The Lift Queue for the Blue Bird Express Will Now Extend to Delaware
Epic Pass sales explode as we wait to see where all those skiers will go
In which we compare skiing at Hunter Mountain to an apocalyptic zombie invasion
The question of whether Vail Resorts can weather an earth-shattering catastrophe seems to have been definitively answered. MTN stock is sitting near all-time highs. The company has $1.3 billion of “cash on hand,” a turn of phrase that always sounds to me like bundles of hundreds are stacked in a mop room next to the Accounting pantry. And the company delivered healthy numbers in its earnings report earlier this week, with mammoth jumps in lift revenue and modest increases in ski school and retail revenue compared to the prior-year quarter. True comparisons were rendered impossible by the 2020 shutdowns, but a $16.3 million drop in dining revenue even with several more operating weeks in 2021 underscores just how potent indoor capacity restrictions were to food-and-beverage sales (though $16.3 million at Vail Mountain probably only equates to about four or five cheeseburgers, so really a small drop sales units-wise).
The most significant number, however, may be forward-looking: Epic Pass sales exploded 50 percent in units sold and 33 percent in sales dollars. Sales were “particularly strong” in the Northeast, noted a quote attributed to Rob Katz that had the same chance of having actually been written by Rob Katz as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
That Rob Katz is a business genius is well-established. The Vail he inherited was a bit of a has-been, demoted in a turn-of-the-millennium ski world that measured status by the size and number of rad cliff drops Brah. Breck, Keystone, Vail, Heavenly – these were the cardboard cousins of the rad-and-bad canvasses of A-basin, Squaw, Snowbird, Jackson Hole. But from this milquetoast collection of ho-hum mountains he assembled an empire, Epic in scope but sometimes Epik in execution.
I’ll pause here to acknowledge that some of you find it annoying when I deliberately misspell “Epic” when discussing Vail’s passes. At risk of ruining the joke by explaining it, there is a rationale: being able to ski 37 company-owned mountains and dozens of partners all season long is Epic. Dropping prices on those passes by 20 percent to drive sales but with no clear plan to manage capacity other than “Hell eventually they’ll just run out of parking” is Epik. Getting rid of the reservation system that the company had already built and that would have solved that problem is Epik. Charging $229 for a one-day lift ticket is Epik. If Vail can figure out how to make skiing on a holiday at Hunter Mountain not feel like being caught in the Jerusalem scene of World War Z even after these price drops, that will be Epic.
No actually that’s just what Hunter is like never mind.
By the way I am never explaining this joke again so please bookmark this post for future reference.
Let’s all be friends to each other and to Mother Earth
Now that whole existential crisis of Covid is fading with relatively few ski industry casualties, the big ski area operators can get back to long-term planning. Yesterday, the four largest – Vail, Alterra, Boyne, and Powdr – announced a joint initiative that turns the collective might of their 71 ski areas toward the issue of climate change:
We all believe that:
Climate change is the most critical issue we face as business leaders and as citizens of this continent and inhabitants of Earth. The dramatic rise in greenhouse gasses that is disrupting our planetary system and threatening our way of life is primarily human-caused and needs urgent attention by all affected. As mountain resort companies, we appreciate that we are extremely fortunate to live, work and play in beautiful pristine natural environments and that we have a deep responsibility to our employees, our communities, and the millions of guests that visit us each year to maintain that environment.
The scientific evidence and first-hand observations of change resulting from weather extremes and volatility is clear and true. The impacts to the forests, habitats, and ecosystems is dramatic, and just the beginning of the problem we all face on a planetary scale.
We must do everything in our power to leave a positive legacy for future generations, and to operate and manage our mountain resorts with a commitment to protecting and preserving our environment.
Never mind that the first bullet point sounds as though it were written by Marvin the Martian in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. The collective power of these four companies – which likely control a majority of the continent’s skier visits – to drive energy consumption earthward is undisputed. In the same way that California, with its huge population, can drive national auto-efficiency standards by mandating gas mileage limits, these four companies can influence lift, grooming, and snowmaking manufacturers to develop ever-more-efficient technology.
“We are very proud to be a part of this historic action and to co-create the industry’s first Climate Collaborative Charter,” said Alterra Executive Vice President of ESG David Perry. “This is an incredible opportunity for industry leaders to engage in healthy competition while educating, sharing best practices and knowledge, and motivating each other to put our best efforts forth to help support the urgent and core issues of sustainability.”
