Ski in­dus­try skews big, so smaller re­sorts tout au­then­tic­ity

Kuwait Times - - SPORTS -

A bud­get ski re­sort in western Colorado came up with an eye-pop­ping of­fer - a $700 lift ticket, the most ex­pen­sive in the na­tion. Only this lift ticket comes with a sweet bonus: a pair of hand­crafted skis made from Colorado wood. Gim­micky? Sure. But Sun­light Mountain Re­sort says that in an era of in­creas­ing ski-in­dus­try con­sol­i­da­tion, where a hand­ful of com­pa­nies con­trol more and more win­ter sport ter­rain, scrappy in­de­pen­dent re­sorts need all the help they can get to com­pete with amenity-laden megare­sorts.

From bak­ing fresh dough­nuts for skiers to dis­play­ing lo­cal art to play up a sense of com­mu­nity, smaller, in­de­pen­dent re­sorts say they have to rely on per­son­al­ity. “It’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween Bud­weiser or a craft brew,” said Troy Hawks, Sun­light’s head of mar­ket­ing and sales. The ski in­dus­try used to be dom­i­nated by in­de­pen­dent re­sorts, where down­hill and cross-coun­try skiers would drive to a lo­cal mountain, maybe get a fire­side cup of hot cho­co­late in a lodge, then drive home. A ski area with an on-mountain ho­tel was a rar­ity; one with night­time en­ter­tain­ment and white-table­cloth din­ing would be a true des­ti­na­tion.

Start­ing in the 1980s, larger con­glom­er­ate com­pa­nies started con­sol­i­dat­ing ski ar­eas, investing heav­ily to make their moun­tains 12-month va­ca­tion des­ti­na­tions. They made room for up­start snow­board­ers. Added spas and ski­ing les­sons for kids. Built con­do­mini­ums and larger ho­tels. Al­lowed guests to one buy one pass good at sev­eral mountain re­sorts. Con­sol­i­da­tion ex­panded in spurts. The trend hit a new milestone last Oc­to­ber when Vail Re­sorts of Broom­field spent $1.05 bil­lion to buy Canada’s Whistler Black­comb Hold­ings Inc., North Amer­ica’s big­gest and busiest ski re­sort. The pur­chase brought Vail Re­sorts to a dozen ski ar­eas, all of them des­ti­na­tion re­sorts that court overnight guests.

“We’re see­ing ho­mog­e­niza­tion in the in­dus­try, no ques­tion,” said David Nor­den, CEO of Taos Ski Val­ley Inc., an in­de­pen­dently owned re­sort in New Mex­ico. Mega ski op­er­a­tors like Vail can af­ford to ad­ver­tise world­wide, and they grab head­lines when they grow. But an in­dus­try as­so­ci­a­tion that tracks skier vis­its says that smaller, in­de­pen­dent re­sorts are hold­ing their own.

“There’s the vis­i­ble na­tional des­ti­na­tion re­sorts, but there’s a whole other as­pect of the in­dus­try made up of re­sorts that are closer to home, that they’re eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble, af­ford­able, and in many cases spe­cial­ize in teach­ing peo­ple how to ski,” said Michael Berry, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Ski Ar­eas As­so­ci­a­tion, based in Lake­wood. Just a frac­tion of the na­tions’ 463 ski ar­eas are owned by multi-mountain con­glom­er­ates, and no one counts how many of the 57 mil­lion or so an­nual skier vis­its are made to in­de­pen­dently owned moun­tains, Berry said. But he con­ceded that con­sol­i­da­tion isn’t go­ing away, mak­ing it im­per­a­tive that in­de­pen­dent re­sorts keep lo­cals com­ing back.

“The bet­ter they do, the more likely they are to be a tar­get for ac­qui­si­tion. It’s one of those ironic re­al­i­ties,” Berry said. Own­ers of the in­de­pen­dent moun­tains say they’re trying to buck the con­sol­i­da­tion trend by com­pet­ing with per­son­al­ity. At Taos, re­sort own­ers are investing in lo­cal art to play up the re­gion’s ac­claim for south­west­ern art, es­pe­cially pot­tery and tex­tiles.

“As with any busi­ness, it’s im­por­tant to try to come up with, ‘What is your dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing fac­tor?’” Nor­den said.

One Colorado re­sort uses its lack of ameni­ties as an at­trac­tion. Sil­ver­ton Mountain in south­west Colorado has no ter­rain for begin­ners or in­ter­me­di­ates. No ski school. No ho­tel. Just one lift and 1,800 acres of un­crowded ter­rain for ex­pert skiers. No frills. Just thrills.

“We set ourselves apart by lim­it­ing the daily skier vis­its and mak­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence the op­po­site of others,” said Sil­ver­ton Mountain co-founder Jen Brill, who hap­pily boasts that her mountain sees as many skiers in a sea­son as the megare­sort Breck­en­ridge Ski Re­sort sees in a busy win­ter week­end.

An­other in­de­pen­dent re­sort touts its fam­ily-friendly vibe, tak­ing pride in its lack of al­co­hol sales and abun­dance of ski les­sons. Brad Moretz, co-owner in Ap­palachian Ski Mtn. in Blow­ing Rock, North Carolina, said in­de­pen­dent re­sorts sim­ply need to play up their dif­fer­ences to keep a hold in a con­sol­i­dat­ing in­dus­try. “There are lots of peo­ple that look for a more per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence,” Moretz said. “The con­glom­er­ates do a good job, but there is ab­so­lutely no re­place­ment for pride of own­er­ship.” — AP

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