I swore that I would withhold judgement on Vail Corporation’s operation in Park City for at least a year after their less than friendly takeover of the Park City Mountain Resort, in all fairness to them, and to give Vail time to get their feet wet and figure out the town and its people. Now that Vail has shamelessly taken our town name and labeled their resort with it, it is time to speak up.
Vail came to town at a disadvantage with all the messy business of the takeover leaving a nasty taste in everyone’s mouth. They said all the right things, made all the right promises and spread money around town to gain the support and influence of all the prominent people. They worked on their image in the community and tried to fit in as best as they could. Property have values soared. So have Vail’s profits and stock price.
Things this winter were relatively good, as everyone struggled with a less than stellar snow year. The feeling on the hill was slightly corporate as exemplified by almost run openings and snow making priorities. The mountains were ready for the lucrative holiday season but Jupiter didn’t even open until after Christmas. The first crinkle came when the small time coffee vendors on the hill had to capitulate to the bigger Vail coffee contract. Free coffee for Season Pass holders vanished when Vail took over Canyons years ago anyhow. These things happen.
Vail’s self-proclaimed stakeholders are Guests, Employees, Communities, Environment and Shareholders, not necessarily in that order. Notice they don’t say anything about skiers, boarders, athletes, winter sports enthusiasts or locals. We could tell that there was someone new sitting on the chair lift with us this year. The Shareholders. Vail is a corporation and has a primary fiduciary responsibility to their Shareholders. They have to do all they can to make money for them or they can be sued or fired. I am told that Corporations are people too, and they were up there on the mountain this year, but it did not feel so personable.
The Vail corporate model is to sell cheap season passes, for an impressive quiver of resorts, early in the pre-season to capture an audience and sell them hamburgers, condos, skis and parking spaces all season long. The pass is cheap, everything else will cost you. This model guarantees return customers and incentivizes people to ski more at the different Vail resorts. They sell 300,000 to 400,000 of these passes and consequently have over two hundred million dollars in their pockets by October. Big, early money like this is an unheard of luxury in the ski business when resorts typically struggle to make ends meet until the Christmas holidays. Fair enough, we all bought into this scheme with the prospect of skiing two resorts in town and a dozen others elsewhere for a reasonable price. Was this our Faustian deal?
How can you tell Vail has moved to town? The license plates all turned green. True to form, this year was a busy one around the resorts and around town. Valiens from Colorado came to visit our small town to see what all the fuss was about. Pass holders from around the country came as well to sample some of the new product. We had constant traffic, grid lock and Carmageddon. The other part of the Vail model is unsupervised 20 minute lift lines, slopes at their crowded Colorado Comfortable Carrying Capacity and packed lodges and super markets. New Gondolas are nice but how much is enough. Vail has the shareholders to consider after all.
This spring we were enticed to renew our Epic Local passes early with the caveat that it would allow us to use the lift served mountain biking this summer at the Vail Resorts since our season passes from last year would not qualify us. We all ponied up our 50 dollar deposit. When the lifts opened this summer we rode up to load the lift but were told that we had to come up with another 80 dollars for lift served biking summer passes, discounted from 100 since we were pass holders, plus another fee to ride the bike park. When reminded of the original promise we were told that Vail changed their mind and was now going to charge extra. When we protested this bait-and-switch injustice, the ticket teller said that an e-mail may have been sent to inform us but no one recalled receiving it. In Cool Hand Luke fashion someone in the back yelled, “What we have here is a Vailure to Communicate”.
Is this part of the Vail corporate model for treating its customers: incremental life style entropy and price point sensitivities? It feels kind of like boiling frogs where we don’t notice the heat increase until we are toast? Will we now have to pay extra for biking, hiking, parking, concerts or coffee? I am not a widget to be squeezed or optimized, I am a person. We are the people. The same people who built this town and set it up so nicely for Vail to take over. Now they have taken the name of our town and used it to brand their resort. Vail is not a town. It is a ski resort, a freeway exit, a corporation. (Vail was named after the engineer who pioneered the first road over the pass, before the tunnel and the freeway.) Park City is not a resort, it’s a town, a community. We have the locals to consider after all.
I am increasingly frustrated with the short term models of the Military, Business, Petroleum, Agriculture, Health Care, Hydro-Climate and Recreational Industrial-Economic Corporate-Complexes. Their singular, profit driven politics tends to be destructive to the environment and economy, cultures and societies in the long run. Not to mention the unintended consequences we have yet to realize. We moved to Park City to escape this mainstream lifestyle and value system. Now it seems to have caught up with us. What are we to do?
Individually we don’t matter to the corporate model. Alone we are one person, one customer. Together we are a town. Let us not go gently into their corporate good night. Let us speak up for what we want, for what we need, to maintain the town and the recreational lifestyle we have forged. If we can communally affect their bottom line or communicate effectively to their Shareholders, we can continue to defend our alternative values. It’s not too late, if we really care.