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Vail Resorts to spend US$175 million to 'reimagine the guest experience' at its resorts

Also, Colorado company reports first-quarter financial results

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Whistler Blackcomb owner Vail Resorts announced a major investment on Friday, Dec. 7 that the company said will "reimagine the guest experience" across its roster of resorts.

In a release, the Broomfield, Colo.-based company said it will spend between US$175 million and $180 million at its 18 properties in time for the 2019-20 ski season.

"Vail Resorts has been the leader in resort investment year after year and this year is no exception," said Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz in the release. "We are continuing to raise the bar for skiers and riders with meaningful, impactful improvements that will help to provide consistent, reliable and seamless experiences all season long."   

Vail Resorts said it plans to "increase express lift ticket fulfilment capacity" by 40 per cent through new handheld, mobile technology at its 17 North American resorts to allow guests who have purchased advance tickets to bypass the ticket window altogether and obtain their radio-frequency-enabled lift ticket from roving agents at base-area lifts. Guests will then be able to move directly into the primary lift line.

"The goal is to make things more efficient, and certainly it's always about the guest experience, and if we can improve that by having what (guests) need in that lift line while they're ready to upload, than I think it's a significant step forward," said Whistler Blackcomb communications director Marc Riddell in a follow-up phone call.

Season passholders or their guests will also be able to pre-purchase Ski with a Friend benefit tickets online for 2019-20 to take advantage of express fulfilment thanks to the company's new mobile capabilities at base-area lifts.

Among other upgrades slated for the 2019-20 season at its American and Australian resorts, Vail Resorts said it is planning investments in snowmaking at Vail, Keystone and Beaver Creek in Colorado in an effort to get the resort open earlier in the year.

Vail Resorts posts loss in first quarter

Vail Resorts posted a net loss of US$107.8 million in its first fiscal quarter of 2019, compared to a net loss of $28.4 million over the same period last year. 2018's first fiscal quarter net loss included a tax benefit of approximately $51.8 million related to "employee exercises of equity awards, primarily attributable to the CEO's exercise of stock appreciation rights during the quarter," a release read.

CEO Rob Katz said a first-quarter loss is nothing new for the company. "Our first fiscal quarter historically operates at a loss, given that our North American mountain resorts are not open for ski operations during the period," he said in the release. "The quarter's results are primarily driven by winter operating results from Perisher and our North American resorts' summer activities, dining, retail/rental and lodging operations, and administrative expenses." The resort reported EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) loss for the quarter was $72.5 million, which includes $6.6 million in acquisition of acquisition- and integration-related expenses and an incremental loss of $2.6 million from offseason operations at the resorts acquired during the quarter. The resort reported EBITDA loss from last year's first quarter was $54.1 million, which included $700,000 in acquisition- and integration-related expenses.

Through Dec. 2, season pass sales for the 2018-19 North American ski season had increased by roughly 21 per cent in units and 13 per cent in sales dollars compared to the same period last year.

"We are very pleased to see double-digit revenue growth in our season pass program after a very strong record performance last year," Katz said. "For the year, and excluding sales of military passes to new purchasers who were not passholders last year, we achieved solid growth in our Colorado, Destination and Whistler Blackcomb markets, while experiencing declines in both the Northern California and Utah markets."

Katz went on to say that, including military and Epic Australia passes, Vail Resorts expects its total number of season passholders to exceed 925,000 this year.

For the full quarterly report, visit investors.vailresorts.com.

Blackcomb Gondola on schedule to open this week

Whistler Blackcomb said its anticipated new Blackcomb Gondola is still on track to open on Friday, Dec. 14.

Originally intended to open in time for the start of the ski season, WB announced last month that the 10-person gondola wouldn't be operational by the Nov. 22 Opening Day. At the time, WB's Chief Operating Officer Pete Sonntag said a number of factors had led to the delay.

"You're always going to face challenges with a project this complex," he said at the time. "There are multiple factors: we had some challenges with the weather, some challenges with securing helicopters, and there were production delays on some of the critical components as well."

Lift manufacturer Doppelmayr USA also issued a statement apologizing for the production setback. "This is a large and complex project and unforeseen delays have challenged us and made it difficult to meet our deadline," wrote president Mark Bee in an emailed statement.

Friday will be the gondola's "soft opening," said WB communications director Marc Riddell, with a short speech by Sonntag and a First Nations' ceremony scheduled for the morning. Riddell said a "broader opening ceremony" is being targeted for sometime Saturday, Dec. 15. Saturday also marks the 10th anniversary of the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, and Riddell said there are tentative plans in the works to hold a ceremony in the alpine.

Finally, Sunday is Ski with Santa Day at WB, with the first 100 people dressed in full Santa or Mrs. Claus gear receiving a complimentary lift ticket.

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