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What can Aspen do that Vail can’t any more?

Scott N. Miller
Vail, CO, Colorado

Aspen Mountain has some ski terrain reopened this weekend. That’s what small ski companies can do.

As winter wound down this year, there was a lot of clamoring by locals to keep Vail Mountain open another week or two. The snow was certainly plentiful, and, with the town largely devoid of tourists, the mountain would have been a mostly Eagle County playground.

But the answer from Vail Resorts came early and firm: We’re closing April 13, and we’ll see you in November. That’s what big resort companies do.

This isn’t going to devolve into another Vail vs. Aspen piece. The folks in Aspen seem to do those much better than we do, anyway. But it is instructive to see how the resort business is evolving before our eyes.

Notice the reference to the “resort business” rather than the “ski industry.” That’s because, for the most part, skiing is just one component of a bigger enterprise these days.

Those of us who were around at the time pooh-poohed the local resort company’s name change when it happened in the mid-’90s or so. But the Wall Streeters locals pooh-poohed as knowing nothing about the ski business were smarter than the critics thought.

Vail Associates had always been in the real estate business as well as the ski business, but the company soon got involved in running hotels, some even in (gasp!) warm-weather vacation havens. When you’re building the value of a public company and answering shareholder demands to keep the stock price climbing, positioning a company only as a cold-weather venture just won’t do.

Being part of a bigger, year-round vacation company has its good points. A bigger company can actually make things happen on a reasonably predictable schedule, and tend to have deeper pockets for things like high-speed chairlifts and gondolas.

Some people will argue that the kinds of things Vail Resorts is building in Vail is changing the town for the worse. But the argument that bigger companies are less responsive to their communities doesn’t always fly. Vail Associates had its moments with Vail’s town government, too.

But what we have is what we have, and that means the days are probably gone forever when lifts would clatter to life to take people to a still-covered part of the mountain over Father’s Day weekend. Budgets are budgets and plans are plans, after all. Giggles that don’t translate into profit don’t count much at publicly traded companies.

Given the times and the towns, Vail is probably better off with a big, ambitious resort company running its ski hill, and Aspen is probably better suited to a company that still concentrates mostly on skiing, run by a wealthy family from Chicago.

But I know at least a few folks from this valley will be headed to Aspen for some morning turns ” followed by afternoon golf. That’s what you can do in June in the high country.


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