The new player on the Monopoly board of the ski industry has introduced itself—their name is Alterra Mountain Company and, alongside Vail, they've effectively turned the ski industry into a duopoly.
Together, the two behemoths control more than 18 million skier visits across North America—seven million from Alterra Mountain Company's 12 ski resorts and 11.3 million from Vail, according to the publicly traded company's annual report. (Last season, the U.S. had almost 55 million skier visits. Alterra and Vail’s numbers include their Canadian resorts—Mont Tremblant and Whistler, respectively—but that still leaves the two companies with a sizable share of the U.S. skier’s market.)
Alterra's anticipated season pass, yet to be announced, will be in direct competition with Vail's Epic Pass. And the Epic Pass is a force to be reckoned with; Vail reported a 23 percent growth in sales for the 2017/18 Epic Pass—around 800,000 passes total—thanks to their acquisitions of Whistler Blackcomb and Stowe.
Alterra hopes to differentiate itself from Vail by focusing on the local qualities that differentiate each ski resort, and also by improving the communities they operate in.
“We are ski people and mountain people. We come at this multi-resort company from a position of, what do we think is important?” said Alterra Mountain Company’s Chief Operating Officer David Perry. “Well what's important is how people interact with their mountain resort places. It's where people live and employees live, work, and play. That's critical. The experiences guests have at a resort are very local. They interact with the people that live there, they get a sense whether people are happy or not, whether they're enjoying life there. They'll get a sense of the kind of energy and vibe that each resort has which is unique…The people who have come together to make this new company really believe strongly that the unique character and personality of each resort must be preserved and enhanced.”
The emergence of four major ski resort companies—Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, Intrawest, Mammoth Mountain Ski Resorts, and Deer Valley—created an opportunity for a new corporation to start fresh, says Perry.
"We realized early on that we needed a new company name," says Perry. "We had to create an identity that we could all feel like we were one family.”
Perry came to Alterra with four decades of experience in the ski industry, most recently as the Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Aspen Skiing Company. He has also held leadership roles at Colorado Ski Country USA, Intrawest, Whistler Blackcomb, and CMH Heli-Skiing & Summer Adventures.
"How many times in your career do you get the chance to build something of this magnitude and shift the industry a little bit?" says Perry. "It's a fun time."
While the name is new, the company has been more than a year in the making. A private equity company and one of America's wealthiest families own Alterra. The former, KSL Capital Partners, has a portfolio of destination resorts, including Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, and specializes in recreational and leisure tourism. Henry Crown and Company is the legacy of an industrialist who helped build the city of Chicago. The Crown family's investments include the New York Yankees, the Chicago Bulls, the Rockefeller Center, and Aspen Skiing Company. They are number 27 on Forbes' 2015 list of America's Richest Families.
"We both saw an opportunity at the same time, meaning KSL and the Crowns," says Perry. "It's one thing to have one great resort, but the landscape is changing. We need to group together for scale to invest in technology and have a pass program and we need to do that together. The Crown family saw that at the same time KSL did. Then, we started having discussions about investing together."
Those initial backroom conversations happened early in 2017, says Perry, but the first widespread announcements came in April 2017, when headlines rang that KSL and the owners of Aspen (which was Henry Crown and Company) had acquired Intrawest, a publicly traded company with six ski resorts and Canadian Mountain Holidays, for $1.5 billion. Later that week, KSL and the owners of Aspen announced a second acquisition—Mammoth and its portfolio of Southern California ski resorts. This time the amount was undisclosed; it was a private transaction. In August, KSL and the Crowns made another deal to buy Deer Valley in Utah.
KSL and the Crown family tapped Perry while he was at Aspen to lead operations at Alterra Mountain Company. However, they kept Aspen Skiing Company out of the new group. Perry says he will represent “Aspen’s way of doing business” at Alterra by keeping the focus on skiing, hosting vibrant events at the resorts, operating the business with sustainability in mind, and by engaging with the local community. He plans to hire an executive to lead a sustainability and energy department.
"On the sustainability side, that's something we can share across all of our resorts," says Perry. "Frankly, we can talk to our guests and ask them to speak up about the things they care about. We can not only run our resorts responsibly, but we can speak with a loud voice to the policymakers."
On affordable housing, wages, and development, Perry says that “you can’t separate the mountain company from the mountain town” and acknowledges that these issues are pervasive in mountain towns across North America. He says the solutions are local—but beyond working with the CEOs at each ski resort, he did not give a firm answer on how Alterra will help alleviate problems like high cost of living, low wages, and expansive ski resort development.
“Those kind of things have been happening in mountain towns for a long time. But the solutions are local. They always come with controversy,” says Perry. “I'm not going to pretend that there is one answer for every development or development proposal. It really gets down to the details. But I think that those are things that really, you need local sensitivity. I can't just sit here in Denver and say we need X, Y, and Z in Mammoth Mountain, for example. I need to work with the team there, with Mark Brownlie. What makes the most sense at Mammoth. What do the locals care about?”
One of Alterra's first items of business will be to announce a season pass for its resorts. Perry said “it won’t be long” before more details are announced.