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What It Means To Ski in a Vail-Dominated World

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Vail Resorts needs no introduction. As the most important ski company in North America, Vail has been called an 800-pound gorilla more times than we can count. But large ski companies are common in 2014, so why does Vail attract such passionate vitriol? When Mammoth Mountain recently bought Big Bear Resorts or when Deer Valley acquired Solitude Mountain Resort, there were no pitchforks, torches, or cries of a "takeover." So what is it about Vail? Why are there so many "Vail Sucks" t-shirts hanging around ski towns? Curbed Ski dives into what it means to live and ski in a Vail-dominated world.

Mergers and acquisitions are the name of the game:

If there's anything that the last year has taught the ski world, it's that mergers and acquisitions continue to be the single-most defining factor in the ski industry. Vail's purchase of Park City Mountain Resort (after a very long, drawn-out legal battle), and the many other sales that have gone down this year proves that ski companies are looking to expand in order to increase profits. Especially in the last 10-15 years, bigger companies have acquired, merged, or made reciprocal skiing agreements with ski resorts to try and maximize their influence. There are a handful of big ski industry players. There's Vail, who owns or operates Vail Mountain, Beaver Creek, Keystone, Breckenridge, Heavenly, Kirkwood, Northstar, Canyons, PCMR, Afton Alps, and Mount Brighton. Competitors include Boyne Resorts (Big Sky, Boyne Mountain, Crystal Mountain, Sugarloaf, Boyne Highlands, Brighton, Cypress Mountain, Loon Mountain, Sunday River, and Summit at Snoqualmie), Intrawest (Steamboat, Winter Park, Tremblant, Stratton, Snowshoe, and Blue Mountain), and Powdr Corp (Copper, Killington, Mt. Bachelor, Boreal, Pico, Las Vegas, Soda Springs). There are also localized players like the Aspen Skiing Company, Whistler Blackcomb, Mammoth Resorts, and big real-estate developers/mangers like CNL Lifestyle Properties. The fortune and profitability of these companies might change, but ski business is big business and it looks to stay that way.

The backlash:

The rise of big, publicly-traded ski management companies like Vail has meant that you no longer know the person who owns your local ski hill. In the 1960s, 70s, and even 80s, skiers shared chairlifts with a mountain's ski instructor, manager, and maybe even its CEO. But that's harder to do when the ski area is owned by a multi-billion dollar company. The backlash usually centers around the demise of the small, family-run ski area that has allegedly been pushed out of business by a big-nasty corporation. There's no doubt some truth to this, although many people have argued that the rise of Vail and others has resulted in better, less expensive skiing for many. And it's true: since Vail Resorts introduced the Epic Pass in 2008, it's encouraged more people to take up skiing and caused the competition to lower pass prices. As Outside's Derek Taylor notes, we're now living in a new era of affordable, multi resort ski passes. Of course, some people will continue to hate Vail because it's big, it's a business, and it acts like it.

Ski areas are year-round destinations:

Vail Resorts is a success because they have learned that a ski company can't just operate in the winter. At every property it owns or manages, Vail draws people to the mountains year-round. This has revolutionized what it means to be in the mountains in the summer. Yes, die-hard alpinists continue to hike, bike, and enjoy all that the high country offers in the warmer months. But more than ever before, less adventurous destination tourists are enjoying our ski hills, on zip lines, on alpine slides, and on the ubiquitous mini-golf areas that seem to be at the base of every mountain. This drives some people crazy. But as Vail learned quickly, it makes a ton of money and keeps the lifts running in the winter. Transforming a ski resort into a year-round destination makes its survival less contingent upon that fickle thing we all crave: snow.

Vail doesn't just own the mountain:

As any Wall Street insider will tell you, many credit Vail Resort's success to its ambitious vertical integration. Vail doesn't just own the lifts and the terrain, they also make money on lodging, rentals, snow school, and food. In an article from 2012 in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson estimated that approximately 50% of Vail's profits come from lift tickets. There's a whole lot of money involved in bringing skiers luxury accommodations, gourmet food, and on-mountain activities that aren't skiing (like tubing or dog-sledding). Skiing in 2014 means that when you head to a big resort, that ski resort company has you spending money well before you ever step into a pair of skis.

So what does it all mean?

As arguably the most successful ski resort company in the world, Vail Resorts doesn't do anything without making waves. It's likely that in order to compete with the 800-pound gorilla in the ski industry, we'll see more mergers and acquisitions. Profitable ski companies will likely continue to acquire medium-sized ski areas near major population centers in order to diversify and compete for coveted destination skiers.

But there's another side to this story, and it's about the local ski hill. While the Vail Resorts and Intrawests of the world out-bid each other on the next great destination resort, there's also a renaissance happening at the tiny mountain with a two lifts and a rope tow. In their latest October issue, Powder Magazine called New Hampshire's tiny Mount Abenaki the most important ski area in America. Once on the brink of closure, Mount Abenaki is now flourishing after a community revival. Other small ski areas have turned to crowd-funding to stay afloat, and die-hard skiers have created associations like the Mountain Rider Alliance (MRA) to support smaller, environmentally-friendly, community-focused ski areas. Created in 2010, the MRA works to keep local ski hills alive and prospering so that skiing survives; in an April 2014 survey of 1,400 skiers and snowboarders, the MRA found that 70% learned how to ski at a ski hill with fewer than 6 lifts. If the local ski hill disappears, so does a future generation of snow-lovers willing to drop serious money on a trip to Vail, Whistler, or Sun Valley.

The solution is not a "David vs. Goliath" battle between Vail Resorts and the smaller ski areas. And honestly, those "Vail Sucks" t-shirts don't help much either. We live in a Vail-dominated ski world. If you have an opportunity to ski at a resort owned by Vail or any of its competitors (Intrawest, Boyne, Powdr), you'll likely have a great time. But don't forget about the little guys too. When it comes down to it, it's all just sliding on snow.

· No Business Like Snow Business: The Economics of Big Ski Resorts [The Atlantic]
· Mammoth purchases proof of profitability in the ski industry [Mountain Town News]
· Vail Is Not the Enemy [Outside]
· Mountain Rider Alliance [Official Site]
· Why the Death of the Ski Bum Will Ruin Ski Towns Everywhere [Curbed Ski]
· From Telluride to Winter Park: Average Rent in 17 Ski Towns [Curbed Ski]
· The Ten Ski Towns You Absolutely Must Visit This Winter [Curbed Ski]