When the lifts stopped spinning: Inside Vail Resorts’ toughest year
The uphill battle to save the 2020-21 winter season
On March 14, 2020, when Vail Resorts announced it would be closing its North American ski resorts for a week, some started to wonder if the ski areas would reopen at all.
A few days later, when Vail Resorts announced its mountains would remain closed, some started to wonder if the ski areas could even pull off this season. The fight to open for 2020-21 began right then and there, and it was an uphill battle the whole way.
Kyle Miner was working for Vail Resorts as a shop supervisor at the time, it was his first season in Vail. The 23-year-old came to the area hoping for an opportunity to start a new life out West. He picked the wrong year.
Miner was one of thousands of workers laid off, and locally, he was one of hundreds who was told to leave his employee housing by both Vail Resorts and Eagle County. He protested and was told he would be allowed to stay until October 30.
Others were not as fortunate.
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Tim McMahon was working at Beano’s Cabin in Beaver Creek at the time. He said he witnessed a mad scramble of workers packing into their cars and hitting the road after being told they had 10 days to leave.
The effort made him so mad that he decided to write a protest sign, calling attention to the mass eviction that had just taken place. On March 27, McMahon hiked up Beaver Creek Mountain and placed the sign in front of the resort’s snowstake sign for all to see.
“10 days to vacate,” it read.
At the time, it seemed like an incredibly bad bit of media for Vail Resorts — its own snowstake camera used to broadcast the strife that the publicly traded company’s namesake region was experiencing. But in looking back now, McMahon’s sign barely holds a candle to all the stories that would follow.
Dichotomy of criticism, praise
The next big shoe to drop called into question Vail Resorts’ ability to pay back its debt, as the company received less-than-investment grade ratings from Moody’s and S&P in April. Vail Resorts had announced an effort to take on an additional $600 million in debt by issuing cash bonds; Moody’s gave the company a B2 rating, S&P Global Ratings a BB.
“The negative rating outlook reflects leverage above 4x in fiscal 2020 due to property closures and our expectation that Vail’s operating performance may continue to be impacted in fiscal 2021 as a result of decreased destination travel and consumer spending,” S&P wrote in its report.
A few months later, yet another bit of controversial news — Vail Resorts announced it would be using a reservations system to allow guests to access the mountains. The company’s phone lines blew up, and callers faced cues in the thousands.
At the same time, however, Vail Resorts was learning a great deal about what it would take to operate its ski areas during a pandemic. Its Australian resorts opened for the winter season in June, reservations system in place, giving the company valuable insight on what the North American season might look like later that year.
Vail Resorts shuttered operations at two of its three Australian properties — Mount Hotham and Falls Creek — by July, however, in the wake of a lockdown in Melbourne.
“A key lesson was that it was critical for us to dial in the capacity of the resort,” Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz said of the Australian experience.
Vail Mountain opened to summer traffic in July, and businesses were bouncing back. Local snowboard manufacturer Weston Backcountry took a risk on manufacturing a full run of a newly-designed snowboard — an oddly shaped, shorter than normal offering called the Hatchet — saying it wasn’t sure if it would sell, but that the company really wanted to see the new design in action. Every last Hatchet sold from every retailer in the state within weeks of receiving it, which was still a full month before the snow began to fall. Outdoor retailers were having their biggest season on record due to the large number of people fleeing the more crowded cities.
But those crowds were coming to the mountains like never before, and while Vail Resorts received criticism from some regarding their reservations plans for the upcoming season, if the crowds in town over the summer served as any indicator, it was going to be a busy winter, as well. Along with the criticism, Vail Resorts was also receiving praise for instituting crowd control measures through its reservations system.
“Appreciate the clarity and the well thought out process,” said Twitter user Paul Atkins.
This dichotomy of praise and criticism had become commonplace for Vail Resorts. The company received praise from the governor for making the decision to shut down in March, while receiving criticism from skiers who said the sport could be done safely without a need for shutdown. Later, the company received both praise and criticism for offering Epic Pass purchasers from 2019-20 credits of up to 80% off the purchase of a 2020-21 pass.
“Glad you came through and did the right thing,” Vermont snowboarder Chris Stabile said of the offering.
