It was early winter 2017 and Erica Mueller, the VP of Crested Butte Mountain Resort, was back in Vermont, visiting her parents. In 1982, her parents, Tim and Diane Mueller, had bought Okemo Mountain. Sixteen years later, in 1998, they won the lease to operate Mount Sunapee, formerly a state park, in New Hampshire. In 2004, they bought Crested Butte Mountain Resort, which Erica and her brother, Ethan, the company president, operated. The Muellers were rare in the ski industry--a family managing a company with a small portfolio of renowned ski areas. While on that trip back East, the phone rang at her parents' house. It was Vail.
"That's the call you got?" she remembers asking her dad. "That's a big deal."
On Monday, Erica was at her CBMR office at 5 a.m. after a restless night of sleep. She and Ethan called a meeting for all of CBMR's managers first thing in the morning. They told them the news that quickly spread nationwide--the Muellers had sold all three of their ski areas to Vail for $82 million, with another $155 million to pay off leases owed, and they would be leaving the company.
"It was really sad. I cried," said Erica Mueller. "There were definitely tears from people in the crowd and a lot of thank yous from both sides. It was personal."
On the same day, Vail Resorts also announced it was purchasing Stevens Pass, Washington, another medium-size ski area with increasing skier visits that's known for its great snow and terrain.
Vail buying a ski area is hardly news these days. The Broomfield, Colorado-based company now owns 18 of them, including Stowe (for $41 million) and Whistler/Blackcomb (for $1.1 billion), which it purchased last year. But the news about CB and the other mountains raised broader questions about the viability of running an independently owned ski area and the commoditization of a sport that prides itself on its inimitable, community-minded culture.
For the Mueller family, it was an agonizing decision that hinged on the long-term prospects for their family, skiers, and the community. Based on the small margins of error for skiing areas, the shifting demands of consumers, and the challenge of financing expensive infrastructure needs, they decided to sell.
"When you start to look 10, 20, 30 years down the road and what that means for a small ski company like us, and not being as heavily financed like Vail, it's only getting tougher," said Erica Mueller.
Mueller also pointed to a changing industry dominated by cheap joint passes. Four companies--Vail, Alterra, Boyne, and POWDR Corp--now own 46 of the most significant ski areas in the country, all of which offer competitive season passes that cater to skiers who want the option to explore other areas.
"As much as the consumer wouldn't like to admit it, you want a cheaper pass, you want to be able to ski different resorts," says Mueller. "By asking that, where do you think the ski industry is going to go? They're going to go where you're going to go."
Mueller is young, athletic--she nearly made the Olympics as a pro snowboard racer and loves riding powder as much as any reader of POWDER--bright, and ever optimistic. She believes the decision is for the best. For one, Vail Resorts has committed to investing $35 million across its four newly acquired ski areas for infrastructure projects that were impossible for the Muellers to realistically finance.
"We're excited for the future of the resorts," said Mueller. "They've been on a great trajectory, and if any company can take them to the next level and for the community and for skiers and give it the boost it needs, it's Vail Resorts. Yes, they are corporate, but at the same time, there are a lot of good things they can offer and bring to table."
Buck Cobb, a tele-skier who has held a season pass to Stevens Pass since 1973, projected a similarly positive outlook over Vail's purchase of his home ski area.
"Are the lifts going to open? Are we owned by a skiing company? So many people are talking about the bad things," said Cobb. "I'm just jazzed about skiing, and the negative people that tell me that corporations are bad--there are good corporations and bad corporations. At least we got bought by a company about skiing."
Of course, Vail is about a lot more than just skiing. As a publicly traded company, their goal is to maximize the profit margin for shareholders, not focus on the skiing experience for customers.
Still, Cobb articulated what he wants most from a ski area--something Vail may have the best shot at doing: for it to stay open.
For Cobb, the only thing that matters is the skiing, and one thing that ownership can't touch.
"I think the key with Stevens, there's so much love and family," said Cobb. "There's no amount of ownership that can buy that. That's not for sale."