“Rob changed a company, changed a business practice, added a product, he changed an entire business model, and an industry along with it.”
Who wrote this Rob Katz himself. Uggh I want to vomit. I wish Rob would have just bought a paper clip or tire factory. He has destroyed skiing and the only winners are himself and wall street. I’ve worked for vail resorts, they they have treated employees horrible for the last 15 years, alway short staffed by 30-40%, the product in every aspect of its business gets cheaper (whether french fries, burgers or chicken fingers, rope, or vacuums to clean) every year and they charge more. The only accurate part of this, is Vail is now Walmart of skiing. How about how they used the pandemic to gut so many employees who worked at vail for over 20 years. This article is so bias and inaccurate. Go talk to people who have worked for vail resorts for years (patrollers, F&B, ski school etc..).
Great article! Kudos to Katz! FYI, Mike Shirley at Bogus does not deserve credit for either the spring pass sale nor the low cost season pass product. Spirit Mt in Duluth, mn under the leadership of Larry Hutchinson implemented the low cost season pass product in either 1984 or 85 at the same time selling the pass in the spring and summer. I met Mike at an NASA show and discussed the concept with me. He followed up with a phone call where I shared my experience with it. Just wanted to give credit where it was due. Without the hard working Midwest innovators introducing kids to skiing where would the industry be today. Rob recognized this with Vails purchase of Afton, Brighton, Wilmont and the peak resorts.
Interesting article, but too long for me to read while riding in the car. The only problem I see is no plan to grow future skiers. I mean, no non-skier will pay for a season pass OR the crazy day pass cost (plus equipment rental and lesson prices can easily add another $200 to your day). No long-term thinking here.
The one thing the writer completely missed- this Vail product is rotting from within. There is no plan for their own industry sustainability and the current evidence points to an all out extraction policy with the most minor community connection- gifting a few million to a food bank while paying starvation wages literally helps nothing.
I really, really don’t think Vail’s operations situation is sustainable in the PNW (or in the East, for that matter). It’s just destroying the experience of people who should be the biggest advocates of the Epic pass. People have choices, and there’s a real opportunity for some of the resorts around Stevens Pass, if they play their cards right. They’re already differentiating themselves with far more real-time, actionable, and transparent communications.
Over the next couple years, they could steal some real market share by taking a couple of additional actions:
– Crystal could revamp their base area, add a parking garage, dramatically increase the gondola’s capacity by replacing it, and replace REX. This would deal with the place’s very real capacity issues and maybe allow Alterra to restore 5 days of limited access on the Ikon Base Pass.
– Alterra could add Silver Star (already owned by POWDR) to the Ikon Pass for another Canadian option to better compete with Whistler and RCR on Epic. They could also add one of the Mt. Hood resorts to add another option for Portlanders.
– Mission Ridge could get going with its expansion and start marketing more heavily in the Seattle area. White Pass could do likewise in the South Puget Sound. Both of these area already on the Indy Pass.
– Boyne could really go crazy with lift expansion at Snoqualmie Pass, but what would really get people to switch from Stevens would be expansion at Alpental specifically. A HSQ serving Internationale would be table stakes.
– Mt. Baker could join the Indy Pass. Or Mission Ridge, White Pass, and Mt. Baker could offer a combined pass product. There’s precedent for this with the Mt. Hood Fusion Pass in Oregon, which combines two resorts of similar stature with separate ownerships. Either option would be a pretty credible alternative to Vail’s ops challenges which are now plaguing both Stevens and WB.
I appreciate the nuanced contrarian opinion. The details about Katz as a person beyond a stand-in for this rotten company are interesting.
But the fact of the matter is, their product in New England (particularly NH) is worthless. Doesn’t seem like they’re focused on skiing to me. Seems like they’re focused on bait and switch business tactics that border on fraud. They don’t make or groom snow. They don’t maintain or run their lifts.
Their horizontal integration strategy has been wildly profitable in the short term. Works great if you run a landfill in the Midwest well and convince 10% of them to fly to Vail and spend $10k. But this same hub and spoke model is now operating in reverse in New England. They stole our money promising the longest season in NH and midnight madness, and now just look at Wildcat and Crotched. The Northeast Pass is a scam and people don’t give repeat business to scammers. They go out of their way to give their future business to competitors, even if it costs more, purely out of spite, for decades to come. Hope the short term profits were worth it Rob.
"Look at all the ski areas you can access for a low, low price!"... with little to no regard for offering a positive experience, creating new skiers, or being part of the dedicated communities that have made these places so special.
I shed a tear for Wildcat... and the industry as a whole.
But hey, look at that stock price.
Sorry Brad, Larry Hutchinson at Spirit Mt in Duluth pioneered the concept years before Mike Shirley contacted me to find out how it worked. To his credit Mike implemented the idea and the rest is history. Not to take anything away from Rob who evolved the concept to multiple areas. The only thing I wonder is if this concept so great where is the evidence that the number of skiers and borders is growing?? Check the NASA numbers.
