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Mountain News: How Vail Resorts is like the Vegas casinos


BROOMFIELD, Colo. — Fortune magazine said that the successful business model of Vail Resorts looks a lot like the business model used by casinos. How so?

The magazine said that like resorts in Las Vegas and Macau, Vail Resorts accumulates enormous amounts of information about its customers and obsessively tracks their activities.

On the slopes, for instance, there are radio-chip-equipped lift passes that record which runs skiers take and with whom they ride lifts.

Vail can even send targeted cable-television ads to the TV sets of its customers when they are at home contemplating next winter's ski seasons.

But Rob Katz, 49, the chief executive of Vail Resorts since 2004, also borrowed what Fortune calls a classic casino gimmick to attract customers: an all-you-can-eat buffet of a season pass called Epic. It's good at 13 resorts in North America, one in Australia, and up to four days at 31 ski areas in Europe, all for US$849.

"It's an unbeatable deal for skiers who plan to spend more than five days on the slopes this season," Fortune said.

"And it's a good deal for Vail, too: By getting skiers to pay up front, Vail offloads much of the risk of a light snow season onto its customers, while enticing them to buy $15 bowls of chili and $1,000 parkas in mountain lodges and stores. Katz expected to sell 500,000 season passes this year, pumping more than $250 million in nonrefundable revenue into Vail's bank account, most of it before Thanksgiving."

The Epic brand has worked pretty well for Vail, said the magazine. The stock has yielded a 35-per-cent return and a share price of $160, up eightfold from the depths of the financial crisis.

Even more impressive about these statistics is that skier days in the United States have barely changed in the last 30 years.

But Vail faces challenges, said Fortune, and points to rising expectations from employees to share in these benefits. While an all-day private lesson can cost more than $900, ski instructors frequently earn less than $20 an hour, and lifties the de facto minimum wage of a ski town.

Widow of gonzo writer to licence cannabis sales

ASPEN, Colo. — How about a commercial strain of cannabis called Gonzo? Or Fear and Loathing? Maybe Decadent and Depraved?

Anita Thompson, the widow of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, told The Aspen Times that she now has plans for the 42-acre compound where the famous writer lived from the mid-1960s until his suicide in 2005.

In dispatches to Rolling Stone and other magazines, Hunter Thompson was known for his energetic prose and for including himself as part of the story, a style that came to be called gonzo journalism.

Under terms of a trust set up by the writer before his death, she had the right to continue living on the property for the rest of her life, but it would be owned by the Gonzo Trust, an entity overseen by his appointed attorneys and trustees.

In June, she struck a deal with the trust. Her rights to a lifetime residency were appraised at $3.7 million. The value of the property, called Owl Farm, was appraised at $2.55 million. She bought the property from the trust for $500,000, with aid from Robert Irsay, the late owner of the Baltimore Colts professional football team.

In the deal, she gave up her rights as a beneficiary of her late husband's book sales. But she gained the ownership rights to the "Gonzo" logo and to Thompson's likeness.

With that likeness now under her legal control, she plans a Gonzo brand of cannabis to be sold in recreational marijuana stores that became legal in Colorado in 2014.

"Since it became legal, I get approached probably once a month by cannabis growers, dispensaries," she told the Times. Always, the answer is no, she added, because they want to use his name on their strains of cannabis.

Instead, she saved six different strains of cannabis that the writer actually smoked. She is now working with a cannabis company to grow those strains, or at least hybrids of them, and sell them to the public.

Profits from the cannabis sales will help fund renovations at Owl Farm to turn it into a private museum and a writers' retreat. Her model is the Hemingway Preserve in Ketchum, Idaho, where Ernest Hemingway spent his final years before killing himself with a shotgun in 1961. The home still stands and is managed by The Nature Conservancy.

"I saw, after visiting Ketchum, how important it is to have a public space, a museum, with items like typewriters and clothes and books and papers," she told the Times. "Somewhere people can feel welcome. I can't do that here (at Owl Farm). It can't be public. It would be a zoo."

Instead, she plans to make these things available by private appointment, starting next May. She also intends to make a portion of the house available for use by visiting writers and others working in the gonzo milieu. She is not, however, yet taking applications. It might be by invitation only.

Ivanka Trump, climate change, and ski country

ASPEN, Colo. — Evidence is emerging that Ivanka Trump is becoming the unofficial climate czar in the administration of her father, President-elect Donald Trump.

Politico points to Aspen as having a role in this breaking story. In September, she and her husband, real estate developer Jared Kushner, attended the off-the-record "Weekend with Charlie Rose in Aspen."

"The annual event is typically filled with Nobel laureates, former government officials, royalty from abroad, business moguls and celebrity chefs who engage in intimate foreign and economic policy discussions, coupled with outdoor bonding activities like tennis and flyfishing," explained Politico.

It's a decidedly liberal crowd. "Google's Eric Schmidt — who helped design the Democratic data systems meant to defeat Donald Trump — typically serves as a co-host."

Now, said Politico, the 35-year-old Ivanka has positioned herself "exactly as she did that weekend — as a bridge to moderates and liberals disgusted and depressed with the tone and tenor of the new leader of the free world."

A source that Politico identified as "close" to Ivanka said that she wants to make climate change one of Trump's signature issues.

On the campaign trail, her father called it a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese. Since the election, however, he has indicated a more open mind.

Evidence arrived Monday that confirms Ivanka's intentions. Climate change evangelist-in-chief Al Gore travelled to Trump Tower for an audience with Ivanka Trump and instead got a lengthy audience with her father.

"I had a lengthy and very productive session with the president-elect," Gore, the former vice president, told reporters for the New York Times and others. "... and to be continued," he added.

Appearing on PBS, a Washington Post reporter said that Ivanka had reached out to Gore and set up the meeting.

Meanwhile, letters about climate change have been sent to Trump. One letter, signed by more 365 businesses, was dispatched a week after the November election. It contained the names of Mars, Nike, and Levi Strauss but also Vail Resorts, Aspen Skiing, and other companies that operate about 40 ski areas in the United States.

The letter advised Trump against walking away from U.S. commitments made at the Paris talks a year ago. The National Ski Areas Association's Geraldine Linke said she sent all 322 members of the trade group the letter for their consideration.

"I was pleased to see the number of resorts who signed on," she told Mountain Town News.

A compromise on name of our highest mountain?

ANCHORAGE, AK — Outdoor writer Ron Lizzi continues to pitch a compromise in the fight about whether North America's highest mountain be called Denali, the name that the Athabascan-speaking Native Americans call it, or Mt. McKinley, as the U.S. designated it in 1913.

In Ohio, some people were outraged last year when President Barack Obama announced the change to Denali. A mining prospector had sought to name the mountain McKinley in 1896, to honour the then-sitting president, William McKinley. He was a former governor of Ohio. After he was assassinated in 1901, the mountain was named in his honour.

Let Denali remain as the name for the mountain but assign the name McKinley to the higher of the two main peaks within the massif, says Lizzi. The 6,200-metre peak is now called South Peak. Instead, he said, call it McKinley.

"This way, the mountain's original Alaskan name is restored, and McKinley still gets the honour of having his name on the nation's highest peak," said Lizzi last year when he announced his idea.

A newspaper in McKinley's hometown of Canton nodded favourably at the idea. There has also been acknowledgement of the idea in Alaska.