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Vail Resorts, Reflecting Inward, Admits It Is Part of Skiing’s Diversity Problem
“I see this as a personal failing.”
Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz last week delivered a blunt and humble admission that the company he has led for 14 years was not doing enough to develop or encourage diversity in skiing.
“As much as I have been saddened seeing these acts of racism across our country,” Katz wrote, reflecting on the waves of protests rolling across the United States in the wake of George Floyd’s May 25 death beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, “I am also confronted by the fact that our Company and our sport are overwhelmingly white, with incredibly low representation from people of color.”
“I see this as a personal failing,” Katz said.
You may be inclined to thank the most powerful man in skiing for pointing out the water in the ocean. That skiing has a diversity problem is obvious and has been for a very long time. The sport is as white as the snow we ski on. An NSAA study from a few years back found that whites, which compose just over 60 percent of the U.S. population, made up 84.8 percent of all skier visits. African-Americans, which make up 13.4 percent of the population, were just 1.2 percent. We, as skiers, should be aware of and collectively embarrassed by this.
Still, I credit Vail and Katz for acknowledging their failings. It would be easy for Vail, its Money Vault $150 million-ish lighter after the corona bandits broke in overnight on March 14 and made off with the tail end of the ski season, to pretend like its head is too deep in the snowdrift to look around summertime America and see that something’s happening here.
And it’s something they can do a lot to remedy, at least on the slopes. Exactly what is unclear. Katz had the humility to admit that, “I am not sure I fully know what the solution is,” promising to “start by talking about it,” with his employees at an upcoming event (He also announced nearly $12 million in donations yesterday to organizations devoted to racial justice reform, as well as Covid-19 research). But with Vail Resorts’ sheer scale and influence, any changes they make will reverberate not just across their 34 North American mountains, but across their competitors, who will chase them on diversity and inclusion just as they’ve had to follow them in consolidating under megapasses and dropping the those pass prices significantly.
There is plenty to be done. Some skiers probably don’t believe that’s the case. Katz addressed people’s tendency toward defensiveness when confronted with an uncomfortable fact about this thing they love:
While I’m sure most everyone in our industry believes they are tolerant and welcoming, we need to acknowledge that there are parts of the culture of our sport that are clearly not inviting. Maybe the image we have created of the mountain lifestyle needs to be more varied. Maybe, as a fairly close-knit and passionate group of skiers and riders, our community carries a deep implicit bias. It would not be a stretch to call us a clique. Maybe it’s our fear of change. While I would like to think that I have been an agent of change in this industry, a decade later I am still running a company that has very limited racial diversity.
This was unusually candid for a corporate memo, a genre of specialty writing that, by nature, veers toward the bland and the cliched. The part about implicit bias is the most insightful. What is it about lift-served skiing, as we’ve imagined it and as it is configured, that is saying all people are not necessarily welcome? What about it is saying that they are?
It is very hard to say because there are not enough diverse voices in skiing to say it. There were 476 active ski areas in the United States during the 2018-19 season, according to the NSAA. I am not aware of a single one that is led by an African-American general manager. These are often working-my-way-up-from-parking-cars kind of jobs, the sort of thing that you grow into from owning every piece of the ski area experience. There would be worse places for the industry to start its diversity and inclusion efforts than a pipeline program to recruit young people of color (and, for that matter, women), into entry-level jobs that could become careers.
If you have people of diverse backgrounds managing ski areas, you are probably going to have ski areas that appeal to people of more diverse backgrounds. I am not suggesting that current ski area managers are a monoculture – I am saying there are gaps. As America rapidly diversifies, the ski industry can’t stand against the wall and hope the new girls will want to dance with it. That is a formula for irrelevancy, culturally and as a business. So they are going to need some new moves.
Some are getting there. Back in January, I called Big Snow – yes, the indoor New Jersey snowdome – the most important ski area in America. I stand by that. By stripping out the complexities, expense, logistical hassles, gear imperative, and need to drive, Big Snow has removed 90 percent of the intimidation factor of skiing. And it has placed it a bus ride away from millions of diverse potential skiers. While we’re unlikely to see these thing popping up like exit-ramp Taco Bells – Big Snow’s ace marketing and sales VP Hugh Reynolds underscored on the podcast in March how extraordinarily expensive these giant refrigerated ramps were – the industry could apply pieces of their approach to the current nightmare and train-robbing that is the beginner ski experience, from the holy-shit lift ticket price to rental shed hell to the need for expensive lessons.
For my part, I plan to focus some attention on where diversity stands in skiing over the next several weeks and months. There are plenty of stories to tell, and I have not done a good enough job telling them. Of my first 25 podcast episodes, only three and a half of them have featured women. The other guests have all been white men, like me. I am grateful to all of my guests and value their insight, experience, and willingness to share. However, this limited view does not reflect the things about skiing that are truly universal, and the general bonhomie that has always made the sport so appealing to me. Everyone should feel welcome skiing. Let’s figure out how to make it happen.
