News Roundup: Government Relations

  • Bogus Basin shells out $53,000 to settle alleged environmental violations related to the construction of the Morning Star Express and other projects.
  • Former owner Ariel Quiros will plead guilty to orchestrating a fraudulent investment scheme at Jay Peak.
  • The Jay Peak receivership has racked up more than $8 million in attorney and accountant bills so far.
  • Aspen Snowmass hasn’t decided whether the Big Burn six place will get bubbles.
  • A near collision leads to an evacuation of a Leitner-Poma six pack in New Zealand.
  • Skiing in that country proves super popular even without international travel.
  • The State of New York makes huge investments at Whiteface this summer: $2.4 million worth of gondola upgrades, a new quad chair, a new lodge and snowmaking enhancements.
  • Skytrac is the low bidder to replace Howelsen Hill’s Barrows double with a quad next summer.
  • Alterra characterizes season pass sales for next winter as “shockingly strong.”
  • Mt. Norquay will try again for approval to build a gondola linking the ski area to Banff.

News Roundup: Tough Choices

  • The Italian parent of Leitner and Poma reports record revenue of €1.06 billion, having completed 78 ropeway projects in 2019, though the company expects sales to fall 30 percent in 2020.
  • Public comments are now being solicited regarding Steamboat’s proposed Wild Blue Gondola, Sundown Express replacement and Priest Creek removal projects.
  • Vail Resorts suspends operations at two Australian resorts just three days into the season due to the evolving Coronavirus situation.
  • Even though American Dream and Big Snow in New Jersey are closed, a second American Dream location remains in development in Miami.
  • Vail Resorts-owned OnTheSnow.com and sister websites will shut down Monday due to the challenging financial landscape. A Vail-owned TV station is also closing.
  • Bloomberg speaks with the CEOs of both Alterra and Vail about next winter.
  • Today is the last day to comment on Little Cottonwood Canyon transportation alternatives, including a 3S gondola.
  • Walt Disney World won’t allow unrelated parties to ride together in gondola cabins when the Skyliner reopens.
  • Doppelmayr USA, Leitner-Poma of America, MND America, Skytrac and SkyTrans all received Paycheck Protection Program loans supporting more than 400 American jobs.
  • A key link located on a receding glacier, the Horstman T-Bar at Whistler Blackcomb is no more.
  • Design work continues for Aspen Mountain’s Lift One Telemix and related developments.

Under Alterra, Steamboat Considers More Big Projects

The new Steamboat Gondola transports 3,600 guests per hour and was one of the first major investments by new owner Alterra.

A 17,000 foot gondola. Two boundary expansions. Three six place chairlifts. Those are among the items on Alterra Mountain Company’s new wish list for its flagship Colorado resort. The two year-old operator acquired Steamboat in 2018 from Canadian developer Intrawest, which struggled to complete the volume of sustained improvements needed at this premier destination resort. The same was true for prior owner American Skiing Company.

Nonetheless, Ski Town USA grew to become Colorado’s fifth largest resort, hosting nearly 1.1 million skier visits in 2018/19. A new master plan amendment seeks to build on Steamboat’s success by boosting out-of-base capacity, enhancing experiences for varying ability levels and more efficiently moving guests around the mountain.

Perhaps most exciting is the prospect of a base-to-summit lift called Wild Blue. This would be the longest gondola on the continent, rising an impressive 3,465 vertical feet. Intrawest and Alterra spent millions to transform the existing Steamboat Gondola into a modern 3,600 per hour machine, but it’s still not enough to handle the more than 16,000 skiers who show up on peak days. Wild Blue would carry 3,200 riders per hour to a learning center in Bashor Bowl before ascending Sunshine Peak. The two stage gondola would pass over a total of four other lifts.

News Roundup: More Skiing?

  • Mt. Baldy runs out of snow, ending North American lift served skiing for now.
  • Aspen Skiing Company expresses frustration with the Colorado governor’s order for ski resorts to remain closed until at least May 23rd.
  • Arapahoe Basin still wants to reopen.
  • Oregon may beat Colorado to the punch.
  • Eaglecrest, Alaska joins the Powder Alliance amid news the Freedom Pass is no more.
  • Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory says his company is well-capitalized and delayed projects should be completed next year (plus he’s still looking to buy more resorts!)
  • Skeetawk completes its chairlift, becoming the first new ski area in Alaska since 1983.
  • Mountain planner Paul Mathews of Ecosign talks about the development of Sun Peaks and future plans in the West Bowl and the Gil’s areas.
  • Norwegian Cruise Line reiterates its commitment to Alaska including the funding of two gondolas currently under construction in Hoonah.
  • As part of a land swap, the Yellowstone Club seeks to gain 500 acres of expert terrain.
  • Cuchara remains on track to reopen next year with one lift.
  • The Utah Department of Transportation will evaluate gondolas from the Salt Lake Valley and Park City as two possible options to improve mobility in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
  • Doppelmayr’s first Wir magazine of 2020 highlights new installations from around the world.

Following Cancellations, How Will Lift Construction Recover?

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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Alterra Furloughs Staff, Delays Mammoth Lift Construction

In addition to 17,000 early layoffs of seasonal employees, Alterra Mountain Company has made the difficult decision to furlough many of its year-round workers and defer capital projects.  Affected workers will remain employed with benefits such as health insurance but will not receive any pay for the foreseeable future.  CEO Rusty Gregory will forego his entire salary as long as full time employees are furloughed.  Employees in key roles who continue to work will receive full salaries for now.  “While it is my fervent intent to avoid reducing anyone’s full pay rate for work going forward, we do not know how long this crisis will continue,” said Gregory in a letter to employees.  “It is imperative that we ensure that our finite resources last long enough to get us to the other side of this pandemic and fully open for operation when the time comes.”

