Skip to contents
Outdoors

Three Colorado ski resort pioneers talk about the industry’s roots, ski pass wars and how to deal with crowds

Andy Daly, Bill Kane and John Norton, three Colorado ski resort veterans, talk about the future of the industry

  • Credibility:
From left: John Norton, Andy Daly and Bill Kane share more than 135 years of experience leading the operations, planning and development of Colorado ski resorts. The trio gathered recently to ski a few laps at the private Cimarron Mountain Club. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

CIMARRON — Andy Daly, Bill Kane and John Norton have more than 130 years combined experience leading, planning and marketing skiing and resort communities in Colorado. 

The trio are helping the investors behind the Cimarron Mountain Club hone a one-of-a-kind, powder-protecting community for 13 high net worth members and recently gathered for a few laps in the project’s 1,750 acres of snowcat-accessed terrain near Montrose.

Meet the three resort captains and read how they answered a few questions as we rumbled through old-growth forest in the shadow of the toothy Cimarron Range. Call it a Chat in the Cat. 

Andy Daly has a rich resume for a ski bum who came to Colorado for a working holiday and never left. Moving from his home in Massachusetts, he took a temporary job as a ski patroller at Aspen Highlands in 1970.

Andy Daly started as a ski patroller at Aspen Highlands before running both Copper Mountain and Vail Associates as well as serving two terms as Vail mayor. He is now co-owner of Powderhorn ski area. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

The next season he was a full-time patroller. Then he moved to Copper Mountain, where he was patrol director, mountain manager, head of operations and, by 1982, president and CEO. Then he opened Lake Eldora Mountain Resort in 1987. He ran Beaver Creek, Eldora and Ski Broadmoor in Colorado Springs in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He served as president of Vail Associates, which became Vail Resorts, for most of the 1990s. He’s served two terms as Vail mayor. He’s closing in on a decade as co-owner of Powderhorn ski area up on the Grand Mesa. He’s advised and consulted on dozens of projects. He’s served on just as many boards and councils. And he’s won just about every honor the ski industry can bestow. 

Bill Kane worked as a planner for Aspen-Pitkin County, head of development for Aspen Skiing Co. and Basalt’s town manager. He is running for mayor of Basalt this year. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

While at Aspen Highlands, Daly met Bill Kane, a kid from Pennsylvania who was on the mountain’s boot-packing crew, which, to this day, stomps through early-season snow to compact the snowpack and reduce avalanche hazards. He and Kane have been best pals for 50 years now. And Kane’s resume is equally deep, with stints as Aspen-Pitkin County planner in the 1970s, when the Roaring Fork Valley wrestled with exploding growth and head of development for Aspen Skiing Co. He also helped sculpt major ski resort projects across the world with the Design Workshop. He’s worked as town manager for Basalt and is now running for Basalt mayor.

John Norton took a more wandering path into the ski industry, leading marketing efforts at Procter & Gamble, Anheuser-Busch, Ralston Purina and PepsiCo before heading marketing and sales at Crested Butte Mountain Resorts in the 1980s. He spent more than a decade with Aspen Skiing Co. and returned to run Crested Butte ski area in 2002. Today he has his own consulting firm and is longtime head of the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association, which last year became the Tourism and Prosperity Partnership as a vehicle to not just promote year-round tourism in the Gunnison Valley but help grow a sustainable tourism and recreational economy in the valley. 

The following is a question and answer with Daly, Kane and Norton. It has been edited for length and clarity.


Read more skiing stories from The Colorado Sun

The Colorado Sun: What’s the most innovative development you’ve seen in skiing over your years in the business? 

Bill Kane: In 1985 (Vail Associates owner) George Gillett opened three detachable quad chairs .. it took an industry standard from a 1,200 person-per-hour double chairlift that would move at 450 feet per minute and now all of a sudden we had four of these things carrying four passengers and it was going 1,000 feet per minute. It rocked the ski world. People were stunned. But it also set off an arms race with ski areas trying to outspend one another to compete. It also transformed whole forms of recreation, with villages and amenities packages … People suddenly had all this extra time on their hands because they were skiing 15,000 vertical feet in three hours … so resorts had to offer more and greater recreational diversity. It was a quantum change, and the industry changed forever after that move by George.

Here’s how the formula works. People sleep for eight hours a day. They ski for six hours a day. And then the definer for the ski-vacation choice is the 10 discretionary hours they have. What the hell do resorts have to offer? Used to be back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, people made their choice based on numbers of lifts and acres of terrain, and suddenly, with high-speed chairs, it was about “What do you have for our kids to do?” and “Do you have a recreation center? An aquatic center?” It forced the industry to get vertically integrated. The big resorts had the responsibility for the whole vacation experience rather than “We’ll get you to the lift and give you a great ski experience and then we’ll send you off at 3 in the afternoon.” Now it was about giving people stuff to do all day and all night.

Andy Daly: I think it was four chairs in 1985. Vistabahn, 3, 4 and 11. Such a  dramatic impact on skiing for Baby Boomers, who suddenly had lots of extra time after skiing. 

Here are some other developments. Let’s start with snow grooming. When I started with Aspen Highlands we did a bunch of ski packing and then you had a Tucker Sno-Cat with a big roller behind it and that was a big difference from the old antique rollers they used at Winter Park … those death-trap Bradley Packers, named after Steve Bradley. Grooming has dramatically changed the ski experience, but it’s also changed the ratios relative to comfortable carrying capacity, (which combines lift capacity, terrain and acreage in a formula to determine how many people a ski area can accommodate without overcrowding). With grooming and shaped skis, you have people skiing faster, and when you have people skiing faster you need fewer people per acre under the old formula. So you can put more people on the same number of acres, and for older skiers, that can be a real a negative as their concern over injuries grows. 