What we can learn from the 2019-20 Ski Season Part II
After limited re-openings that jabbed a middle finger at Covid and tested out the viability of lift ticket reservation systems, the 2019-20 North American ski season Part II is just about over for the half dozen ski areas that gave it a run.
A-Basin ended its 12-day spring run on Sunday, June 7, after running out of snow. Crystal Mountain, Washington shut down the same day after re-opening June 1. That leaves Beartooth Basin, Montana’s summer-only ski area, which is aiming for a July 5 close, and Timberline, Oregon, which is hoping for Sept. 7.
It’s getting pretty late to hope for any additional openings. Still, we learned some useful things in the set of experiments that began with Mt. Baldy’s stealth re-opening on April 22, mostly that lift-served skiing as we’ve always known it can be adapted to new operational models centered around a reservation system. Whether that can be scaled up to something sustainable is unclear. Whether it will need to be is murkier yet. While we wait to see how that sorts out, we have about five months to sit back and hope the world keeps spinning.
Northeast season pass updates – all changes reflected in this chart
Deferral or refund options introduced this week
The only new one this past week was also a big one: Cannon will grant skiers a no-questions-asked credit toward a 2021-22 pass or a full refund minus a $50 processing fee through Nov. 26. The mountain is also guaranteeing credits toward “a future season pass purchase” in the event of a season that “is interrupted or ended due to a public health crisis.” Cannon is defining its season as Nov. 27, 2020 to April 11, 2021, and is dividing this into quarters for purposes of determining credits. That’s a 136-day season with four 34-day quarters, ending approximately Dec. 30, Feb. 2, March 8, and April 11. So if a shutdown happened Dec. 8, a skier would get a 100 percent credit; Jan. 8, 75 percent; Feb. 8, 50 percent; March 10, 25 percent. This is a good plan overall, but there is still no payment plan, and no indication that this same pass assurance plan applies to the White Mountain Super Pass.
Running list of Northeast mountains offering refunds or deferrals on 2020-21 season passes: Vail/Epic Pass (Stowe, Okemo, Mount Snow, Wildcat, Attitash, Crotched, Mount Sunapee, Hunter, Roundtop, Whitetail, Liberty, Jack Frost, Big Boulder); Alterra/Ikon Pass (Stratton, Sugarbush); Pats Peak, Waterville Valley, Cannon, Cranmore, Windham, Mount Peter, Plattekill, Bristol, Jay Peak, Burke, Magic, Bolton Valley, Killington-Pico, Smugglers’ Notch, Bromley, Boyne 3 (Loon, Sugarloaf, Sunday River), Lost Valley (ME), King Pine (NH), Elk (PA), Blue Mountain (PA), Spring Mountain (PA), Yawgoo (RI), Berkshire East/Catamount, Jiminy Peak, Wachusett, Butternut
Mountains that have committed to some sort of refund/deferral policy, but have not yet provided details (new category based upon my podcast conversation with Mad River Glen GM Matt Lillard): Mad River Glen
Notable holdouts (I have been told off the record that some of these mountains are working on policies): ORDA 3 (Whiteface, Gore, Belleayre), Greek Peak-Toggenburg, Holiday Valley, Bretton Woods, Gunstock, Black N.H., Ragged, Shawnee Peak (Maine), Mt. Abram, Saddleback, Camelback, Seven Springs-Hidden Valley-Laurel
The Jay/Burke Combo pass, which I’ve still been calling the Judge Pass but apparently I am alone in this, zoomed from $829 to $1,019 today. The next deadline is Oct. 12. A couple points here:
This makes the Jay/Burke pass more expensive than either a full Epic or Ikon Pass. That’s a tough sell. I’ve said before that Jay is one of the few ski areas in the Northeast that should retain its pricing power as a standalone mountain even in the megapass era, given its unique terrain and huge snowfalls. But there is no version of reality where it is worth more than an Epic or Ikon Pass, especially for skiers with aspirations to take a trip out west. As good as Jay Peak is, Stowe and Sugarbush are right there, are almost as good, and are one of many many many offerings on their respective passes. The two Saddleback days this year is a nice add, but after this price increase, this pass goes from reasonable deal to hard to justify.
Jay’s site states that, “If you purchase by the early deadline [June 8] to benefit from our most affordable rate, you can still ask for a complete refund at any time up to October 1st, 2020.” That suggests that anyone who purchases the pass now is not eligible for the refund. Burke’s site has removed any mention of it.
Jay Peak’s standalone pass jumped from $729 to $859 today. The next deadline is Oct. 12.