Let's set the record straight, Vail did not create the concept of cheep passes driving volume. That piece of history should go to Bogus Basin in Boise, Idaho. In 1998 the ski area lowered their anytime season pass rates from $450 to $199. They went from 5,500 passes sold in 1997 to 25,000 in 1998. The rest of the industry took notice and many, if not most ski areas jumped on board. Rob may have expanded on the concept, largely because he had a much larger audience, but he in no way came up with the concept. I'm sure SAM could pull up some old stories. Thanks and Happy New Year-Brad Wilson, GM Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area
So basically Vail is horrible for employees, horrible for customers but the one highlight is that Wall Street now likes the business model more....
And they dont even like it that much, totally worth ruining local resorts across the country.
Its not mentioned here much but Big Boulder PA had a strong local community and a lot of cache in the park scene before Vail. It opened in October usually and had a tradition of opening in May, in PA!
That obviously is all gone, local scene is dead and moved on, I personally moved to Salt Lake entirely because of this one company. Pretty incredible that one company can be so bad that I literally leave my friends and family because of it....
Rob Katz's legacy will be one of being the most hated man in skiing. Hope it was worth Bobby.
Vail is cancer to the ski industry. They take your money up front then skimp on operations the rest of the year. It needs to be all hands on deck when it snows but FAIL keeps their labor costs fixed so lifts don't get dug out and don't open. Every Vail resort has seen operating performance on powder days drop dramatically. The bean counters love it but are screwing their customers royally. Corporate greed at its finest.
The diversity virtue signalling can't hide the fact that they don't care about their employees either. The toxic general manager at Stevens Pass ran off all their loyal experienced employees and kept his job after exponentially the worst performance in Stevens history. This year they only have 1/3 of the mountain open because nobody will put up with the hostile incompetence. They have plenty of scanners hired for the bean counters but no lifties. Plenty of snow for full operations...
Katz needs to get his head out of quarterly reports and see the destruction he is responsible for.
So I feel like I'm in a difficult spot with this as I see and mostly understand it from a bunch of different perspectives. First my background for some context: I grew up skiing at Mt Sunapee (a Triple Peaks resort, now a Vail resort). I worked there for nearly 14 years in my high school and college years and beyond (pre Vail). I also have family and friends who currently work there or who have worked there in recent years. In my current role at a company outside of the ski industry, I work in a marketing department as a web developer. I am also an avid skier - generally getting about 20 to 25 days in per year at a multitude of eastern ski areas.
From the Skier side of my brain: The Epic pass and what Vail has done to make skiing super affordable for a skier like myself has been great. My mind for skiing works on getting the most of out how much each day and each run costs me. I love a great ski deal, and buying a skiing product that allows me to get a day of skiing somewhere for $40 to $60 and average less than $4 per run or better is what I aim for. I'm am not currently an Epic pass holder as geographically it doesn't make sense. Stowe is the closest to me as the crow flies, but it is on the other side of the notch. So what would normally be a 45 minute drive becomes an hour and a half. In that time I can drive to Smuggs, Jay, Cochran's, Bolton, Sugarbush or Middlebury. Highlighting Bolton and Jay in that list I'll go on the record to say I'm an Indy Pass holder. While not quite as grand as Stowe, these are still incredible and awesome places to ski. I can also get to a bunch of other places with a much better ticket price using discounts offered from the mountains themselves or from 3rd party organizations. And this season officially being able to cross state lines without restrictions from my employer makes the value of the Indy Pass (and Epic Pass) much higher.
Also from the skier side of things, hearing that 700,000 more pass products were sold this year does make me fear of overcrowding especially given the crowding we saw last year. Even without COVID-19 to worry about, that's a lot of extra people in a space that isn't any larger than it was even two years ago. So yeah, it's pretty exciting that that a $500 to $700 priced pass was available and I do kinda thank Vail for making it a reality. It very much reminds me of my college years with an ASC College pass for something like $300ish covering 7 different areas in the east, which was wicked awesome.
Now from the Marketing side of my brain: I also 100% agree that Vail has turned into a Marketing and Data company. Effective data driven marketing can allow anyone to capitalize off of pretty much anything. Learn what people want and make it so....and just for a little more convincing you put a nice cherry on top (read: 20% off the previous year's season pass pricing). That's why Amazon is one of the largest retailers in the world second only to WalMart (by a significant margin). Over time and using as much data as they can get their hands on, they've figured out the quickest and easiest way to get people to open their wallets. In Amazon's case, it's making the process of buying things extraordinarily easy and fast. On the company side of things, smooth out the sales volatility by offering a "premium" subscription version of the site that gives you entertainment and free sort-of quick shipping. The data that Amazon collected over the years reflected that that's what people wanted so that's what they offered.
In Vail's case, it was sort of the same thing and the math worked out quite well. Without knowing what the actually numbers were it's simple: Offer the same product at a lower price and the shear additional number of people who want it most likely made up for the difference in revenue. Because of this, I do congratulate Vail on their successful marketing blitzes. It was an incredibly awesome use of the data to further the bottom line.
