This Is What Vail Resorts Needs to Be
Company commits to preserving guest experience with daily limits on lift-ticket sales
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It was a notion quaint and earnest. Simplistic but no less authentic. To start with Vail would have seemed presumptuous. This American place most synonymous with skiing. Three-sided and endless, galloping back into valleys, super-fast lifts shooting in all directions. I wanted to be ready. To feel as though I’d earned it.
My first trip West was in 1995. But I did not ski Vail until 2004. In our megapass-driven, social-media-fueled moshpit of a present, I doubt anyone thinks this way anymore. Vail is a social-media trophy – go seize it. But I proceeded slowly to the big time. Primed on Midwest bumps, anything would have seemed enormous. First, the rounds of Summit County. Then Winter Park. As though skiing were a videogame and I could not pass to the higher levels until I’d completed those that came before.
And then there it was. That first time standing over Sun Down Bowl, the single groomed path winding toward High Noon below. Eleven thousand feet over Colorado. Sliding down the ridges. Powder everywhere. Back to Blue Sky. Laps all day through unmarked glades. Refills from the sky even though it was April. Three thousand feet of up and down. The enormous complexity of it all. The energy. That impossible blend of wild and approachable.
Vail Mountain and – on that same trip – Beaver Creek, were exactly what I needed them to be: the aspirational summit of America’s lift-served skiing food chain. The best mountains I’d ever skied. I won’t say it was The Experience of a Lifetime. But it was the best five days of skiing that I had, up to that point, ever done.
“We care deeply about our guests’ experience at our resorts”
That was a long time ago. Pre-Epic Pass. Pre-Park City. Pre-Midwest. Pre-Stowe. Pre-Whistler. Pre-41 resorts in four countries. A different Vail Resorts and a different ski world in general.
I’ve been back to Vail Mountain several times since then. It’s always been good. Sometimes, great. Never terrible. In fact, I’ve had few really terrible days at any Vail Resort ever. But I know how to pick my spots. My inbox is filled weekly in the wintertime with anecdotes of terrible crowds, atrocious liftline management, inexplicably closed lifts and terrain at Vail ski areas all over the country. I won’t belabor this – I’ve itemized it all before.
Let’s focus, instead, on something that I think has become obvious: Vail Resorts grew too fast. And their timing was terrible. In 2016, Vail owned 12 ski areas. Over the three years between summer 2016 and July 2019, the company bought 25 more: Whistler, Stowe, Crested Butte, Mount Sunapee, Okemo, Stevens Pass, Falls Creek, Hotham, Paoli Peaks, Hidden Valley, Snow Creek, Attitash, Crotched, Wildcat, Hunter, Boston Mills, Brandywine, Mad River, Alpine Valley, Jack Frost, Big Boulder, Roundtop, Whitetail, Liberty, and Mount Snow. And just as the company was integrating these vastly different properties with their legacy cultures into its network, Covid hit, forcing the largest rethinking of ski area operations since the invention of the chairlift. The source of the dominant lift-served skiing narratives, meanwhile, shifted from well-worn ski media outlets to Facebook, depriving Vail Resorts of any ability it may have once had to directly influence the zeitgeist outside of its actual on-the-hill product. Add a Covid-driven outdoor boom and a labor shortage, and suddenly scale – the same thing that drove Epic Pass sales to record highs – became the company’s biggest liability.
Vail grew into the largest ski company in the world partly on the premise that repeatable systems could work as well in skiing as they do in hamburger-making or hotel-operation. And to an extent, that’s proven to be true. The Epic Pass is a brilliant product, widely mimicked, a B-school-case-study smash hit. But Vail also over-centralized and over-simplified, and they hit the limits of that operating model last year. Ski markets are very different. Cut a little snowmaking in Colorado, and no one will really notice. Cut early-winter snowmaking in Ohio, and you might not have a season.
I’d like to stop dwelling on last winter, and so would Vail. The company’s every public action since March has telegraphed a loosening of the central command-and-control model and more focus on actively managing a positive skier experience. This spring, the company redistributed HR personnel to local markets and announced a more flexible work model that freed employees from the Broomfield office park. They also substantially increased worker pay, amping the front-line minimum wage up to $20 an hour nationwide.
And then last week, Vail announced that it will limit lift ticket sales at all 37 of its North American resorts for the 2022-23 ski season.
“We care deeply about our guests’ experience at our resorts,” said James O’Donnell, president of Vail Resorts’ Mountain division. “Limiting lift tickets throughout the season, alongside the big investments we’re making at our resorts and in our team members, will help us provide our guests with an Experience of a Lifetime this winter.”
Epic Pass holders – including those with Epic Day Passes – will not be limited. This is an expanded version of Vail’s decision to limit lift ticket sales during holiday periods last year. It is unclear how the company is determining the daily limits for each resort, but the notion of “preserving the guest experience” is new for Vail. At least insofar as it’s baldly articulated here. And it’s a welcome development.
Be as good as Jackson Hole
Earlier this year, Freeskier ran an article tracking the evolution of Jackson Hole’s crowds from its hectic Ikon debut season to the 2021-22 campaign. The changes are remarkable:
One major change at JHMR and other resorts was the limiting of daily skiers allowed on the hill in order to ease congestion for safety reasons [during Covid]. Thus, the reservation system was born.
When combined with limited lift capacity, the result was somewhat offset and lift lines remained at an average rate but when lift capacity returned to normal this year and JHMR decided to retain the reservation system, something beautiful happened. The lift lines almost vanished.
“It’s just such a great experience,” says Mary Kate Buckley, President of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. “Less time in lines, more time on snow and the snow stays better all day.”
By continuing the requirement for Mountain Collective and IKON pass holders to make reservations, and encouraging advanced purchase of regular tickets, it seems the resort has figured out a solution to the overcrowding problem. Die-hard skiers can lap the mountain from open to close, while recreational skiers can leisurely make their way around the hill and pop into any bar or restaurant they please. Everybody wins.
“[The response has been] overwhelmingly positive,” says Buckley. “Our employees have asked us to do this again next year. It’s under control and they get more skiing in when they’re on a break. Todd Jones has said it’s as good as it was in the ‘90s and the IKON pass holders who I’ve talked to think it’s great—but those have been people who planned ahead and made their reservations.”
Jackson Hole has become manageable without going country-club exclusive. And it took just a few simple changes to make that happen. There is no reason to think that Vail can’t manage an equivalent transformation across its portfolio.
When I flew back east after that Colorado week nearly 20 years ago, I carried a great conviction that I had just experienced something special. That is, I’ll admit, something that’s easier to pull off with Vail Mountain than with Boston Mills or Jack Frost. But if Vail is sincere about limiting skier visits and backs that up with aggressive snowmaking and mountain management, then it can make sure that every future skier who lands in Eagle County - or northeastern Pennsylvania or Brighton, Michigan - believes it was something worth waiting for.
Oh and here are the projected opening dates for every North American Vail resort:
Below the subscriber jump: new short-term rental regulations in two Colorado towns, the latest on Gunstock, a clever surface lift re-opens some long-lost terrain at a big off-the-radar ski area, a mountain town newspaper gutted, and more.