Vail Resorts announced its summer plans at its major resorts last week and one thing was conspicuously absent. Ziplining and canopy tours, once the foundation of an industry-wide expansion of summer amenities, have been dropped from the resort operator’s offerings at Vail and Breckenridge, apparently a victim of the labor crisis strangling ski areas.
Company representatives said individual resorts may revive ziplines this summer if they can hire enough staff. Across Colorado’s resort landscape, a surge in the development of summer trails, ziplines and alpine slides has slowed. The recent labor crisis is seeing most every business in the tourism and service industries trim labor-intensive offerings. And few amenities demand more labor than ziplines.
“I think zip lines can be tricky for employers because they require a higher skill level and more training,” said Thaddeus Schrader, whose Grand Junction-based Bonsai Design built Vail Resorts zipline courses and trained employees at the company’s Vail, Breckenridge, Park City and Heavenly resorts. “If a company is expecting to source only 60% or 70% of its staff that it used to get with no problems, resorts are probably taking a hard look at operational costs and … I guess ziplines are not making the cut.”
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
Not all resorts are suspending ziplines. Telluride and Arapahoe Basin will continue their canopy tours this summer. Aspen Skiing’s canopy tour at Snowmass, which was built by Bonsai, is typically booked all summer long.
The canopy tours at Snowmass are “super popular,” said Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle. “It is labor intensive and it can be an operational challenge but we are happy with it and our guests are happy with it and we will continue it.”
Bonsai, which has installed about 70 zipline courses across the country, is building a new zipline tour at Crystal Mountain in Washington state, which is owned Alterra Mountain Co. Even with a slowdown in installations at ski resorts, Schrader said resorts are still shopping for ziplines.
“The industry has seen the writing on the wall and that they are not just ski resorts but mountain destinations and summer is an important part of that year-round appeal,” Schrader said.
Vail Resorts leads the resort industry with its investment in off-season attractions and year-round business strategies. The company’s Epic Discovery plan launched in 2015 with a $25 million investment in mountain coasters, ziplines, canopy tours and trails at Vail and Breckenridge as well Heavenly at California’s Lake Tahoe and eventually Utah’s Park City Mountain Resort. A company spokeswoman said Heavenly and Park City are planning to offer ziplining this summer, but have not finalized plans or begun taking reservations.
Each resort weighs “operational considerations” when lining up summer activities, said company spokeswoman Sara Olson.
“Those considerations include staffing, employee and guest safety and expected guest demand and can be different resort by resort,” she said. ‘In general, we are excited by how much more our resorts will have to offer this summer as the dynamics around the pandemic improve.”
The company’s summer operations for 2022 are similar to activities offered last year and in 2020, when ziplines did not open at most Vail Resorts ski areas. (This year, the company is replacing the Game Creek Express chair lift, which would impact zipline activities in the bowl.)
The summer investment in 2015 sparked a nationwide investment in summer recreation at resorts on federal land. The summertime swing into developing year-round playgrounds stemmed from the 2011 Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, which gave the Forest Service more leeway when approving projects at resorts that were originally built to host only skiers.
The idea was to drive more year-round business in resort communities. The legislation saw ski areas funneling investment into alpine slides, canopy tours, trails and events. It worked. Summer is as busy as ever in ski towns.
The investment helped Vail Resorts stem losses in the summer months, when it always loses money. All ski resorts lose money in the summer. New trails, ziplines and other summer development intend to slow that financial bleeding.
That first year of increased summer operations, from May through October 2015, Vail Resorts reported a loss in earnings from mountain operations of $99.5 million. (Vail Resorts in 2015 owned nine ski areas in Colorado, California and Australia back then, not including two urban ski hills in Minnesota and Michigan.)
The company’s May through October earnings reports in 2015 included $32.1 million in sales of season passes and paying employees $98 million. In the same six months of 2019, Vail Resorts — which by then had 37 ski areas — reported losing $145.3 million from mountain operations, which included the company taking in $76 million from season pass sales and paying employees $182.1 million.
So labor costs for Vail Resorts in the summer months climbed 86% from 2015 to 2019 and the company’s losses grew 46% as its portfolio of resorts more than quadrupled. (The company does not break out summer resort revenues and it did not spotlight fourth quarter performance for 2020 and 2021, telling investors that resort closures during the pandemic restricted operations.)
An injury, a lawsuit and a death
Vail Resorts’ record with ziplines is not perfect. The company’s Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont suspended its canopy tours in September last year when an employee was killed on the mountain’s zipline. The Vermont Department of Labor and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration are investigating that accident and a final report is pending.
In 2020, a U.S. District Court judge in Denver dismissed a lawsuit from a woman who was injured on a zipline in 2017 in Vail ski area’s Game Creek Bowl. Lisa Cowles sued both Vail Resorts and Bonsai Designs for negligence when she crashed into a tower, but the judge, William Martinez, dismissed her claim, citing liability waivers she signed before joining the tour.
The Colorado Division of Oil and Public Safety regulates zipline operators, along with all the state’s amusement parks. The division requires third-party inspections of ziplines every year. In 2012 the division issued permits to 14 commercial zipline operators. The number of permitted operators grew to 27 in 2019 and is at 22 in 2022. The division has investigated 17 injuries on permitted ziplines since 2012, resulting in four fines.
Several of those injuries — which are not detailed in state reports — involved ziplines operated by rafting companies and four were at ski resorts.
Ziplines are exceptionally labor intensive, with specially trained guides located on towers between long stretches of cable. In the summer, regular thunderstorms and lightning force guests to descend from towers, take shuttles to lodges to wait and then shuttle back to the towers when storms pass, a process that requires even more workers.
The Forest Service in Colorado has seen a slowdown in resorts proposing new summer development in recent years. Don Dressler, who manages the agency’s mountain resort program for its Rocky Mountain Region, said the pause in summer planning is connected to reined-in spending during the pandemic, but he’s hearing from resorts grappling with other challenges that include supply-chain issues and hiring troubles.
“I think the early adopters of summer activities are here to stay while others are still focused on trails and events,” said Dressler, who expects resorts will continue to explore year-round business as they script plans for future development on federal land. “Long term, I’m still seeing the door open as far as master planning is concerned.”
Outdoor businesses adjusting to run more efficiently
Ziplines began proliferating in Colorado more than a decade ago as drought-proofing rafting companies sought more land-based activities for when the rivers were not running.
As Duke Bradford makes summer plans, the owner of Arkansas Valley Adventures is adjusting rafting schedules but not necessarily scaling back on his zipline and via ferrata courses in Buena Vista and Idaho Springs.
To keep staff running less labor-intensive daily rafting trips during his busiest month in July, he’s cutting back on offering overnight trips that require more guides working longer hours.
“We are making adjustments when labor is so tough,” said Bradford, who has hired about 82% of the staff he needs for summer and does not expect to reach a full staff.
“We are offering products we can run more efficiently to meet demand,” he said. “I imagine that’s the same story for every business right now.”