Mountain Travel Symposium: Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz opens up in candid interview
BRECKENRIDGE — Vail Resorts Chief Executive Officer Rob Katz has been laughing at himself a lot these last couple of weeks, even if that laughter is sometimes masking the sting he sometimes feels as CEO of a growing corporation.
Katz opened himself up for questioning by Denver Post reporter Jason Blevins Sunday at the Mountain Travel Symposium. The interview was surprisingly intimate, considering it was held on a stage in front of a few hundred onlookers, and also surprisingly candid.
Katz opened up about his experience in Park City a couple of weeks ago when he found himself as the butt of not only a joke or two, but of two hours of mockery at the Park City Follies. He knew he’d be in for it when he heard this year’s follies were being called, “An Epic Follies.”
“Over time you build up a little bit of a thick skin,” Katz said. “It’s good to take yourself lightly every now and then. Sitting in the audience for 2 hours when you’re the primary villain was hard. I laughed the whole way through — one or two moments were a little tough — but mostly I laughed.”
It’s been a tough year for Vail Resorts in the Utah market, which it entered a year ago when it announced a long-term lease of the Canyons Resort. The company became part of ongoing litigation with neighboring Park City Mountain Resort with its lease of Canyons, thus creating a bit of friction within the community.
“It’s not like Vail Resorts was the cause of all this strife — there was plenty of strife before we showed up,” he said.
Katz was candid about his desire to eventually operate Park City Mountain Resort should the litigation work out in Vail Resorts’ favor. He opened up about the topic certainly more than he did on the quarterly earnings call with investors last month.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that our company is interested in growing and part of that comes from acquisitions and strategic growth,” he said, adding that he thinks Park City is one of the greatest ski markets and ski towns in the entire world.
He explained the lawsuit more simply as a tenant-landlord dispute. A landlord, Talisker Corporation, wanted higher rent from its tenant, Park City Mountain Resort. The resort didn’t want to pay the higher rent so the landlord found a new tenant, Vail Resorts. Katz said the decision to sue was Park City Mountain Resort’s decision, but once the battle plays out in court, that should be the end of it.
“Ultimately at the end of the litigation — I know people are talking about appeals and all that already, but whatever fine — ultimately at the end of the litigation, if it turns out that you spent the last 2-3 years on that thing and it didn’t go your way, the courts don’t agree with you, it’s time to move on and it’s time to put the community front and center.”
Blevins asked Katz about climate change next, a subject obviously at the forefront of ski industry concerns, but one that Vail Resorts’ corporate office hasn’t focused on like Aspen Skiing Company or Powder Corporation. While Katz pointed out company-wide energy reductions and resort-specific environmental initiatives, he said he doesn’t think the company has a role in lobbying for climate change legislation in Washington.
“Climate change is not important because it’s going to hurt the ski industry, climate change is important because it could hurt life on our planet,” he said. “If I walked into Congress and said there won’t be skiing at Vail – that’s why you should do something about climate change – I would be laughed at.”
He also doesn’t jump on the bandwagon when snow anomalies happen. When there’s no snow in December and everyone points to climate change, he thinks it’s more complex than that. He also doesn’t think a phenomenal snow year proves climate change isn’t upon us.
“Climate change is a very complex topic — the impacts, the effects, what’s driving it. I’m a huge proponent of everyone doing the right thing to help by doing their part,” Katz said. “I don’t see our company, or the resort industry in my opinion necessarily, that they have any special role any different than the rest of the people who live on this planet.”
The mood lightened a bit when Katz joked about a Forest Service decision his company is anxiously awaiting that will determine how much of its Epic Discovery summer development proposals are possible. He said he’s told the decision should come “any day,” which at just 6 months past the stated deadline, that’s as good as years early when dealing with the government.
Katz talked about growing the ski industry, which is a major focus of the talks happening at Monday’s forum sessions. And he was happy not to talk about marijuana — Blevins never asked about the destruction of on-mountain smoke shacks.
Editorial Projects Manager Lauren Glendenning is covering the Mountain Travel Symposium in Breckenridge for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at email@example.com or 970-777-3125.
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