New book addresses the rivalry between Vail Resorts and Alterra
"Ski Inc. 2020" was released this week
Aspen Skiing Co. likely stayed independent of its sister resort operator, Alterra Mountain Co., because placing a monetary value on the iconic Aspen company was so difficult, according to a new book on the ski industry.
“Ski Inc. 2020” by Chris Diamond with Andy Bigford takes a deep dive into changes that have swept the ski industry since April 2017, when Alterra emerged to challenge Vail Resorts’ industry domination.
Alterra was formed by the Crown family, 100% owners of Skico, and KSL Capital Partners LLC. They went on a buying binge and created a multi-resort Ikon Pass to rival Vail’s Epic Pass.
The resulting competition has been a “North American Renaissance” for the ski industry, wrote Diamond, a 44-year veteran of the ski industry who spent 17 years as president and chief operating officer of Steamboat Ski Resort Corp. He is now a resort consultant and author.
He collaborated on the book with Bigford, who was the editor of the Aspen Daily News from 1986 to 1989 and a former editor in chief of SKI Magazine.
While the book takes a big-picture view of the changes in the ski industry over the past 30 months, Skico plays a prominent role in the story.
Two events set the stage for the creation of Alterra, the book suggested. First, Skico officials created the Mountain Collective Pass to help independent resort operators compete with Vail’s Epic Pass. That pass was created in 2012.
Second, the Crowns slowly and steadily forged a business relationship with KSL Capital. The two companies were on the prowl for acquisitions and realized they could accomplish more together.
The Crowns and KSL teamed in 2016 to buy the land and restart development of Snowmass Base Village.
“Ski Inc. 2020” said Skico also became a minority investor that year in Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows, which was owned by KSL. Aspen and Squaw were partners in the Mountain Collective Pass.
“So KSL and Aspen folks were talking on multiple levels,” the book said. Jim Crown, managing partner of Skico, and KSL’s Eric Resnick came to the conclusion it would work best to work together.
“Both shared the view that Vail Resorts was dominating the industry and that their resorts would be marginalized if they didn’t respond — and do so in a big way,” Diamond wrote.
They teamed to create the company that would later become Alterra and purchase Intrawest in April 2017 and, two days later, Mammoth Mountain/Big Bear.
Both Vail and Alterra have continued their buying binge. The competition with Vail Resorts was on, but why did Skico’s four resorts — Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk — remain independent?
“One of the stranger twists in Alterra’s evolution was the participation (or not) of the Crown ski assets in the new company,” Diamond wrote. “Announcements from the start were vague on this issue. At the time, there were those in the industry who concluded that once the Mammoth deal was done, the Crowns insisted on a higher valuation for their Aspen Skiing Co. mountains, and the numbers simply didn’t work for the new company.”
Diamond wrote that he asked David Perry, Skico’s former second in command and now Alterra’s president and chief operating officer, in January about why it look so long to get clarity on Aspen’s position with Alterra.
“‘How do you value Aspen?’ David answered,” Diamond wrote. Complicating factors included Aspen’s iconic position in the industry, Snowmass’ ongoing rebirth and the Crowns’ unique position among industry owners, according to Diamond.
Skico opens its slopes for seven days to buyers of the Ikon Pass.
The book focuses on how Alterra’s emergence has reshaped the industry landscape. The ski resorts owned by Vail Resorts and Alterra or affiliated through their season passes account for 50% of all skier days when passes and lift ticket sales are factored in, Diamond wrote.
He contends that skiers and snowboarders are benefiting from the situation. In an interview Monday, Diamond said consumers often lose when so much control is concentrated in the hands of only two major operators. In this case, he said, the competition between Alterra and Vail will continue to pay dividends in the form of cheap season ski passes.
“You have two companies that are competing about as intensely as they can, whether it’s on the acquisitions side or on the product side,” Diamond said. “You could never merge the two. That would be an anti-trust issue, so you’re going to have at least two major competitors out there.”
The two big companies benefit from what he labeled the “mega-passes” because it entices people to ski more often and visit places that were once just “aspirational” destinations for them, such as Aspen.
Diamond said he doesn’t foresee earth-shattering changes in the ski industry in the next three years as what occurred in the prior three years, but it’s impossible to predict.
“I’ve been surprised before. I didn’t see this coming,” he said of Alterra’s emergence.
But in “Ski Inc. 2020” he lays out two interesting possible scenarios for the future.
“The general consensus among industry insiders is that Alterra will strengthen its holdings over the next five years, perhaps adding more resorts, improve operating margins, and then do an IPO to reward its investors,” Diamond wrote. “Another view has the Crowns, committed buy-and-hold investors, taking control of Alterra and then merging it with their Aspen properties.”
“Ski Inc. 2020” is available online and in select bookstores for $29.95.
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