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Two versions of Vail

Sarah L. Stewart
Illustration by Amanda Swanson
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Craig Wetter eases himself onto the sofa in the lobby of his Vail hotel room, legs sore from a day of skiing Blue Sky Basin. This is Wetter’s fourth visit to Vail this season, for a total of about 25 days on the mountain ” not bad for a real estate investor from central Illinois.

Tonight, Wetter and his 22-year-old son, Nathan, are preparing for dinner. But these Vail regulars aren’t slipping into dinner jackets for a reservation at Sweet Basil or bundling up for a snowcat ride to Game Creek Restaurant.

Instead, they’re tying on their sneakers, hopping into a rented compact Chevy and driving the mile or so to Safeway from their home away from home, the Park Meadows Lodge in West Vail. The lodge, where rooms go for $140 a night during high season and $79 during the summer, is a cozy 32-unit retreat dating to the late 1960s. But the Arrabelle it’s not. Dinner for two ” a deli chicken, broccoli-cheese casserole and six-pack of Breckenridge Avalanche Ale ” comes to $28.64, including snacks for the following day on the mountain.

To many, “Vail” means boutique shopping, fine dining and pricey lodging ” but that’s only one side of the story. Amidst the fur coats and ski valets are travelers like Wetter who have found a way to do Vail on a budget. About the only thing the two versions of the Vail experience share are runs on the mountain ” and sometimes, not even that.

Melanie Johnson strolls up Bridge Street on a recent Tuesday afternoon with her sons, Justice, 6, and Nathan, 7, and their nanny for the week, Danielle Smith. They decide to stop for lunch at Pepi’s, where Johnson shrugs off her fox-fur coat on the heated patio.

The Houston natives are wrapping up a weeklong Vail visit, their second in as many years.

“I just love it here,” says Johnson, a television broadcaster. “There’s something so quaint about it.”

Like most other winter visitors, the Johnsons are here to ski. To be more precise, Melanie and Justice are here to ski; Nathan is here to snowboard, which creates an extra wrinkle when scheduling private lessons for the boys. Since instructors focus either on snowboarding or skiing, the Johnsons require two private instructors for each of their days on the mountain, at $665 per instructor, per day.

“You kind of have to know what you’re getting into as you book it,” Johnson says.

Add to that the $10,000 she estimates her two-floor room at the Sonnenalp costs, plus meals at Ludwig’s, Bully Ranch and other spots around the village, and her $15,000 estimated budget for the trip sounds conservative. Last year, she figures she spent about twice as much.

“I had three bathrooms last year,” Johnson says. “This year I only have one.”

Though it’s extravagant, spending $30,000 on a vacation isn’t much of a stretch for the average Vail winter visitor. Vail Resorts numbers show the average household income for winter vacationers is $270,000, a number that has increased each year for the past four years ” bringing with it an increased demand for luxury.

For all of Vail’s conspicuous consumption, it still isn’t the most over-the-top ski resort around.

“If you look at a place like Deer Valley (Utah) or Beaver Creek, you could safely say that 90 to 95 percent of the properties are considered at the luxury end of things. You can’t say that about Vail at this time, but it’s coming,” says Leslie Shor, mountain vacation specialist for Ski.com, an Aspen-based booking agency.

“Vail’s reinventing in order to compete with the Deer Valleys and Beaver Creeks of the world,” she says.

Projects like the recently opened Arrabelle, the renovation of Manor Vail and construction of the Four Seasons in Vail will make the agency better able to accommodate the many requests it gets for luxury Vail vacations, says Dan Sherman, Ski.com’s director of marketing and communications.

“Our clients are generally looking for luxury,” he says.

Michael Kurz, president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership, also sees Vail’s accommodations becoming more luxurious.

“The momentum has picked up so much because the infrastructure was starting to age,” he says.

At Peak Properties Vail, where vacation home rentals range from $1,200 to more than $4,000 per night, luxury already abounds. The homes, many of which have earned the highest lodging quality rating from the Vail Valley Partnership, come with more than soaring ceilings and cozy stone fireplaces.

Peak Properties concierge Jessica Kober says people who pay a premium for lodging expect a certain level of service, and that means having her as their 24/7 personal assistant.

In less than a year in the position, Kober has fielded eight-page grocery lists, left cigars waiting for guests’ arrivals and handled a 3 a.m. phone call about an overflowing toilet. Kober won’t divulge some of her more odd requests, but her attitude seems to be as long as it’s legal, it’s fair game.

“I think that people really want to be pampered on vacation,” she says. “They want to feel like they are the most important client, the most important person to the entire staff.”

Jonathan Russell has found a way to stay in Vail for $30 a night. Sure, it might mean sharing a one-bedroom at the Park Meadows Lodge with five friends, but it’s the only way the 25-year-old Florida firefighter can afford a trip to Vail.

“You gotta do what you gotta do,” Russell says.

By dining at Taco Bell and packing granola bars and gummy worms to eat on the mountain, Russell expects to keep his four-day stay in Vail under $1,000, including airfare. The majority of that money will go to lift tickets.

Craig Wetter estimates he spends $5,000 to $8,000 on the month he spends each year in Vail ” far less than many visitors spend in a week.

“I’d feel horrible if I went and spent what some people spend because it means I could do a couple more trips,” he says.

Though luxury may be an expanding market, Russell and Wetter seem to be part of a solid base of budget-minded travelers who have their sights set on Vail.

“From our standpoint, it’s extremely important,” Kurz says of such visitors’ effects on the Vail economy. He points to their role in making the valley a year-round destination by taking advantage of lodging, dining and recreation deals during Vail’s traditional off-seasons.

Even during the more expensive winter season, Shor of Ski.com estimates 10 to 20 percent of her clients who want to visit Vail are looking to do so on a budget; Park Meadows Lodge has waiting lists on busy weeks throughout the winter, says Manager Adam Sturman.

Though visitors can find a way to make Vail somewhat affordable, it’s still “certainly not a budget brand by any stretch,” says Chris Romer, director of marketing for the Vail Valley Partnership.

Joyce Newton, owner of Vail travel agency Snowsport Vacations, says that although a third of the incoming calls to her business are people looking for a budget trip, she sometimes directs them to less expensive resorts.

“You get people who decline your offer because it’s outside of their budget,” she says. “Oftentimes, it’s going to Tiffany’s and really needing to go to Wal-Mart for that ring.”

High-end and budget visitors’ reasons for coming to Vail can be as different as the rooms they stay in and the food they eat while here.

Wetter, like many budget travelers, comes to Vail for one thing, and one thing only: to ski.

“It’s like the only place I want to ski,” he says. “The more I can save on skiing, the more I can ski.” He’s been east of Lionshead fewer than five times in the four or five years he’s been coming to Vail, he says.

Vail Village, Wetter and his son concur as they lounge in socks and sweatshirts in the Park Meadows lobby, is “just not our thing.”

A few miles away, in a long black mink coat, Tennessee resident Carla Morgan strolls through the village with friends Mike and Sherri Cofer, Prada sunglasses blocking the glare of a late-afternoon sun.

“I don’t ski,” says Morgan, who has been to Vail six or seven times.

What does she do here?

“Shop. See?” she says with a laugh, holding up a handful of bags.

If Wetter and Morgan illustrate the opposites of Vail, that’s probably all right with Kurz, who sees promise in both Vail’s common appeal and its luxury aspirations.

“I think what we’re becoming, if anything, is more diverse.”

Sarah L. Stewart can be reached for comment at (970) 748-2982 or sstewart@vailtrail.com.


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