When Vail Resorts spelled out its suspension of operations in mid-March, the shutdown was hoped to last only a week. Fifty days later, all 37 resorts remain shuttered and the company has borrowed more than a billion dollars to weather a possible extended recession.
As the impacts from COVID-19 continue, it's becoming less clear when our business may reopen. Because of this and to ensure we navigate the financial challenges ahead, we have made some difficult decisions that affect our employees. More from our CEO: https://t.co/7EmbUl3v0cpic.twitter.com/CDcwtUYqQ7
Almost immediately, Vail Resorts postponed discretionary capital improvement projects including seven new chairlifts. Vail is just one of numerous operators of lifts facing epic challenges due to COVID-19. The impacts trickle down to suppliers, particularly global suppliers of large machinery like the Leitner Group and Doppelmayr. While the two major lift manufacturers are of similar size and structure, their customers are incredibly diverse, from mom and pop outfits to governments, NGOs and Fortune 100 companies.
As regular readers of this blog know, the lift business is not the same as the ski business. Leitner-Poma, Skytrac and Doppelmayr USA have all completed projects for non-ski venues recently such as theme parks, zoos, stadiums and cruise ports. Not only are these projects making up an increasing share of contracts, they tend to be large in scope and often include lucrative operation and maintenance deals. Some of these non-traditional customers are in even worse shape than the ski business, more dependent on high guest densities and air travel. Put another way, there is little chance the Walt Disney Company, Carnival Corporation or the Miami Dolphins would have signed to build their recent lift projects in today’s environment. So-called “point of interest” projects may disappear entirely for a few years.
Aerial view of likely all Disney Skyliner gondolas. Stored for an extended period at the Caribbean Beach station. All Walt Disney World parks and resorts are closed due to #COVID19pic.twitter.com/gqd924ANu9
One bright spot could be urban transport. The Portland Aerial Tram and Roosevelt Island Tramway have both remained operational throughout the pandemic, albeit at reduced capacity (the Portland Tram carries health care workers to three different hospitals and is about as essential as it gets.) Large aerial tramways have been ceding market share to monocable, 2S and 3S gondolas, a trend which will probably accelerate with new personal space concerns. With gondolas, each person or family can take their own cabin unlike on trains or buses. There are lots of great concepts for urban gondolas in North America and infrastructure spending programs could finally get one or two off the ground. Mexico already has a large urban gondola system in operation with two more under construction.
I’m not an accountant but I think this filing reveals Vail Resorts has agreed with creditors not to make capital improvements of more than $200 million per year or undertake any mergers/acquisitions through January 2022.
Vail is also borrowing $600 million through the sale of bonds.
New resorts on both coasts will join Alterra’s Ikon Pass for winter 2020-21. In central Oregon, Mt. Bachelor will become the fifth Powdr-owned mountain to sign on to Ikon following Copper, Eldora, Killington and Snowbird. In New York’s Catskill region, independently-owned Windham Mountain will be the first Ikon destination in the Empire State. Both new additions will offer seven day access on the full Ikon Pass and five restricted days with the Ikon Base Pass. Ikon Pass holders will now enjoy access to 42 mountains in North America with a total of 503 lifts. The competing Epic Pass from Vail Resorts offers 42 different mountains with 434 lifts in the US and Canada. Both passes also include days in Europe, Asia and Australia.
“As we look ahead, we are excited to announce these new partners that represent the spirit of the Ikon Pass community, bringing added value to pass holders, at some of the lowest rates available since we launched the Ikon Pass,” said Erik Forsell, Chief Marketing Officer for Alterra Mountain Company. “Mt. Bachelor in Oregon and Windham Mountain in New York are favorites in their regions, adding expanded access in two new states in North America and inspiring Ikon Pass holders to seek more adventures.” Alterra recently introduced enhanced renewal savings and an Adventure Assurance program to entice buyers amid COVID-19 uncertainty.
With four major lift replacements completed over the last 15 years, North Idaho’s Schweitzer Mountain Resort is looking beyond its boundary for the next phase of on-mountain development. Completed just last summer, phase one of the resort’s 2018 master plan included two keylifts in the North Bowl replacing an outdated double. The mountain also recently completed a gorgeous summit lodge called Sky House and two morechairlifts above its village. Looking ahead, Schweitzer’s two longest lifts to date are planned for opposite ends of the resort.
