Rob Katz Changed Skiing. What Comes Next for Vail Resorts?
“Rob changed a company, changed a business practice, added a product, he changed an entire business model, and an industry along with it.”
Fourteen years ago, it looked like this: A season pass to Palisades Tahoe was $1,799; Park City, $1,150; Whistler, $1,399; Vail Mountain, $1,849. Nearly every mountain had its own pass, good at that mountain and no other mountain. Sales typically began shortly before ski season.
If you had a season pass, you were probably a local. Or a second homeowner who racked up 50 days a year on weekends up from the city. Otherwise, why bother? Lift tickets were cheap, deals plentiful. Ski-shop vouchers proliferated. A few years before, I had flown to Colorado last-minute after finding an amazing lift-ticket deal online: ski six of nine late-season days at Vail’s four Colorado resorts for $99.
And Vail Resorts was far from the king of skiing. On Feb. 28, 2006, the day before Rob Katz assumed the company’s CEO position, Vail owned five ski areas. MTN stock ran $31.80 per share.
How very quaint. Today Vail’s empire sprawls across the English-speaking world, 37 ski areas in three countries and 15 U.S. states. Skiers can access all of them – plus as many partner resorts – on Vail’s Epic Pass, which went on sale in March for just $783. And skiers better have bought it: peak-day lift tickets at Vail’s mountains run as high as $239. There are no hacks, no workarounds, no ski-shop vouchers or ski-club discounts. Only Vail sells Vail lift tickets. Buy the Epic Pass by December, or else. So everyone does: the company sold 2.1 million Epic Passes ahead of the 2021-22 ski season. And Wall Street loves it: MTN stock closed yesterday at $329.57 per share, down modestly from a 52-week (and all-time) high of $376.24.
Rob Katz changed skiing. Under his leadership, Vail demystified the season pass, transforming it from a rarified token for locals to an accessible and affordable product for casual skiers. An industry reliant for decades on bubble-prone real estate development had the grand realization that the skiing itself was its main product, and that the simple maneuver of bundling resorts onto a single pass, cutting prices, and moving the pass sales period to the offseason could stabilize a temperamental business reliant on weather.
The Epic Pass spawned competitors. Vail’s consolidation of large resorts drove the consolidation of other large resorts. Today, 145 of the 462 active U.S. ski areas are on the Epic, Ikon, Indy, or Power passes. Just four companies own 67 of these mountains. Vail owns 33 (it will soon own 36 if regulators approve its sale of Seven Springs, Laurel, and Hidden Valley in Pennsylvania). Alterra – which did not exist in 2006 – owns 13. Powdr Corp owns 10, Boyne Resorts, nine; and Mountain Capital Partners, seven. But the combined might of three of those four conglomerates is on the Ikon Pass, matched against Vail and the Epic Pass.
“Vail is the powerhouse of the industry,” said Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory in an interview with The Storm Skiing Journal. “There's no question about that. And Rob is the guy who led them to that success.”
The ski industry today resembles the ski industry of 2006 as much as shopping or entertainment in 2021 resembles its ancestors from that time. But unlike big-box shopping, disrupted by upstart Amazon, or carefully programmed linear television, undone by Netflix, skiing was disrupted from within, by an established player with a visionary CEO. As Katz transitions to executive chairperson of the board and hands the keys to the CEO suite off to Vail veteran Kirsten Lynch, he has solidified his place as the most transformational figure in the history of lift-served skiing.
“Rob changed a company, changed a business practice, added a product, he changed an entire business model, and an industry along with it,” said Shaun Kelly, managing director and senior research analyst at Bank of America who specializes in gaming, lodging, and leisure equity research. “I cover hotels, I cover casinos, and the businesses themselves are remarkably similar to what they were 10 or 15 years ago. You think about taking a stock from $30 to $300. In the stock market, you don't get multiples of your money unless you get both significant growth of your core business, but also a change in perception of how people value the cashflow or the business itself. And Vail got both.”
Stability, affordability, modernization: all of this benefitted skiers, especially frequent skiers. But Vail’s ascent to the top of the skiing food chain has catalyzed or coincided with profound changes to the lift-served skiing ecosystem and the mountain towns that surround them, especially in the West. Worker housing, long problematic, has reached crisis levels. Colorado’s Interstate 70, Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon (where Vail does not own a resort), and other mountain-transportation corridors have become synonymous with apocalyptic traffic. Resort consolidation has drawn charges of homogenization, mountain crowding, and day-ticket prices that make big-mountain skiing unaffordable for many Americans.
Vail has not caused all of these problems, and the company has actively – and quietly – fought against many of them. It hasn’t been enough. Even as Epic Pass sales have exploded, Vail has become a social-media punching bag, scapegoated for issues large and small, on mountain and off, at ski areas it owns and ski areas it doesn’t, in places where it owns many resorts and in places where it owns none.
