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Seeking another championship year for Vail

Scott N. Miller
Vail, CO, Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY ” The way Bill Wilto remembers it, the 1980s hadn’t been particularly kind to Vail. Then came the 1989 World Alpine Ski Championships.

“Business was suffering for a number of reasons,” said Wilto, who has sold real estate in the valley since 1984. “The 1989 championships really gave us a shot in the arm.

“There was a lot of enthusiasm in the community,” Wilto added. “We really put our best faces forward. It gave the community something to rally around.”

The conventional wisdom is that the Vail Valley got a huge “bounce” in business from the 1989 event. European skiers discovered Vail, the thinking goes, then came back on vacations, bought second homes, and generally helped propel the valley into a several years of booming prosperity.

The part about name recognition thanks to ski racing might be true. The sport is followed more closely in Europe than in this country, and the fans are as avid as any American football fans.

Wilto said he was on a ski exchange trip to Europe before Vail’s first crack at the world championships, and before the area had become a regular stop on the international ski racing calendar.

“Nobody knew anything about Vail then,” he said. “But they knew about Aspen, because they’d hosted the championships and had a race.”

10 years later

A decade later, and based on the success of the 1989 event, Vail landed another chance at the championships. There was a strong community effort, and the event again was deemed a success.

But the conventional wisdom holds that 1999 wasn’t the success 1989 was.

“It wasn’t as good (in 1999),” Ghiqui Hoffmann said. Hoffmann, today owner of Vail’s Laughing Monkey, was then at the Rucksack on Bridge Street. She said there didn’t seem to be the enthusiasm there was for the 1989 event.

Wilto felt it, too.

“I think the baseline in the 1980s was so much lower,” he said. “By 1999, Vail was doing pretty well.”

Well enough that Buzz Schleper, owner of Buzz’s Ski Shop in Vail believes some lodges and shops jacked up their prices for the 1999 events.

“We sold a lot of T-shirts that year, but we didn’t see an immediate benefit,” Schleper said. “I think it was more of a cumulative benefit.”

Not so fast

Harry Frampton isn’t ready to buy the conventional wisdom about the valley’s previous championship seasons.

“It’s hard to quantify why business is good or bad,” Frampton said. “It could be snow, or the strength of the dollar. It’s difficult to make a conclusion.”

Frampton thinks that the boost from 1989 might not have been as dramatic as many believe, and that the 1999 event might have been more successful.

“There was probably a little less excitement the second time around,” he said. “But there’s no question that Vail over time became an international resort.”

Ski racing has had a lot to do with that, he said.

“We broadcast to the world that this is a special place,” he said. That image can’t be conveyed by just advertising, he added.

Vail’s current reputation is due to more than just championship events.

Schleper, who has two kids in ski racing, said the annual World Cup downhill event at Birds of Prey in Beaver Creek has provided a boost, too.

“Birds of Prey is as good as any downhill in the world, and it has the reputation as one of the best,” he said.

Working on 2013

No matter the effects of past championships, the people interviewed for this story all want Vail to land the 2013 championships.

But, Schleper said, he’d like to see the business community will try to create the scene found in other championship towns.

“I’ve been to several championships and seen the people it attracts,” he said. “It’s so crowded. The bars and restaurants are all full.”

Schleper has a modest suggestion to re-create that scene in Vail: “Vail Resorts ought to offer free skiing in the afternoons after the races,” Schleper said. “That would do more to attract visitors.”

And, no matter Vail’s reputation now, it’s important that the resort continue to maintain its reputation as a place for great events, Wilto said.

“We have to reach out to new people,” he said. “Maybe they don’t know about Vail. The championships would re-establish us as one of the foremost ski areas in the world.”

Schleper has a personal reason to want the 2013 event. His daughter, Sarah, has been a successful ski racer. She’ll be retired in 2013. But Hunter Schleper “should just be coming into his prime about then,” his dad said.

Frampton, who was on the committees that brought the 1989 and 1999 events to Vail, said the effects on the community could go beyond economic impact.

“Isn’t (skiing) why most of us are here?” Frampton said. “Hosting the championships is pretty cool. And it’s the culture of our community.”


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