But probably the most innovative thing in recent years is the Epic Pass technology that is being used by Vail Resorts. They have done a masterful job of giving information to the skier with the whole Epic Mix experience. You can share that easily and you can compete with your buddies about how much vertical you are doing. The most masterful part is how they track your buying and use patterns on the  mountain so they can promote to you and keep you informed based on what’s going on.

Andy Daly, left, met Bill Kane in 1971 when the two worked at Aspen Highlands. The two Colorado ski industry veterans have been best pals ever since. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Sun: I’ve heard that Vail Resorts has one of the world’s largest, most robust lists of high-wealth people and their buying patterns. 

Daly: Yeah, because they are tracking people in such a high volume sport and it basically takes $100,000 or more a year to be a regular skier. I think they’ve done an outstanding job with that. How is that going to change the industry? We will see. They are very good at using their data to customize products to us individually.

John Norton: In my mind, the greatest innovation is the ski technology with the wider skis and the shaped skis for all conditions. The Ikon and Epic passes are fine if you are already in love with the sport and the high-speed lifts are wonderful if you are already in love with the sport. But the ski itself and new ski technology have been so important for keeping people in the game longer and making the introduction of skiing to new people that much easier and more productive. 

Sun: So why-oh-why did the ski world take so long to come up with new technology? We spent 30-plus years jumping up and down on 210s to maneuver through steep snow. 

Norton: It’s the same as the big tennis racquet, and it’s the same as the big (golf club) driver. Both those innovations were aimed at the intermediate to make the sport more enjoyable and the professionals, once they saw that new technology, they embraced it. It’s the same with the shaped skis. Remember when Bode Miller started winning championships skiing on stock K2 4s, which were among the very first shaped skis. 

Skier Conor Crowley heads down a run at Big Sky resort in Montana. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Sun: What’s the most exciting thing you are seeing in the industry right now? 

Kane: I’m just encouraged and excited about how this next generation is taking to backcountry skiing because I think the future of environmental protection and education is about getting people to appreciate the natural environment. And when I see more people picking up those backcountry interests and skills, I see them developing a deeper respect for the mountains and how special the ski experience really is. It’s gratifying to see. It’s heartening. It’s not about technology and whiz-bang. I think our future relies on fostering a deeper interest in the mountains and the special environments we live in. I’m just really gratified to see young people picking up fat boards and skinning and exploring our wildest, snowiest treasures. It’s just spectacular.

Norton: Skiing has never been more affordable for active skiers. Between the Ikon Pass and Epic Pass everyone can ski a whole bunch of really good mountains for a single set price. That is just fantastic.

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Existing members, click here to learn how to upgrade)

Sun: One for Andy. Share an interesting piece of advice you were given by a mentor that has helped guide your career as a resort operator. 

Daly: Chuck Lewis, (the founder of Copper Mountain,) always said you have your skiing revenue stream and you have your real estate revenue stream and you never mix the streams.

Sun: And those who mixed those streams got in trouble. 

Daly: Look at Joe Houssian, (the founder of the now-gone Intrawest.) Look at Les Otten, (the founder of the now-gone American Skiing Co.) There are more. There are plenty of examples of guys with real estate backgrounds who go into resort development thinking they are going to support the skiing with the real estate profits, or support the real estate with ski profits. And that has proven not to work. Especially for publicly-traded companies. Back when I was with Vail, we really didn’t like having to report declines in real estate sales because we didn’t have any inventory or sales that quarter. Relying on real estate sales provided for inconsistency in earnings, and when you are a public company that inconsistency is a real drag on stock value and growth.

Sun: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the industry now? 

Kane: I think the ski industry is going to have to deal with population growth and the growth of the sport. And I think the industry is going to have to think about an extremely unpopular topic: I think the industry is going to have to think about limited ticket sales and a reservation system.

Fom left: Andy Daly, John Norton and Bill Kane prepare to ski “True Grit” at the Cimarron Mountain Club, led by guide and mountain manager Kris Noel. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Sun: Bill with a bomb. Whoa. 

Kane: Deer Valley does it now and … yes, it’s a hard pill to swallow. But at some point the quality of experience is going to get overwhelmed with the sheer numbers. Maybe there are other fixes, but I think that’s what’s coming.

Daly: The challenging issues continue to be about bringing new skiers into the sport. We are learning more and more about it, but it’s a big challenge. We are getting some millennial families, but not a lot; we are seeing that they ski half the rate of the boomers. But we are going to need twice as many of them to keep the skier days up.

Norton: I think it’s millennial engagement. Skiing is not getting any cheaper, and ski areas are not necessarily getting any better. We are peak quality skiing and as affordable as we are going to be. So how do we drive that millennial engagement? It has more to do with just the ski product and more than just the price. I think it’s the scene and the vibe. But I’m not a millennial and I could have it completely wrong.

Sun: Who do you see winning on that front with the younger generations?

Norton: I don’t think there’s any question that Crested Butte has a strong attraction for millennials. Some of the smaller Canadian places, like Whitewater, I think are probably in there. Red Mountain, too. Arapahoe Basin with its own scene. From what I can tell, what millennials like is not necessarily what their boomer parents like, and resort operators will need to be mindful of that as they develop.

The Colorado Sun has no paywall, meaning readers do not have to pay to access stories. We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable.

This reporting depends on support from readers like you. For just $5/month, you can invest in an informed community.