Colorado ski resort executives talk climate, year-round business at annual kickoff event
As if on cue, the approaching winter could wait no longer and made itself the guest of honor for the annual ski executive breakfast, delivering almost a foot of fresh snow overnight in parts of Summit County.
It was a welcome sight at the public powwow hosted by the Summit Chamber of Commerce, even if it kept a number of chairs vacant at the Keystone Conference Center Monday morning. For more than two decades, the event has doubled as the unofficial kickoff for the upcoming ski season, and local resort leadership optimistically took the weather as a nice omen for what could be in store for the 2017-18 season.
Following a keynote address by Auden Schendler, a climate change activist and Aspen Skiing Co.’s vice president of sustainability, that challenged attendees to seek solutions to our heating earth, the principals of the five area resorts took center stage. Themes included individual capital improvements for this season, continued development of less weather-dependent, year-round business models, as well as the consolidation of the industry as the new Aspen Ski Co.-KSL Capital Partners venture makes a run at Vail Resorts, Inc.
First up and making his debut on the scene was Geoff Buchheister, Keystone Resort’s new vice president and general manager as of about two months ago. The industry veteran highlighted the benefits of the upgrade of the Montezuma Express lift to a six-chair on top of the expansion of Labonte’s Smokehouse BBQ at the base of the ski area’s North Peak to five times it previous size. He said that capturing the family business remains the resort’s primary thrust.
“It wouldn’t be Keystone if it wasn’t for kids and families,” said the 42-year-old Winter Park native. “We want to get people and their families out and into our environment on our mountain to create memories. If that passion is created when you’re young, you have a great opportunity to care about these mountains and care about our winters going forward.”
Buchheister’s Vail Resorts teammate, John Buhler, COO of Breckenridge Ski Resort since 2015, meanwhile emphasized upgrades across the nation’s most popular ski area, from the brand new, 490-seat Pioneer Crossing restaurant plus crepe station on Peak 7, increased six-chair capacity of Peak 9’s Falcon SuperChair and other snowmaking and guest facility enhancements. The return of the Dew Tour Dec. 14-17 for its 10th anniversary and as a 2018 Winter Olympic qualifier and the ongoing summer amenities through the Epic Discover program were other items spotlighted as Breckenridge presses on with year-round activities to draw visitors.
The latter is the plan at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area as well. COO Alan Henceroth explained to the audience that’s why his resort has stressed summer supplements like its burgeoning wedding enterprise and recent disc golf course which are pieces of the overall puzzle and “weather-proof” the operation.
“We’re trying to diversify our business,” said Henceroth. “Skiing and riding is going to be the heart and soul of it — we’re going to try and do as many other different things as we can — but we’re going to continue to focus on keeping the culture and the vibe of A-Basin an extraordinary place.”
Roughly 20 years in the making, the soft opening of 468 acres of terrain with the Beavers and The Steep Gullies this season is a major part of that strategy, too. About three-quarters of the black double-diamond area is ready to go for those willing to hike in and out, with lift service subsequently arriving in 2018-19. For now, a rope tow from the Lenawee Mountain Lift to Montezuma Bowl will have to act as a consolation prize.
The reintroduction of an International Ski Federation NorAm women’s slalom event in mid-November was most of what Rob Goodell, Loveland Ski Area’s director of business operations, had to offer. The resort’s chief overseer joked that in Loveland’s 80th season, the Clear Creek County resort was proud to remain independently owned in the midst of the arms race between Vail and Aspen-KSL to acquire and conquer.
Gary Rodgers, president and COO of Copper Mountain Resort, joined in on poking fun at the state of the industry’s mass consolidation, suggesting the two 800-pound gorillas are going to battle it out while the rest of the smaller outfits sit on the sidelines, watching while munching popcorn. Still, improvements at the Powdr Corp.-owned resort this year entail four new or reimagined restaurants, a mountain coaster that operates in summer and winter, a replacement of the Kokomo Express green lift at Union Creek and guest RFID technology to track stats on season passes.
The snow guns are already spitting flakes at Loveland and A-Basin and, per tradition, the two will once again race to be the state’s first ski area to start spinning chairs. The other three — Copper, Breckenridge and Keystone — each plan to follow and are working toward Friday, Nov. 10, as the target. In the face of questions surrounding the industry’s long-term prospects due to global warming, all were happy to take Mother Nature’s boost Monday as the foundation for the next season.
“The climate is certainly what’s happening around us in the future, but we certainly can’t predict what’s going to happen,” said Rodgers. “But, today was a great start.”
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