Resort chief’s prickly column stirs merchants
A recent column by Vail Resorts boss Adam Aron has added fuel to the fire of controversy over discount ski passes the company sells Front Range skiers and snowboarders to lure them to the slopes.
The fault-line splits merchants who say the more people visit Vail the better – no matter who they are – and others who argue the crowds have some unintended consequences, such as parking congestion and what one jeweler calls a “de-valuing” of the Vail brand.
“We do want people from Denver and the Front Range, that’s never been an issue,” says Rob De Luca, who owns Currents jewelry store on Bridge Street. “But if you’re appealing to a target market that’s so financially out of sync with what the town has geared itself toward for last 40 years – that’s the issue.”
Discount passes “rock” the village economy, De Luca says.
“It’s very difficult to take what was supposed to be a world-class resort that’s supposed to have above average shops and restaurants and an above average mountain, and suddenly sell it at huge discounted prices,” De Luca says. “It devalues the branding as a whole.”
“The issue,” De Luca adds, “is what is fair to pay for the kind of town and mountain Vail has geared itself to be and what we feel it’s actually worth?”
A better policy may be to reduce the price of single-day lift tickets,” he says.
“Looking for a good time’
Phil Long, co-owner of the Red Lion, performs at the landmark bar and restaurant at the base of Vail Mountain. He says he’s completely in favor of the discounted passes. Busy winter weekends create a vitality in town that most people enjoy, even most of the guests of local hotels – those known as “destination visitors,” Long says.
“They get the mountain to themselves five days a week, and for them to expect to have the mountain to themselves seven days a week is ridiculous,” Long says. “I think the destination skiers also are looking for a good time – they’re looking for full bars and full restaurants and hustle and bustle.”
Long says many of his customers who are in Vail during the week look forward to the weekend influx of skiers and snowboarders. Long criticized the resort’s policies of blocking out the discounted passes during busy holiday weekends and between Christmas and New Year’s. He says those policies empty the town.
“It freaks people out when it’s empty,” Long says. “It’s not really a fun time.”
Vail, furthermore, has to appeal to a wide-range of people, particularly younger skiers and snowboarders, the resort’s future customers, Long says.
“The more people you’re nice to when they’re 18 – they might become your millionaire destination skiers,” he says. “If you don’t cultivate them, they’ll all be at Breckenridge.”
Approximately 2.3 million skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes of Vail and Beaver Creek mountains last season – despite the war in Iraq and an uncertain economy. Resort officials are calling it a “record.”
In his opinion column, published in Friday’s Vail Daily, Aron criticized some Vail merchants for discouraging Front Range skiers and snowboarders from buying the discounted passes and visiting the resort. He said Vail Resorts generates $40 million in revenues from Front Range pass sales. Those revenues, along with what it costs out-of-state visitors to ski at Vail, helps keep the cost of locals’ passes down, Aron said.
“Therefore, out-of-state skiers and riders are in effect subsidizing Colorado skiers and riders,” Aron wrote. “And similarly, Front Range skiers and riders are subsidizing local Eagle County skiers and riders.”
He also criticized outspoken Vail businesswoman Kaye Ferry and the organization of which she once was once president –the Vail Chamber and Business Association. Aron said Ferry has repeatedly told Front Rangers that there are too many of them in Vail.
“Sooner or later, they will get her message that the welcome mat is not out for them in Vail and they will simply stop coming,” Aron said.
But Ferry, no stranger to local controversy, says her only problem with Front Rangers and the discount passes is the parking congestion during busy days in ski season.
Some merchants say the congestion scares potential customers away. And some town officials also have been increasingly upset about the cars lined for miles up and down the South Frontage Road and are considering covering the softball fields at Ford Park with some type of tarp and allowing skiers and snowboarders to park there for the next few winters.
“Parking’s the only issue,” Ferry says. “I’m not a critic of the passes or the skiers. I criticize the parking. Vail Resorts created that parking problem and they ought to solve it.”
Vail Resorts has offered to help the town build another level on the Lionshead parking garage.
Ferry says Aron’s criticism is just a ruse for the company’s rumored plan to eventually increase the price of local ski passes. The company, however, has made no announcements regarding what the prices will be next season for the discounted Merchant Pass many locals buy through their employers.
“It’s going to go up,” Ferry says, “and they’d like somebody else to take responsibility for it.”
Embracing and adapting
Steve Kaufman, co-owner of the Tap Room, says he mostly agrees with Aron’s column. But he faults the CEO for lumping all Vail merchants together.
“People shouldn’t get the impression that the chamber association is a spokesperson for the businesses here,” Kaufman says. “Most of the businesses here, at least on Bridge Street, embrace the Front Range people, embrace the locals. Most of the people here agree that more people is better for everybody, regardless of where they’re from.”
Vail merchants cannot chose their visitors, and as their customers’ desires change businesses have to adapt, Kaufman says.
“I didn’t know we were picking and choosing, but I do know the town is getting is older and for this town to survive we have to think “young’ and think “fun,'” Kaufman says. “Most of the people making decisions are past their prime. It’s time to change.”
Customers are still willing to spend money in Vail – a lot of money – Kaufman says, pointing to the village’s busy upscale restaurants and the popularity of events the recent Wine and Food Festival, where a weekend past cost $300. But Vail also has to “embrace change,” Kaufman says.
“And we have to embrace younger people coming here,” he adds. “They’re not worried about their retirement funds right now – they’re worried about having a good time today, and we have to make sure they’re having a good time.
“If they don’t have a good time now,” he says, “they’re not coming back.”
De Luca, meanwhile, says that merchants who have criticized the discount Front Range passes have no problem with the skiers and snowboarders who buy them.
“We want the people from the Front Range to come,” De Luca says. “What we also want is some sort of fair value paid. What it is is a financial target market that the town needs to go after.”
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at email@example.com.