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The Business of Skiing
Ski communities seem to have an especially strong inclination for nostalgia. I grew up with my parents’ tales of my home mountain during the ’80s when the powder stayed fresh for days and getting duct-taped to the local bar was a common occurrence. Lift tickets were less than $50, and almost every resort was independently owned and operated, giving them all a unique flavor. Some might say the golden age of ski culture has long passed, while others claim that the new cheap season passes and resort collective deals have saved skiing, but the simple fact is that these aren’t your parents’ ski resorts any more.
“If you were to take a pic from 30,000 feet looking down, it hasn’t changed a hell of a lot, but on the ground, it is a different world than it was pre-1990, and it is constantly in transition,” said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA).
I should mention that Berry also claims that, “If you’re nostalgic for the good old days, then you weren’t really there,” referring to expensive season passes and sub-par mountain technology and management.
“Back then, nobody owned two resorts. Every single resort around the lake was privately owned, and it was independently owned,” said Tim Cohee, owner of China Peak Mountain Resorts in Lakeshore, Calif., and ski business and resort management program director at Sierra Nevada College. “What everyone has seen is a business that has become largely dominated by corporations. It’s probably at least 40 percent of the national skier attendance that is being seen by probably five or six companies.”
Here in Tahoe the change began about 15 years ago, when Vail purchased Heavenly Mountain Resort and proved just how lucrative the business of skiing can be.
“First of all, corporate America has figured out that it’s a very good business,” Cohee said. “When Vail bought Heavenly, the stock was about $12 a share, and I think it’s about $170 now. It’s staggering, the kind of money these resorts are making.”
A lift ticket at Heavenly Valley when it first opened in 1955 cost $5 ($45.31 in today’s dollars, according to the Bureau of Labor), versus $70 in 2005, and $135 today. That’s a 2,700 percent increase over 62 years.
According to the NSAA’s 2015/2016 economic analysis of 103 ski areas, the average gross income of the surveyed ski areas was $32.7 million per resort, with a $5.4 million profit before tax, representing a 315.9 percent increase compared to only four years prior.
According to Cohee, this modern success is due to the business model embraced by companies like Vail and Powdr Corp., which have bought up multiple ski areas in order to package interchangeable season pass products. Vail especially has locked in heavily to the Tahoe Area, and operates Heavenly, Kirkwood, and Northstar, exemplifying Berry’s claim that in the business of ski resorts, the only true way to grow is to simply buy more ski areas.
Cohee says that it is highly unlikely that the reach of Vail will grow any larger in the Tahoe area, such as by buying a resort like Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows, because he believes the Department of Justice would not allow one ski company to have such a large market share in the region. If Vail were to buy more in the Sierra, he speculates, Mammoth would probably be the first place they’d go looking.
WHO OWNS WHAT AND WHEN?
INTERCONNECTED: Names in bold indicated current owners. Look closely and you might be surprised where certain names keep popping up. Illustration by Lauren Shearer/Moonshine Ink
The web of interconnected resort ownership in Tahoe is already fairly extensive, and features a handful of smaller independent resorts stacked up against the larger players (see map graphic for ownership info). While every ski resort in Tahoe was independently owned just 20 years ago, now a small group of large corporations owns and operates the biggest resorts. Vail, Powdr Corp., and Squaw Valley Ski Holdings (SVSH) are some of the first corporate names to jump out, but there are three private equity and development companies — CNL Lifestyle Properties, JMA Ventures, and KSL Capital Partners — that share a significant chunk of local ski areas and provide an interesting model of a new form of ski resort management. KSL and CNL are both private equity firms that own the land of four of the largest Tahoe resorts between the two of them: Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Northstar California, and Sierra-at-Tahoe.
“When CNL started, that became the most fabulous exit strategy for someone trying to sell a ski area, who wanted to still run it, but get their cash out. That was a perfect play, so you sell to CNL, and then you lease it back,” Cohee said. “But I don’t know if anybody would tell you that private equity in ski business has worked out.”
The question is: Will this trend toward corporatization and homogenization continue? Currently, of the 13 ski areas in Tahoe, eight are corporate-owned. Of the five remaining, one is up for sale (Mt. Rose); one is owned by a special district (Diamond Peak); one is owned by a homeowners association (Tahoe Donner); and two remain much as they were 30 years ago (Sugar Bowl and Donner Ski Ranch).
For now, the independent resorts fill an important niche in the ski business market. With larger companies like Vail and SVSH providing more affordable and extensive season passes, while at the same time raising day ticket prices exponentially, smaller resorts can offer a more unique experience and more affordable ticket prices. The main savior of many resorts comes from their inherent specialization. Smaller areas like Diamond Peak, Donner Ski Ranch, and Tahoe Donner utilize their pricing strategies; Sugar Bowl capitalizes on its proximity to Interstate 80 and Central California; and Mt.Rose targets the Reno market.
“Every one of them that is still around has something going for it,” Cohee said. “They survive because they’re worth surviving.”
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