Under Katz, Vail has also launched efforts to address skiing’s infamous lack of diversity (both among participants and within the industry); created pipeline programs that place women in leadership positions (half of its board of directors are women, and 10 of the company’s 33 U.S. mountains are led by women); and committed to zero net emissions, landfill, and operating impact on forests and habitat by 2030.
New CEO Kirsten Lynch, Vail’s longtime data-driven head of marketing, inherits (and helped drive) this success and these challenges. As she does, it’s worth pausing to reflect on Katz’s legacy. To assess how deeply Vail has transformed the world of lift-served skiing and determine where the company needs to go from here, I spoke with prominent figures throughout the industry and on Wall Street and in the press. Here’s what they had to say.
The Epic Pass “changed the world in our industry dramatically”
For the first 20 years I skied, I never owned a season pass to any mountain. I have always been a resort-hopper, preferring to hit a couple dozen ski areas per year rather than lapping the same one over and over.
For the 2021-22 ski season, I own season passes to 82 ski areas, many of which I have never visited and most of which I will surely not visit before the snow melts. An Indy Pass, plus partner benefits on various other passes, gets me access to another 150 or so mountains – and by access I mean a full-day lift ticket, not a discount. Even subtracting international destinations, I can access around half of all U.S. ski areas with passes acquired long before lifts started spinning.
That is remarkable. And it is all because of Vail. In 2008, the company broke skiing’s entrenched business model, combining its five mountains – Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone, Breckenridge, and Heavenly – plus independent Arapahoe Basin, onto a $579 Epic Pass. For Vail skiers, that reduced the price of a no-blackout Vail Mountain season pass by $1,270 while adding a Tahoe vacation destination and early and late-season options in nearby Summit County.
Not everyone was happy. “Throughout the history of (Vail) we have appealed to exclusivity,” Kaye Ferry, then-executive director of the Vail Chamber and Business Association, told the Colorado Independent shortly after the pass’ launch. “The only people we let up there during Christmas are the ones with the big homes and their ski instructors. We had eliminated the Front Range riff-raff, and all of a sudden we’re selling a pass that’s to the masses.”
The riff-raff loved it. Epic Pass sales increased steadily. And Vail began collecting destination resorts: Northstar in 2010, Kirkwood in 2012, Canyons in 2013, Park City in 2014, Whistler in 2016, Stowe in 2017, Crested Butte and Okemo in 2018. Each new destination became part of the Epic Pass, which was in most cases less expensive than the resort’s existing pass – Stowe’s season pass for the 2016-17 season had been more than $2,300. That immediately fell to $859, and passholders could take a trip out West.
“Intrawest and those resort companies did reasonably well at their peak, but they were never really able to capitalize on the scale of the enterprise that they created,” said Gregory. “They were still really collections of individually run resorts, for the most part. What Vail did was to create a common approach to all its resorts that has worked very well for them.”
While the multi-mountain pass model was novel, stacking up alpha resorts was nothing new. Intrawest had done it, and American Skiing Company had done it before them. Michigan-based Boyne Resorts has owned Montana’s Big Sky since 1976 and Utah’s Brighton since 1986. But there are only so many large ski areas, and they rarely go up for sale. So Vail went in a surprising direction – the company began scooping up small, high-volume suburban ski areas in the Midwest: Mt. Brighton (suburban Detroit) and Afton Alps (Minneapolis), in 2012; Wilmot (between Chicago and Milwaukee), in 2016.
“These acquisitions are part of a new strategy for Vail Resorts to drive season pass sales and build broader guest loyalty by looking at premier smaller ski areas located near major urban markets,” Katz said when announcing the purchase of Brighton and Afton Alps.
The empire grew. Vail collected three of the five largest ski resorts in Australia; partnered with resorts in Europe and Canada; signed limited-day partnerships with Telluride, Sun Valley, and Snowbasin; and, in what may be the single largest transfer of ski areas in industry history, bought the 17-mountain Peak Resorts portfolio in 2019, anchoring Vail outside of Kansas City, St. Louis, Louisville, Columbus, Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, and Washington, D.C. By winter 2019-20, the Epic Pass could take you from almost any cold-weather city in the United States to nearly any major ski region in the world.
“What Rob did was to take the idea of a relatively inexpensive pass and the idea of pre-selling it before the season started, and added to that this wide variety of ways that you could use that pass,” said Gregory. “He really de-commoditized the pass, because that pass came to represent people's dreams of skiing at their local resort, at their regional resort, and at all these great destination resorts around the world that they had never really thought about before. And that changed the world in our industry dramatically.”
