This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
The rollercoaster ride continues for Vail Resorts. On the heels of reporting record season pass sales, skier traffic and revenues, the largest resort operator in North America again is grappling with a local community impacted by crowds.
For the second time in two months locals in one of the company’s resort communities — this time it’s Park City in Utah — have stymied the company’s plans for upgrades and improvements.
The Park City Planning Commission on Wednesday night sided with a group of locals who are fighting Vail Resorts’ plan to upgrade three chairlifts at the largest ski area in the U.S. Park City staff recommended the city’s planning commission approve the lift upgrade plan, which proposed replacing two lifts with high-speed six-packs and upgrading an existing six-pack to the company’s first-ever eight-pack.
A group of locals appealed the staff decision, arguing that the city’s planning commission should have weighed in on the decision because it increased capacity on the ski area without a more thorough plan for improved parking.
The city’s planning commission rejected the lift upgrade plan on Wednesday night following a heated public meeting. Last month the Vail town council voted to condemn property where the company had won approval from a previous council to build affordable housing. The Vail council argues the parcel is critical for bighorn sheep and development there would decimate a herd native to the valley.
Vail Resorts has promised to fight the Vail council’s decision to block development of the acreage on the interstate in East Vail. And the company is equally irked with the Park City rejection of its lift plan. But it’s not likely the company’s fight with its local leaders will meet its timeline to have worker housing in Vail by the 2023-24 ski season and new lifts in Park City for the 2022-23 season.
In a tweet late Wednesday, Park City Mountain Resort said its lift plans had been “shockingly blocked.” The ski area operator took issue with the Park City Planning Commission’s reasoning for rejecting the lift upgrades, saying that “chairlift tourism, or the idea that modernizing lifts will draw more crowds, does not exist.”
“Skiers and riders just want to spend more time on our vast terrain and less time in line,” the tweet thread reads. “The decision means we cannot make important infrastructure improvements for next season — but we remain committed to finding ways to enhance our guest experience.”
Park City’s consultant that reviewed the lift plan, British Columbia-based resort planner Ecosign, said increasing Park City Mountain Resort’s comfortable carrying capacity — known as CCC — with improved chairlifts on the mountain “does not directly cause an increase in business or demand.”
“If business levels remain the same, an increase in CCC will result in a better skier experience, with shorter lift lines and potentially marginally more skiing available for each skier due to less time waiting in the lift line,” reads the Ecosign review, which concluded the ski area did not need additional parking for the proposed lift upgrades.
Vail Resorts last week announced highest-ever revenues for the three months through March, but dismissed the widespread perception that the company’s advance sale of a record 2.1 million lift tickets and season passes for the 2021-22 ski season had resulted in record-setting traffic. While the company did see a 12% increase in visits to its 37 North American ski areas last season, that growth landed on weekdays rather than weekends or holidays. Very few of the company’s resorts saw peak traffic days that were different from previous seasons, company leaders told investors.
That does not jibe with local perspectives on the ground, where ski areas felt busier. Parking lots overflowed into communities. Lift lines swelled. Resort operators across the country struggled with a labor shortage, but many argue the peak-day crowds were not that different from previous seasons.
Vail Resorts’ issues have spilled from crowding at under-staffed resorts into conflicts with communities where it operates. Which has happened before but not to this scale. Park City locals in 2016 forced Vail Resorts to abandon its plan to trademark “Park City.”
The company spent years battling with unionized Park City patrollers over pay and benefits. A petition at the company’s Stevens Pass ski area in Washington last year ballooned with more than 44,000 signatures by skiers urging the operator to open more terrain.
The Park City protest of Vail Resorts’ lift expansion plans was an opportunity for community members to get involved in how the company is growing, said Angela Moschetta, who is among the Park City residents who formally appealed the planning staff approval of the lift upgrades.
“What this comes down to is managing growth,” Moschetta said. “In Park City and in too many other communities, Vail Resorts has benefited from completely unchecked growth.”
That growing disconnect between resort operators and local communities is widespread, but especially for Vail Resorts. The company has admitted some missteps with its employees in recent seasons and a $175 million pay increase announced earlier this year is meant to repair that connection. Now the company will need to repair relationships with locals who feel like they are living in the company’s Epic Pass parking lots.
This will be the narrative for the company moving forward as it sells even more season passes. (Sales for next season are pacing 9% ahead of last year.) Watch for how Vail Resorts balances its bragging to investors — Billions in cash! Most passes ever sold! Record revenues! — with its conversations in local communities, where relationships are growing more antagonistic.
Moschetta said locals cannot believe the operator when it reports a 12% increase in annual visitation but that peak days have not set records at its ski areas.
“We all can look and see with our own eyes that things look different and feel different. There are more lines, more cars, more crowding everywhere on and off the mountain. But without Vail showing us their numbers, we can’t prove it,” Moschetta said. “If we want to participate in how we manage crowding in our community, we need to see more information and Vail will have to share more with us.”