Last week's blockbuster news in the ski industry — that KSL Capital Partners has joined forces with the Aspen Skiing Co. to buy Intrawest — would be befuddling if viewed solely through the metric of traditional growth. Skier days and the number of participating skiers in the United States, despite significant year-to-year variations reflecting snow and economic conditions, were the same last year as they were in the 1996-97 season.
A more revealing statistic, however, can be found in the stock price of Vail Resorts. Shares in 1997, when the company went public, cost $16. They were $191 Tuesday afternoon. Very publicly, Vail Resorts has learned to make good money in a flat industry. Other ski area operators have profited greatly, too, based on industry averages, even if most of the finances remain private.
So what are Aspen Skiing Co. and KSL Capital Partners thinking? Last week they announced the pending $1.5 billion purchase of Intrawest's still substantial assets. Then, two days later, they announced plans to acquire Mammoth and three other ski areas in Southern California.
"The best defense is a good offense, and that's what this is," says Chris Diamond, the former chief executive for Intrawest at Steamboat who has now retired into consulting. "You can view all the non-Vail transactions in ski country as defense up until this point."
Diamond sees this, as do many others, as being a response to Vail's powerful Epic Pass. Vail didn't invent the idea of a discounted ski pass. The idea is credited to Spirit Mountain, at Duluth, Minn., which in 1990 discounted its season pass to $199. Others — Bogus Bus, outside Boise, Idaho, and then Colorado's Winter Park — followed.
Vail Resorts also dropped its season pass prices. But when Rob Katz took over as chief executive of the company in 2005, he more expertly branded the pass as Epic and then set out to supplement the company's four original areas along Interstate 70 in Colorado.
Less has been much, much more for the ski company. Sales for the next season begin in April, as one season ends, giving the ski company revenue to coast through the revenue-deprived summer. Importantly, it locks in customers early — before ski season, before anybody even knows whether there will be snow. It also defines the alternatives. You don't just buy a pass to one ski area. You buy options — also owned by the same company. Vail now has 13 options around the world with two more on the way.
Vail's stable now has geographic diversity. A bad winter in California? Well, Colorado got some snow. Or Whistler. It's always snowing somewhere.
Even before the Epic and then the Mountain Collective and other friends-with-benefits passes came on in response, ski companies had been changing. In the 1990s, Vail Resorts began buying ski shops, restaurants and all else at Vail and Breckenridge, causing much heartburn among the long-term residents. Aspen Skiing was doing the same vertical integration. In the old model, the ski companies sold lift tickets and season passes, or vertical transportation, and instruction. Other than serving soggy fries on the mountain and sloshing beer après ski, there wasn't much more.
In the last 20 years, perceived quality has been elevated in every department: advanced grooming, faster lifts, and organic and health-conscious menus. Soggy fries have disappeared. "Looking back, do you remember how awful it used to be?" asks Diamond.
The Epic Pass and the other pass programs have produced "no earth-shattering change in terms of market share," says Diamond. Intermediate ski areas, like Telluride and Jackson Hole, held on just fine and, in the latter case, actually grew. The big difference was a new dynamic for profitability for Vail Resorts, he explains.
Now, with a week's worth of announcements — and who knows, maybe there will be more — there are two heavyweights in the ski industry: Vail Resorts and the Company to be Named Inc. It's kind of like Chevrolet and Ford of the mid-20th century.
A continental perspective is important to understanding these deals. Intrawest's stable includes two big resorts in eastern Canada, Tremblant and Blue Mountain, along with Stratton in Vermont and Snowshoe in West Virginia. They draw on major population centres of the eastern North America, including Toronto, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Then there's Mammoth and the other three resorts that have traditionally played to the 18 million people in Southern California.
If somebody can buy a season pass at their home, be it Bear Mountain outside Los Angeles or Stratton in Vermont, then they will presumably have access to many other resorts, including Aspen, and Steamboat, says Rick Kahl, editor of Ski Area Management, an industry publication. "I think it opens up a lot of options for skiers to a lot of other areas," he says.
Park City will still look good to skiers from Southern California, but for another 35 minutes in the air they can now look to Colorado resorts, points out Diamond. He expects "highly competitive pass products to be forthcoming from the new Aspen/KSL/Intrawest/Mammoth grouping.
There's also this: the new combined businesses will have broader geographic diversity and hence greater insulation from variable weather, points out Jeff Hanle, spokesman for the Aspen Skiing Co.
David Perry, the No. 2 at the Aspen Skiing Co. (and a 20-year former resident of Whistler), is mum about what the passes might look like. He also talks about the variable options in less muscular, business-calloused terms than most of the hallway conversations. Aspen's customers are among the most loyal in the business, he says, but nods that "people who take vacations are explorers at heart." In other words, they like to go other places, too.
Aspen seeks to accommodate the wanderlust — and take a cut of the action.
But Perry cautions that the story is not all about Epic and the new passes, it's also about scaling of many functions.
The new combination allows the resorts to "compete at scale, to invest in things like technology," he says. For example, he says, ski companies have lagged in technological sophistication in a world where the average person now is able to order goods from Amazon on the iPhone they carry around in their pockets.
What happens next? "It's almost like a chess board. One makes a move, and then the other makes another move," says Diamond.
Who loses? "Time will tell," he says.