A Vermont-Grown family member who has lived out of state for almost 20 years came back to visit for the holidays and decided to take a drive around the area to see what had changed. Most striking was his spin around Stowe Mountain Resort.
That’s not surprising, con-sidering that the last time he was at Spruce Peak, in the 1990s, it was largely a parking lot at the bottom of the hill. You could get an excellent meal there, as long as you made it at home and packed it with you.
But as remarkable as that Spruce Peak expansion — and similar improvements over the past decade or so at Sugarbush at Jay Peak — may be, it’s nothing compared to the movements nationwide in the ski industry. And 2019 was a big one, with the two biggest players in the ski-resort acquisition game, Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Co., adding more places to their portfolios.
A ski industry insider, Chris Diamond, published a book in late October of this year called “Ski Inc. 2020”; its predecessor, titled simply “Ski Inc.” and published in November 2016, had become hopelessly outdated.
For instance, “Ski Inc.” mentions Vail as an up-and-comer in the ski-resort acquisition game. Diamond includes a prescient prediction: Resorts like Vail “will also certainly find a way to enter the Northeastern market, regardless of the weather vagaries and the challenges.”
How fast has the ski resort landscape changed in the past few years? Well, Diamond’s follow-up was outdated just two weeks after it was published, because it featured Sugarbush Resort in its chapter on marquee independent resorts.
Alterra, one of the new protagonists — or, depending on your point of view, antagonists — in the new ski consolidation saga, declared its intention to buy Sugarbush in mid-November.
That was preceded by Vail’s purchase of Peak Resorts, which owned 17 resorts around the country, including Mount Snow in Vermont, Hunter Mountain in New York, and New Hampshire’s Attitash, Wildcat and Crotched Mountain resorts.
Along with Vail’s acquisition of Okemo and Mount Sunapee in 2018, Stowe, that lone Vail property in the East, was suddenly no longer alone.
This leads to an odd sort of synergy among these New England resorts, where there are central resources to lean on, but still a dedication to getting people to come to you, instead of those others.
What’s next? Smugglers’ Notch? Owner Bill Stritzler has repeatedly had to bat away rumors that he’s thinking about selling what is often billed as the best family resort in the country. Doesn’t the fact that everyone asks Stritzler if he’s next every time Vail or Alterra makes a purchase indicate that Smuggs would be a perfect complement to Stowe for Vail?
It’s like buying one half of those broken-heart pendants and just waiting for the other one to make it whole.
For now, and perhaps forever, big independent resorts like Smuggs and Jay Peak remain independent. As do some smaller, family-run resorts, like Cochran’s Ski Area and Bolton Valley, both of which are still run by the founding families, the Cochrans and the DesLauriers.
The operators of those two resorts, along with the heads of Magic Mountain and Mad River Glen, were part of a panel discussion last year extolling the virtues of doubling down on what made them popular in the first place.
That means family lessons and egalitarian prices at Cochrans, and backcountry and laid-back vibes at Bolton. And an au naturel, mostly experts-experience at Mad River, the most community based resort of them all — it is literally owned by its skiers.
Whatever happens in the future, the key ought to be making sure skiing and riding stay fun. Something of a sterility, a sameness, is often associated with mega-corporate ownership, no matter how gnar, woke or cool the corporate overlords’ marketing departments make themselves out to be. Even a set of Mickey Mouse ears can’t hide the fact he’s owned by Disney.