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Mountain News: Vail Resorts pleases investors, angers others



BROOMFIELD, Colo. – Investors like what Vail Resorts has been doing of late, but some of its policies are drawing brickbats.

The company recently reported record profits, $114 million, during the first nine months of the fiscal year. It operates five ski areas in Colorado and California, plus a hotel in Jackson Hole,

Shareholders earned substantial revenue from the closings of a major real estate project in Vail called Arrabelle. Also selling well is a new slope-side “club” where members can store their skis and lounge in comfort with the other extremely well-heeled members.

On the other hand, sales at another base-area project in Vail called the Ritz-Carlton Vail are torpid, with just one condo selling since last summer. Two-thirds of the project remains unsold, notes the Vail Daily.

While skier-days were down at flagship operation, Vail Mountain, by 2 per cent last winter, dipping below 1.6 million, the number of international skiers grew 26 per cent, a little bit better than the 23 per cent gain in international skiers reported collectively by Colorado Ski Country USA members. The company recouped $49.48 per skier last season.

There have been brickbats as well. Critics have dismissed the company’s alternative-energy initiatives as mostly driven by marketing. In an article in the Vail Daily, Randy Udall, former director of Aspen’s Community Office of Resource Efficiency, said the windmills Vail wants to install on Vail Mountain would have trouble keeping a backcountry ski hut lit.

Vail Resorts also got headlines this spring because of its decision to drop out of Colorado Ski Country USA. Vail, which has 30 to 40 per cent of Colorado’s ski market, had argued the organization needed to downsize, to limit its marketing. As the largest contributor, Vail believed other ski areas have been riding on its coattails.

The Denver Post turned its spotlight on chief executive officer Rob Katz. The newspaper said observers credit Katz with driving profits for shareholders, but also note criticism that Vail Resorts is becoming more of a corporate bully. The newspaper says that Colorado Ski Country agreed to trim its budget from $3.6 million to $2.8 million, mostly by reduced marketing, but that wasn’t enough for Katz.

Within Vail, the town, friction has increased. Part of the friction can be traced to the decision by Katz to uproot the company from its birthplace in favor of a location in suburban Denver-Boulder.


Life on the road expensive

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. – If you’re puckering up when you fill up with gas, think about what it’s like if you’re in your golden years, motoring around the country in the traveling motel room called an RV.

The Jackson Hole News & Guide recently caught up with the Darbys, of Cabrillo, Calif., who four years ago bought a deluxe motorcoach with marble floors, two stoves, leather recliners and a ceiling fan. They figured to spend up to six months a year as vagabonds gay — in the old sense of the word.

They’re still on the road, but cutting it back after stops such as that in Jackson, where they topped off the tank with $344 worth of gas. A full tank would have cost nearly $600.

The newspaper tells the story of many commuters from outlying communities who have switched from pickups to Subarus, or started taking the public buses. The bus service, called START, is over budget 20 per cent because of fuel prices.

But it’s not just the rich and richer, but the very richest who are also shrinking their travel. Jackson Hole Aviation reports sales of jet fuel are down 13 per cent. While many clients in the past have been unfazed by soaring costs, said Bryan Burns, the company vice president, he’s starting to see people reduce private and charter air travel.

Yet to be seen is the effect of higher gasoline prices on Jackson Hole’s summer economy. Summer there is typically much bigger and busier than winter, owing in part to the draw of the two national parks, Teton and Yellowstone, nearby.


Coal challenger wins seat

TELLURIDE, Colo. – A challenger to Tri-State’s coal-first electricity plans has been elected from the Telluride district of the San Miguel Power Association. However, in somewhat similar battles along the I-70 corridor, the incumbents were re-elected as directors of the Holy Cross Energy, another rural electrical co-operative.

Michael Saftler, the challenger in Telluride, defeated the incumbent by a more than two-to-one margin. Saftler told The Telluride Watch that he rejects the policy of most other existing board members from the Ouray, Silverton and Norwood areas, which he calls “burning coal until we die.”

Tri-State, a wholesale generator composed of 44 rural co-op members in Colorado and adjacent states, has been pushing to build a new coal-fired power plant in Kansas. Critics say Tri-State should instead respond to rising demand by pushing for technological efficiencies and conservation and also encouraging renewable sources, especially wind and solar.

Saftler said he would like to get people engaged in a discussion of how to bring down peak demand.

But base-line demand — such as created by your refrigerator on a 24-hour basis — is what Tri-State is aiming to meet. The new president, Ken Anderson, said Tri-State is committed to coal because it is reliable and because of its lower existing cost. Natural gas, which is used to supplement wind and other renewable sources, is far more expensive and getting more expensive yet.

Holy Cross Energy, which is based in Glenwood Springs, is not a member of Tri-State, but it still overwhelmingly depends upon burning of coal and also natural gas, which has half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal. Two challengers to existing board members had been endorsed by the Aspen Skiing Co., but both were defeated by roughly two-to-one margins.

A similar challenge is being mounted to incumbents in the Gunnison Country Electric Association.


