Vail, mountain host huge holiday crowds
Then and now
Here’s a bit of what was, and wasn’t, in Vail when the town, Vail Resorts and the U.S. Forest Service agreed in the 1990s to talk about maximum numbers on Vail Mountain:
• Four-way stop signs at the town’s interstate interchanges.
• Blue Sky Basin had yet to open.
• Vail’s “renaissance” was still years away.
• The town’s primary parking structures have remained the same size over the past 20 years.
VAIL — Most of us would agree that a massively busy Christmas holiday season was a good thing. An indication of just how good for business those two weeks were lies in a somewhat obscure agreement between the town of Vail, Vail Resorts and the U.S. Forest Service.
In the 1990s, when Vail Resorts was seeking federal approval for what became the Blue Sky Basin expansion at Vail Mountain, the town, feds and resort company forged an agreement that included guidance about managing the resort to a maximum of 19,900 people on the mountain at any time.
Exceeding that number doesn’t bring any penalties, but it does require representatives to sit down and talk if the situation lasts more than a few days over the course of a week or two. Over the Christmas holidays, Vail Resorts reported it had exceeded 19,900 people on the mountain four times over the course of about a week. Vail Resorts doesn’t release skier numbers, but notifying the town and Forest Service indicates there were more than 19,900 people on the mountain.
Vail Town Manager Stan Zemler said this was the first time in five years or so that the number of guests on the mountain for that many days had prompted discussions about how best to deal with the numbers.
Those meetings are fairly informal, Zemler said.
“We talk about what we experienced, and what we can do better,” Zemler said.
From the town’s perspective, Zemler said a heads-up from Vail Resorts about reservation numbers would be appreciated.
“That way we could be staffed appropriately,” he said.
On the other hand, the Christmas holidays are an all-hands-on-deck period for virtually every public entity and private business in the valley. There are simply going to be a lot of people around, he said. Town buses are going to be full, it’s going to take some time to empty the parking structures and there will be traffic backups at the town’s roundabouts.
The crowds don’t last long, of course.
Zemler recalled that he was riding a chairlift over the holidays when a guest said to him, “You’ll have your mountain back in a week.”
‘BEST GUEST EXPERIENCE’
But Aaron Mayville, the U.S. Forest Service’s assistant district ranger for the Eagle and Holy Cross ranger districts, said bringing together town, federal and resort company representatives has one ultimate goal: “We’re all trying to provide the best guest experience we can,” he said.
From a Forest Service perspective, there are questions about the impact of thousands of skiers on federal land.
Chris Jarnot, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Vail Mountain, said the Forest Service pays close attention to “health and safety” issues such as adequate and safe water and sewer service on federal lands. Those all “worked well” over the holidays, Jarnot said.
Jarnot added that Vail Resorts doesn’t know exactly what specific days the biggest crowds might arrive, but he said the company does have a pretty good idea of when its busiest periods will hit, adding that the company is willing to share that information with the town.
The current agreement helps the town, resort company and Forest Service adjust current operations. But it might also provide a model for future uses, particularly if summer at some point has more than just the Fourth of July and occasional weekend of being packed full.
“There are so many moving parts (to summer),” Mayville said. But, he added, the ideas of protecting public lands and ensuring adequate town resources are the same.
“The goal is the same, whether we’re talking about hiking in the wilderness or skiing,” Mayville said.
On the other hand, the current agreement is now a bit more than 20 years old. A lot has changed in those decades. Zemler said it might be time for all parties to take another look at the agreement.
The agreement is “clearly centered on peak periods,” Zemler said, adding that those peak-period windows seem to have grown over the years.
With that in mind, “we need to do as many things as we can” to preserve the guest experience,” Zemler said. When there are 19,900 people on the mountain, there are plenty of people in town, too.
Still, Jarnot said, it’s hard to notice the difference between days when the lift numbers are just below or a bit above the 19,900 mark.
“It’s really just a number,” Jarnot said. “My conversations with the town indicated that things ran very smoothly that week, and we felt the same way.”