It’s a good start. In tandem with the NSAA’s Sustainable Slopes program, it should nudge skiing into a more sustainable future. What isn’t clear from the statement is any kind of accountability mechanism, and how or when any sort of progress will be reported. The goals – reduce energy wherever possible, climate action and advocacy, be responsible stewards of the environment – are nebulous, with no tangible goals or timelines.
Perhaps those details are forthcoming. While we wait, these four ski giants should put together a similar initiative to help diversify the sport – both the people who ski and the people who run skiing. In an America that is rapidly changing demographically, a white-as-snow image is a bad look. And other than a few scattered statements and an increase in diversity in ski-area marketing, it’s been crickets since Vail and Alterra independently pledged to do better last June.
You actually didn’t invent Magic Mountain from a hipster’s fever dream but it’s OK if you think that
It’s fashionable in cool-kid social media circles to regard Magic as some kind of radical accident of nature, its parking lot a time machine to a 1960s ski experience welded off from the high-speed overgroomed megaresorts surrounding it. The ribbons of natural-snow-only steeps and glades dumping off a summit served by a single ancient double chair reinforce this narrative, as does the back-slapping atmosphere of the boxy lodge and the Black Line Tavern above it. And truly Magic is an outlier, a metal wicket-ticket and lunch-bucket kind of place, improbable in a Vermont ski scene increasingly run out of Colorado office parks.
It’s easy to forget that, less than a decade ago, the place was a dump. Magic loyalists hate when I say that. But it’s true. Shuttered through the gut of the 90s, the place teetered along afterward on a skeletal lift system and spare snowmaking, forever on the brink of insolvency, brilliant after a snowstorm but borderline dysfunctional otherwise.
Then Geoff Hatheway came along. A long-time New York marketing executive with social media savvy and you-can’t-overcommunicate mindset, he tapped the fuck-corporate spirit of Magic diehards and stitched it into the mountain’s brand, building a story skiers wanted to be a part of. It worked, with season pass sales quadrupling since 2016. That cash has gone right back into the mountain, as Hatheway detailed in a recent Q&A with New York Ski Blog:
For years the base to summit Red lift has handled the load, but we made a commitment to increase uphill capacity to the summit by replacing the now defunct triple Black Chair with a new-to-us Poma fixed-grip quad from Stratton that will effectively double our overall uphill capacity. While it has taken more money and time to install this lift up difficult terrain, the Black Line Quad will be a workhorse securing Magic’s future while keeping lift lines to under 10 minutes on our busiest holidays in combination with the iconic Red Chair.
Snowmaking has been an Achilles heel for Magic since its re-opening in the late 90s. Much damage was done to the system when Bromley closed down Magic. But we’ve invested in bigger pump motors, new base area piping out of the pump house, replacing old snow guns with more energy efficient guns, and mothballing diesel air compressors with new, clean energy electric compressors.
We’ve taken Magic from 20% snowmaking of trails to over 40%. This year we move to 50% with repairs to Witch/Blackline and Vertigo pipes. Both East and West Side terrain will have plenty of snowmaking to keep everyone happy, while we let mother nature do what she does best on the rest, for that great combination of groomed and all-natural snow terrain.
Finally, the snowmaking pond expansion will occur over the coming year. A new dam will double volume and we’re bringing online the new Thompsonburg Brook pump which will help refill the pond as needed. So don’t let anyone tell you Magic doesn’t have enough water to make snow. We do and we’ve never run out even as we’ve added more snowmaking terrain.
When a ski area does its job right, a community takes collective ownership of it. Proud and loyal, they deflect all criticism, defending the place like something crafted or conjured from their own souls. This is what you see at Plattekill and Berkshire East and Magic. This sort of illusion-of-ownership not easy to achieve. It does not just happen, it is made. Sometimes one email and tweet at a time.
And in the year 2030, it is foretold that we will purchase ski tickets through a computer screen!
A few months into last year’s near-nationwide shutdowns to help stop the spread of Covid, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat penned a column titled Waking Up in 2030:
There is something peculiar about time during the pandemic. On the one hand there’s a feeling that the normal calendar has simply stopped, school schedules and sports seasons evaporating, one homebound day passing much like another. It’s a feeling of hiatus, intermission, like the days between Christmas and the new year, or some extra season invented by a Renaissance pope to fix a lagging calendar.
Yet at the same time there’s a feeling of acceleration, of changes that might have otherwise dragged out across a decade piling one atop the other. … trends that were working slowly have seemingly speeded up.
This means that when the coronavirus era finally ends, there will be a Rip Van Winkle feeling — a sense of having been asleep and waking to normality, except that we will have time-traveled and the normality will resemble the year 2030 as it might have been without the virus, rather than just a simple turn to 2021 or 2022.
