At this time last year, 2020 was destined to be busy in North America with more than 30 ropeways already scheduled for construction. As the 2019/20 winter went on, more announcements came seemingly each week. Vail Resorts, Alterra and Boyne all unveiled ambitious plans including multi-lift projects at Beaver Creek, Mammoth and Okemo. Yet in the background, the Coronavirus was advancing around the world. The situation came to a head the weekend of March 14th, when hundreds of North American resorts closed in order to protect public health. Facing uncertainty about summer and beyond, many businesses decided to postpone expansion capital entirely.
Despite immense challenges, US and Canadian resorts did add a total of 28 new lifts in 2020. Most companies which went ahead were small- to medium-sized, ones often forgotten in this era of consolidation. In Maine and West Virginia, mountains which had sat idle for years revved back to life with brand new lifts to welcome back guests.
Almost all this year’s lifts directly replaced older machines. The average age of a lift retired in 2020 was 40 years as resorts said goodbye to Halls, Riblets, Borvigs and more. Some replacement projects simply couldn’t wait for the pandemic to be over.
Expansion lifts make up about 40 percent of the total most years but in 2020 they were just 20 percent. Sun Valley forged ahead with Sunrise, a 380 acre addition near Seattle Ridge. After skiing the new terrain, guests will enjoy a high speed ride back to the Roundhouse on a new Doppelmayr quad. Other expansions include Lake Louise’s West Bowl project and Nordic Valley’s yet-to-be-named southward expansion.
Arapahoe Basin replaced not one but two Yan fixed grips with modern Alpha models, including the legendary Pallavicini double with a new double. Aspen Skiing Company purchased its first direct drive lift from Leitner-Poma, a replacement for Big Burn at Snowmass. The State of New York committed millions to upgrade three fixed grip chairlifts at two mountains.
Sunday River Resort’s 15th chairlift will be installed next summer, one year earlier than originally planned. The Doppelmayr fixed grip triple will service Merrill Hill, a community of 23 home sites located between South Ridge and Aurora Peak. The lift will load near the existing Dream Maker run and service three new trails. Nine of the lots surrounding the lift remain available for sale.
Merrill Hill will become the third lift addition in five years for Sunday River following construction of the Spruce Peak triple in 2017 and the Alera Group Competition T-Bar in 2019. Parent company Boyne Resorts also plans to add Doppelmayr lifts at Big Sky Resort and Loon Mountain in 2021.
When asked about acquisitions on last night’s earnings call, Rob Katz said Vail is focused on positioning the company to be able to make the most of whatever opportunities may come over the next 12 months.
Vail is forced to cancel some guest reservations and black out employee skiing in Colorado this weekend due to limited snow and terrain.
Despite a 44 percent decline in earnings, Vail Resorts plans to invest in new lifts across five mountains in 2021. The seven projects at Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Crested Butte, Keystone and Okemo were initially planned for 2020 but postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. “We remain committed to reinvesting in our resorts and creating an experience of a lifetime for our guests,” noted CEO Rob Katz. “We plan to maintain a disciplined approach to capital investments, keeping our core capital at reduced levels given the continued uncertainty due to COVID-19.” The company will announce its complete capital plan for calendar year 2021 in March.
At Beaver Creek, a new Doppelmayr detachable quad will service the high alpine McCoy Park learning zone. “This new lift accessed beginner and intermediate bowl experience is a rare opportunity to expand with highly accessible terrain in one of the most idyllic settings in Colorado and will further differentiate the high-end, family focused experience at Beaver Creek,” said the company. A second quad chair will provide egress to the top of the Strawberry Park and Upper Beaver Creek Mountain Express lifts.
At Keystone, Leitner-Poma will replace the Peru Express with a six pack. The new machine will increase out-of-base capacity and improve circulation. Also in Summit County, a new detachable quad on Breckenridge’s Peak 7 will enhance uphill capacity near the Independence SuperChair. “This additional lift will further enhance the guest experience at the most visited resort in the U.S. and will significantly increase guest access and circulation for the intermediate terrain on Peaks 6 and 7,” said Vail.
Crested Butte plans to replace the two-person Peachtree chairlift with a Skytrac triple servicing beginner terrain at the base of the resort. Grading around the new lift will create a more consistent experience for beginner and ski school guests.