Something wicked this way comes to the great north.

By Andrew J. Pridgen

Vail’s purchase of Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. Monday was greeted with some typical “evil empire” knee-jerk, which is to be expected, and in all ways, correct. Colorado-based Vail Resorts Inc. now has the equivalent of Park Place and Boardwalk with its acquisition of North America’s biggest ski area.

More notable is the fact that Vail Resorts, already the world’s biggest ski company, just got a whole lot bigger. Skiing just got a whole lot more expensive untenable and this latest move — the equivalent of taking over all of Asia on the Risk board (<– second board game reference in as many paragraphs…Sorry!) — means now even the illusion that a working family of four can afford to ski has vanished like Andy Dufresne wearing the warden’s spit-polished shoes.

But more on that in a second.

The acquisition of Whistler was a “friendly” takeover which is not always Vail’s way of doing business.

In 2014, Utah’s Park City Mountain Resort committed a Trump-sized gaffe when an intern working for previous owner Powdr Corp was too busy playing Candy Crush to renew the mountain’s lease with the the Forest Service.

This cracked open the gondola door for Vail — which then was partnering with next door neighbor Canyons and its Canada-based owner Talisker (taking over the management of the ski area) — to attempt a good-old-fashioned Gordon Gekko-type corporate raid and lay claim to PCMR.

And all their fancy lawyer’n worked.

A subsequent 82-page ruling confirmed PCMR did not drop its rent check off on time which meant its parent company lost the right of first refusal on the sale or transfer of property. This left Powdr Corp with one choice: to yield and try to get some money out of the resort. As a result, Vail took $182.5 million out of petty cash and is now in the process of linking Canyons and PCMR.

Along with PCMR and Whistler, Vail Resorts’ portfolio now boasts Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Heavenly, Kirkwood, Northstar (their website even resembles a Risk board) and a bunch of mini Midwestern ski areas, hotels, corporate ski shops in disguise as mom-and-pops at the mountain base, half-assed glossy in-room trade publications and some restaurants with rough-hewn reclaimed wood tables and Mason jars to drink out of because everyone knows it’s cool to pay extra to drink out of jars in mountain towns.

KSL capital partners — the private equity firm which currently owns and operates Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows (as the only ski properties in a portfolio laden with Florida golf clubs and hotels that are slated to be drowning under rising swamp water within the next half century) — is eagerly awaiting Vail to look their way like a nervous girl chewing her nails and twirling her pigtail in the dark gym corner of a junior high dance.

KSL’s strategy to get noticed by captain of the swim team is to shove through, like cutlets down a training bra in the locker room bathroom, an ill-fated development plan that is not only counter to the desires of its residents and visitors but is also out of step with what’s environmentally prudent (take out the parking lots and restore the wetland) for the footprint.

In other words, KSL has an opportunity to creatively undo a mistake made almost a half-century ago and instead create a public-private partnership and blueprint for post-winter Alpine ecotourism in a region blessed/cursed with silly amounts of tech money…but instead is trying to create the next rustic hideaway for Mary Swanson two decades too late.

…Which actually may be the reason Squaw-Alpine is still on the market and locals’ confidence KSL is going to come through for them is somewhere south of when a Tinder date texts you to say they’re running a bit late.

Now back to the acquisition at hand: Shares of Whistler Blackcomb Monday jumped 45 percent in afternoon trading on the TSX, rising $11.33 to $36.47; on average, resort lift ticket prices alone spike by about 20 percent the first 18 months after acquired by Vail, so that bump on the ticker is for reasons all too real for the end consumer.

The false promise Vail makes at the onset of acquisition is lots of infrastructure improvements (before the ink was dry on the Whistler deal, Vail CEO Rob Katz said his conglomerate “will improve the experience for guests and preserve the brand and character of the B.C. all-season resort”) while pimping the ultimate carbon footprint fuck you, the EPIC pass — ski biz’s biggest loss leader — which offers for $809 pre-season no blackout/unlimited access to Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Park City, Heavenly, Northstar, Kirkwood, Wilmot, Afton Alps, Mt. Brighton, Perisher and Arapahoe Basin.

The reality is like Walmart or Apple or Google, the biggest companies in any industry are prone to only get bigger and have their way and nobody, least of all them, really gets sued for antitrust anymore because nobody smaller in the private sector can afford to defend themselves against the counter suit.

Vail has become that big baddie. They set the price. They set the tone. They control the tempo.

The Whistler Blackcomb deal is a relatively safe $1.4 billion gamble by Vail that there are enough of the .0001 percent out there who don’t blush at the steady rise of lift ticket prices or the fact that the ahi sliders they’re choking down are killing all the dolphins. And they certainly don’t mind burning jet fuel to get there. Because, fuck it, #endtimes anyway, amiright? As long as it’s nuking good blow indoors, who gives a shit anyway?

Andrew J. Pridgen is the author of “Burgundy Upholstery Sky,” and thinks the only thing epic about the EPIC pass is the balls it took for Vail to put it in all-caps.

 

1 COMMENT

  1. Love the cheeky references. But it’s remarkable how little you actually know about any of the firms mentioned–or their strategies…

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