To: Mr. Robert (Rob) Katz
CEO, Vail Resorts
Hey, Rob. Hope you don't mind the informality; everyone seems to call you that.
Max here, local nobody at 13-of-14 up in Canada, eh? I've been enjoying the riddles on the signs at the bottom of the lifts up here at 13-of-14 — the resort formerly known as Whistler Blackcomb — so I thought I'd riddle you this: What's the difference between McDonald's and Burger King?
If you're like me, you probably don't visit either of those fast-food places very often. I don't go to either as frequently as I have birthdays, but the sins of my past include the occasional grab-'n'-go. So the difference between the two is a burger at McDonald's in, say, Broomfield, tastes, looks, smells and feels just like a McDonald's burger in Hong Kong.
But, as they used to advertise until a few years ago when they hired a grammatically challenged ad agency, Burger King always invited people to "have it your way." If you think about it, that's a pretty ballsy concept in fast food. Not exactly bespoke but a little less assembly line, don't you think?
In the ski business, Vail Resorts seems to have taken up the cry of McDonald's. An Epic™ Burger is an Epic™ Burger is an Epic™ Burger. Of course, it's larger than just the burger. The armies of Vail Resorts blanket the globe in colour-coded (Canadian spelling, Rob) uniforms — black for ops, red for patrol, yellow for safety, blue for twinkie, gray for office drone. And green for the colour of money.
And then there's the Epic™ Pass, a one-size-fits-all pass for all resorts in the empire. Let me be yet another to tell you how brilliant that was. No, no, I'm not trying to flatter you, Rob; it really was/is brilliant. Especially the way you dovetailed it with picking up those tiny, midwest hills. Bet that raised a few eyebrows.
What isn't brilliant is the way you cut off sales before the season starts. You say everything you do needs to align with your stakeholders. First on the list of stakeholders is your guests. Well, Rob, many of your guests think it's arrogant as hell for you to make them dance to your tune, which is, as I've heard it stated, "Commit to our pass policy up front." Man, in the world most people live in, things like skiing and ski vacations are a bit more spontaneous. You might want to rethink that one.
And if I can be so bold, perhaps I, as a reformed American, can let you in on a tiny secret. Things are, well, different up here in the Great White North. Canada, as I discovered years before he actually said it, is the kinder, gentler country the first George Bush promised Americans. And then failed to deliver.
We're a big country that embraces small dreams. It's been a standing joke for years that Canadian athletes competing at the Olympics™ — in sports other than hockey, of course — are, "just happy to be here" and a step up on the podium is nice... but not necessary. If the U.S. is a melting pot, Canada's a multicultural smorgasbord. If the U.S. is a loaded gun, Canada is a trigger lock.
When you paid a breath-taking premium to purchase 13-of-14, you were buying a success story unique in Canada and, for that matter, unique in North America. When Earl Eaton and Pete Siebert opened the tiny ski hill that became Vail in 1962, Whistler — then London Mountain — was a twinkle in the eye of people who wanted to host the Winter Olympics™. In mid-1970, when President Gerald Ford was stumbling down Vail, Whistler was a sleepy, regional ski hill. In the 1980s, when Vail was home to the rich and fatuous, Whistler was still making fun of the upstart across the valley, Blackcomb.
But a smart cookie who was steering the ship at Blackcomb knew Canadians, and by extension, he presumed, Americans, might really prefer Burger King to McDonald's. Being the new kid on the block, he figured if he welcomed skiers to Blackcomb in a way they'd never been welcomed anywhere else, he'd be able to give Whistler a run for its money. So he focused, and had his staff focus, on making the ski experience better. On snowy days, they might be out clearing off guest's cars late in the afternoon. Little things like sniffle stations popped up at the base of chairlifts. The food was better. Snowboarders were welcomed. Everyone was gently made to believe it was all about their comfort and experience. They were encouraged to have it their way.
Part of that was an effort to tailor products to individual tastes. Skiing wasn't, and still isn't, a one-size-fits-all sport, as evidenced by the disparate styles and abilities of skiers and boarders all flailing away at the edge of their personal envelopes. One way that was accomplished was to make it easier for more people to come experience the mountains, for a day, a week or a season. Thus was born the Express Pass, which begat the Edge Card. Thus was born the midweek pass, for those who were happy to ski Monday to Friday and leave the mountain to visitors on the weekend. Thus was born the Parent Pass, for resort workerbees who had young families and couldn't afford/find child care while both parents played on the mountains.
You, or maybe Pete Sonntag, said that you were impressed with many of the things 13-of-14 did back when they were Whistler Blackcomb and wanted to take some of those things to your other resorts in the collective. I'm guessing the Parent Pass would be one of those things that would have young workerbee families at your other 13 resorts exalting your name. Just so you know I don't have a dog in that race, I am not a potential or former Parent Pass holder. But I'll bet a surprising number of non-Vail Resorts employees in the towns you operate in don't have the coin for an extra Epic™ pass knocking around their bank account. Oh, and don't give me any nonsense about your systems not being able to handle it. We used to have the same system at 13-of-14! Worked then and it'll work now.
One final thought, Rob. 13-of-14 isn't like Vail. There aren't a half dozen other big mountains to ski that you have to drive past to get to it. Fewer of us are going to get any value from your Epic™ pass at other resorts. But a whole lot of us have become old enough and supported Whistler Blackcomb long enough to finally enjoy a reasonably priced senior pass. You take that away, as is spiritedly rumoured, and you will personally experience a Hell on earth you never knew existed. Oh, I do have a dog in that race. Woof, woof.