Aspen reopens for skiing

ASPEN, Colo. – Aspen Mountain reopened last weekend for three sun-spangled and snow-sloshed days. A good time, says The Aspen Times, was had by all.

The reopening drew 900 skiers on Friday, 1,700 on Saturday, and almost as many on Sunday. Among those cutting turns on Saturday was a visitor from Philadelphia, Peter Ditzler, who spent about 27 hours traveling to Aspen to partake. Plane conniptions caused him to spend the night in Washington D.C., but he wasn’t the least bit stressed.

“I was just smiling, knowing I’d be skiing,” he said.

Of course, skiing was already available for anybody willing to do the hiking to earn their turns. The story, said Doug Pearson, of Aspen, was “the scene.”

It was a remarkable year for snow, but not quite so good that Aspen can sustain operations for another weekend.

More remarkable yet was 1995, when spring came on forever, wet in the valleys and snowy on the peaks, and sunshine mostly absent until nearly July. That year Aspen was open June 21, and in Summit County it still looked like February at the top of Arapahoe Basin. One astonished visitor from New England, skiing off the A-Basin summit-ridge cornice on a morning in mid-June that year, was heard saying: “These are mid-winter conditions!”


Communities not place-based?

BANFF, Alberta – Well-worn topics about what is sometimes called amenity migration in mountain resorts were revisited at a recent conference held in Banff.

Among those speaking, reports the Rocky Mountain Outlook, was Linda Kruger, a research social scientist from the U.S. Forest Service who is based in Juneau, Alaska. Among the problems, she said, is that long-term residents of an established community often find themselves forced to adjust to what many of them perceive as an invasion of newcomers whose vision of mountain living differs greatly from their own.

Another speaker, Lawrence Moss, of the International Amenity Migration Center, said the “living realm is expanding. People don’t think of themselves as living in just one place. Increasingly, people are living in communities that are not place-based.”

Even so-called permanent amenity migrants are often less than permanent, as many spend their winter months in warmer places.


CB hears arguments for expansion

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – The conversation continues in Crested Butte about ski terrain expansion. The ski area operator wants to expand onto an adjoining mountain called Snodgrass, arguing that it needs more intermediate-level terrain to sustain the interests of destination skiers.

The ski area recently made its case before 250 people, reports the Crested Butte News. Most of the information was recycled from the past six years, illustrating just how long some of these dialogues can last. The expansion has been proposed off-and-on since the early 1980s.

Ken Stone, formerly of Telluride and now the vice president and chief marketing officer for Crested Butte Mountain Resort, said visitors to Crested Butte stay more briefly, spend less money, and return less often.

“We’ve been the discount leaders in the destination resort service,” he said. “We’re not getting the visitors we as a community need to survive.”

While about 80 per cent of visitors to Vail- and Aspen-area resorts return, at Crested Butte it’s 54 per cent, resort officials said. That makes marketing more expensive and the profit margin thinner.

The key to getting better-heeled visitors who return, they said, is more intermediate terrain.

Mountain planner Roark Kiklevich challenged audience members to spend four days skiing next winter — but within the bookends experienced by destination intermediate skiers. “You can’t ski in the extremes, and you can’t ski the trees,” he said.

He also urged his listeners to unbuckle their ski boots while on one expert run “so you can feel the true terror an intermediate skier feels going down.”

How about if Crested Butte positioned itself as a resort for extreme skiers, or perhaps boosts the skiing ability of intermediates? Stone said unless people are able to ski a difficult mountain consistently, it is very hard to progress past the intermediate level.

Opponents question whether the geology of the mountain will accommodate ski lifts. John Norton, who is a special consultant for Crested Butte, said a highly credentialed geologist had been hired to independently evaluate the risk. “If he had serious heartburn about this project as a scientist, we wouldn’t be here today,” Norton said.

The goal of the expansion, and an associated real estate project, is to get Crested Butte’s skiers days to 550,000 to 600,000 per season. It was hitting that stride a decade ago, but the numbers were padded by weeks of free skiing, a promotion now mostly ended. Now, it’s at 300,000 to 400,000.

Chuck Cligget, a resident of Crested Butte since 1968, said the community needs a viable economy. “I’m not telling anybody anything new when I say wages are low, cost of living is high,” he said. “I am absolutely totally against the (proposed molybdenum) mine, and I am absolutely, totally for the ski area expansion.”


City girl vows to return

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. – Melanie White, a reporter at the Jackson Hole News & Guide, is taking a leave of absence from the paper, and from Jackson Hole. But she will, she promises, be returning.

“Despite common whines about the cost of living, it’s an easy lifestyle, one full of cozy routines removed from city pressures,” she writes.

White confides that she knew nearly nothing about rural areas when she took the reporting job. She was in New York City then, and when flying west began to be concerned when all she saw below were neatly divided farms. It’s not clear what she feared, but Jackson Hole was something different. Even so, it took her some months to get comfortable in the setting of which calendars are made.

Finally calmed down, no longer in need of the 24/7 stimulation to which she was accustomed in New York, she now finds satisfaction with the outdoors. “Every trail is a fulfillment of knowledge, every mountain view a soul charge. There is never a wasted moment outdoors.”