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Too Big to Vail: An Opinion on Why This Might be the Downfall of the North American Mega Resort

Locals are firing back at resorts like Stevens Pass and Whistler. Photo: Unsplash


The Inertia

It has become a tale all too common these days. Lift lines that make you want to cry. Twenty-dollar burgers that remind you of an elementary school cafeteria. Instruction fees that cater to a certain economic class. The constant battle between the bourgeois, jet-setter tourists and the locals who pack in shared housing, occupying every possible square inch of real estate from closets to crawl spaces just so they can afford to live the dream.

A tale as old as time, really. Or, at least since the first idea of a resort where people spend as much as those in other countries earn in a year for the privilege of sliding down a snow-covered slope for a week of their vacation time. But in the past few years, we’ve seen resorts become conglomerates across multiple continents, luring in customers with multi-passes that allow them “the idea” of skiing whenever and wherever they want.

This year we’ve really started to see the negatives. People are wondering aloud if it’s worth it, and while revenues might be high, morale at various resorts has been low. This is perhaps most prominent when looking at Vail Resorts due to the brand’s market-share dominance in North America. Locals at Vail Resorts-run mountains like Stevens Pass, Wash. and Whistler, British Columbia are starting to say, “enough is enough,” pushing back against lift lines and low wages. And it’s tough not to agree with them.

Skiing and snowboarding are unique sports. They require specialized infrastructure (chairlifts and groomers) for most to enjoy. But as this infrastructure costs money, it’s only fair that those enjoying such amenities cough up coin to help things run. No argument there. We’ve got to pay to play. But what happens when the operator fails on its end of the bargain? In this current system, sadly not much.

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There’ve been a number of instances this year that have uncovered this. It’s that these operators (and again, with a focus on arguably the most financially powerful one, Vail Resorts) don’t seem to really care as much about the customer experience as they do in making massive profits to please shareholders. Recently, Vail posted its earnings for Q4 of this year, which Yahoo! Finance reported as having significant gains over last year:

“The Mountain segment generated revenues of $124.5 million in the quarter under review, up 155.4 percent year over year. The increase can be attributed to 189.6 percent rise in lift revenues. Ski school and retail/rental revenue rose 318.5 percent and 130.4 percent, respectively. Dining revenues in the quarter surged 469.7 percent.”

This is all well and good — in theory — if the value of the goods increases alongside the profits. But the return on people’s investment in season passes is actually diminishing with each sale. This is especially true at Stevens Pass, where due to a lack of “lifties,” the resort is only able to keep about half of its chairs running.  Vail management blames a lack of staff, but what they really need to admit is they have a lack of people willing to work at a remote location for insulting wages.

Too Big to Vail: An Opinion on Why This Might be the Downfall of the North American Mega Resort

Just one reason locals at Stevens Pass have had it. Photo: Change.org

According to the above finance report, it would seem Vail has the money to offer more to its lift operators, but that might be a precedent that management (and shareholders) are not willing to set. It’s still early to say what will come of it. One thing is for certain: locals are pissed and for good reason. So far, over 31,000 people have signed a petition demanding Vail Resorts be held accountable. The question is, will Vail listen? Or more importantly, I wonder if the U.S. Forest Service, who grants the license for Stevens Pass, will keep Vail honest and intervene?

Stevens Pass is just the tip of the iceberg. Whistler-Blackcomb just canceled its weekly kids ski school less than a week before it was to begin, incensing locals who used the program here at my home mountain. An email from the resort (below) cited “several challenging dynamics, including staffing” as a reason the program won’t run. They have no mention of efforts to increase the wages beyond $16 CAD ($12 USD) per hour for a job that involves keeping toddlers warm and happy for six hours in the winter elements. Never mind that the program costs over $1,000 per kid, so the money is there to pay the staff if they so choose.

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It’s hard to have sympathy for Whistler-Blackcomb. There’s plenty of sympathy, however, for the parents who’re now without affordable options for their kids to have a fun activity that helps socialize them and get them excited about being outdoors. Ski school is more than just glorified babysitting— it fosters a lifelong affinity for a sport that I can only imagine you the reader share if you’re still with me here. Whistler-Blackcomb was trying to bring the program back after its cancellation last year, which locals were not stoked about in the least. “Start ’em young,” they say, but in Vail’s universe, they’ll only allow that if those entrusted to teach the young’uns are willing to accept poverty wages in one of the most expensive communities in Canada.

The list could go on but you get the idea. Vail Resorts has been über successful in collecting money from 2.1 million people this year for the Epic Pass. Where they are unsuccessful is in providing a product of value that people expect. Management could remedy many of the problems such as closed lifts and canceled classes by offering higher wages to attract staff. But so far, they are intent on blaming COVID, a shortage of labor, and any other excuse that doesn’t make them look like the bad guy. And to be fair, to their shareholders, they are in the good books.

But people aren’t staying completely silent. The above-mentioned petition at Stevens Pass continues to capture an incredible amount of signatures. And outrage is rife on social media in general: take the Instagram account @epicliftlines for example, a page dedicated to sharing stories from the weekends of the intense lift queues that make most people likely question the value of their passes.

There are signs that resorts will do something to respond, though maybe not in the way skiers and riders would hope. Crystal Mountain in Washington (notably an IKON Pass destination as opposed to Vail’s Epic Pass), became the first major U.S. ski resort to reinstate a reservation system for pass holders. Crystal did reverse course, however, but will still require reservations for parking, an effort to cut down on overcrowding.

Will Vail take notice? It’s hard to say. Until people come together, I’m hesitant to be optimistic for full-scale change. But maybe, just maybe, if enough people are over it and stop giving away money, the shareholders will demand it. Time will tell but for those who’re frustrated, I’m with you. Keep in mind we’re powerless individually but have strength in numbers. I hope we all join forces to keep these mega-corporations in check. And show them who’s boss.

Editor’s Note: Steve Andrews is a longtime contributor to The Inertia and an expert in resort and backcountry riding. He writes and guides out of Whistler, British Columbia. 

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