With commissioning wrapping on eleven more lifts than last year at this time, 2017 represents an impressive ten-year high for North American lift building. Six-passenger chairlifts, T-Bars and urban gondolas in Mexico and the Caribbean drove much of the growth in a year that saw continued changes in the manufacturer landscape. Compared with 2016, more of this year’s chairlifts were expensive detachable models (12) compared with 17 fixed-grips (in 2016, the split was 7 detachable, 23 fixed.) A total of nine new gondolas and three T-Bars went up in 2017, both increases from the year before. Ten additional lifts were relocated and re-purposed, a three-year high with lifts originally built by Blue Mountain, CTEC, Doppelmayr, Riblet, Roebling, Stadeli and Yan finding new homes. Combined, this year’s new lift class represents a solid 27 percent increase from 2016.
Consistent with last year, about two thirds of the projects in 2017 represented one-for-one replacements in existing alignments. Interestingly, at least six resorts removed older lifts outright without replacing them. At many mountains, the era of building and maintaining extra chairlifts that rarely run is over.
Nine new lifts opened in cities and non-winter tourist sites with the other 82 percent built at ski resorts. Nine may seem like a small number but in recent decades the number of lifts built at places other than mountain resorts averaged just 1-3 per year.
Regionally, the East nearly tripled its share over last year to 14 lifts, owing to one of the best snow years in recent memory in New England (the East averaged 10.2 new lifts per year over the last decade.) On the other end of the spectrum, Canada built only five new lifts, near rock bottom for the last 15 years and half as many as normal. The Rocky Mountain states added an impressive 19 new ropeways in the best construction season since the recession and double the ten-year average of 10.4 lifts. Six new lifts went in along the Pacific coast, slightly higher than the average of 4.4. The Midwest typically sees 4.7 new lifts per season but added only three for 2017-18. A big story is Mexico and the Caribbean, where the European branches of Leitner and Poma added four detachable gondolas. The most new lifts in a single U.S. state was seven in Montana followed by Colorado with six new detachables.
On the manufacturer side, this is the first full year Leitner-Poma of America and Skytrac worked together and it seemed to bring success. At both Taos and Giants Ridge, the Grand Junction branch provided the larger of two lifts with Salt Lake-based Skytrac completing fixed-grip chairlifts. Combined, the Leitner-Poma Group out-sold Doppelmayr by five lifts following last year’s virtual tie. Counting only the US and Canada, totals were 18 for Leitner-Poma/Skytrac and 17 for Doppelmayr.
Skytrac realized six new lift projects in 2017, one of the best years since their first complete lift debuted in 2011 (though the company’s Moonlight Basin project reused some Doppelmayr towers, line equipment and chairs from Beaver Creek.) Skytrac was also involved with relocating and upgrading lifts for Pats Peak and Whitefish in addition to some twenty other upgrade projects. “There is a continuing trend in upgrades, modifications, and replacements of older lifts,” says Carl Skylling, Vice President of Sales for Skytrac. “Small and medium resorts are looking for options for their older equipment.”
Leitner-Poma of America built seven LPA model detachables, a pulse gondola, fixed-grip chondola and two T-Bars in Vermont. With Skytrac meeting much of the fixed-grip chairlift demand, Leitner-Poma built only one non-gondola Alpha this year at Whitewater, BC. Skytrac has yet to enter the Canadian market.
Doppelmayr completed many of the year’s biggest projects including new gondolas at Belleayre, the Oakland Zoo and the Yellowstone Club as well as six-packs at Snowbasin and Eldora. The company sold two more detachables than last year (8 vs. 6) but fewer fixed-grips (9 vs. 12.) The Alpen Star, a fixed-grip single-leg drive-tension terminal that not-so-coincidentally competes with Skytrac’s Monarch, proved to be a hit. Since it launched at Snow King Mountain in 2015, Doppelmayr has quickly built more than a dozen Alpen Stars. The Monarch and Alpen Star are proving to be the best solutions for the vast majority of fixed-grip lifts in North America, though Doppelmayr also built one Tristar fixed-grip at Sunday River this summer. Customers seemed to completely drift away from the compact Eco model in 2017 for the first time since that product’s introduction in 2008. In addition to its 17 new lift projects, Doppelmayr also completed major upgrades to the gondola at Steamboat and added a tower to the Snowbasin tram.
Then there are the other guys. Partek supplied a fixed-grip quad at Mt. Peter, New York and SkyTrans Manufacturing relocated and upgraded a Stadeli double for the New York State Fair along with a Hall T-Bar for Whaleback, New Hampshire. LST inked its second American contract for a T-Bar and two carpets at Waterville Valley; the former is still under construction and will be completed over snow. An MND Group subsidiary, France-based LST has a proven fixed-grip product and is attempting to enter the detachable market in Europe and Asia with North America possibly to follow. “We have interest in our lifts in the USA and around the world,” says Jay Bristow, General Manager at MND America. “Customers simply seem interested in another lift company to bid against the establishment. We have purchased some robotic technology in our manufacturing facility, we’ve made more strategic partnerships and our new less maintenance detachable technology is successful.”
As resorts like Alta, Arizona Snowbowl, Mt. Baker and Keystone showed us this year, price is king and few resorts are safe customers for any single manufacturer. The Leitner-Poma Group edged Doppelmayr for number of projects in 2017 for the first time since Doppelmayr CTEC formed in 2002, but one year is by no means a trend.
All this brings us to the outlook for 2018. “I would expect 2018 to be similar to 2017, with potential to increase if snow holds out over most of the country,” notes Skylling at Skytrac. Exciting, multi lift projects on the horizon include the Whistler Blackcomb bombshell, Valemout Glacier with up to five lifts in phase one and at least two quads at a reborn Stagecoach, Colorado. The Walt Disney Co. ordered three gondolas for its Florida flagship and gondolas could also rise at The Balsams and/or Bretton Woods in New Hampshire. Between Blackcomb and Disney World, the continent’s five highest-ever capacity gondola sections could be built in a single summer! The current record for US/Canada gondola construction in a single year stands at ten sections, one that could finally fall in 2018.
Then there are highly-anticipated expansions of existing ski areas – Arapahoe Basin’s The Beavers, Lookout Pass’ Eagle Peak, Mt. Spokane’s backside and Mt. Rose’s move across the highway. Yet more resorts have committed to upgrading existing lifts, including Heavenly, Killington, Loveland, Park City, Taos, Killington and Silver Star. Even large resorts like Sun Peaks and Telluride are waiting to see how this season plays out and as I say every year in this post, think snow as we approach the holidays.