The latest trend in skiing and snowboarding isn't about equipment or apparel. It's about mergers and acquisitions.
Ski resorts have long been evolving from locally owned, sometimes-iconoclastic destinations into corporate ski/ride empires looking to provide a dependable experience for visitors across the continent, from Vermont to California. And guaranteed snow, somewhere. Over the past two years, the companies that own Colorado's Vail and Aspen have pursued a snowball strategy--rolling up ski resorts across the country to capture as many customers as possible.
"It's becoming a Coke and Pepsi world, so it's a little challenging," says Jay Kemmerer, whose family has owned Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (JHMR), in Wyoming, since 1991.
But Kemmerer is one of the entrepreneurs who are betting against the trend. He believes delivering a unique experience and a high level of service--not to mention a history of consistent snow--will be enough to keep customers from being swayed by all-you-can-eat offerings from the corporate resorts.
Publicly traded Vail Resorts took control of 17 ski areas in 2019, which now gives it ownership of 37 destinations in North America. That's a response to Alterra Mountain Corp., formed in 2018, when Denver's KSL Capital Partners, owners of Squaw Valley/ Alpine Meadows, and Henry Crown and Co., which controls Aspen and Snowmass through a company called SkiCo., jointly purchased Intrawest, Mammoth Resorts, and Deer Valley Resort. This bank shot combination put Alterra in control of 14 resorts, from Sugarbush in Vermont to Winter Park in Colorado to Bear Mountain in California.
All this dealmaking leaves JHMR and its neighbor, Grand Targhee, to fend for themselves against these ski industry yetis. Jackson Hole, located on the eastern slope of the Teton Mountains, is an area known for what are called steep and deep conditions--more than 42 feet of snow fell in the 2018-19 season.
"It's nice to be independent. I just run the railroad here, keep my nose down, and do what's right for this mountain," says Kemmerer.
Grand Targhee, which sits on the western, upwind slopes, is another snow catcher. It's owned by serial entrepreneur George Gillett and family. He, too, shows no intention of joining the acquisition party (although he also owns Sierra at Tahoe).
Abundant snowfall across the country in the 2018-19 season drove skier visits to 59.3 million, an 11 percent increase over the prior season, according to the National Ski Areas Association. But most operators forecast a zero-sum industry; growth peaked at 60.5 million skier/rider visits in 2010-11. That's a function of demographics and consumer behaviors: Millennials are more likely to play video games than be out on the snow. So to keep growing, and keep shareholders happy, companies such as Vail are casting a wider net. Vail has also bought resorts in Australia and will likely buy in Europe.
The rollup strategy is also a climate change play. By owning geographically dispersed resorts, the big ski companies are hedging their snow risk. They offer all-you-can-eat annual passes--this season, $989 for Vail's Epic pass, $1,049 for Alterra's Ikon--that come with nearly unlimited access to most of their respective owned or allied resorts. In Alterra's case that's 41 destinations. It's a cruise-ship approach, only they sell the skiing and riding at a discount hoping to make it up on food and beverage and lodging. That puts the skiers in play. "It makes them all snow chasers," says Mary Kate Buckley, JHMR's president. "They can gravitate to where the snow is."
That doesn't always sit well with the locals, who are a bit territorial when it comes to powder, and they hate long lift lines. But it keeps the destination customers within the corporate moat. Independents can play the game, too, but they don't want to rely on it. Jackson Hole, for instance, is part of a cooperative called Mountain Collection that offers a more limited, cafeteria-like approach to skiers and riders.
For independents JHMR and Grand Targhee, the strategy is to let the mountain capture the customers and hang on to them.
"We go to market saying, 'We're Jackson Hole and here the experience is unique: The snow, the level of guest service. We don't have to have that massive, one-size-fits-all,'" says Buckley.
The Kemmerers have resided in Wyoming since the late 19th century, when Mahlon S. Kemmerer invested in a coal mining company near the town that still bears his name. But in 1981, his grandson Jay sold the business to Gulf Oil. The timing was near perfect, as the value of coal assets was peaking. Jay Kemmerer made other investments over the next decade, but kept looking for an opportunity in Wyoming.
"We have a long history here. We love Wyoming and just wanted to reengage," he says.
In buying JHMR from the co-founders, the Kemmerers took their money out of a hole in the ground and piled it atop a mountain.
"It was kind of a broken-down asset that needed stewardship," Kemmerer says. He's since put more than $175 million worth of stewardship into it.
The Gilletts have been in the ski business even longer. George Gillett, who got his start in meatpacking and then media properties, once owned Vail outright. He lost control of the resort in the junk-bond crash of the early 1990s but quickly got back in the ski game.
Gillett calls himself a snow farmer. "We have two partners," he says. "The guest and God."
Although for Gillett, the guest is God. At Vail, he famously overhauled customer service from top to bottom, making it the nation's top ski destination and himself a local legend. At Targhee, now run by his son, the same focus prevails.
"We are family, we're having fun at this: We are out there on the mountain, and we know enough people in town that they tell us when things are getting busy or tight or dangerous," says Gillett.
That sounds a bit quaint in the era of the mega-resort companies that can harness scale to lower the costs of everything from uniforms to snow groomers. But ski industry consultant Dave Belin, of RRC Associates in Boulder, Colorado, says independents like JHMR and Targhee may already be benefitting from a spillover of skiers turned off by crowding or conformity at the corporate resorts.
"There is an opportunity for them to get some differentiation from the larger mountains," Belin says. JHMR and Targhee demonstrate how smaller players carve out defensible positions against bigger competitors. They've cultivated their uniqueness as authentic western ski resorts in the midst of the ersatz Austrian villages some of the others present. And they've kept plowing money into everything from ski lifts to parking to stay competitive in the arms race on the mountain.
Better yet, the snow is once again piling up in the Tetons--25 to 30 feet by mid-February. Meaning there's less of a reason for customers to chase it anywhere else.