Vail expansion really was about bigger = better

by Allen Best

Last winter was exactly the sort for which the ski area expansion at Vail now called Blue Sky Basin was designed.

In the mid-1990s, when the 4,100 acres were called Category III, representatives of the ski company repeatedly claimed two results:

1) The terrain would help even out the season because the new, north-facing slopes would provide good snow for early and late seasons, better making use of existing infrastructure; and

2) The north-facing slopes would provide a valuable insurance policy for when the signature south-facing Back Bowls® remained unskiable during Christmas.

Christmas this past winter was as good a measure of those claims as you could want. The Back Bowls remained closed Christmas week, not opening until Jan. 18. You couldn’t ski it because the grass was too thick, according to one local joke.

And how about the expansion terrain, now called Blue Sky Basin? Well, it wasn’t open until Jan. 19. Insurance? Nothing of the sort. Nor has it ever provided much early season snow. It may have good late-season snow, but crowds thin long before the snow does.

Despite the absence of Blue Sky Basin, Vail Mountain did well enough this past winter. The story in Vail when I visited during Christmas week was that skiing was … well, pretty good, all things considered. There were no soup lines, Instead, people probably spent less time with the so-so skiing and more time shopping. Vail, the municipality, had a record December for sales tax revenues. Nothing out of Vail Resorts, as the ski area operator is now called, suggested chaos.

The ski company back in the day tried to spin a lot of people. The biggest sucker, though, was the Forest Service.

Changing economic models

In fairness to the ski company, I suspect that few people 20 years ago could clearly see the great strides in snowmaking and grooming. Together, they made the skiing product on the front-side of Vail Mountain tolerable at Christmas if not exactly memorable.

The financial model of ski areas has also changed greatly. The simple idea introduced by Mike Shirley of Idaho’s Bogus Basin in 1997 of low-cost, advance-purchase of season ski passes has changed the business model of ski areas. Skiers, most of them, now pay for their skiing up front, before anybody expects it to start snowing. If it doesn’t, they’re left holding the bag. Ski areas still suffer from lost sales, but not nearly as much—as an editor for Atlantic Magazine discovered after a ski trip to Colorado early last winter.

Rob Katz, chief executive of Vail Resorts, told him that the company looks up 40 percent of its lift ticket revenue before ski season starts.

And finally, even if Vail’s arguments 15 to 20 years ago were bogus, that in no way diminishes the value of the expansion to the resort product. From all accounts Blue Sky Basin has produced no end of grins since the ropes were lowered in 2000. People are exhilarated by being yet further away—but comfortably so—in this realm of “backcountry lite.”

But this does cause me to wonder about accountability of public processes. I was in Vail from 1985 to 1998, and as a newspaper reporter-editor, I had a front-row seat. As soon as China and Siberia bowls were opened in 1988 by George Gillett, then the owner of the ski area, his team went to work on the background work for the next expansion, one that had been in the original gleam of Vail visionary Pete Seibert’s eye when he and local boy Earl Eaton visited the back side of what is now Vail Mountain one snowy day in March 1957.

Even before the Forest Service approved the project, however, the emptiness of Vail’s clams were evident. There was no provision for getting skiers across the Back Bowls when snow was absent. The ski company had apparently talked about downloading skiers across the rocky slopes, but that has never been done. There was no provision for snowmaking.

As is often the case, the arguments for and against the expansion were made in Denver. On Vail’s side were lawyers who commanded corner offices in the upper levels of downtown high-rises.

The most sturdy opponent was Rocky Smith, who works from Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in what I am guessing is a small apartment. He has served as a gadfly on public lands issues in Colorado for 25 years on behalf of a succession of lightly-funded environmental groups. He studies documents intently and barks his opinions freely about timber sales, ski area expansions, and whatever else.

Last March, I called him to pick his memory about the claims made on behalf of the ski area expansion.  “It was a ridiculous argument,” Smith said of the idea that the expansion would draw new skiers to Vail during early and late seasons. “They were saying that more people will come to Vail during times when they now don’t come? It was silly.”

Stripped of the claims, Vail’s real motivation was a familiar one, he said. The ski company wanted to brag about more more terrain, to keep up with the Jones—and it probably didn’t hurt them selling real estate. “Which was the whole point of the ski industry for a long time,” he added.

But it’s not just Vail, he went on to say. Every major ski area expansion usually gets puffed with arguments that don’t stand what he calls the smell test. He pointed to Telluride, and then brought up what was then still the proposed expansion of the Breckenridge ski area. (It was recently approved by the Forest Service).

On the face of it, Breckenridge would seem to have a much better case than Vail or Telluride. At least a decade ago, when I worked for the Forest Service briefly, Breckenridge had the highest density of any ski area on the White River National Forest, which includes 13 ski areas in whole or part. Several times it has led the nation in skier days. But Smith argued that congestion will remain in the places that matter: at the base.

Never any doubts

Whatever the arguments, the outcomes have been predictable. The big ski areas get their permits to expand. Ridiculous places, like Adam’s Rib did not. Crested Butte fell somewhere in the middle—and that, I believe, was because the local community was hotly divided. The Forest Service hates being in the middle of internecine warfare.

I am told that Vail has been making moves to improve the accessibility of its expansion area. Snowmaking may come at the base of Blue Sky Basin. There continues to be some talk about snowmaking in the Back Bowls. But so far, Blue Sky Basin has accomplished exactly nothing that was its chief justification.

This subterfuge isn’t in the same league as invading Iraq by putting together a flimsy case for of weapons of mass destruction. Yet it’s disturbing in its own way. The bigger picture is that the Forest Service is supposed to take the sober look at administration of its resources, not blowing easy with the winds. From what I understand of ski area economics, skiing is far more than real estate. I discount Smith’s argument there. But I don’t disagree that ski area expansions are very fundamentally like new boxes of detergent: bigger = better.

Few people at the Forest Service today were around 20 years ago. Ditto for Vail Resorts. Still, I can’t help wonder if anybody in either bureaucracy ever took note of the sales pitch vs. the reality.

This first appeared in the Sept. 12 issue of Mountain Town News. For a sample copy, e-mail me at allen.best@comcast.net. 

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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