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Colorado corporations buy Tahoe ski resorts

Jeff Tyler Apr 17, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Given the weather this past winter — that’d be unexpectedly warm — this hasn’t been a great year for ski resorts. Not a whole lot of snow. But it’s been a really good year for the ski business. Colorado companies bought two big resorts in California, which has locals complaining about a Vail invasion.

Marketplace’s Jeff Tyler takes us to Lake Tahoe for a little apres ski economics.

Northstar Radio: Welcome to Northstar, Calif., resort’s information radio system.

The Northstar ski resort has its own dedicated radio broadcast.

Northstar Radio: Shopping and dining is located just across from the village on Northstar.

The resort provides the little extras, like complimentary carts, so skiers don’t have to carry all that cumbersome gear.

Aaron Reynolds: It’s a really great idea. I wish more places did that.

Should more resorts copy Northstar? Many skiers are nervous that consolidation will lead to cookie-cutter ski resorts. Vail Resorts, based in Colorado, now owns three ski operations in the Tahoe area — Northstar, Heavenly, and last month it bought Kirkwood for $18 million. I asked Vail Co-President Blaise Carrig if Kirkwood will get a glitzy makeover.

Blaise Carrig: Kirkwood is much different than Northstar. And we’re going to work hard to preserve and protect that. Even though we are a large company with multiple resorts, it’s not like a fast-food chain, where each one of them should be the same.

There are signs of creeping uniformity. Popular retail chains seem to proliferate at the big resorts. Consider where I met Jamie Schectman.

Jamie Schectman: We’re at the world’s first ski-in, ski-out Starbucks, mid-slope here at 8,200 feet.

Schectman is co-founder of the Mountain Rider Alliance, a skier’s group dedicated to making the sport affordable and sustainable. We met at the Squaw Valley ski resort, which is owned by another Colorado company — KSL Capital Partners. This season, Squaw bought the neighboring resort, Alpine Meadows. Schectman says the lack of competition has made lift tickets more expensive.

Schectman: Prior to the merger, Alpine Meadows was $73. Now you’re forced to pay $92. Child’s tickets went from $10 to $29.

But Squaw Valley has also cut some prices. For example, Squaw season passes have gotten less expensive in recent years. That’s good for consumers, but challenging for the smaller ski resorts trying to compete.

John Monson handles marketing for Sugar Bowl, another small resort in the Tahoe region. It charges the same price as Squaw for a season pass.

John Monson: Some people point-blank have said, ‘You know, how can you charge more than, say, the neighboring resort when you’re not as big?’ Well, we’re not going high volume. You know, smaller lift lines and more elbow room out on the mountain.

In fact, Monson is taking advantage of the local backlash against Colorado corporations. Sugar Bowl has taken out ads in local magazines that read:

Monson: California owned and operated since 1939.

The Colorado companies could argue that’s the problem with Tahoe — it’s stuck in the past. Andy Wirth is president and CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings.

Andy Wirth: Lake Tahoe really has never been considered seriously by most North America skiers as a serious destination. The resort infrastructure, the transportation infrastructure has been 20 years behind Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

John Monson at Sugar Bowl admits consolidation can benefit all Tahoe ski resorts.

Monson: These acquisitions have brought with them an unprecedented level of capital improvement dollars. I mean, we’re talking tens of millions of dollars.

Squaw Valley is investing $50 million in improvements. Squaw CEO Andy Wirth says that money provides local construction jobs.

Wirth: Many of the contractors and sub-contractors that were either unemployed or underemployed, we’re now providing them opportunity.

Wirth wants to bring the 2022 Olympics to Tahoe. His counterpart at Vail is of two minds. He’d be delighted to see the games come to California, but just as happy if the Olympics end up in Colorado.

I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

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