By Jeremy Evans
As the news spread on Wednesday morning that Vail Resorts had purchased Kirkwood Mountain Resort, there was, naturally, a genuine concern for one the future of the one of the most iconic ski areas in the American West. As someone who made a personal decision a few years ago to stop supporting a corporate-owned ski resort (Heavenly) and start buying my pass at one of the last independent ski resorts in the Lake Tahoe area (Kirkwood) – the fact that Kirkwood is a better mountain for all the right reasons didn’t hurt either – this news affected me, but it did not shock me.
In the past few years, all but two of the major resorts in Lake Tahoe have been gobbled up, acquired, purchased, whatever you want to call it, by the coporatocracy, which is methodically tightening its grip on the entire ski industry. Squaw was purchased by KSL, which then bought Alpine from JMA, which still owns Homewood; CNL owns the assets to Northstar and Sierra; MTN, which is Vail Resorts’ listing on the New York Stock Exchange, owns Heavenly, manages Northstar and now manages Kirkwood. The acronymic takeover of Lake Tahoe’s ski resorts is a confusing trend, yes, but it’s also a disturbing one that deserves more careful analysis.
Photo courtesy of PowDork
I was privy to this latest acquisition – or something similar to it – since last summer. While the exact details and unfolding of the deal might have changed since then, the end result remains the same: myself and others that live in South Lake Tahoe no longer have a choice in supporting either an independent ski resort or a corporate-owned one. Of course, I could reject all my local resorts and commit to the backcountry, but that should be a voluntary action based on one’s expectations from the sport itself, not an involuntary act of force bestowed upon me to play in a game I didn’t want to play in the first place.
By supporting a corporate-owned ski resort I know that my financial support, regardless of how miniscule it is to the company’s ledger, is not just fattening the pockets of those in distant lands, people who likely don’t have mountains in their blood, but that my financial support means that I am contributing to the ruination of my mountain playground. And it’s hard not to feel a bit violated in that type of system because, as consumers, we should all be able to make a choice that we are comfortable with and that fits our own values. But when our choices are reduced to the point that there is only one choice, our autonomy is yanked from us and it’s at that point when it’s clear the ski industry has effectively lost control because it means it was unable to regulate itself.
Sadly, this industry has been directing its compass in a much different direction than where it intended when someone decided the pleasure of sliding down snow on skis could a profitable business. The thirst for profit, however, has changed the desired profit margin. This industry is predicated on an infinite growth paradigm, which usually means making money off products (real estate, for example) that are not directly related to sliding on snow. Unfortunately, the resources needed to support this infinite growth paradigm can only be considered infinite if we are willing to accept the consequences that sprouts from this paradigm (notably a damaged environment and soulless, Disneyland-esque theme parks trumpeted as ski resorts)
Here in Lake Tahoe, mine is a rather juvenile lament because this is already the case for many people along the I-70 corridor in Colorado and, before long, nearly every skier or rider in the American West. The adult in me, however, shouts “should it really matter?”
On one hand, Vail’s reputation as “profit trumps everything else type of outfit” suggests an unpleasant fate for Kirkwood. Vail’s business model unquestionably caters toward the tourist and non-serious skier, a customer it has decided craves comfort and the purchasing of an experience – regardless of how unauthentic that experience is – rather than blower pow and 40-degree chutes. To implement that model, Vail and all the other acronyms typically focus on non-skiing related amenities because, well, the majority of the people they want to visit their resorts don’t know what to do in blower pow and 40-degree chutes.
Photo courtesy of PowDork
That’s precisely why many of its acquisitions rarely possess the terrain serious skiers and riders seek because, in Vail’s mind, serious skiers and riders don’t bring in the revenue that stuff its shareholders’ pockets and allow the company to grow like it has. Perhaps that’s why Vail’s other properties aren’t known for their terrain as much as their fabricated European-style villages, fancy bread bowls, $10 martinis, and those oh-so-epic après ski massages. Vail learned early on that, as much as humans would like to try, it simply can’t recreate the Cirque at Kirkwood with blueprints, 2x4s and nails, so it’s wise to market other aspects of a mountain to attract visitors.
When Vail Resorts wants to improve its skiing-related amenities, it typically installs faster chair lifts, improved grooming and snowmaking capabilities, increased signage, and terrain expansion. This stuff might be detrimental to the environment but it is designed to enhance the experience for tourists, although I’ve never heard a local complain that a lift doesn’t take long enough or that additional terrain is satanic. But in the process of impressing tourists, Vail often sours the experience for serious skiers and riders who often prefer any chair lift providing access to challenging terrain, less grooming, and less signage.
Admittedly, Vail’s reputation is well-documented and well-deserved, but it doesn’t tell the entire tale.
On the other hand, Vail has the business acumen and cash flow to improve Kirkwood, which had been borderline neglected under the previous ownership in recent years. As other resorts in the area were building mid-mountain lodges, replacing old lifts with high speed quads and gondolas, spending money to attract visitors, cash-strapped Kirkwood was crossing its fingers that people would come because it has what most every other resort in Tahoe doesn’t – big-time snowfall and big-time terrain. That wasn’t cutting it and Kirkwood was failing to maintain relevance in the current landscape of the ski industry, which has become more industry than ski over the past decade.
With the deepest snow in the Lake Tahoe area and terrain that rivals Squaw, Kirkwood has the skiing part down; the industry part of the equation, however, wasn’t measuring up. Vail is undoubtedly going to reverse that trend for Kirkwood and, in time, create a product that reflects the needs of tourists. Because, let’s face it, there is no Kirkwood or Squaw or Heavenly without tourists.
My only hope is that, along the way, Vail does a better a job of connecting with both tourists and locals than it has at its other properties, and perhaps even expand its role by eliciting input from both groups since they are integral to keeping shareholders happy and retaining the soul of a ski resort – a winning combination that other ski industry acronyms haven’t achieved and which surely would increase your bottom line in the long-term.
In that respect, I woke up today with a sense of optimism after waking up yesterday disappointed. Now it’s possible this optimism is simply masquerading as naiveté, and that my worst fears will come true at Kirkwood, but there is no rule that requires Kirkwood’s future to match the fate of Beaver Creek or any other of Vail’s properties that have been unable to recognize the value of its most loyal customers.
We might be thrifty and we might not have the deepest pockets, and just because we have a tendency to point out failures in the past doesn’t mean we won’t champion successes in the future. Lastly, it’s important for these acronyms to remember that the inability or unwillingness to learn the lessons of past failures is not an excuse and is in fact more indefensible than the repeating of those same failures in the future.
Jeremy Evans is the author of In Search of Powder: A Story of America’s Disappearing Ski Bum. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.