A counter-intuitive price cut saves an unpredictable industry
As great as the benefits are to skiers, the Epic Pass has been a salvation for ski-area operators, whom for decades had been reliant on fickle weather to drive business. While Vail did not invent the shift to spring-pass sales – credit for that by all accounts goes to Bogus Basin’s Mike Shirley – it implanted the urgency to buy early and save with a previously unimaginably large consumer base, front-loading revenue and creating a hedge against weather.
“Vail Resorts is an easy target as the largest resort operator in the business,” said Jason Blevins, a Colorado Sun reporter who has covered the ski industry for more than two decades. “They take a lot of flak. There are a couple points that get missed. The Epic Pass, which Katz launched, has unquestionably changed the sport. Skiers’ spending on lift-riding in the spring has enabled resorts to invest heavily in the ski experience. Before the Epic Pass, resorts hoped for a strong year to generate revenue to buy new stuff. And one commonly missed point: that more consistent and predictable flow of revenue, which is spread across the entire resort industry because just about every resort now sells a season pass in the spring and summer, has opened financial markets for resort operators. Lenders feel better about financing resort projects now that revenue is not solely based on bountiful seasons, right?”
The model worked so well that it drove imitators across the industry: Aspen’s Mountain Collective, Peak Resorts’ Peak Pass, the M.A.X. Pass, the Rocky Mountain Super Pass. When Mammoth purchased Southern California’s Big Bear and Snow Summit Resorts in 2014, it dropped all three, plus June Mountain, onto the $689 Cali4nia Pass.
“We were following Rob at that point,” admits Gregory, who was CEO of Mammoth at the time.
Most of those passes have now been absorbed or displaced by the Epic or Ikon Passes, but it’s worth revisiting this multi-pass evolution to underscore just how thoroughly Vail re-ordered the industry.
“Internally, I called it the Epic Vaccination Pass,” recalls Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher of creating the M.A.X. Pass with Intrawest and Powdr. “We wanted to have something that would inoculate ourselves from the potential risk that Epic posed. It was absolutely a reaction. So you got to give Rob credit, we reacted to his move by creating the M.A.X. Pass.”
The M.A.X. Pass was a starting point. Skiers got five days each at more than 40 ski areas, including monsters like Steamboat, Kicking Horse, Copper, and Crested Butte. While it was not a season pass at any mountain, passholders at any M.A.X. Pass mountain could add the multi-pass on for a big discount.
Still, the Epic Pass had no peers until the advent of the Ikon Pass – which displaced the M.A.X. Pass – in 2018. After Alterra came together over a few frantic months the previous year – joining Mammoth’s four mountains, Palisades Tahoe, Deer Valley, and Intrawest’s Steamboat, Winter Park, Stratton, Snowshoe, and Blue Mountain ski areas under one company – it partnered with Aspen, Boyne, Powdr, Jackson Hole, and Alta to launch the Ikon Pass. Banff, Revelstoke, and (then-independent) Sugarbush soon joined, as did Taos and an international coalition sprawling across Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Chile. In the meantime, Alterra bought Solitude and Washington’s Crystal Mountain.
“When it came to developing the Ikon Pass, we started with what Vail was doing successfully,” said Gregory. “We could see the obvious things that they were doing was the way they had created a platform.”
The Ikon Pass was born. But uniting such a rough-and-tumble collection of what remained (and remain) competitors took a special finesse. “The primary story was, listen, we can do better together because we can amass the marketing capabilities if we all throw into the same pass product,” remembers Gregory. “And then, as a secondary benefit, we made the point that it would put us in a much better position to compete with the platform Vail has created. It would have taken us decades, just like it did with Vail, to acquire the number of resorts that we aspire to have as part of the Ikon pass. The partner model has been quite successful and allowed us to grow rapidly without having to do all the acquisitions work that Vail has done.”
It is not just the large operators that have adopted the multi-mountain pass model. It scales down well. When Massachusetts’ Berkshire East bought nearby Catamount in 2018, they dropped both mountains onto their Berkshires Summit Pass for less than $500. Last season, the pass added nearby Bousquet after it came under a new ownership group, mimicking the partner relationships that are common to the Epic and Ikon passes (the Epic Pass was a season pass for independent Arapahoe Basin for years, and the Ikon Pass is a season pass for Powdr-owned Eldora and Copper Mountains). Berkshire Summit pass sales have surged.
But even mountains that retained single-mountain passes have recorded increased sales in recent years. While Covid-era relocations to mountain towns and the pandemic-driven outdoor boom certainly contributed to this jump, Vail’s re-configuring of the season pass into a product for the masses was a significant factor as well.
“What I think has happened is that all of that hype, the marketing, the advertising around Epic Passes, is that it's helped everyone,” said Kelly Pawlak, president and CEO of the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). “Our data shows that small, medium, large, and extra-large ski areas have all seen a growth in season passes.”