“We have 4 day passes that we never used because we were going spring break. I feel we should receive a 100% credit to use next year on the mountain” said Chicago skier Kristie McCarthy.
“People are going to complain no matter what they do,” said Jim Pavelich with the Northside Cafe in Avon.
Sticking it out
On top of pandemic restrictions from the state was a unique labor environment, in which Vail Resorts could not access the international visa workers who often come for a season. But the closures across the travel and leisure sector ended up creating a different kind of labor opportunity for Vail Resorts. The company found more U.S. workers who were interested in taking jobs at ski resort properties, as other jobs in travel and leisure were scarce.
Despite the unique circumstances, the 2020-2021 season at Vail has tracked like many others, with operations managers seeing a robust starting staff whittled down to the hearty few who remain until April. The job is hard and the hours are harder.
A shift of cat operators shows up every day from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m., and they then turn it over to a graveyard shift of workers who groom from 11 p.m. to 9 a.m. A lot of people try out the job and realize it’s not for them.
One Vail employee said there were about 30 cat operators hired to start this season, but now that they have the mountain fully open with the most ground to cover, less than a dozen are still on the job.
The turnover makes duties more difficult for the diehards who remain, but for them, adapting to changing staff levels is part of it. The people who have been at Vail for years are used to the turnover, and some of them thrive on the pressure it creates.
The snowmaking departments at Vail and Beaver Creek have a handful of people who care deeply about the art (and science) behind the craft, but those departments also hire a lot of people who won’t make it to the end of the year. Within, there is a core group of folks who you have to thank for readying the mountains for each season.
Keep the lifts spinning
A lot of those people like working for Vail Mountain because they have a chance to use the latest and greatest. In 2019, the mountain installed 400 new snowmaking cannons with onboard weather systems that read temperature and humidity, and it’s not uncommon for a snowcat manufacturer to call on Vail crews to demo new equipment. Operating a state-of-the-art snowcat with features like electronic snow depth readings, so you don’t have to go out and probe the snow yourself, keeps the job exciting for operators.
And once the ski day begins, there’s never a dull moment for patrollers who save lives on a routine basis. Colorado skier Todd Ermantraut is more excited than ever to be on the mountain this season — he’s having a small gathering on Vail Mountain on March 20 to celebrate his return to skiing after patrollers dragged him out of trees in Earl’s Bowl with a broken femur a couple of years ago.
“Vail Ski Patrol saved my life,” he said.
This season, Ermantraut is happy to be out at all, and that’s the sentiment among a lot of skiers, according to ski patrollers.
One patroller said, in general, that people want to feel that skiing is a relatively safe sport, whether its getting transported safely to the hospital following an injury, or avoiding coronavirus while they’re in town. People seem to be going the extra mile this year to follow the safety guidelines while they’re on the mountain, he said.
Aside from the obvious changes related to masks and distancing, for operations and ski patrol, this year isn’t all that much different.
But for lift ticket scanners, who are often the very first workers a guest encounters, this season has been an all-new experience. Those workers’ job duties now include enforcement on the resorts’ new face coverings policy, something that isn’t welcome by all guests.
Beaver Creek ticket scanner Renee Higuera said she liked her job, before this season.
Higuera said Beaver Creek workers were diligent in enforcing the rules, and most people took to them without issue, but those who didn’t were much harder to deal with than the average guest who might have an issue with something at Beaver Creek.
Many times, the policy was to simply accept it, Higuera said.
“I’d get harassed by guests, and I just wouldn’t say anything about it,” she said.
Everyone was in agreement — they wanted the lifts to keep spinning.
“You just gotta keep your head down and do your job,” a person in Vail operations told me.
Cut for catching COVID
Higuera ended up catching COVID-19 in January. She received her positive test result on Jan. 12.
She said she was not able to trace where it came from, but her roommates all had it, as well. One of the roommates had a boyfriend, and he also became infected.
Higuera and her roommates were living in Vail Resorts employee housing at the Tarnes. They were moved to an isolation unit, where they were told they had to remain in the unit together.
“I had no choice,” she said.
Higuera’s roommate’s boyfriend came by to bring food and supplies to Higuera’s roommate, and someone snapped a photo of him doing so. Higuera and her roommates were evicted from their apartment and fired as a result of the violation.
“It had nothing to do with me,” Higuera said.
