Ski Surprise: Vail Buys Stowe, Giving You Better Nationwide Season Pass Options
Colorado-based Vail Resorts was already the 800-pound gorilla of the industry: they own or operate the nation’s two busiest ski resorts (Vail and Breckenridge, Colorado); North America’s largest and usually top rated resort, Whistler/Blackcomb, British Columbia; and the largest lift-served resort in this country, Park City, Utah. They also have the nation’s most luxurious major resort, white glove Beaver Creek, and the number one ranked family friendly resort, Keystone, both in Colorado. They have local resorts across the Midwest (Wilmot Mountain, WI; Afton Alps, MN; Mt. Brighton, MI), three major resorts around Lake Tahoe on the California/Nevada border (Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood), and they even own the largest ski resort in Australia, Perisher. But the really important thing for skiers and snowboarders is that all of these are covered by one season ticket, the Epic Pass, which is an industry bargain, considerably less expensive than a season pass for some single resorts.
If there was one chink in Vail Resorts’ portfolio armor, it was the densely populated and lucrative east coast market. But that all changed on Tuesday (February 21), when the company announced its acquisition of what many skiers consider the east’s premier mountain, Stowe Mountain Resort. That means that the tens of millions of people who live in the New York tri-state area and the many more up and down the Northeast corridor can now use a single affordable pass for both their weekend driving ski trips and their once or twice a year destination Western ski vacations. They can even throw in a summer ski trip to Australia if they crave an escape from the heat. The Epic Pass also has other benefits, including the very popular Epic Mix app, that tracks runs skied, vertical feet, and many more stats for pass holders at all the resorts. It also includes numerous summer benefits like free lift-served hiking and mountain biking. That is big news for skiers, snowboarders and mountain vacation enthusiasts of all kinds.
Stowe is one of oldest and best established major American ski resorts, most recently owned by AIG Global Real Estate, which has spent several years extensively redeveloping the mountain’s base area into a user-friendly pedestrianized village similar in feel to those at Whistler, Beaver Creek and Northstar. It has a luxury ski-in/out hotel, the Lodge at Stowe, a golf course, ice skating rink, performing arts center, and new stores, restaurants and public art. One key addition was a new gondola, which for the first time connects Stowe’s two separate mountains, the bigger Mt. Mansfield, famed for its daunting set of expert runs, the infamous “Front Four,” and smaller Spruce Peak, a beginner friendly mountain that’s one of the best places to learn the sport. The latest wave of improvements included a new quad lift on Spruce Peak, the Spruce Peak Adventure Center, the new Shops at Spruce Peak, and the installation of RFID ticket readers to make boarding lifts faster and easier across both mountains.
Stowe is one of New England’s oldest and most acclaimed ski resorts, set on the highest peak in the state of Vermont. Photo: Stowe Mountain Resort
Vail Resorts is acquiring all of the assets related to the mountain operations of the resort, including base area skier services (food and beverage, retail and rental, and ski and snowboard school). The purchase does not include other facilities such as the Stowe Mountain Lodge and Stowe Country Club.
“We’re thrilled to add Stowe Mountain Resort to our family of world-class mountain resorts. With the investments in both mountain infrastructure and base area facilities that AIG has made over the years, Stowe Mountain Resort has become the premier, high-end resort for East Coast skiers and snowboarders. We look forward to working with AIG to continue enhancing the guest experience and to ensure the resort’s long-term success,” said Rob Katz, chairman and chief executive officer of Vail Resorts, via release.
Operations will be unchanged for the remainder of the 2016-17 ski season, and Vail will integrate Stowe into its Epic Pass and other season pass products for the 2017-18 winter season.
The Epic Pass is designed so that if you ski more than 6 or 7 days each winter it pays itself off, and the addition of a premier Vermont resort makes this much more likely for anyone on the east coast. But it is always cheapest if you buy it early, at the end of one ski season for the next, and 2017-18 pricing and early bird offers will be announced next month (March).
Living in Vermont, I’ve skied many times at Stowe over the years, and in fact, it was the very first place I ever skied, where I learned more than thirty years ago. I’ve visited repeatedly through the recent years of reinvestment and upgrades, consider it the premier ski destination East of the Mississippi, and Vail Resorts has a great track record of first-rate management of its acquisitions, so the future looks bright. But that’s not to say the ski giant is the only game in town: there are still numerous independent ski resorts that have unique terrain and character and make a compelling vacation argument, including two of my very favorite spots, Telluride, Colorado and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming – in fact, I’m heading back to Jackson next week. I’ve written about both of these in detail here at Forbes.com and you can read about Telluride here and about Jackson Hole here. These two resorts, along with many other big hitters, including Aspen/Snowmass, Sun Valley, Alta, Snowbird, Mammoth, Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows, Canada’s Ski Big 3, Revelstoke, and several others are part of the Mountain Collective, a different form of multi-mountain season pass product that competes with the Epic Pass.
There has been a lot of public hand-wringing over the recent waves of ski resort consolidation, and not just Vail Resorts, but the reality has been that instead of limiting choices, these recent mergers and the ensuing competition have made lift tickets across the country a better deal for consumers, cheaper and more flexible, and that’s a trend I hope continues.