The Epic Pass had one more crucial attribute: it put the focus of the ski business back on skiing. This may seem self-evident, but one large ski-area conglomerate after the next had collapsed or come close to it because they anchored their business model in recession-prone real-estate development.
“The Epic Pass enabled resort operators to reject real estate as an economic engine,” said Blevins. “Along with the Great Recession, of course. Remember back in the late 1990s when Intrawest was more of a real estate company than a ski resort company? Their ski slopes sold condos. Developers started pumping hundreds of millions, billions even, into resort villages. And it bit them on the ass when the market tanked. Now, thanks to the Epic Pass, the largest resort operator in North America doesn't generate any revenue from real estate sales. The pass Katz created has given resorts the ability to invest solely in the mountain. With the Ikon on the scene, it's an arms race for skier loyalty and the battle includes new chairlifts and more terrain.”
This shift to skiing as the main product, combined with spring sales, endeared Vail to Wall Street like no ski company before it.
“Vail figured out that Wall Street didn't like to mix development and operations,” said Kircher. “Investors also figured out that with the Epic Pass, they could telegraph that their volatility year- to-year was going to be less than in the past. Obviously that did not happen with American Skiing Company. From the day they rung the bell, the stock was in free fall, and it never recovered. It was heavily levered, lots of negative financial press. Rob proved that the ski business could be scale-able and successful.”
Everyone’s a season passholder now
Skiing doesn’t always follow Vail’s lead. Amid surging industry-wide pass sales and at the tail-end of the fifth-best U.S. ski season on record by number of skier visits, Vail made a shocking March announcement: they were reducing the price of all Epic Passes by 20 percent over 2020-21 rates.
The industry response was mostly head-scratching and shoulder-shrugging.
“I was perplexed, because we're just seeing massive increases in our cost structures, so to lower prices, I was surprised,” said Kircher. “Knowing that there was already peak capacity issues at many of the resorts, it was surprising. You need to increase volume 25 percent to meet the same revenue structure. And that's without inflation. I don't know what they're doing.”
No major ski areas followed Vail’s price drop for the 2021-22 season. Boyne’s season pass prices ticked up slightly across its portfolio, while Ikon Passes prices held steady with the 2020-21 product suite (Base Pass prices increased slightly). By the end of the pass sales season in December, the Ikon Base Pass cost the same as the full Epic Pass: $879. Still, Gregory told Yahoo News in November that Ikon Pass sales “are growing at a faster rate than any previous season.” Alterra does not release pass sales numbers, and neither does Boyne, but Kircher told me in August that season pass sales were up approximately 60 percent over the previous year.
“[Vail’s price drop] hasn't impacted our sales,” said Kircher. “In fact, it seems to be going the other way.”
But the strategy worked. Vail wrapped its 2021 Epic Pass sale earlier this month with a record 2.1 million Epic Passes sold, an increase of 700,000 from the previous year, a 47 percent jump that translated into a 21 percent sales-dollars bump. By my rough calculations, that makes around 20 percent of all U.S. skiers Epic Pass holders.
That is remarkable, and not just as a business achievement. The psychological shift among casual skiers is crucial to Vail’s – and skiing’s – long-term success. As I wrote earlier this month:
Vail did the unthinkable and in doing so created the unstoppable: the mass conversion of the skiing public from visitors to passholders.
The importance of this from a lifestyle point of view cannot be overstated. Are you a skier, or someone who skis? If you’re a passholder, you’re a skier. You feel cool. In a sport that never ceases trying to make its participants feel bad about themselves, that matters. A lot.
Vail has done the sport – and its investors – a tremendous service by driving this shift. Imitators – Ikon, Indy, Mountain Collective – abound. Good. The more people who feel a part of this thing, who have license to go as often as they want and travel widely, the more stable its future will be even as the climate shows less inclination to cooperate with our seasonal calendar.
But: Vail’s Epic Pass explosion is meeting a Covid surge, labor shortage, the ongoing outdoor boom, and already overloaded and stressed-out mountain towns at a very tricky historical moment. The company doesn’t seem concerned, confident that pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into uphill capacity, limiting lift-ticket sales, rethinking lift queues, and pumping liftline wait times into their Epic Mix app will help tame crowds. The company also maintains that many of the new Epic Pass sales came from vacationers who would have normally bought lift tickets but finally saw the logic of the Epic Day Pass.
Early signs suggest this confluence of factors may set Vail and its passholders up for an uneven year – Stevens Pass, Wildcat, and Attitash all issued Christmas Eve apologies for having limited terrain available (even as nearby competitors were fully open or nearly so). The Epic Lift Lines Instagram account, which documents Epic-based mountain overcrowding, has exploded from zero to more than 12,000 followers in just a few months.
