousand vertical feet, a high-speed lift, an entire mountain converted into a terrain park – that’s Mountain Creek’s wonderful South Peak, which cranked alive for the season on the day after Christmas. Soft snow and passholders only. Short lines. Eight a.m. access activated for passholders. Ten fast runs and I bounced. That’s my template for Creek. It’s the closest major ski area to New York City and can be amazingly busy, but you have to know how to ski it.
Mount Peter sits 20 minutes away from Mountain Creek, just across the New York border in Warwick. It is the opposite of towering, brawling, frenetic Creek: stubbly and calm, gentle and welcoming, 200 vertical feet that can hardly be seen from the parking lot. I picked up my family’s season passes and took a few runs and headed home.
December 27: Mountain Creek
One little-appreciated fact about Mountain Creek is the unbelievable size of the place, stretching two miles along New Jersey state highway 94. It’s so large, in fact, that the whole joint is rarely stitched together as one coherent ski area until mid- to late-January, when the Southern Soujourn double lights up. Until then, the place is essentially two separate ski areas: South Peak and Vernon (or North, as the locals call it). I rarely ski North. The terrain is less appealing, the crowds heavier, the lift system centered around the Cabriolet:
It’s a fine lift, but I dislike removing my skis between runs as a general thing. Skiing Vernon also requires an atrociously long walk from a complete free-for-all of a chaotic parking lot across the highway. None of which stopped me from skiing Vernon on this day, with the snowguns firing and the Cab lines modest and kids on holiday squirreling down the incline.
December 28: Mountain Creek
More Creek. Back to South. Ten runs and out as the hordes descended. Little jumps everywhere, all the way down. The skiing is not hard but it is absolutely delightful when you can find a seam between the crowds to hit your marks.
December 29: Belleayre and Hunter
With snow incoming I moved north to the Catskills. The snowmaking firepower at these places is just unbelievable, the rate of terrain growth even in shaky winters astonishing. Belle was half open, all lifts spinning but a redundant triple. The hardcore often eschew Belle because of its odd layer-cake trail layout – a steep upper mountain that levels off quickly to blue and then green pitches – but I love the funky, meandering feel of the place. Other than the two blue runs humping off opposite sides of the long ridge, the trails are almost never crowded. I skied every open trail and that took three hours and then I left.
Hunter on an icy, busy day can be Hell. It is said that 75 percent of all skiers in America on any given day are packed onto Belt Parkway, the blue run spiraling summit-to-base off the Kaatskill Flyer. But this was not an icy day. It was a thirty-six-degree-day-after-a-storm day, soft snow and crowds, moguls popping out of the incline like bubbles in a boiling pot. A fast day and an easy one, the liftlines long but ordered, the sky overcast, foggy pillows trapped in the valleys, a moody start-of-winter sigh for a region that would soon turn fierce.
December 31: Mountain Creek
Mount Peter closed for the weekend. Out of snow. Conditions desperate. So I took my son to Mountain Creek. The mountain’s owners, Snow Operating, is the same outfit behind the Terrain Based Learning programs that dozens of mountains now use to get new skiers skiing. At the base of Vernon Peak, below the Cabriolet and out of shooting distance of the speedsters, is a broad flat plain served by two carpets. The carpets were closed but we just screwed around. He ski-shuffled. We skied down the small incline together, him clutching my ski pole as I held it perpendicular to the ground before me. We walked back up. We did this a half dozen times. This was our day. It was wonderful.
January 1: Mountain Creek
I mean I don’t have much else to add to this:
Creek gets a lot of flak. Mostly from insecure Bro Bros who don’t understand the point of the place: a cheap pass and a nearby mountain for quick hits when that’s all you have time for. My season pass was $279. The snowmaking is a miracle, considering the climate, and they stretch the season as long as possible: in 2019, the place stayed open well into April and opened in mid-November. And, again, 1,000 vertical feet and high-speed lifts, an hour and 15 minutes from my house. As a Midwest transplant, I will never stop appreciating that.
January 3: Pats Peak, Mount Sunapee, McIntyre
Yes this was a daytrip. And yes I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and drove four hours to ski Pats Peak. And here’s why: percentage-wise, this 700-vertical-foot bump had the most open terrain in New England. Vail-owned Crotched, 35 minutes away, had barely half its terrain open. But even after a December meltdown, Pats’ base was deep everywhere, only a double-black closed, and the snow deep enough that it could have opened with a groom. The place is old-timey and adorable, but an absolute machine, lifts all over, trails twisting through the forest, skiers spread out, the grooming deep and holding all morning. And all this after a refreeze, temps dropping from the 40s to the teens overnight, when conditions should have been atrocious. Instead it was a great morning of skiing. I skied every open run and then left.
I ate lunch on the drive up to Sunapee. Pulling into the parking lot is dramatic, a flat anchoring the whooshing rise of the mountains in three directions, lifts cranking everywhere. At the summit, this:
I stayed for two hours, skied every open run. It was icy but not too icy. Tolerable. Monday-after-the-holiday relief. Snowguns erupted all over in the freezing afternoon.
I finished the day at McIntyre, an hour away, lapping the double-double with a fiery sunset dropping off the edge of the world:
This is a bump, 200 vertical feet stuffed in the back of a neighborhood, wicket tickets and firepits and packs of children streaming across the hill. It’s wonderful, a heartening stop. Swing through on your way home from points north. It will make you believe again.