June 2, 2017

Will resort sales shake up Vermont’s ski industry?

Vyto Starinskas / Staff File Photo

In a history-making year, three Vermont ski resorts are changing hands, with new owners ranging from the nation’s largest conglomerates to a local family.

Global giant Vail Resorts is acquiring Stowe Mountain Resort’s ski operations for $50 million from the Mt. Mansfield Company.

Aspen Skiing Company (owner/operator of four Colorado areas) and KSL Partners (a private equity firm that owns Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows) will purchase Stratton Mountain Resort in Londonderry, per a merger agreement with Intrawest Holdings, Inc. The acquisition is part of a $1.5 billion purchase of Intrawest’s six ski resorts and heli-operation.

By comparison, the April 14 purchase of Bolton Valley by the DesLauriers family and some local investors marks the continuation of independently owned Vermont resorts.

“No question the flurry of transactions and acquisitions is unprecedented, but it’s a net positive across all transactions,” said Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association. “Having two world-class ski area-operating companies like Vail and Aspen choose Vermont as their first investments in the East speaks volumes to not only the standing of Stowe and Stratton as premier Vermont resorts in the eastern market, but further galvanizes Vermont as the premier ski state in the East and among the top three in the country, alongside Colorado and California.”

A major benefit for the Vermont ski industry is the marketing power that Vail and Aspen will bring, he added. It will elevate the Vermont brand to the advantage of all Vermont ski areas.

“In addition, the re-acquisition of Bolton Valley by its founder illustrates the robust profile of Vermont’s resorts, that range from those that are part of a multi-state network to those that are independent and family-owned,” Riehle stated.

Led by area founder Ralph DesLauriers, son Evan and daughter Lindsay, Bolton has a renewed dedication to providing a year-round resort. Referencing the “tens of thousands of kids who learned to ski in Bolton’s after-school ski program,” Ralph DesLauriers said “It’s one of the things I’m most proud of, and it’s that same family-centered mission and love of Vermont that’s driving me and my kids back into this business.”

The Stowe sale could result in greater visitation and increased revenues for local businesses, thanks to the appeal of lower-priced Epic Passes that offer access to 13 Vail Resorts areas.

Stratton’s new 2017-18 season-pass options and M.A.X. Passes will be honored next winter, said spokesperson Cassie Russo. (Killington’s parent, Powdr, partnered with Intrawest and Boyne Resorts to introduce competitive M.A.X. Passes in 2015.)

With these acquisitions, the advent of Vail’s Epic Pass and Aspen’s Mountain Collective Pass could lead more Vermont areas to “re-tool their pass pricing,” Riehle said, noting skiers will benefit. He added, “favorable pass pricing” could help lure first-timers, noting how important this is to the future growth of the sport.

Stratton, Okemo and Killington revised pass pricings for 2017-18, and Bolton and Magic had joined the Freedom Pass partnership for 2016-17, an indication they were already responding to trends.

The changes mean companies with three or more ski areas will now own seven Vermont resorts — Mount Snow, Bromley, Okemo, Killington, Pico, Stowe and Stratton. Bolton, Smugglers Notch, Mad River Glen, Sugarbush, Magic, Jay Peak and Burke remain the major independents.

New competition

Vermont areas offer a great diversity of experiences, and each has its own distinct market, niche and loyal following, spokespersons agree.

Addressing potential new sources of competition, Bolton Valley Marketing Director Josh Arneson said, “Stowe has a different market. Bolton’s niche as a family, affordable, local area with a slopeside hotel that won’t break the bank for destination skiers differentiates us. The after-school kids program, night skiing, Chill program, and a sense of community engender loyalty.”

“When it snows and it’s followed by a perfect sunny day, we’re all busy. … Each area caters to a niche — some broader, some with convenient geographic locations. Smuggler’s is a family area that does ski weeks; Cochran’s has locals’ race training; Middlebury College Snow Bowl has its niche,” said Mad River Glen Marketing Director Eric Friedman.

“People who have never skied here before comment that skiing as a sport is different here,” Friedman added, attributing that reaction to Mad River being “a classic ski area with a single chair, simple base lodge, and unique sense of place. . . . We are the co-op, free-range organic ski area owned by skiers. We promote, preserve and protect that.”

Geoff Hatheway, president of Magic Mountain, also noted that they offered “a very different” product.

“Magic is a big mountain in vertical drop, challenge and variety, but where we differ is ease of use and offering a throwback experience of skiing as a sport in and of itself. You can be alone on a trail and enjoy nature. Magic offers a community-focused mountain experience,” he said.

Tim Brennwald, executive vice president and COO of Powdr’s Resort Division, said, “Vermont skiers are some of the hardiest and most dedicated enthusiasts in the sport, and Powdr is committed to offering them memorable experiences in amazing places like Killington and Pico. While the ski resort business in Vermont is competitive, competition is something Powdr is familiar with, given we own resorts in other competitive ski markets. But the way we approach the ski business is what makes us different from the rest of the industry. And working with partners on pass products like the M.A.X. Pass is key to providing guests an optimal means of exploring the slopes in Vermont and beyond, and growing sport participation in general.”

Corporate, multi-resort owners in Vermont

— Vail Resorts  (world’s largest public ski company) acquiring Stowe, owns 13 resorts

— Aspen Skiing Company (private Crown family) and KSL acquiring Stratton

— Powdr (private family ownership) parent of Killington and Pico and six other resorts        

— Peak Resorts (public company) owns Mount Snow, 13 areas in the Northeast and Midwest

— Triple Peaks (private, Mueller family) operates Okemo, Mt. Sunapee, (New Hampshire), and Crested Butte, (Colorado)

— Fairbank Group (private family and partner) owners of Bromley, Cranmore (New Hampshire) and Jiminy Peak (Massachusetts)

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