“I think the underbelly of what they're doing, and people realize it is, on peak days you've got extraordinarily long lift lines, and that is repelling,” said Kircher. “People who are less price-sensitive are migrating away. And some of us are picking up those folks in ever-increasing quantities. Based on what I'm seeing, it is accelerating.”
“The Epic Pass has ruined the market for walk-up day skiers”
Skiing’s best story – cheap multi-mountain season passes – has spawned its worst: walk-up day tickets that drop a hefty penalty on the unprepared. Up until a decade ago, no single-day lift ticket in the country cost more than $100. Then, partially to drive skiers toward the Epic Pass, Vail began aggressively raising window rates. Peak-day walk-up lift tickets run $239 this season at Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek, $229 at Park City, and $219 at Breckenridge.
“The Epic Pass has ruined the market for walk-up day skiers,” said Blevins. “Resorts really want you to pull the trigger early and help them shoulder the financial uncertainty of a business built on snow, which is even more dicey with climate change.”
Vail, of course, is not alone in driving walk-up lift tickets to levels that would embarrass Yankee Stadium beer vendors. The two most expensive walk-up lift tickets in America this season belong to Alterra-owned Steamboat ($269) and Deer Valley ($249). Boyne Resorts’ Big Sky charges $225 for peak days, and tram access is an extra $45.
Skiers are learning. Walk-up lift tickets accounted for just 17 percent of skier days in 2020-21, an astonishing 29-point drop from the previous season, according to the NSAA. While a Covid-induced shift to e-commerce likely explains a huge part of that decline, the percentage of visits from season-pass holders jumped from 45 percent to 51 percent last season.
“On the customer front, I think policies under Katz cleared the way for creating this early-commitment mindset that our customers now have,” said Kircher. “There's also a higher threshold for tolerance of last-minute purchases and the idea that you can get to a $200 lift ticket if you waited.”
There are other benefits to detaching from the single-day lift ticket.
“Being a season pass holder takes the stress away of spending whatever the price point is for your lift ticket,” said Pawlak. “There’s a little bit of stress in that, in that oh my gosh, I’ve got to get my runs in. Seeing people in the lodge or having the leisurely cocktail or lunch, like I don't have time for that. All of a sudden, with the season pass, your total experience shifts where I can just go for a couple hours. It's okay that I have to get home because my child has a project due. The shift is so liberating, so I love that shifting more people into the pass product is doing that.”
An “industry outsider” disrupting from within
We’ve seen it happen so many times that it shouldn’t surprise us anymore: a staid industry ignores shifts in technology, digitization, and consumer preference and gets obliterated by an upstart. See: Kodak and digital film, landlines and the smartphone, Blockbuster and Netflix, almost every big-box retailer in America and e-commerce. Disrupted in every case by outsiders who improbably came to dominate the industry and reshape the consumer experience.
But once in a while, a company disrupts its own industry. Granted, in the ski world, it would be hard to imagine how anyone could do it otherwise – ski resorts are complex, capital-intensive, and, in the United States, almost impossible to build from scratch. Still, Katz deserves credit for taking an enormous risk with the Epic Pass, upending decades of industry inertia and creating both a better business model for ski areas and a better product for skiers.
While Vail has been synonymous with skiing since the mountain came online in the 1960s, many point out that Katz was a relative industry newcomer.
“As an industry outsider, which I consider Rob, at least in the early days, he brought a fresh perspective,” said Kircher, whose father, Everett Kircher, founded Boyne’s first ski resort in 1947.
Kircher sees Vail as a snowy combination of Amazon and Wal-Mart. Like the e-commerce king, Vail mines vast quantities of data buried in the Epic Pass rolls and moves quickly into new technologies. Like Wal-Mart, the company simplifies their cost structure by shifting some resort-specific roles to Vail HQ in Colorado or by dropping all its resorts onto a common ticketing platform.
While investors enthusiastically accepted those transformations, they had far more trouble digesting Vail’s move into the suburban Midwest. The 2012 purchases of Mt. Brighton and Afton Alps came just three days after KSL Capital Partners – now one of Alterra’s parent companies, along with Aspen owner Henry Crown – bought 24 percent of Whistler (KSL also owned Palisades Tahoe at the time).
Kelly remembers a flurry of calls from concerned investors. “I got all these calls from investors at that time asking how Vail missed this huge opportunity. Rob is doing these rinky-dink acquisitions and Wall Street was assessing this, with the issue being that these small acquisitions would dilute your margins. I had a couple of really big institutional investors just kind of banging up on me, saying ‘Shaun, I can't own this. It's a decelerating growth story.’