Now to the industry and local side of my brain: Coming from Mt Sunapee and hanging out with family members and friends who still work for Vail. It definitely doesn't seem like the same rosy and awesome place that it was pre-Vail. My dad works in Mountain Ops, and he's repeatedly said, "we don't have what we need, to do what we need to do...and the few of us that are left are gettin' tired of it." You routinely hear that 'everywhere is short staffed.' That's sort of the case, but it's more along the lines of 'everywhere that is a terrible place to work for one reason or another is short staffed.'
Go down the road to Pats Peak, and most of the place is open and operating. Cannon Mountain up north is running a healthy number of lifts across the majority of it's terrain - with most on mountain outlets/services open as well. Cranmore has nearly 1/2 it's terrain open with all but 1 lift operating. Loon is 2/3rds open again with all but 1 lift operating. These places seemed to be able to find employees without too much issue.
Now while I don't work in the ski industry right now and haven't since 2014, I'm going to guess that the places that are doing well are due to a mixture of a great work environment, decent perks and perhaps maybe even better pay. I know when I worked at Sunapee, the pay may not have been the greatest, but I got work with a great bunch of people, the perks were halfway decent and my bosses cared about me and my happiness.
Because of how Vail has decided to operate many of these places it's driving most of the local culture and employment away. Yeah, COVID-19 helped drive some of it away, but the lack of local HR and the lack of compensation keeping pace with employers in the area for all those who have worked there in the past feels like it's killing the place. My dad has worked at Sunapee for nearly 40 years and has never felt more like a number then he does now. Many of these current and former employees are people who love the place for what it is and are what made it into what it is known for. Sadly the almighty mothership is just shitting on them when they ask for something to help make their jobs easier or improve the place. Yeah, new lifts are good and they very much help the marketing side of it, but it does nothing to maintain the vibe and excitement of actually skiing there. A new lift does nothing if there is no one there to operate it or maintain it.
I also feel like if that culture was improved, other parts of the experience would be improved as well. The biggest issue I see as a skier is that there is the lack of transparency. Part of the stoke is reading that snow report to know what's going on at the mountain that day. Where are they making snow....what might open next? I can remember back in college being hot glued to my computer reading all of the snow reports from various ski areas as they were the main thing to build up my excitement before my next ski day. Having that info of both the positives and the negatives makes for a better experience in my opinion. Even Peak Resorts had a pretty well put together blog on their efforts to get the Summit Triple running at Attitash. And while it potentially could have been better and there could have been more explanation behind what their was no replacement for the lift scheduled, it was still something.
I apologize for the long rant, but I feel like it's important to see all sides of this. I do agree that Vail has done some great things for skiing as a whole, but at the same time I'm hearing a lot and seeing first hand what it's doing as a detriment.
I believe American ski comp have the low cost multi-mountain pass in the late 90's and early 20's before it broke up and before Vail. No doubt Vail has been more successful in growing this model.
Meanwhile, in Washington state: https://www.change.org/p/vail-resorts-hold-vail-resorts-accountable?utm_content=cl_sharecopy_31863678_en-US%3A4&recruiter=38777009&recruited_by_id=770ff8e0-4255-0130-8636-3c764e044e9e&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink&utm_campaign=psf_combo_share_initial&utm_term=psf_combo_share_initial&share_bandit_exp=initial-31863678-en-US
I don't subscribe to your love of Katz or Vail management in general, especially the present CEO. They just rode the late Boomer wave in skiing, the generation that built and funded the industry, and are now dying off, but, have plenty of time in retirement to travel around and plenty of skiing skills to not be included in that ticket window/first timer group. Vail is like so many American corporations, gobbling up the cheapest money in decades and turning around and buying up hills where ever they can, and labelling all of that "growth". Then they do something incredibly crude and competitively underprice their pass with no real thought in what they may bring to their new acquisitions, and, they probably don't care, because it all looks so sweet when the quarterly reports come out and then they can all sit in the board room and congratulate themselves with higher salaries and bonuses. This will end in tears. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of skiers standing in long lift lines this very day, some who had to pay a fee for parking before they got to that point, who may be thinking, eh, maybe this wasn't such a good idea.
Now the company is being run by a vacuous marketing soft drink salesperson who is responsible for their awful web sites and now is being lauded for her genius in collecting data, as though that will improve the skiing experience. Hoo boy. But, as I've been saying, hey everybody, please continue buying that Epic pass. The more at those mountains, the less at mine.
As always, a great piece. Just remember there is another world out there outside of the epic and ikon pass. Indy pass and the remaining Independents. No lift lines and powder that lasts for days. Consider a couple days at one of these hidden gems. Maybe a day trip from your home base or a detour on the way to your your primary destination. You might discover a whole new world.
I wouldn't give too much credit. The company is heavily indebted and the stock PE of 94 is juiced due to the Federal Reserve mad money printing. It's on my watch list of high-flyers that will go down when this next artificial boom inevitably collapses.