Too Big to Vail: the fall of the North American mega resort
It has become an all too common tale these days. Lift lines that make you want to cry at first sight. Twenty dollar burgers reminiscent of an elementary school cafeteria. Tuition fees that cater to a certain economy class. The constant battle between bourgeois, jet-set tourists and locals cramming into shared accommodations, taking up every possible square inch of real estate, from closets to crawl spaces, just so they can afford to live the dream.
A tale as old as time, really. Or, at least since the first idea of a resort where people spend as much as those in other countries earn in a year for the privilege of hitting a snowy slope for a week of their vacation. But in recent years, we’ve seen resorts grow into conglomerates on multiple continents, attracting customers with multiple packages that allow them to ski when and where they want.
This year we really started to see the negatives. People wonder aloud if it is worth it, and while incomes may be high, morale at various resorts has been low. This is perhaps the most important when looking at Vail Resorts due to the dominance of the brand’s market share in North America. Residents of the mountains managed by Vail Resorts like Stevens Pass, Wash. and Whistler, BC, are starting to say “enough is enough,” pushing back ski lift lines and low wages. And it’s hard not to agree with them.
Skiing and snowboarding are unique sports. They require a specialized infrastructure (chairlifts and snow groomers) for the greatest pleasure. But since this infrastructure costs money, it is only fair that those who benefit from such amenities spit out the money to help it function. There, no argument. We have to pay to play. But what happens when the trader fails in his market? In this current system, unfortunately not much.
There have been a number of cases this year that have uncovered this. It’s that these operators (and again, with an emphasis on the most financially powerful, Vail Resorts) don’t seem to really care about the customer experience the way they do in making huge profits for appeal to shareholders. Recently, Vail released its earnings for the fourth quarter of this year, which Yahoo! Finance reported as having recorded significant gains over last year:
“The Mountain segment generated revenues of $ 124.5 million in the quarter under review, up 155.4% year-over-year. The increase can be attributed to an 189.6% increase in elevator revenues. The income of ski schools and retail / rental businesses increased by 318.5 percent and 130.4 percent, respectively. Restaurant revenues in the quarter jumped 469.7%. “
This is all well and good – in theory – if the value of the goods increases as the profits increase. But people’s return on investment in seasonal memberships actually decreases with each sale. This is especially true at Stevens Pass, where, due to a lack of ‘lifties’, the resort can only operate about half of its chairs. Vail management blames the understaffing, but what they really have to admit is that there is a lack of people willing to work in a remote location for insulting wages.
According to the financial report above, it looks like Vail has the money to offer more to its elevator operators, but it could be a precedent that management (and shareholders) are unwilling to set. It is still early to say what will happen to it. One thing is certain: the locals are upset and for good reason. So far, more than 31,000 people have signed a petition demanding that Vail Resorts be held accountable. The question is, will Vail listen? Or more importantly, will the US Forest Service, which licenses Stevens Pass, keep Vail honest and intervene?
Stevens Pass is just the tip of the iceberg. Whistler-Blackcomb just canceled its weekly children’s ski school less than a week before it started, infuriating locals who have used the program here on my home mountain. An email from the station (below) cited “several difficult dynamics, including staffing” as the reason the program will not work. They made no mention of any efforts to raise wages beyond CA $ 16 (US $ 12) an hour for a job that involves keeping toddlers warm and happy for six hours during shifts. winter elements. It doesn’t matter if the program costs more than $ 1,000 per child, so the money is there to pay the staff if they want.
It’s hard to have sympathy for Whistler-Blackcomb. However, there is a lot of sympathy for parents who run out of affordable options for their kids to have a fun activity that helps them socialize and get them excited about the outdoors. Ski school is more than just glorified babysitting – it fosters a long-standing affinity for a sport that I can only imagine you share with the reader if you’re still with me here. Whistler-Blackcomb was trying to bring the program back after it was canceled last year, which did not please locals at all. “Start them young,” they say, but in Vail’s universe, they will only allow this if those charged with teaching young people are willing to accept pittance wages in one of the most remote communities. dear ones from Canada.
The list could go on but you get the idea. Vail Resorts successfully raised money from 2.1 million people this year for the Epic pass. Where they fail is providing a valuable product that people expect. Management could remedy many issues such as closed elevators and canceled classes by offering higher salaries to attract staff. But so far, they intend to blame COVID, a labor shortage, and any other excuses that don’t make them look like the bad guy. And to be fair, to their shareholders, they’re in the right books. This argument therefore goes much further in our company’s model to examine the fact that a private listed company has carte blanche on land that is often leased by the public. Which again begs the question – why don’t the bureaucrats hold them in the fire? I cannot answer you.
But people are not completely silent. The petition mentioned above at Stevens Pass continues to garner an incredible number of signatures. And outrage is rampant on social media in general: take the Instagram account @epicliftlines, a page dedicated to sharing weekend stories about the intense ski lift queues that lead most people to postpone. question the value of their passes.
And there are already signs that the resorts will do something to respond, but perhaps not in the way skiers and runners might hope. Crystal Mountain in Washington (notably an IKON Pass destination as opposed to Vail’s Epic Pass), has just become the first major US ski resort to reinstate a reservation system for pass holders, as you can see below.
– PeakRankings (@Peak_Rankings) January 1, 2022
Will Vail notice it? It’s hard to say. Until a massive boycott ensues, I hesitate to be optimistic about a large-scale change in management practices. But maybe, just maybe, if enough people get over it and stop donating money, shareholders will demand a change in leadership. Time will tell, but for those who are frustrated. I share your grunts. Keep in mind that we are individually powerless, but we have strength in numbers. So when the time comes for a mass boycott, I hope we all join forces to keep these mega-corporations under control. And show them who’s the boss.
Editor’s Note: Steve Andrews is a longtime contributor to Inertia and an expert in resort and off-piste riding. He writes and guides from Whistler, BC.