In the trenches of trademark licenses
at Vail and Breckenridge
by Allen Best
Peter Runyon got to Vail in 1970 and worked for a time in the marketing department of the ski company then called Vail Associates. Later, he went out on his own, selling postcards that extolled the Vail skiing experience.
Vail already had a logo, a stylized V created by one of the original investors, but the company was so eager for promotion that it licensed his use of the “Vail” for just $1 a year. He also got license to use the name Beaver Creek when it opened in 1981 for just $1 a year.
He still does business with Vail Resorts, as the ski company is now called, but the rates have changed. Like other retailers who use the Vail logo on T-shirts, shot glasses and whatever else, he pays 10 percent of the wholesale cost of the items. Some separate components of Vail’s operations are also trademarked. Use the name BackBowls, for example, and it’s 10 percent of the product.
“Welcome to corporate America,” says Runyon.
Runyon, an Eagle County commissioner from 2004 to 2012, says the Vail Resorts of today is very different than the Vail Associates of his youth. It doesn’t necessarily sit well with many of his generation. Those who arrived early thought they were helping build the brand of Vail, the community and the ski area. The effort to wring profits from each little brand name “somehow just doesn’t sit as well as it might,” he says.
But there are limits. Runyon can produce a postcard with a photo of a skier and use the name Vail (but not the logo).
“I can’t imagine that they make enough money on this whole licensing to pay for all the attorneys and who knows what all to make it worth the headache, but that’s why I don’t own and run a corporation,” says Runyon.
He and other merchandisers have been paying attention to the efforts by Vail Resorts to assert control over the Park City brand, an effort rejected by locals.
In Summit County, somebody who works at the intersection of merchandise and the mountains describes a “tightening noose” as Vail attempts to snare revenue from use of all names associated with the ski area. Clearly, if somebody puts 12,988 feet, the top elevation of the Breckenridge ski area, on a T-shirt, Vail will seek revenue. The company has been trying to expand its authority over use of names. “They’re not gentlemen and scholars. They’re in this to make money,” this individual said.
But an important distinction in licensing is whether there’s a community independent of the mountain resort with an independent municipal government and a U.S. post office. Beaver Creek, for example, has neither. There, Vail Resorts has pervasive power over the resort name.
Ditto for Copper Mountain (owned by Powdr Corp.), even though Copper Mountain does have a post office.
Vail Resorts has become a giant of mountain tourism, and that bulk and muscle makes it a powerful ally for a local community. But, as Runyon puts it, that power is a two-edged sword.