“And I called Rob about it. I was concerned. I was like, ‘I really believed that margins need to go up,’ and Rob just stopped me, and he says, ‘Look, what we're doing here is we have a much bigger strategy. These resorts aren't about the economics themselves.’ He said, ‘Shaun, I'm going to take risks. And those risks are relative to the opportunity at hand.’
“This was before they did Park City. They hadn't done Whistler [Vail eventually bought Whistler, in 2016]. It wasn't obvious back then, and this hub-and-spoke thing was the first of many experiments. Now I'm going to have to add markets. I'm going to build some critical mass. I'm going to get local scale. You have to have that ability, that willingness to do something where other people are going to criticize you and tell you that you might be wrong.”
“A long line of villains”
Peering back in time to the Colorado of 2008 reveals a stunning level of myopia. Chris Jarnot, then chief operating officer of Vail Mountain, told the Colorado Independent in April 2008 that he thought traffic was a solvable issue. “He acknowledges there may be some increase in drive-market traffic as a result of the new pass but feels it will be negligible, and the parking crunch is something the company is focused on fixing anyway,” the paper said.
“We’re not going to be any more crowded during peak times,” Katz told the Summit Daily News.
Oops. Traffic on Interstate 70, the east-west thoroughfare that connects Denver with Vail’s resorts in Summit and Eagle counties, long ago reached crisis levels. While Vail does not publish skier-visit numbers, reports of overloaded mountains published via social media create the perception that cheap passes have contributed to overwhelmed ski areas.
And the extra people create problems far beyond liftlines.
“Epic Passed skiers -- and, of course, Ikon'd skiers as well -- are definitely increasing traffic and impacting infrastructure in mountain towns,” said Blevins. “People wanting to escape the pass-driven spike in traffic to the mountains -- or simply opting for mountain living over the urban life -- are renting or buying homes and that's changing mountain town cultures, with escalating real estate prices and fewer homes available for workers.”
Vail and Alterra alone are not driving this shift, however. “There's a lot at play in the shifts underway in mountain towns,” said Blevins. “Short-term rentals. Work-from-homers setting up in mountain towns. Richie Riches buying up resort manses. Workers losing housing and opting for jobs other than low-paying gigs in restaurants, bars and hotels. Some of these issues can be traced back to the advent of the Epic Pass in 2008 and the industry-shifting season-pass war. But there are a lot of other reasons behind the angst of ski town locals, who, really, have always been angsty and ready to blame a villain for their woes. If Vail Resorts and Rob Katz are really to blame for stymying ski town culture, they need to get in line with ... big breath ... climate change, tourists, short-term rentals, work-from-homers, OHVs, wealthy buyers, NIMBYs, territorial locals, cars, Realtors, second-home owners ... That's a long line of villains.”
Vail is not oblivious to mountain town issues, and the company has invested millions in employee housing. But the efforts are often confounded by a matrix of town officials and special interests, as former SKI editor-and-chief and publisher Andy Bigford outlined on the PODSAM podcast in September.
“There were just a couple of high-profile projects … where Vail Resorts, with an independent developer, got the Heisman in trying to build employee housing,” he said. “They were trying to do the right thing, and it was pain and suffering. The most recent was when the Vail Town [planning and zoning board] denied their approval for some local residences because they didn’t fit the brand of Vail, the visuals were not correct. And that’s like having a fire engulf your downtown, and then stopping the firetrucks before they get there because they’re not color-coordinated, and that’s the kind of thing we’re looking at.”
Still, sometimes the company has driven successful solutions, like a deed-buyback program in the town of Vail that jettisoned rental, resale and appreciation caps, and simply instituted a requirement that any future sale or rental must go to a local resident.
“Vail eliminated all that, and created another free market for residence housing,” he said, noting that Vail Resorts has deed-restricted 160 units in the town so far.
Still, Vail’s steady accumulation of resorts, and the changes that have accompanied them, have often had a jarring effect on locals.
“The truth is there's a gap in skiing between the customer that spends the most and the customer that skis the most,” said Kelly. “They're not at all related. And Vail as a corporate entity does have some goal and desire to emphasize the one that spends the most, even though that person skis blues and is not doing back flips down the backside of Devil's Crevasse. And I would say where Kirsten can step it up is, I think Rob wore a lot of hats, but in that building phase, sometimes you have to have – and I don't think he had particular blinders on – but sometimes you might have to have blinders on because you're so busy building. And I think Kirsten found a place where, look, the story has been written. Now you've got to go out and you've got to really show, it's going to be okay, we're here every day. We're not going anywhere. We're committed to doing what we said we would do all along. And they'll invest a ton. I think that will continue. There's no sense that Vail has ever decided to starve their assets. I think the one place where you lose everyone would be that.”
