Jackson Hole ski area punches above its weight on its 50th birthday
Successes and problems in paradise
From the February 16, 2016, issue of Mountain Town News
by Allen Best
JACKSON, Wyo. – Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has a healthy vertical drop of 4,139 feet and views second to none, the same as when the resort opened 50 years ago this winter. But only in recent years has Jackson Hole emerged atop the rankings of ski areas, including the No. 1 pick of ski areas by Forbes Magazine.
Greater airline access, improved base-area lodging, and expansion of intermediate and advanced terrain have all elevated the resort. The net effect has been to give Jackson Hole, the valley where the ski area is located, a more balanced economy, adding bulk to winter to more closely mimic the frantic busyness generated by visitors to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
Business volume grew 3.7 percent during winter months from 2013 to 2015, reports Jeff Golightly, director of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, compared to 1 percent during summer—although, he points out, both are dwarfed by the 10 percent growth during spring and fall.
Economic growth is startling: a 65 percent increase in the last decade, well more than the standard cost-of-living adjustments, points out Golightly. But this prosperity has also added tension to Teton County’s perennial question about how much is too much. Two-lane highways sometimes groan with congealed bumper-to-bumper traffic. Rents continue to soar. Last July, for example, a 294-unit apartment complex announced a rent increase for a two-bedroom unit from $1,250 per month to $1,800. Paradise has its problems.
The key figures in this renaissance at Jackson Hole arrived in the 1990s. First came the Kemmerer family. Mahlon S. Kemmerer made a fortune in coal and iron in Pennsylvania and West Virginia before diversifying to Wyoming in the late 19th century. A town 160 miles to the southwest of Jackson bears the family name, as does a coal mine still operating near that town.
The current elders in the Kemmerer family grew up at Chatham, N.J., in the exurbs of New York City, but spent summers in Wyoming. They sold their coal assets in 1981 to Gulf Oil. Unable to find a large ranch in Wyoming to suit them, they instead bought Jackson Hole in 1992. The active agent for the family, although mostly working “in the weeds,” as he told one interviewer, is John “Jay” Kemmerer III, who lives in Jackson Hole, as does one sister, Connie. Another sister, Betty, lives at Sun Valley.
Jay Kemmerer and his siblings have invested up to $175 million in the resort, much of it in recent years. “The family has never taken anything out of the resort,” says “brand director” Anna Cole, the resort company spokeswoman. “Every profit they have made they have reinvested into the resort.”
Jerry Blann, the other key figure at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, arrived in 1994. He capped an 18-year run at Aspen as chief executive of Aspen Skiing Co. from 1984 to 1988. Later, following stints at California’s Big Bear, then Catamount, near Steamboat Springs, he was recruited by Kemmerer.
Both men attended the University of Denver, graduating in 1970. Blann was a three-time All-American skier on a DU ski team that won national championships in three of his four years. Kemmerer hung out with DU’s hockey players, who were also busy racking up national titles. Counterintuitive for two students who both earned bachelor degrees from DU in 1970, they don’t recall meeting.
The Kemmerer-Blann collaboration has produced some flashy changes, like the replacement of the base-to-summit tram. Others have been more foundational, like the resort sales tax that has funded transportation from Teton Village, as the base area is called, and enabled a matrix of activities.
Four Season started makeover
The first most tangible upgrade occurred with the December 2003 opening of the Four Seasons Resort. The 158-room hotel ratcheted up the service level, with a corresponding need for more employees. It has been followed by Teton Mountain Lodge, Hotel Terra, and other high-end lodging.
Improved air access has been another key. In Jackson Hole, 75 percent of business comes from destination guests. The larger volume occurs during summer. Flights have nearly doubled since 1990, with most of that increase occurring during winter. The volume has been primed by revenue guarantees offered by the Jackson Hole Air Improvement Resources, which provides the funding platform with contributions from local businesses, including the ski company, and small appropriations from the town, county, and state governments. According to one published report in 2013, only 20 percent of winter flights get revenue guarantees. No revenue guarantees are offered for summer flights.
Service continues to expand. Jackson Hole this winter has 13 non-stop flights from various cities around the country, the most of any ski resort airport (if you exclude Reno). Total passenger capacity this winter will end up 10 to 20 percent more than last winter, reports Kari Cooper, executive director of Jackson Hole AIR.
Uphill capacity on the ski mountain has been improved. This is where the deep pockets of the Kemmerer family have been most evident. The tram, originally opened in 1966, was shut down in 2006. A replacement that cost $32 million opened in late 2008. It carries 100 passengers from bottom to top in 9 minutes. It has the longest continual vertical rise of any lift in the United States, covering 4,139 vertical feet.
Bob McLaurin, town administrator of Jackson, the iconic “Western” town located 10 miles away from the ski resort, says this investment by the Kemmerer family impressed him, particularly after his years in Vail, a time when the ski company was corporately owned (as it still is).
“You had great guys—you had Bill Jensen, Andy Daly and Chris Ryman—but it was all driven by shareholder value,” he says of Vail Resorts. “I don’t think there’s another ski company in America that would have replaced that tram, just given the economics. It doesn’t have that much capacity. Other companies would have replaced it with other alternative chairlifts to get the top.”
More intermediate terrain
The Kemmerer family has also invested in other lifts, including the Teton Lift, which debuted in December, delivering riders to more terrain, both expert and intermediate. “Sorry, guys, it’s too important,” Blann said in the opening ceremony just before Christmas that was covered by the News&Guide. The newspaper reported Blann’s mock apology to the “old dogs,” who have been forced to surrender their stashes to the lift-serviced guests. “We had to open it up to everybody.” said Blann.
