GRAND JUNCTION — The welders are happy to show their boss the final piece of what’s been a two-year project. The massive steel structure is ready for shipping to finish off the multi-year construction of one of the largest gondolas in the country, stretching between two resort villages at California’s Palisades Tahoe ski area.
“Check it out. Almost done,” says a welder, tipping back his visor.
“Don’t worry,” says Daren Cole, the president of Grand Junction’s Leitner Poma of America, “we will keep you backed up for the next 12 months. Probably longer.”
The welders grin at the promise of year-round work.
“Make sure and put your initials somewhere on that,” says Cole.
A few years ago, as American ski areas settled into high-speed chairlifts, Cole’s Leitner Poma, which joins Austria’s Doppelmayr in the country’s duopoly of lift builders, started planning expansion into urban markets. Like gondolas to ballparks and trams up clogged canyons. But then demand for ski lifts came roaring back.
“The whole world is changing,” says Cole, who counts 2021 as his company’s busiest year. “And next year will be off the charts.”
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
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Between Leitner Poma and Doppelmayr, Cole estimates next year will see $300 million in new lifts installed at U.S. ski areas.
“That is phenomenal. So huge,” he says, strolling through his cavernous factory where Leitner Poma’s engineers and workers design and build the lifts that move skiers.
The boom in new chairlifts is a clear indication that the country’s ski resort industry is very healthy. Resort operators big and small are investing record amounts in new lifts. When European resorts cancelled new lift orders in March 2020 as the global pandemic stifled the economy, U.S. operators merely delayed their orders. And after the world’s first pandemic ski season barely impacted traffic — 2020-21 was the fifth busiest ski season ever for the U.S. — resort operators have bounced back with plans for new lifts to increase capacity.
Four-packs are being replaced with six-packs. Six-packs with eight-packs. Fixed-grip chairs are being replaced with faster detachable chairs.
“The lifts going in now are very large with lots of room and gondolas and bubbles and heated seats,” says Peter Landsman, whose 6-year-old LiftBlog.com tracks the U.S. resort industry’s lift infrastructure.
Landsman says the stall in lift orders following the shutdown in March 2020 “came at the absolute worst time for lift companies” that typically begin building chairlift bullwheels, terminals and towers in March.
“But now, very quickly, everybody starts wanting lifts,” says Landsman, whose day job entails supervising lift operations at Wyoming’s Jackson Hole ski area. “Used to be that resorts could call up their lift company in February, order a new lift, sign a deal in March and have it installed by November. I think those days are gone.”
Quick installs of multi-million dollar chairlifts are gone for the foreseeable future. Cole’s team is backed up into 2023.
Vail Resorts, the continent’s largest resort operator, added fuel to an already hot market this fall when it announced a $320 million capital investment plan that includes 21 new chairlifts at 14 resorts for the 2022-23 season.
Cole is under a nondisclosure agreement with the publicly traded Vail Resorts and can’t say exactly how many of those 21 new lifts his company would be building by next summer. He did say the owner of 37 ski resorts “did a pretty good job” of splitting that number evenly between Leitner Poma and Doppelmayr.
Leitner Poma is part of Italy’s High Technologies Industries Group, which includes the Leitner and Poma lift makers in Europe, which operate separately over there, as well Prinoth snow groomers, Demaclenko snowmaking systems and Leitwind wind turbines.
Leitner Poma has been in Grand Junction since the early 1980s, when it was just Poma. The coming years will be their busiest ever, Cole says.
Both Vail Resorts and its rival Alterra Mountain Co. have made record-setting investments in infrastructure, funneling hundreds of millions every year into resorts with a focus on improved chairlifts and snowmaking. The companies hope those upgrades entice skiers into buying passes — Vail Resorts’ Epic and Alterra’s Ikon — in the spring and summer months. That helps remove the financial instability of waiting for snow to make money. (Vail Resorts sold 2.1 million lift tickets and season passes before the lifts started turning this year.)
But even before Vail Resorts’ largest ever one-time investment in 21 new lifts, Leitner Poma was tracking toward a record year in 2021.
“It’s kind of amazing how much is being invested right now,” Cole says.
Alterra Mountain Co. invested $450 million in its 15 ski areas in the last two years. Leitner Poma is finishing up a two-year build for the $60 million base-to-base gondola connecting Alterra’s Palisades Tahoe and Alpine Meadows base areas. (Cole says the base-to-base project connecting the two villages “is the equivalent of six lifts.”)
Doppelmayr next year will begin a two-year build for Alterra’s new Wild Blue gondola at Steamboat, which will stretch more than three miles, making it the longest gondola in North America.