Vail is “very eager to come up with a solution” to its diversity problem
The captured-on-a-cell-phone murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020 hit a locked-down America like an asteroid. Nearly everyone, everywhere in the country, responded in some way. That included the ski industry in general and Vail Resorts in particular. On June 2 – eight days after Floyd’s murder – Katz sent a memo to employees acknowledging his and his company’s shortcomings in creating a more diverse ski experience:
As much as I have been saddened seeing these acts of racism across our country, I am also confronted by the fact that our Company and our sport are overwhelmingly white, with incredibly low representation from people of color. Over the past few years, we have begun to raise this topic, both internally and externally – emphasizing that inclusion and diversity “must be true” at Vail Resorts, while also admitting that we have a long way to go.
Having been around our industry for close to 30 years and CEO of Vail Resorts for the past 14 years, I must also confront that I have not done enough to make progress. I see this as a personal failing. On something that is not only a moral and societal issue, but a business issue. We would be a stronger company and a better industry with more diverse viewpoints. Our sport would be more resilient with broader engagement. Even with that reality, we have not made progress. Why?
Candidly, I am not sure I fully know what the solution is. Our sport has a number of barriers, including cost, access to equipment and proximity to our resorts. But those are barriers for many people. And while we need to continue to address those barriers, we also need to dig deeper.
A year and a half later, Vail has taken a number of steps toward these goals. Many are administrative: adding “Be Inclusive” as a core company value, launching a leadership development program devoted to building a DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) culture, and hosting a pair of podcasts focused on the company’s DEI efforts and shortcomings. Katz also signed the CEO Action Pledge for Diversity & Inclusion and joined a coalition of Colorado business leaders “committed to rebuilding the state’s economy in a way that works for all Coloradans.”
But some steps have been more concrete. Through the Katz Amsterdam Foundation, which he runs with his wife, Katz in June announced $2 million in grants to racial justice organizations. In September, the foundation contributed $560,000 to 11 organizations devoted to increasing youth access to outdoor recreation.
One of those groups is the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), which will use the nearly $100,000 grant to, in the words of Henri Rivers, the organization’s president, “introduce underrepresented individuals to snowsports” from New York City, Detroit, Boston, and Columbus. Rivers estimates that the grants will help introduce 1,250 kids to snowsports this winter.
This is part of an ongoing, five-year Vail Resorts/Katz Amsterdam effort – launched in 2019 – to increase youth access to its resorts. The company will donate $1.9 million worth of lift tickets, lessons, meals, and gear rentals this season, while the foundation – which will contribute $10 million over five years – supports logistics and access. The program hosts nearly 4,500 kids annually across Vail’s portfolio. The company aspires to more than double that number through collaborations with the NBS and other organizations.
Inviting more diverse groups onto the snow is a good start, says Rivers, but Vail Resorts also needs to build a more diverse employee base at all levels.
“The organization has to be open and amenable to bringing people of color and Blacks into their workforce,” Rivers said. “I need to see more diversity in food and beverage, marketing, middle management, upper management. And not just gender diversity, because they’re doing OK with gender diversity, but racial diversity.”
Diversity for its own sake, however, won’t do much good, says Rivers. Vail should re-think and restructure its corporate hierarchy in a way that welcomes more diverse management. “It's one thing to just go out, to hire people of color and put them in, and you're putting them in a system that is not accepting and it will be a lesson in futility, because people are gonna get dissatisfied, disgruntled, and leave. You’ve got to redefine and rebuild infrastructure from the inside to make an atmosphere that's conducive to success for them bringing people of color into their ranks. I'm not seeing that part, and that's what we need to see.”
Rivers acknowledges that this will be a long process, and that Vail Resorts has consistently engaged the NBS since June 2020. “They’re very eager to come up with a solution and try to move forward,” he said.
Among NBS members, Rivers said, sentiment toward Vail is mixed. “Historically, most of my membership had a bad taste for Vail,” he said. “It was perceived that Vail didn’t really care if we've spent our money with them or not. And I say this in every conversation I have with Vail. It’s not just about DEI awareness, but also about business awareness. And I think that Vail is understanding that. I'm seeing it in the presentations they're making to us. I honestly believe we’re on the right path.”
Rivers continues to work with Vail, and will closely monitor their progress toward a more equitable organization. “Kirsten said to me that within their organization, they want to transform themselves first, and they want to innovate diversity. When she said that to me, I was like, ‘okay, well, at least I know she is honestly thinking about this.’ And I base my decisions and my observations on people on what they do. I don't care what they say. Rob wrote a great letter back in June 2020, but they are actually trying to do something. So that's what I like.”