But she was told, “If one goes down, the rest of you go down too. It’s guilt by association,” she said.
Higuera is upset with her situation, saying she was treated unfairly, and feels she was fired for getting COVID-19.
In talking to her about this, the conversation inevitably leads to a familiar conclusion in an at-will employment state: “It sucks, but what can you do about it?”
Higuera and I talked a bit about Tim McMahon.
Like Higuera, last season was McMahon’s first year in Beaver Creek. He also grew upset with the company after seeing employees getting evicted from employee housing during the height of the panic, and came to the same conclusion – there’s nothing you can do about it.
This line of thinking, though, spurred McMahon to pen his protest sign and hike all the way up the mountain to place it in front of Beaver Creek’s snowstake camera.
After admitting to doing it, McMahon was — predictably — fired from his Vail Resorts job. But what happened next surprised him.
“They wouldn’t let me buy an Epic Pass this season,” McMahon said.
Some customers might tell McMahon the company did him a favor. I talked to a local mother in September who was trying to find out if the 2020 ski lessons in which she had pre-paid and pre-enrolled her children would be refunded. She went to Vail Resorts’ online customer service center in to get some answers, and found a virtual line cue with 3,352 people in it.
Parents who thought they might have lesson credits from the previous season were left waiting in line for hours, only to receive no answers.
“You can’t get through to anyone, and you don’t get any answers even if you do,” said one parent who sent the Vail Daily a screen grab of a virtual line cue in September.
She did not end up receiving a refund.
Kyle Miner moved on from the company during the summer of 2020, vowing to never work for Vail Resorts again. But he was still living in the company’s employee housing as Vail Resorts had told him he could stay until Oct. 30, as long as he continued to pay rent, which he was doing. There was no mention of his work status.
But on Oct. 5, Miner received a threat from Vail Resorts — vacate housing immediately or be kicked out by the sheriff. He said the threat came when Vail Resorts realized he was no longer working for them. He called the sheriff’s office; a deputy told him it wan an empty threat as the sheriff’s office was not assisting with evictions at that time.
I talked to Miner in October, during the height of his frustration. He still had not received any unemployment compensation due to an error Vail Resorts had made in submitting his wages to the state. He had exhausted most of his savings and was barely getting by, and he was being evicted nearly a month earlier than expected, a crucial few weeks for someone living check to check. He told me even though he didn’t want to, he still paid his rent in full for October, despite the fact that Vail Resorts was trying to have him removed.
“I didn’t have a single cent of income from March 14 to August 28,” he told me. “And I didn’t have anyone to ask for help”
Miner told me he wanted the Vail Daily to publish his account of what had happened to him. He said his experience with Vail Resorts left him with the opinion that the company cares only for profits, not people.
It was the same message McMahon had shared in his protest sign. In addition to the “10 days to vacate employee housing” message, McMahon also included a hand drawn hashtag: #ProfitsOverPeople.
I asked Miner if he knew McMahon or his story. He remembered the sign, but had not heard the fallout. I told Miner that in addition to McMahon losing his job at Beano’s, he told me also lost another non-Vail Resorts job due to the protest sign, and as a final blow, he was not allowed to purchase an Epic Pass for this season. Blacklisted, McMahon called it, banned from skiing at all 37 of Vail Resorts’ properties.
Upon hearing about McMahon, Miner asked me to wait until after the Thanksgiving holiday to write about his situation, because he wanted to ensure his ski pass would work during that time. I didn’t end up writing the story.
When the idea to write about Vail Resorts’ response to the pandemic came up, I didn’t think about Miner and McMahon right away. The incidents involving them are part of the past, and a story like this should look forward, detailing what has changed as a result of the pandemic.
But for me, the fact that people like Miner and McMahon began approaching the Vail Daily to talk openly about their situations is one of the big things that did change as a result of the pandemic. People became fed up, with nowhere else to turn, and started seeking us out in ways I had not seen before. I listened to their stories, and on several occasions, I chose not to share them with our readers.
Among the untold failures that still need to be pointed out regarding the pandemic response in the U.S. and in Colorado, I include my own – the stories I missed, or worse, the ones I heard and kept to myself, feeling that I had been too hard on Vail Resorts amid the barrage of bad press the company received in 2020. At some point, I began to feel a twinge of embarrassment about the near constant stream of email I was sending into the company’s PR department. Every week it was something different, a new complaint, a serious complaint, something I need to look into, something to which they need to respond.
