Ski resorts turning up the glitz
Fans of some famously rustic ski spots are in for a surprise.
In the ever glitzier world of ski resorts (one hotel at Beaver Creek offers “ski butlers” who deliver warmed boots each morning) there always have been a few holdouts. Fans of retro ski areas such as Alta and Taos long have delighted in their world-class snow and expert terrain ” as well as the lack of frilly boutiques full of snow bunnies. Another plus: They ban snowboarders, who are considered a pesky nuisance by some skiers.
But as rivals have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in amenities such as high-speed lifts, dramatically cutting the amount of time skiers must dangle in the cold mountain air, the old-school areas are starting to look a little threadbare in contrast.
Somewhat reluctantly, Alta Ski Area is making some long-delayed upgrades. The Utah ski area, which is prized by serious skiers for the copious amounts of champagne powder it receives each year, is planning to add an expensive high-speed chair lift and build a new mid-mountain ski lodge. The ski area hopes to begin construction this year.
New Mexico’s Taos Ski Valley, famous for its steep slopes, is getting a fancy new condo complex. It also is undertaking a major expansion of its terrain park ” a separate section of the mountain for jumping and hot-dogging ” to keep up with the competition. Patrons of Colorado’s mega-market Keystone resort can ski on a metal rail that bursts into flame; skiers must wear a flame-retardant suit to try it.
The old-school resorts are being forced to compete with giant ski areas run by publicly traded companies that follow a money-making formula: Lure the masses with celebrities and contests. Rush skiers up and down the mountain to tucker them out. Aim their weary bodies at the resorts’ shops, restaurants and bars. Send ’em home broke.
“Our philosophy is to get them on the mountain and off quickly,” said Martin White, Vail Resorts’ former head of marketing, in an interview last season, “because then they’re going to go to one of our restaurants or spas.”
While there still is a month left in the ski season, it’s an important one because resorts this year are making a big push for spring breakers. Whistler and several of Vail Resorts’ ski areas, for instance, are aiming ads at college kids and throwing spring-break-style bashes.
In the past two years, Vail Resorts has spent about $70 million at its Vail, Beaver Creek and Breckenridge ski areas on new fast lifts, more ski runs and expanded terrain parks. One big trend is adding ready-to-shop villages where skiers can buy some of the $2.2 billion of snow clothes and equipment they snap up each year.
The crucial improvement, however, is bigger, faster lifts. The latest four- to six-seat lifts race skiers up the mountain on cushy seats that detach from the cable and slow down to help skiers get on and off. Whistler, a sprawling 7,000-acre ski area in British Columbia, offers 33 lifts that can ferry 59,000 people an hour up its slopes.
At Taos, however, the 270,000 skiers who visit each year ride up on a series of old-style lifts, one of which dates to 1973.
The handful of holdout ski areas are uniformly privately owned, usually by patient investors and avid ski fans who shun debt. Perhaps the most ardently retro resort in the U.S., Mad River Glen in Vermont, is cooperatively owned by a group that plans one day to replace its primary, historic 1948 single-seat lift with … yet another single-seat lift so old-fashioned that it would have to be specially designed and cost 30 percent more than just getting a regular, modern lift. Asked if the resort has made any improvements lately, Eric Friedman, the ski area’s spokesman, responded, “We put a new urinal in the men’s room.”
Like the other retro areas, Mad River bans snowboards.
One reason Alta can resist the pull of the modern world is that it gets some of the best snow around. When the U.S. Forest Service was scouting for ski areas in Utah in 1935, Alta was one of its first picks. As storms blow in over the Great Salt Lake, they funnel up Little Cottonwood Canyon to Alta’s slopes, dumping about 500 inches of fine dry snow a year.
Alta and Taos are making changes slowly, aware of how intensely many of their patrons savor the experience of skiing without intrusion from chain restaurants, spa-wear shops and high-voltage teen contests. While many Colorado resorts have guest-return rates of roughly 60 percent, Taos has a lofty 78 percent return rate, Mr. Briner says. Alta claims around 80 percent.
With so many loyal customers, making changes is a delicate matter. Alta aficionado A. Lawrence Chickering, a former member of the Council on Foreign Relations, cautions that “if it starts to get glitzy, people worry that it might go the way of other places.”
Alta’s long-time guests include Nobel-prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who has skied there on 20 or so annual pilgrimages with his pals William F. Buckley and Mr. Chickering. The hotel doesn’t have TVs in the rooms, which encourages guests to wander around meeting each other. “I just love the Alta Lodge,” Mr. Friedman says.
Charles Kubert, a Chicagoan whose family has gone to Alta for three generations, describes what passes for apres-ski entertainment there. “In the Alta Lodge, they play ping pong,” Mr. Kubert says.
Alta’s deep-powder slopes are so well known that it doesn’t bother to advertise. By contrast, Intrawest last year ran more than 1,100 marketing campaigns, price specials and other promotions.
That also has helped keep its lift ticket prices low. A day of skiing at Alta costs $42. Beaver Creek this year charges as much as $73 a day for its lift tickets, which is about average for high-end resorts but two-thirds more than the price at some retro ski areas. Many big ski operators are financially strapped. American Skiing Co., the ailing Park City, Utah, operator of Killington and Steamboat, is in default on much of its debt. Vail Resorts Inc., of Avon, Colo., a year ago suffered sweeping layoffs and axed its president. Vancouver-based Intrawest Corp., owner of ski areas at Whistler and Mammoth, recently restructured to lighten its debt load.