Burke’s pass shot from $639 to $813. That’s a lot of money for one mid-sized mountain, even one as fun as Burke. The next deadline is Oct. 12. As noted above, Burke pulled any mention of its refund, leading me to believe that it was only a benefit for early-bird pass buyers. I believe this is the wrong approach, and we’ll see if they stand by it.
King Pine, New Hampshire’s pass jumped from $499 to $575. The next deadline is Oct. 1 (last year’s passholders are eligible for the $499 rate until Oct. 1).
The $630 Highlands Pass, good for unlimited access at Pennsylvania’s Seven Springs, Laurel, and Hidden Valley ski areas, extended its early-bird deadline to Aug. 15. The individual mountains also extended their deadlines to the same date. This is one of the few regional passes that still does not offer any sort of deferral or refund option – hopefully the purpose of this extension is to put one in place.
This week’s Northeast season pass deadlines:
June 15: New England Pass (Sugarloaf, Sunday River, Loon); Saddleback; Magic; Bromley; Black Mountain, New Hampshire; Willard Mountain, New York
June 16: Ikon Pass (Stratton, Sugarbush)
Magic looks on schedule to get its black chair quad (Stratton’s old Sun Bowl lift) online before the season starts. Saddleback also looks on schedule for re-opening, in spite of Covid-19 setbacks – reading this article is the first time I’ve processed that the $7 million Doppelmayr lift replacing the Rangeley double is going to cost more than the $6.5 million Arctaris paid for the mountain itself.
This week in not skiing
Maybe six weeks ago I dusted off the hand-me-down bicycle that had been sitting in my storage room for three years and began taking long ambling rides around North Brooklyn. I’m not Bike Guy like I’m Ski Guy even though I did once transnavigate the entire east coast of Florida in a week, a trip which I was in no way physically or operationally prepared for. In any state other than Florida where there is a Walgreens every 1,500 yards and almost zero significant elevation changes we may surely have died. That was seven years ago though and the bike was stolen five years ago and I haven’t really thought about bicycles much since.
Anyway in this shelter-in-place otherworld that we have lived in for months the bicycle has been a great relief, a way to simultaneously distance and exercise and see things at the human scale and speed that a car is inherently hostile to. Ambling New York City on a bicycle is a little like skiing a gigantic resort where there’s all kinds of hidden zones tucked into the broadness of what at first seems like an obvious world but is in fact a complex and layered and surprising one. Like I once spent several days at Vail and I may have skied like five marked runs the whole time, the mountain multiplying before me as though I was conjuring it out of my imagination, vast and bewildering and unfindable even when you really can’t go any direction other than down. And that’s how Brooklyn on a bike feels, limitlessly and senselessly wonderful.
One of the things it has allowed me to view is the massive uplifting protests that have marched ceaselessly through the city for a fortnight. The energy spooling off these things with their chants and their bullhorns and their hoisted signs and their conviction is incredibly moving and powerful. This would be uplifting in any time but following weeks of lockdown during which human interaction has been banished it is a thing of uproarious joy to witness. I don’t know if you’ve watched videos of George Floyd dying but it is like watching evil and I wish I’d never seen it, but in the afterlight of this dark thing the marches recast humanity’s potential for redemption and for good.
Otherwise New York is slowly getting back to being New York. There are still no restaurants or barbers and I’m starting to resemble some sort of wintertime yak with my evergrowing hedge of hair, but bars have cracked service windows open and a new sidewalk drinking culture has erupted. Traffic has been thickening for weeks and between the springtime weather and the slow lifting beginning this week of restrictions the city is again resembling a place fit for humans to live in.
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COVID-19 & Skiing Podcasts: Author and Industry Veteran Chris Diamond | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | NSAA CEO Kelly Pawlak| Berkshire East/Catamount Owner & Goggles for Docs founder Jon Schaefer | Shaggy’s Copper Country Skis Cofounder Jeff Thompson | Doppelmayr USA President Katharina Schmitz | Mt. Baldy GM Robby Ellingson | Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory |
The Storm Skiing Podcasts: Killington & Pico GM Mike Solimano | Plattekill owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay | New England Lost Ski Areas Project Founder Jeremy Davis | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | Lift Blog Founder Peter Landsman | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Burke Mountain GM Kevin Mack | Liftopia CEO Evan Reece | Berkshire East & Catamount Owner & GM Jon Schaefer | Vermont Ski + Ride and Vermont Sports Co-Publisher & Editor Lisa Lynn| Sugarbush President & COO Win Smith | Loon President & GM Jay Scambio | Sunday River President & GM Dana Bullen | Big Snow & Mountain Creek VP of Sales & Marketing Hugh Reynolds | Mad River Glen GM Matt Lillard | Indy Pass Founder Doug Fish