Jackson Hole is still tilted heavily toward expert terrain, but now there’s room for intermediate skiers—the money bucket for every major destination resort company.
“Everybody in the ski industry knows that,” says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. “Jackson Hole realized that if they were going to change the game for themselves, they had to do a few things. One of them was they had to figure out a way to replace the aging tram, and they needed to improve their other uphill transportation, and they needed to increase the amount of intermediate terrain.”
The push for access to intermediate terrain hasn’t ended. A new gondola is being planned, at a cost of $10 million to $12 million, and it will service the intermediate terrain that has been created in the last five years. The gondola will also make beginner and ski school terrain more accessible.
In remarks with the News&Guide last June, Blann also credited front-line workers. “We get more return folks—clearly patrol, clearly a lot of ski school folks, but even in the depths of lifties. It makes a difference. People are truly engaged in this place.” Employees, the newspaper noted, are counseled to “be humble and do things well.”
Metrics of success
Success can be measured in several ways. Adam Sutner, the chief marketing officer, who not long ago was serving in the same capacity for Vail Resorts, points to something called the Net Promoter Score, a Fortune 100 metric of guest satisfaction.
“It measures the percentage of people out of 100 who would recommend your product or service with a 9 or 10 on a 1 to 10 scale,” he told the News&Guide last June. “We have moved, with our very best performance last year, into the top 10 nationally of all ski resorts.”
A high score translates into repeat visitations and loyal customers but also invaluable word-of-mouth advertising, he said.
A simpler metric of success is in skier days. (One skier or snowboarder for one day is one visit). Jackson Hole’s numbers have been rising and last year stood at 547,000, the second largest total ever, despite marginal snow.
It took years for Jackson Hole to get to 500,000, but growth since the recession has been rapid, says Cole, the resort spokeswoman. While the resort could accommodate 700,000, Jackson Hole will be content to reach 600,000 or, perhaps 650,000 skier days.
“That is the discussion that is happening: What does 650,000 look like, and how does that fit with the guest experiences?” says Cole.
In his interview with the News&Guide last June, Blann talked about the “difference between Jackson Hole and the pure vanilla resorts” that it competes against. “In our research we ask people what are the resorts that they consider visiting. And it’s the ones all (with) over one million ski visits. So we’re the small guys. We like to think we fight above our weight, and we do it in many categories.”
Teton Village, the base area, has also been changing, with diversifying attractions (although still no grocery store).
It’s not strictly a creature of the ski company, although Blann is extensively involved in Teton Village affairs. For example, he lobbied the Wyoming Legislature for a number of years to get the authority to levy a 2 percent tax. This tax funds the Teton Village Resort District, which was founded in 2004. The district has helped to construct the Village Commons, the snow-melted walkways, signs, and other improvements.
The other, interrelated district is the property tax-funded Teton Village Association, which provides stormwater drainage, roads, snow removal, and other municipal-like functions in commercial areas of Teton Village. It is directed by Melissa Turley, a former Jackson town councilor and Teton County commissioner.
For Teton Village, says Turley, the greatest challenge is the absence of public policy tools available to municipalities, even though it operates otherwise much like a small, municipal government. Even without the full tool kit, she points to some success in offsetting impacts to local transportation. Traffic growth on Highway 390, leading to Teton Village, has been next to zero since 2000, a result partly of efforts to provide transit.
In the valley’s lone municipality, Jackson Councilor Jim Stanford sees the emergence of Teton Village as a year-round resort as one of the greatest changes in the last 20 years. “Twenty years ago it was a ghost town in summer, and today it has become much more of a year-round resort,” says Stanford.
Need for high-end lodging?
Will Teton Village supplant the town of Jackson as a destination? Stanford says that’s been a long-standing fear in the town, located 10 miles from Teton Village. He says he doesn’t necessarily share it. Jackson remains an attraction that Teton Village is not.
“To me, town is where the character is. Most visitors, when they come to a place, they want to see where the locals hang out, the cafes and the energy of the community.”
As a river guide, though, he does come across visitors who can spend their entire week at Teton Village, never visiting Jackson.
But the rise of Teton Village has fueled the argument in Jackson that the town needs more high-end lodging, to better attract the high-end customer drawn to Teton Village. Stanford doesn’t buy it. More high-end hotels, says Stanford, will need more worker housing, creating a deeper hole for local governments. Already, there are demands to local governments to solve the problem now—if not sooner. Teton Village, he says, needs to pull more of its weight in housing and transit—something Turley suggests is already happening.
Jackson Hole’s warts may stand out most during its season of greatest splendor. Last July, there were several monster traffic jams in the valley that had the community yapping about the crowded state of paradise. Record summer business at the national parks probably explained some of the crowding, but Teton County has been on a post-recession roll.
Golightly, of the chamber of commerce, acknowledges the problems that have had tongues yapping. One time last summer, traffic between the turnoff to Teton Village backed up all the way through Jackson, the town, a distance of 10 miles. But he does see a more balanced economy being good.
“We used to have very pronounced troughs in the fall and spring, and there was a significant drop from summer to winter,” he says. “So it was hard to build infrastructure to the size needed to sustain to the peak of summer. It was also very challenging for employers and employees alike to be able to sustain. It requires a lot of hiring and retraining.”
The growth of winter tourism, he says, still doesn’t approach that of summer, “but it’s close enough that we can keep employees.” If the trough of spring and winter can now be filled, the economy of Teton County will be closer to flat, says Golightly—and a direct contrast to the nearly vertical pitch of Grand Teton, the mountain that defines the valley.