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Two Yan-Doppelmayr hybrid lifts at Mammoth Mountain will live on for at least another year thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 50 percent of planned capital spending will be cut.  In a sign of just how fast the coronavirus changed everything, Alterra announced $223 million worth of improvements just four days before being forced to shut down all 15 of its resorts.  Postponed Alterra lift projects are both located at Mammoth Mountain in California, where Doppelmayr was slated to replace the mountain’s two oldest high speed quads with six place models.  The Broadway Express and Canyon Express were constructed in 1988 and 1994, respectively.  Alterra also announced last month the purchase of a Doppelmayr high speed quad for Tremblant, Quebec to be installed in 2021.  The future of that project will be determined at a later date.

Coronavirus Shutters Vail Resorts, All of Alterra and Many More

North America’s ski industry is following in the unfortunate footsteps of its counterparts in Asia and Europe, forced to end winter operations early to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.  Among the first to pull the plug the past two days were Berkshire East, Jay Peak, Taos and Nub’s Nob.

What started as a trickle became a deluge Saturday.  In Colorado, Governor Jared Polis issued an executive order compelling all resorts to close following outbreaks in Eagle, Pitkin, and Summit counties.  Even before the order, the continent’s two largest resort companies almost simultaneously announced complete shutdowns effective tomorrow.  The 37 Vail facilities will remain closed until at least March 22nd and will continue to pay scheduled employees.  Many independent mountains are staying open for now.

This is uncharted territory but I’m certain the ski business will be okay.  Unlike other industries, we are used to doing this between seasons, albeit under very different circumstances.  The United States government has promised help to small and mid-sized businesses along with hourly employees who are missing work and pay.  Canada and governments around the world will likely do the same.  Hopefully many full time, year rounders can keep working and get important maintenance done.

Normally March on this blog features announcement after announcement of exciting new projects from lift manufacturers and their customers.  At this point, already formalized projects are pacing about the same as last year and none have been publicly canceled.  Hopefully production can continue and this mess abates in time for construction to get going as snow melts.  There are many unknowns, however.

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Glacier Bowl Express yesterday at Alyeska Resort, my 417th ski area.  Alyeska and most of Alaska’s ski resorts remain open.

Those of you on Instagram know I’m in one of the world’s most amazing places right now: Alaska.  Operations at resorts were normal across the board the past few days and the weather was perfect in a state with only one confirmed case of COVID-19.  Tomorrow I will attempt to fly home and reassess.  As of this writing, Jackson Hole intends to stay open and I will be in on Monday if there is work to go to.

With so many resorts shut down and the global economy struggling, there may not be much lift news to report for awhile.  When there is, I’ll write, and will get back to exploring as soon as I can.

News Roundup: Viral

Alterra Capital Plan Includes New Lifts and Expansions for 2020-21

North America’s second largest resort operator today announced the purchase of two lifts for Mammoth Mountain, new terrain at Steamboat Resort and a two year project to build new trails and lifts at Tremblant.  Alterra Mountain Company will complete $223 million worth of capital improvements in total for next season, up from $181 million in 2019-20 and $130 million the year before.  Rival Vail Resorts announced back in December spending of $210 to $215 million across 37 mountain resorts, including construction of six new lifts in 2020.

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Mammoth’s Broadway Express #1 and Canyon Express #16, both built by Yan and upgraded by Doppelmayr, will be replaced this summer.

At Mammoth, one of the most utilized lifts in the Alterra system, Broadway Express, will be replaced with a high-speed six place detachable, increasing uphill capacity by 42 percent to 3,200 skiers per hour.  Sister lift Canyon Express will be replaced with a 3,000 people per hour six pack, increasing uphill capacity out of Canyon Lodge by 66 percent.  Both of these lifts are likely to be supplied by Doppelmayr.

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This will be the last season for the Canyon Express, a workhorse lift above the Village at Mammoth.

In Colorado, Steamboat Resort will expand onto 355 acres of Pioneer Ridge, providing skiers and riders with more terrain to explore.  Pioneer Ridge will feature 1,800 vertical feet of advanced and expert gladed terrain accessible via the Pony Express lift.  Twenty five new chairs will be added to the Garaventa CTEC high speed quad, increasing capacity from 1,200 people per hour to 1,800.  The Steamboat master plan calls for Pioneer Ridge to eventually feature its own detachable chairlift.

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Steamboat will open up hundreds of acres of new terrain beyond Pony Express and become Colorado’s third largest ski area.

This summer, Tremblant will begin a two-year expansion project called Timber.  Quebec’s most popular mountain will open a new beginner zone with a magic carpet on Versant Soleil for 2020-21 to enhance the learning experience for new skiers and riders.  In late 2021, the Timber summit will open with a new high speed quad and eight trails leading to Versant Soleil and the North side.  “This project, which aims at diversifying the ski area, is part of the continued development of Versant Soleil and reaffirms Tremblant’s leader position as the #1 ski resort in Eastern North America,” said the resort.

“Three years ago, when we formed Alterra Mountain Company, an initial priority was to commit to investing a half a billion dollars by 2023 across our family of North American destinations,” said Rusty Gregory, CEO of Alterra Mountain Company.  “To date, we have invested more than $350 million and are committed to exceeding our original plan, spending $575 million by 2020 on lifts and gondolas, snowmaking, summer activities, real estate development, hospitality and technology, all in the name of creating memories for our guests through an elevated mountain experience.”  Privately-held Alterra owns 14 resorts, having recently completed its acquisition of Sugarbush.

News Roundup: Stellar