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VR brass handicap themselves

Don Rogers

Vail Resorts – aka, the Big Gorilla – has taken a dip in community favor. I’m pretty sure they’d see such a plummet if they commissioned a survey of local public opinion today.

People are thinking less of the overwhelmingly most generous giver to charitable causes, main builder of the Vail “renaissance” that will lift all boats, or the rather large breaks they still give locals to ski on the most expensive as well as best ski slopes in North America.

No, what’s mainly in folks’ minds right now is the exceedingly poor timing of an $8 million bonus from previous years coming due just as the ski company cuts health-care benefits; raising prices on everything around the fringes, the most vexing being eliminating the buy one local season pass and get one free for a kid; and generally coming across as a cheaper company.

Never mind that all the bigger employers have responded to soaring health-care costs with even steeper increases for their employees, that the kids’ passes would still be considered fabulous deals at similar resorts, that even those awful layoffs were mainly felt in the executive suites and barely touched the rank and file. How many companies do that?

Also, news flash: The company lost money last year. As sucking it up goes, this is awfully mild. If this were the rest of American company towns, your “friendly” steel mill, auto factory, garment maker would be beating feet to the Mexican border or perhaps China about now. Ever lived in a town where The Company had that kind of leverage? Hey, I’ve been there, in bum… Illinois, upstate New York, western Michigan, California’s sawmill Sierra. These typically aren’t companies that feel particularly compelled to worry about the towns they dominate. The community should be grateful in the extreme for their mere presence, they figure.

Vail Valley, let me tell you, you are very, very spoiled – and prone to whining, frankly. If this company truly had the heart of the quintessential corporation, there would be no such things as a merchant pass, special deals for our children, ski passes to raffle off, charitable giving or still the best insurance benefits in town outside the hospital itself.

No matter, resentment is running deeper than it has in recent years. And VR’s management has been awfully dumb about this lately. I mean, really bone-headed. What’s different about this Big Gorilla is that it’s in their best interest to build community goodwill. Their business to a significant degree depends on it, whether you are counting by guest experience or Forest Service oversight of the public land where the business is conducted.

I don’t say this lightly, because I respect this company a great deal. They’ve taken great care of their ski hills, they’ve run their business a lot better than any Vail merchants or the town itself, and they are relatively good to their largely service-delivery employees.

Of course they act in their self-interest – duh. Still, if the town and all its lodges and merchants gave themselves over to the resort company, the town would be far better run today. I’m not suggesting that ever happen, just making an all too obvious point. That’s including all the company’s flaws, real and imagined.

Yet they’ve squandered community goodwill lately as if they’ve suddenly gone deaf and blind. I know I’m being awfully cavalier about someone else’s $8 million, but I’d sure think twice about taking the bonus payout until maybe next year, after the cost-cutting measures and annual loss were a memory instead of a fresh wound. I’d also spare the kids this year in the pass pricing increases. Nothing like making a valley full of parents crabby.

And as a public and dominating company, you know it might make sense to announce early and often what you are doing with health care coverage or other cuts in employee bennies to perhaps bleed off some of that anger. Sure beats turning defensive later, when sour feelings have taken root.

Yes, when you dominate a community such as Vail Resorts does this one, you will always have your critics. The relatively light rounds of layoffs these past few years – mainly among the manager classes – provide a case in point, painful as they have been for the good people who were let go. Again, I’m thinking of those factory towns where I cut my journalistic teeth. There, it generally ain’t a president or VP in the unemployment line.

For all this good, though, what springs to mind right now about Vail Resorts? Yeah, it’s Adam Aron, sore feet and all, thinking no one will notice if he swings into a handicapped parking spot and saves himself a painful walk at the airport just this once. So the Gypsum mayor’s tow truck company gets the call, and the valley grapevine buzzes about the gall of the big dog running The Company. It might be 40 long miles to Vail from the airport, but this is a small town.

Aron, of all people, knows or should know the power of symbolism. This winter it’s the CEO (already an “honorary” four-letter word across America) fresh off news of his big bonus after a profitless year coming across as if he thinks he’s entitled to special consideration – in a handicapped parking spot, no less.

I say this as a friend: Ugh.

Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or editor@vaildaily.com


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