By Korey Peterson
Everywhere you turn these days it seems like another mountain has been added to Vail or Alterra's massive collection of ski resorts. Most news stories out of the ski industry includes an update on which property just got bought out by one of these two behemoths. Collectively, these two conglomerates control 34 ski resorts across the world and don't show any signs of stopping their quest for domination of the downhill industry.
With the days of small mom-and-pop operations quickly fading and the age of corporate assemblies rushing in over the past few years, many people are understandably worried about what the future holds. Conjecture is at an all-time high about what it will mean to have your favorite mountain run by a corporation instead of locally.
Will the price go up? Will the place be overrun with tourists brought in by the Epic or Ikon? One of the properties Vail purchased in 2012 happened to be my local slope: Afton Alps. I've been skiing Afton, located just east of St. Paul, Minnesota, since 2004 and have been able to see change firsthand from my spot on the chairlift, and know what it's like to have our local slope suddenly made "Epic." Here are a few of my experiences and observations:
The first thing to change was indeed the price. In February of 2012, just before Vail purchasing Afton, a lift ticket would run you a modest $29. But over the next couple of seasons it rose to $50 where it remained until another jump to $55 this season. I skied both Afton and Crystal Mountain in Washington in 2017, and paid full price for both. At $50 for a lift ticket at Afton, that was only $20 shy of what I paid for a day pass at Crystal, which is more than 10 times the size and has nearly nine times the vertical. So while I love my home state, the skiing there just can't demand such a premium.
But before you start thinking all of that money is going to line the pockets of some CEO, that uptick in prices brought with it a massive influx of resources and improvements to infrastructure. While they were raising lift ticket prices, Vail was simultaneously pouring $10 million back into Afton.
A new front office and ticket counter brought formerly out-of-control lines on weekends to an end. You don't have to stand in line at all if you opt for a reusable card with an RFID chip that you can load up online from the comfort of your home. Après amenities got a boost as well. The dining facilities got an upgrade, and now instead of paying an arm and a leg for a greasy burger and fries, you pay an arm and a leg for a plate of delicious fish tacos and a craft brew. The terrain park also got a total renovation, including the addition of a yurt to warm up in between sessions.
The biggest improvement, however, was to the skiing. A huge investment in snowmaking equipment means the season starts earlier, continues later, and while it can't fix the vertical, a deeper base leads to higher quality skiing all around. With 72 added and upgraded snowmaking machines, (22 ground-based snow guns and 50 tower-based guns) a lot of snow can be made quickly, even if Mother Nature isn't bringing the white stuff.
Now that I live in Washington, I'm about to go through a second round of seeing ski hills transformed into another feature of the Epic and Ikon passes. Summer of 2018 saw two of the biggest resorts in the Pacific Northwest bought out by Vail and Alterra (Stevens Pass and Crystal Mountain, respectively). While many in the area fret over what this means for the future of their ski resort, my insight says there are likely to be a lot of new features and probably a lot more tourists coming to ski them.
But overall, the equation leans decisively in favor of the buyout being a good thing. A big conglomerate has more capital at their disposal to shrink a development plan's timeframe and get balls rolling much quicker than a ski resort left to its own devices.
Plus, that kind of backing is more resilient to the fluctuations that are sure to come as climate change progresses. So if you're worried your favorite resort is next on some behemoth's list, my advice is: don't be. Just keep skiing, and if that big buyout comes, enjoy the benefits big money and the competition between the two mega conglomerates brings with it.