And for the most part, we’ve received those responses. Vail’s newest PR person, John Plack, started the job just a few weeks before the pandemic hit. Since then, he has worked days, nights and weekends, looking into a wide variety of issues that we have presented to him.
Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz finally responded to the barrage of bad customer service complaints in December.
“It is unacceptable, and I personally apologize to you for your experience,” Katz wrote in a letter to pass holders on Dec. 11.
Also in December, Moody’s upgraded the B2 rating it had given the company’s April effort to take on another $600 million in new debt, from B2 to B1. The upgrade was issued as a result of an effort to take on even more debt in December, yet another $500 million from notes.
“With the proposed $500 million convertible notes offering on top of the $600 million term loan issued in April, Vail’s very good liquidity with over $1.7 billion of total pro forma cash and unused revolver capacity will be beneficial to manage through the uncertain operating environment in FY2021, which is also an important factor in the affirmation of ratings,” Moody’s wrote in its report, published December 15. “… The additional liquidity provided by the $500 million convertible notes will also be available for reinvestment in earnings-enhancing projects and acquisitions once the economic downturn and coronavirus eases and this would increase the asset base and recovery potential for more senior creditors.”
The effort to take on more debt wasn’t as well received by S&P, which kept its April rating at BB, assigned another BB rating to the December effort, and also put Vail Resorts on CreditWatch Negative.
In January, Vail Resorts announced that despite selling 1.4 million Epic Passes this year, season-to-date total skier visits were down 16.6% compared to the prior year season-to-date period.
“We expect these declines were primarily driven by reduced demand for destination visitation at our western resorts and COVID-19 related capacity limitations which were further impacted by snowfall levels that were well below average at our Colorado, Utah and Tahoe resorts through the holiday season,” Katz commented in the Jan. 15 announcement.
A bold prediction
In February, Kyle Miner moved to Arizona. He seems to be doing OK.
He came to Vail looking for an opportunity to make it the West, and in an unexpected way, he does appear to be finding it, just not in the way he thought that he might at Vail Resorts.
The company’s latest message to pass holders came out on Wednesday, a vague statement suggesting something big is happening soon.
I asked a Vail Resorts worker what it means. He told me the 2021-22 Epic Pass is going on sale March 23, so it probably has something to do with that and whatever announcements about pass perks are on tap.
I asked if there’s any chance it could mean Vail Resorts is eliminating its reservations system, a new-for-this-season approach to managing crowds that requires guests to pre-reserve the days they want to ski. He said he’d actually guess the opposite. No one is making Vail Resorts use this reservations system, he reminded me. The company made the decision to implement this technology on its own, and it wasn’t cheap or easy to do.
Another person I talked to, whose job at Vail Resorts involves data collection, told me there’s a lot of good that can come from the reservations system, and it’s unlikely Vail will stop using it in the years to come.
This person did not want to be interviewed about it, though. He’s excited about his prospects in this emerging area of the company — the massive new stream of data Vail Resorts now receives based on the reservations system.
In years past, on any given day, Vail may not have been able to predict what services that day’s guests will require, from sandwiches to ski patrol. But now the company knows who is going to be arriving when, and what services they will likely use once they’re here. In addition to the reservations information, Vail Resorts also gleans insights from guests using the company’s new 20% pass holder discount on other Vail Resorts-owned offerings like food, lodging, transportation and equipment rentals.
In September, Katz said that “based on how things play out, we may remove the reservations system, either for the rest of the season, or for parts of it,” adding that “it would be a lot easier to remove the reservations system then to put one in mid season.”
After seeing the value of the data that the reservations system collects, however, and all the possibilities that come with it, removing the reservations system may not be as easy as Katz suggested. In the end, it may prove to be the most lasting facet of the pandemic as it relates to skiing.
“It’s probably a little bit early to take away any concrete learnings from the season,” Katz said in the company’s second quarter earnings call on Thursday. “This was a unique moment, and a unique season, and it’s certainly not something that we would replicate year after year, but there are definitely going to be takeaways that we feel can obviously add value as we go forward.”