Vail Resorts-Whistler merger’s impact on Summit unknown for now
Vail Resorts History:
- October 1985: Vail Resorts incorporates with Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek Resort
- January 1997: Acquires Breckenridge, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin
- August 1997: Sells Arapahoe Basin to Dundee Resort Development, as required by Department of Justice
- October 2010: Acquires Northstar-at-Tahoe in North Lake Tahoe, California
- February 2012: Acquires Kirkwood in Lake Tahoe, California
- December 2012: Acquires Afton Alps in Minnesota and Mount Brighton in Michigan
- March 2013: Acquires Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah
- September 2014: Acquires Park City Mountain Resort in Park City, Utah
- March 2015: Acquires Perisher Ski Resort in Australia
- July 2015: Merges Canyons and Park City resorts
- January 2016: Acquires Wilmot Mountain in Wisconsin on Illinois state line
- August 2016: Acquires Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, Canada
Vail Resorts, Inc., has swallowed the big kahuna in Whistler Blackcomb — the British Columbia ski area that’s the largest resort in North America — but what that might mean for Summit County’s resorts is still hard to foresee.
The Broomfield-based resort conglomerate and the holdings company for the Canadian ski area announced the merger north of roughly $1 billion in a joint press release Monday morning. Vail will acquire all of Whistler’s stock in the deal — the priciest acquisition in the company’s three-decades long history. The pact should be finalized this fall, and Vail plans to offer Whistler as part of its season Epic Pass ticket package for 2017-18.
Any conclusions about how the news may affect Summit and its ski areas would be both premature and speculative, explained Stephanie Sweeny, who handles public relations for Copper Mountain Resort, owned by competitor Powdr Corp. The region’s other ski areas include: Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, owned by Dundee Resort Development; privately-owned Loveland Ski Area; in addition to Vail-controlled Breckenridge Ski Resort and Keystone Resort.
Dave Brownlie, CEO and president of Whistler Blackcomb, however, feels the merger will only net positive results within the newly-expanded Vail system, and that impact will be nonexistent or minimal at the location of Vail’s home base.
“The reality is Colorado is the No. 1 destination and state for visits,” he said, “and there’s a reason why: There’s a lot of people in Colorado who ski, and, you know what, they’re going to continue to ski there. There may be a few more people who maybe come and try our resort up here, but it’s not necessarily as easy to get to as jumping in your car and driving to Breckenridge.”
On top of being the biggest, Whistler is also the most-visited ski area in North America, with upwards of 2.7 million guests during the 2015-16 season — of which approximately 2.15 were from skier traffic. Vail Resorts, which already owned the largest U.S. resort with Park City (the now unified Canyons Resort and Park City Mountain Resort) does not release state- or resort-specific visitation numbers; but, in its most recent fiscal report from the third quarter, it confirmed that visits were up nearly 14 percent this past season.
Meanwhile, Colorado Ski Country USA (CSCUSA), the trade organization that represents the state’s other 21 ski areas, announced in June that the 2015-16 season set a new record with 7.4 million skier visits. The previous high among these member resorts came in 2013-14 with 7.1 million.
The consolidation is part of a growing trend for both the winter-centric industry and Vail Resorts, in particular. Since 2010, corporation has bought a total of eight ski areas, seven across the United States and then Perisher Ski Resort in Australia. Whistler, possessing the greatest lift capacity on the continent, will mark the ninth.
Based on the January 1997 conditions required by the Department of Justice under Vail’s purchase of Breckenridge and Keystone, the resort corporation — in order to maintain general competition — is unable to expand within Colorado. As part of that $310 million agreement with Ralston Resorts, Inc. (which owned Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin), Vail had to sell A-Basin upon execution of the deal, which it did to Dundee for $4 million cash. So growth outside of the state and internationally has become the company’s primary focus.
“Whistler Blackcomb is one of the most iconic mountain resorts in the world,” Rob Katz, Vail Resorts’ chairman and CEO, said in the release regarding the announcement. “We are delighted to add such a renowned resort to Vail Resorts and look forward to expanding our relationship in the Sea-to-Sky community, British Columbia and Canada.”
According to Brownlie, overtures had been made between the two for some time but turned serious over the summer once Vail made an offer that forced Whistler’s board of directors to take a closer look. The decision to pursue the agreement was about enduring economic stability and becoming another piece of Vail’s already extensive platform.
“With the strength of Vail,” he said, “the resources of Vail, the marketing network and being part of a resort company with the strength and geographical diversification, it just made sense. It really does provide that long-term stability and then the financial strength and all those other things to set us up for the long term. In this business, that’s really important — for both our business and our community.”
Whistler announced in April its plan for the Renaissance Project, a three-phase $345-million plan to make on-mountain improvements such as new chairlifts, upgraded base areas, snowmaking and terrain as well as new townhomes and weather-independent adventure and action-sports amenities. The resort is still waiting on final approvals from British Columbia before shovels can hit the ground, but Brownlie said Vail is fully supportive of the proposal, and the merger will have no effect on its timeframe or completion.
As the 2016-17 season approaches, it’s now just about preparing for the potential new business up north.
“It’s about that pre-commitment that will strengthen the revenue and, ultimately, filling in the early-season and mid-week periods where we really see the benefit,” said Brownlie, who will remain in his same position with the purchase. “The reality is our weekends are major holidays; they’re already busy. To do more visits, we’ll likely have to add more capacity, but I think, more importantly in the near-term, we’re going to be able to drive those destination visits in those periods of time when we have lots of capacity. That’s what’s exciting for us.”
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