Privately-held Schweitzer will proceed carefully as growth makes sense. The resort does not participate in a multi-resort pass product but skier visits have grown almost 35 percent over the last 15 years. Current development focuses on the village, including a $35 million boutique hotel under construction. “We have a pretty conservative approach,” notes President and CEO Tom Chasse. “Our business is growing but we want to make sure that we are financially sound and don’t get ahead of ourselves. We also want to maintain a razor sharp focus on improving the overall customer experience with everything that we do.”
Phase three will see the launch of a dedicated day use and ski school portal away from the overnight village. “Growth has been huge the last few years and we need to find solutions for our parking issues and ease the burden on our existing village,” notes Mountain Operations Director Rob Batchelder. “I’m very excited about solving those problems with this third phase of development in the Mid-Mountain area. Physically, we need room to grow and Mid-Mountain does that for us.” The $50 million project will include a day lodge, three dedicated beginner lifts and 6,400 foot detachable chairlift. The latter will include a half mid-station with access to six new intermediate trails. Riders staying on board will gain access to North Bowl without the need to transit the village or ride the busy Great Escape quad.
Highland readies for mountain bike season with new chairs acquired from Nashoba Valley.
Alterra makes modest changes to Ikon in light of recent events: delaying price increases by a month and increasing renewal discounts. Late today, the company added Adventure Assurance, permitting purchasers to defer their 2020-21 Ikon value to a 2021-22 pass if desired.
The Forest Service expects to have a decision on Keystone’s Bergman Bowl expansion by December.
Residents in opposition to Mexico City’s Cablebús Line 1 win an injunction stopping some construction.
A modern Leitner-Poma gondola is coming to Nova Scotia’s beautiful Cape Breton Island. The new lift will become the centerpiece of a thousand foot mountain called Cape Smokey, which features views of the Atlantic Ocean. With summer visitation outpacing winter in this region, the gondola will provide year-round access to skiing, sightseeing, mountain biking and a new tree canopy walk.
Cape Smokey was recently rescued by a New York-based investor group after falling into disrepair as a nonprofit society. Developer Joseph Balaz purchased the mountain from the province of Nova Scotia for just CAD$370,000. The area’s 1995 Blue Mountain quad last operated in 2006, leaving only a Poma platter lift operable in recent seasons.
Removal of the mountain’s quad chair has already begun and the base-to-summit gondola is expected to open in July 2021.
New terrain at Mt. Rose, Nevada could be accompanied by a rare two-stage detachable chairlift under a plan signed last week. Known as Atoma, the expansion would feature 112 acres of beginner terrain across the Mt. Rose Highway from the existing Wizard quad. The project would include eleven developed ski trails, a skier bridge and new snowmaking. A dual purpose detachable chairlift would provide both egress from the new terrain and a connection back to the top of Wizard. Skiers and riders seeking to lap the new trails would unload at an angle station near the highway while others would remain on board. Capacity of the lift would be 2,000 skiers per hour, providing a low-density beginner experience away from more advanced terrain. The plan does not specify a chair size, though Mt. Rose’s two existing detachables both feature six place chairs.
Chairlifts with angle stations are quite rare in the United States, in part due to their high cost. Garaventa CTEC built the first such lift on Vail’s Golden Peak in 1996. Nearby Breckenridge debuted the Peak 8 SuperConnect in 2002, allowing mid-line loading. Utah’s Alta Ski Area completed America’s first chairlift angle station with two separate drive systems in 2004 (Alta once planned to build a second such lift but opted instead for a gradual line turn with no loading or unloading.) Steamboat’s Christie Peak Express followed in 2007 with unloading for beginners at an angled mid-station. After a 12 year gap, Alpine Meadows and Leitner-Poma completed the Treeline Cirque quad in 2019 featuring an angle station at a cost of $10 million. If the angle concept ends up proving too expensive for Mt. Rose, the Forest Service authorized installation of one 3,000 foot beginner lift and a separate 1,650 foot connector chair as an alternative.
Mt. Rose has not released a timeline for construction or identified its lift manufacturer partner yet.