This week, Vail Resorts announced they’ll be adding four more ski areas to the company roster: Colorado’s Crested Butte, Washington’s Stevens Pass, Vermont’s Okemo and New Hampshire’s Mount Sunapee will become Vail-owned properties by winter 2018-2019. Once these sales are completed, Vail Resorts will own 17 ski resorts in North America, making it the most dominant player in the North American market with more resorts than any other company.
Vail will acquire the resorts in two separate deals, purchasing Triple Peaks, LLC, the parent company of Okemo, Mount Sunapee and Crested Butte, for $82 million and Stevens Pass from Ski Resort Holdings, LLC for $67 million.
Although the acquisition is big news for skiers and riders deciding which collective season pass to buy for next winter, it’s hardly a surprise that Vail continues to expand. The Broomfield, Colorado-based company has been on a spending spree in recent years. In 2014, Vail bought Utah’s Park City Mountain Resort for $182.5 million, in 2016, the company purchased Canada’s Whistler-Blackcomb for $1.06 billion and in 2017, Vail picked up Vermont’s Stowe for $50 million.
This comes on the heels of a recent spike in ski-resort consolidation across the industry. In May, Boyne Resorts purchased Utah’s Brighton, New Hampshire’s Loon Mountain, Maine’s Sugarloaf and Sunday River, British Columbia’s Cypress Mountain and Washington’s Summit at Snoqualmie. In 2017, KSL Capital Partners, which owns Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows in California, and the company that owns Aspen Skiing Company in Colorado merged and bought California’s Mammoth Mountain, Utah’s Deer Valley, Colorado’s Steamboat and Winter Park and six other resorts.
Of the 460 operating ski areas in the U.S., four major companies now control about 10 percent of them, according to data from the National Ski Areas Association. “For skiers and boarders, this increases competition for new, more innovative and affordable pass products and options to the skiing public, and it will continue to spur investment by competing and nearby ski areas—new lifts lodges and so on will benefit the skiing public,” Kelly Pawlak, president and CEO of the National Ski Areas Association, told the Co-op Journal. “Consolidation still allows the local skier or boarder tremendous options and diversity in their skiing experience and will encourage further investments by other resorts and ski areas.”
If you’re an Epic Pass holder, this could be great news: You can now plan trips to even more world-class destinations without buying additional lift tickets. For the 2018-2019 season, Vail’s Epic Pass, which costs $899, will offer unlimited access to spots like Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Heavenly, Northstar, Kirkwood, Park City, Whistler, Stowe, plus the four new procurements.
“Together, the acquisitions of Okemo, Mount Sunapee, Crested Butte and Stevens Pass will significantly enhance the Vail Resorts’ network of resort experiences, adding even more variety and choice for all of our pass holders and guests,” said Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts. “Additionally, each of these resorts will individually offer guests from around the world entirely new and distinctive experiences in extraordinary locations from coast to coast.”
But if you live in, say, Leavenworth, Washington, the town closest to Stevens Pass, or Ludlow, Vermont, the town near Okemo, the reactions are mixed. “It’s still so early and there are a lot of questions,” said Joel Martinez, general manager of Leavenworth’s Icicle Brewing Company and the former vice president of operations at Stevens Pass until 2015. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are staff changes and new corporate policies. Vail comes in with money and Stevens needs a lot of work and capital investment. Will there be a big wave of people who will travel out here to ski Stevens? Maybe. Or maybe not. Price increases come and that’s a downfall, but now the season pass comes with access to all of these new places.”
Vail Resorts announced plans to invest $35 million over the next two years in its four new ski areas—so that could bring much-needed capital to improve things like chairlift infrastructure, snowmaking, dining and employee housing. Season pass prices will go down for some—at Okemo, the current cost of a season pass is $1,209, so the $899 Epic Pass will cost less—and increase for others (at Stevens Pass, the current pass price is $699). The Epic Pass will replace existing season passes at the newly acquired resorts.
Under Vail’s ownership, visitor numbers at places like Stevens Pass and Crested Butte could increase with an influx of Epic Pass holders from all over the country. In 2017, Vail sold a record number of Epic Passes, nearly 700,000, which brings in local tourism dollars but isn’t great for liftlines. “Stevens Pass is already at capacity on weekends and the Epic Pass will drive a lot more Puget Sounders here on weekends,” said Lori Vandenbrink, director of sales and marketing at Leavenworth’s Sleeping Lady Resort and a former Stevens Pass employee. “The expansion that needs to happen in parking, lodges and chairlifts, which I’m sure Vail will eventually improve, will take time. I would say I’m cautiously optimistic, with an emphasis on the word cautiously.”
The Mueller family, which for years has owned Crested Butte, Mount Sunapee and Okemo, some of the last major family-owned ski resorts in the country, sent out a letter on Monday to passholders. “We realize the idea of a large company like Vail Resorts overseeing the operations of our unique resorts may feel unsettling,” the letter read. “However, the reality is they are mountain operators and run some of the best and most successful resorts in the industry. … They will invest in the mountain and our community and they will do so following their company values that are similar to what we have lived by over the years.”
For Eliza Green, co-owner of Ludlow, Vermont’s Homestyle Hostel and Main and Mountain Bar and Motel and a former competitive halfpipe snowboarder, the news is entirely positive. “We look forward to the rumored renovation of ski lodges, upgraded lodging facilities and ski and snowboard parks,” Greene said. “It is my opinion that the Muellers have ensured a bright future for our hometown mountain by selling to a company that has proven itself as one of the best and most successful in the industry. There has been an influx of new energy in Ludlow over the past few years and I believe that this is part of the forward movement for our town.”
Vail says the deals are expected to close this summer.