Personal benevolence imprinted upon a company’s ethos
The numbers are astonishing: over the past five years, Katz has donated 100 percent of the proceeds from sale of his Vail Resorts stock – more than $180 million – to his foundation, which in turn supports organizations that “work to improve equitable access to mental and behavioral health.” Under Katz’s leadership, Vail oriented itself as an organization vested in giving back – during the 2020-21 season alone, the company’s Epic Promise Foundation delivered more than $21 million in “grants and commitments” to its communities and employees, helping it earn spots on Newsweek’s list of America’s most responsible companies and the CIVIC 50, a list of Colorado’s “50 most community-minded companies.” Vail employees and their dependents also receive six no-cost mental-health counseling sessions as part of the company’s Epic Wellness program.
“Because Vail is the 800-pound gorilla in our industry, I think Rob gets an unfair rap sometimes leading the big corporate empire,” said Gregory. “If you look what he's done individually and how much of the money that he's made at Vail – and he's made a lot of it – how much of that he's given back to the public good, that's an incredible example to the rest of us as to what we ought to do with the benefits that we received from this industry, which for the most part operates on public lands.”
Under Katz, Vail has also created more opportunities for women in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry. Women now lead 10 of Vail’s 34 North American resorts and occupy half of the company’s board of directors’ seats. In 2006, both of those numbers stood at zero. Lynch became not just Vail’s first female CEO, but the first woman to lead a major U.S. ski company, and the only female CEO among travel and leisure companies on the 2021 Fortune 1000 list.
“I'm going to high-five him for his ability to recognize women in the ski industry and help to develop them and promote their careers,” said Pawlak. “I think that Vail is leading the charge when it comes to that, and it shows that women are very capable of running extremely successful resorts. And I thank him for showcasing that, because I think it's gonna really open a path for women.”
Lynch is a “no-brainer” to lead Vail’s next chapter
So now what? Vail’s stated goal is to move 75 percent of skier visits to Epic Pass “products” – a catchall term meant to include both unlimited passes and Epic Day Passes – from the current 50 percent.
The data-centric Lynch - who has led the Epic Pass business for a decade and built Vail’s analytics and data-sciences teams and honed its automated marketing approach - is “a no-brainer” to lead this effort, says Kelly. He compared Vail’s strategy to tech companies such as Google or Facebook or Draft Kings, which feed customer data into algorithms to determine how many marketing dollars to spend based upon potential income from that individual.
“It's a data-driven set of decisions, just like that price cut was a data-driven decision,” said Kelly. “They're doing this in an industry that most people have thought of as a good sold, not this continuing relationship with the guest. Kirsten is at the epicenter of that. Subscription revenues are valued a heck of a lot higher than a one-time good sold. The alternative path and a different world would have been, you appointed another consultant, a consolidator who has all these chops to do tons of M and A [mergers and acquisitions]. You could see why some different person might be better at taking Vail’s 37 resorts to 50, but here's what you wouldn't have: you wouldn't have somebody who was taking the 50 percent to 75 percent.” [The Storm Skiing Journal conducted this interview prior to Vail’s announcement that it intended to acquire Seven Springs, Laurel, and Hidden Valley in Pennsylvania, which will increase the company’s number of resorts from 37 to 40.]
Over the past decade, Lynch has powered Vail’s transformation into a data-driven technology company. Whether she can convert its customer base into skiing’s equivalent of Netflix: a subscription product tied to brand loyalty, ease of use, and personal identity, remains to be seen.
The company will almost certainly expand its owned footprint. Fertile U.S. markets remain. Vail has no owned presence in the deep Southeast (North Carolina, Virginia), Western New York, the Southwest, Southern California, or the Northern Rockies. The Midwest resort market (far different from their suburban bumps), remains untapped. And then there’s the rest of the world.
“Vail’s probably underwritten almost every asset in the entire world that they think could come up for sale,” said Kelly. “It's not that big of a business, and Rob is a super aggressive guy. And so I have to imagine that somewhere, these guys are sharp enough that they've got all that math and when the opportunity strikes, there's absolutely nothing holding them back. I would imagine that they've got a playbook of, here are tier-one assets that, I don't want to say price is no object, but they'll get real creative about how they get that deal done because of the network effect it will have.
“From an investor standpoint, almost every call I do with investors ends with the following question: ‘so are they gonna acquire anything?’ And I've answered that question the same way for the last five years. And usually it's like, when are they buying something in Japan? Or do you think they could do something in Europe? And I'm like, look, the answer is absolutely yes, across the board, but those assets also have to come available. There's a relatively small number of stuff that I actually think changes hands.”
It’s also important to remember that, as executive chairperson of the board, Katz will “remain fully active and engaged in Vail Resorts’ key strategic decisions and priorities” for the foreseeable future, according to the company.
“People should remember that as executive chair, Rob is not going away,” said Kircher. “He'll still have impact on Vail’s strategy for many years to come.”