Even without Vail Resorts and Alterra, independent operators are replacing lifts at a record pace. James Coleman’s seven-resort Mountain Capital Partners is installing new lifts at his Nordic Valley, Brian Head and Snowbowl ski areas. The Holding family is planning more new lifts at their Snowbasin and Sun Valley ski areas. The private 3,000-acre Wasatch Peaks resort is planning nine new lifts, all built by Leitner Poma. The proposed Mayflower Mountain Resort outside Park City plans five lifts.
Only about 30% of the country’s chairlifts were built in the last 20 years, so “there are a lot of old lifts out there,” says Landsman, who keeps a database of all 2,146 lifts spinning in the U.S.
It’s not just old lifts being replaced but first-generation detachable chairs that are too small to handle increased traffic from skiers with Epic, Ikon and other multi-mountain passes.
“It’s not that those are unusable or they have to be replaced,” Landsman says. “But a high-speed quad installed in the 1990s could be a six, or eight-person chair to move even more people up the hill.”
As the resort industry stutter-stepped in the spring of 2020, with delayed expansions and stalled investment, James Coleman doubled down.
“I think we may have been the largest lift builder in the world in 2020. That’s pretty wild to think about,” says Coleman, whose Mountain Capital Partners owns Durango’s Purgatory and Hesperus ski areas, as well as five other resorts in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. “I am aggressive, I push and I’m a big contrarian. So we built when everybody else quit.”
Coleman predicted, correctly, that more people would flock to the outdoors during the pandemic so he upped his order with Leitner Poma to not just install a new gondola at his Arizona Snowbowl, but a new six-pack at Utah’s Nordic Valley. He’s got big plans for expanding his most recent acquisition, Brian Head ski area in southern Utah.
“I felt very good about how things were going with outdoor recreation … so we moved forward and it paid off,” he says.
Cole, like Coleman, is bullish on Utah. SkyTrac, the Utah-based manufacturer of fixed-grip lifts that Leitner Poma acquired in 2016, also had a record year for lift sales in 2021. Cole has about 120 workers in the Grand Junction headquarters and factory and another 70 at its SkyTrac factory in Salt Lake City.
Leitner Poma recently hired Onno Wieringa, the veteran general manager from Utah’s Alta ski area, to shepherd the company’s proposal to run a gondola up the perpetually clogged Little Cottonwood Canyon. Leitner Poma also will be building all the lifts at the new Wasatch Peaks Ranch, a private residential resort which plans nine ski lifts, including two the company installed this fall. And it’s lining up to build more new chairs for Park City Mountain Resort, Alta and Snowbasin, where it just finished installing a new six-pack chair.
Leitner Poma also is planning a new $30 million factory for SkyTrac in Utah, which will increase Leitner Poma’s production as well.
“We are really expanding our presence in Utah,” Cole says.
The company is still pushing urban transportation plans. Leitner Poma is pitching their aerial gondola cars as “the ultimate electric vehicle,” and are working with groups in Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Oakland on possible gondolas in heavily trafficked downtown areas. The company’s new ConnX system combines the company’s decades of experience with gondolas with autonomous, driverless systems, like the company’s cable-driven trains at airports in Miami, Minneapolis, Detroit, Zurich and Cairo.
Cole says once Leitner Poma builds an aerial transportation system in an urban environment, the benefits will be obvious and other cities will quickly follow.
“When you start to compare roads and rail versus aerial, it becomes pretty obvious which works best with fewer impacts,” he says.
One of the biggest challenges Cole is facing is spiking prices of raw steel and getting materials from overseas. In November, steel prices were up 140% over the same month last year.
“The raw material costs have just been insane,” Cole says.
And Cole is struggling to find workers, just like his resort clients. He’s got about 20 positions open, from welders to front-office.
Cole is planning to bring in lift-installing workers from Australia, New Zealand and Europe to help with the crush of lift installations in the next couple years. His teams at both Leitner Poma and SkyTrac can typically handle five to eight installations a year and there could be as many as 20 a year in the coming years. (They don’t always install the lifts they build. Wasatch Peaks resort, for example, is handing its own install.)
“Our two biggest challenges right now are being able to hire the right people and the supply chain for raw materials,” he says.
Landsman sees the labor crunch as part of the reason resorts are replacing chairlifts. If a high-capacity detachable chairlift can replace three fixed-grip chairs, that can reduce the need for lift workers.
“I think labor is a driver of all this. Used to be when you needed more capacity you would put in more double chairs next to your old double chair. But it used to be easy to find employees too,” he says. “Now you can replace multiple lifts that require six or more people with one lift that requires three people. For resorts in the Rockies, that means three fewer employee beds. Which is a big deal.”