What that means in the real world is that a share of Amazon stock is now worth more than the median annual household income of 31 nations and that I’ve been fully employed without scanning the security badge into my office building in 15 months. What this means for the ski world is not a sudden proliferation of 82-passenger Concorde lifts but an immediate and probably permanent shift into e-commerce. As Jason Blevins reports in The Colorado Sun (full read recommended):
For many years, resort captains have been slow and steady with investment in technology. The behind-the-scenes stuff — wireless networks, point-of-sale and lodging reservation systems, online ticket sales — typically was overshadowed by flashy projects involving new chairlifts and terrain.
The coronavirus turbo-charged ski resort interest in decidedly unsexy technology, which is now a top priority. After a year of resorts doing everything they could to limit crowding with reservations, early purchasing, touchless retail interactions and mobile apps, the 2020-21 season will mark the moment the U.S. resort industry leaped into the modern world.
“We always had these plans for investment in technology, but COVID accelerated everything,” said Erik Forsell, head of marketing for Alterra Mountain Co., the Denver-based operator of 15 ski destinations. “We took a multiyear process and did it in like five months.”
Expect technology to be the new snowmaking: a few resorts will squeak by without it, but those that embrace and perfect it will be far more likely to survive. The world we knew in 2020 is gone and it’s not coming back. Consumers, traumatized by shutdowns and trained to seek distance, have shifted to a commercial ecosystem in which the most findable product wins. For ski areas, that means their online world is nearly as important as their real-world one. Skiers want to know before setting their GPS for your parking lot: what is your story, why do I want to be a part of it, and how do I do that?
Email Geoff Hatheway for notes – he’ll probably respond within five minutes.
Skiing is even more fun when the rest of the world sucks
So it turns out that when every restaurant and movie theater within 500 miles is closed, downhill snowskiing becomes a highly desirable thing to do. The NSAA reported earlier this week that U.S. skier visits hit 59 million over the 2020-21 ski season (yes shut up Guy Who Is Still Skiing Timberline and logs 500 ski days per year, we know the ski season is not technically over), the fifth best season since record-keeping began in 1978.
This is remarkable for a few reasons. First, most ski areas of any size were actively limiting capacity throughout the season – the four Catskills ski areas were sold out every weekend day from January to early March. Second, normally reliable streams of visitors from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe were largely shut out for the season. Third, the average ski area’s season stretched just 112 days, nine fewer days than the 2018-19 season. Finally, destination travel of all kinds slowed as many people stayed within driving distance of home.
A few things helped drive strong skier visit numbers anyway. Weekday visitation, likely driven by newly flexible white-collar drones freed by remote work, skyrocketed from 21 percent of skier visits to 48 percent. While foreign skiers couldn’t come to the U.S., Americans couldn’t leave either. All those Whistler visits had to go somewhere. Finally, those e-sales referenced above dropped skiing full-send into the online world where cooped-up and Covid-fatigued shut-ins dwelled, desperately searching for safe things to do.
So what will happen next year? I do expect ever-cheaper season passes to drive participation as a whole, but we’ll see.
Congratulations are in order
One of skiing’s good guys snagged one of the top jobs in the industry recently:
“Nick is assuredly the ideal candidate to lead the marketing support necessary as we execute long-term development plans at our resorts across North America—each including aggressive goals and growth projections,” said Boyne Resorts President and CEO Stephen Kircher. “We conducted an extensive search for the right person to match the immense success Ian is credited with during his tenure. Nick’s experience and qualifications became the baseline in evaluating all candidates and with him also being a widely trusted leader, he proved to be a natural successor.”
Arthur will serve as an advisor for Boyne. Other prominent recent hires: Alterra hires Live Nation exec Jared Smith as its new president. The National Ski Patrol hires Great Outdoors Colorado Executive Director Chris Castilian as its new CEO. A bunch of promotions at Killington.
National Sports Center for the Disabled co-founder Hal O’Leary died at 94. Junior Bounous becomes the world’s oldest heliskier at age 95. Unfortunately The Storm Skiing Podcast was not cool enough to make Freeskier’s list of Eight Must-Hear Podcasts for Skiers. While I disagree, I was happy to see Out of Bounds Podcast and Low Pressure Podcast on the list. Does this look fun or terrible?
This week in not skiing
If there’s a hell it’s air-conditioned. Heading into my second consecutive work-from-home summer, I have only one mission, and that is to spend every moment possible outside:
No I don’t use a Mac and no I don’t find them “intuitive” and no I don’t really give a shit what you think about that. The keyboard works the same on a PC and frankly that’s the only part of a computer I know how to operate anyway.