A Heavenly partnership
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — When Vail Resorts scooped up Heavenly ski area like a pile of black chips off a craps table last May, it wasn’t much of a gamble.For a bargain-basement price of just under $100 million, Colorado’s dominant ski company made its first ski foray outside the state and snagged Lake Tahoe’s largest resort from cash-strapped American Skiing Company.The gravy in the deal was the $23 million, 2.5 mile gondola ASC had recently installed to connect the mountain to the casinos along the Nevada-California state line, where 5,000 beds await weary skiers or bleary gamblers.And with the retail village at the base of the gondola on the California side near completion and more private money streaming in to undertake ambitious projects around the new village, including a convention hotel, Vail has turned its eye and a $40 million budget over the next five years toward on-mountain improvements.”We’re on a roll,” says new Heavenly chief operating officer Blaise Carrig, not intending the gaming pun. “I think Vail is coming in as a healthy owner and people are glad to see the Heavenly program move forward.”Carrig is a holdover from ASC who most recently headed up The Canyons in Utah for the troubled company that still owns Steamboat ski area and recently reported a staggering loss of $206.7 million in fiscal 2002.As the first full ski season of Vail ownership winds down, the locals seem pleased with the new pit boss in town.”I was kind of excited about having Vail take over because I knew they would put the money into making the village look better and also upgrading the lifts,” says Keith Pearson, a 26-year-old business manager for a hazardous materials company in the Bay Area.Pearson stays with friends in South Lake, a three and a half hour drive from San Francisco, nearly every weekend in the winter, snowboarding Heavenly and other Tahoe resorts like Squaw and Kirkwood.He says he jumped on a cheap Heavenly pass when Vail introduced the discount wars to California in the form of a $299 season ticket this season, especially since it included five days at Vail Resorts’ four Colorado ski areas and Arapahoe Basin.”I’ve already used four (Colorado days),” Pearson says. “That definitely influenced my purchase of the season pass as well.”Don’t look for the deal to work the other way around anytime soon, says Vail chief operating officer Bill Jensen, who also has oversight duties over Heavenly and Beaver Creek after a company shakeup last fall.”We’re comfortable that the pass we offer in Colorado (the $299 Colorado Pass) has such value because it’s usable at five ski resorts within an hour,” Jensen says, “and in Heavenly we wanted to make sure we added some value because we only have one resort to sell in that marketplace.”Carrig says that the sheer volume of Colorado Pass holders potentially descending on Heavenly, where there are already close to 900,000 skier days annually, makes adding his resort an unlikely prospect.Besides, there’s already enough of a Colorado invasion going on in Tahoe, according to some snowriders who seem blind to the irony of accusing Coloradans of invading California.”A lot of people are talking about the East West Partners thing in Truckee, too, so they kind of think they’re making their move into California because it’s like a sister company,” says snowboarder Greg Aiken, a former Vail resident now living in the Tahoe area.East West, developer of Denver’s Riverfront Park, is an Avon-based company whose founder, Harry Frampton, is a former Vail executive responsible for a great deal of the success of Beaver Creek. East West is partnering with Northstar-at-Tahoe near Truckee, owned by Vail-based Booth Creek, to develop a new base village there.”In general, people see (Vail’s purchase of Heavenly) as an improvement, because they know what Vail Resorts brings behind their name as in how big they are in the industry,” says Aiken, “but there’s always tentativeness when people get taken over.”Youth market and one-armed banditsThere seems to be no tentativeness whatsoever when it comes to Vail’s plans to position Heavenly as a youth market mecca complete with four terrain parks, half-pipes, plenty of steeps to offset the abundance of cruisers, and a thriving nightlife courtesy of the state-line casinos.Harrah’s, Caesar’s and Harvey’s all recognize that gaming isn’t just for the Little Rascal crowd anymore, Carrig says, and with the gondola now bringing the base of the resort right into the mini-Vegas style casino corridor, cross-marketing is the name of the game these days.”Up until recently the casinos really shied away from skiing a bit and had separate marketing, but I think now both ends are merging,” Carrig says. “So the casinos are seeing that part of their youth market is our demographic, and they’re shifting away from the gray.”Cooler acts are edging out the Tony Bennett set and nightclubs are becoming edgier, just as Vail has been chasing a younger crowd with freeriding and snowboarding events in recent years.”It’s not your traditional mountain resort town, but if there’s any town that has the hip edge for the youth market like Whistler (British Columbia) does, I think it’s Tahoe,” Carrig says.Combining gambling and skiing, though, can make for some weirdness on the hill and in town.Pearson says he generally likes the combo because it adds cheap hotel rooms to the mix and provides some entertainment options, but he concedes there are drawbacks to having casual skiers on the hill who may have come for the gambling first.”It’s always better when people up there know what they’re doing,” he says. “That’s the only bad thing about (the gambling): too many people come up to ride and they don’t respect the locals and the rules on the hill and think they can do whatever they want.””Half the people want to get their gaming on, and half the people want to get their skiing on,” adds Aiken, who doesn’t see it as a problem.It can be difficult to separate the two, as a February SKIING magazine article suggests: ” The mountain and the casinos are best thought of as yin and yang, separate, yet together, yet separate.”No worries, says Kris Hocking, Tahoe rep for the Ski Club of Great Britain, who feels Heavenly is all about the skiing and the people.”The attraction I would say is the hospitality; it’s a lot more friendly here than skiing in Europe. Also, there’s the reputation (of the mountain),” Hocking says, discounting the allure of the casinos. “That’s just an add-on on the side, and it’s there if you want it, but most of the people who come here, come here to ski.”So how is the skiing?Let’s ask the experts. Vail COO Jensen, who headed up Northstar for several years and still owns a small stake in a Tahoe-area restaurant, makes this assessment: “We think in some ways, because of the lake, (Tahoe) wins on the scenery side. Snow quality, Colorado generally has the edge.”But the old “Sierra cement” knock on Tahoe’s snow is a bit unfair, says Carrig, who notes that the 13 feet of snow that fell over 10 days in December was “as light of snow as I’ve skied anywhere.” And this from a recent Utah transplant.With 4,800 skiable acres and a 3,500 foot vertical drop the biggest in California Heavenly is a huge mountain known for its wide open tree skiing, big cruisers and stunning lake views. Carrig compares it to a high-handicap golf course.Just as at Vail, a similar-sized mountain that’s often knocked for its flat spots and abundance of traverses, Heavenly takes some heat, especially from snowboarders.”Most big resorts it’s going to be that way because it’s so huge there’s going to be places like that where it’s flat and you have to unstrap,” says Pearson. “But having such a large resort is definitely an advantage overall.”Besides, Heavenly has its share of steeps on the Nevada side, where Milky Way Bowl drops into Mott and Killebrew canyons.”Most of the tourists don’t even know about the Nevada side,” says Pearson. “They just mostly know about the California Lodge and head straight there.”In fact, 70 percent of Heavenly’s skiers access the mountain there, riding the resort’s 50-passenger aerial tram, where more steep skiing can be found on The Face.Again angling for the youth market, Carrig says the resort will begin marketing the steep stuff a little more aggressively.Aiken concludes that Heavenly and Vail, with all their similarities and differences, are a match made in, well, heaven.”I think this is a great mountain, and actually I think of all the mountains in Tahoe for Vail to purchase, this is probably the one that fits their profile the best.”And in the Vail Resorts tradition, many of the upgrades at Heavenly will focus on installing high-speed quads and immediately increasing the resort’s uphill capacity and improving its traffic flow.
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