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.
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.
Arizona Snowbowl’s fourth new lift in six years will be the largest yet – a chair/gondola combo lift rising almost 2,000 vertical feet. The new base-to-summit workhorse will operate year round for skiers, snowboarders and sightseers beginning next winter. “Since its inception, Agassiz has been the beating heart of Snowbowl,” notes the resort. “With the replacement of the lift, we’re ushering in a new era. More than an upgrade, the new Agassiz lift completely redefines the Snowbowl experience.”
Unlike most combination lifts, Agassiz will feature eight passenger gondolas between every two chairs (usually the ratio is more like one in four or five.) Agassiz reaches an elevation of 11,500 feet and enclosed cabins will offer guests a comfortable option in inclement weather. The gondolas will also provide improved access for guests with disabilities and ride time will decrease from 15 minutes to seven. Capacity will remain a modest 1,200 skiers per hour so as not to overwhelm expert trails off the summit.
The Leitner-Poma Telemix will be the third lift in the Agassiz alignment over six decades of history. The existing Agassiz triple opened in 1986 and is currently inoperable due to a mechanical issue. The CTEC is expected to be repaired this week and will finish out the remainder of the season. Once removed, it will be stored for eventual re-installation at a location to be determined.
Mountain Capital Partners has invested heavily in Arizona Snowbowl since purchasing the resort back in 2014. Improvements to date include a new lodge, two different fixed-gripquads and a six place called the Grand Canyon Express. 2020’s project will be the largest in resort history and one of the most significant lift additions in North America this year.
This year saw installation of 43 new and 7 used lifts across North America, numbers similar to the last two seasons. 43 may seem like a modest number for newly-manufactured lifts on an entire continent but that number is a 54 percent increase from the start of the decade and the highest single year total since 2004. Only seven resorts opted to install used lifts, mostly late model fixed grip chairlifts but also a detachable quad and one T-Bar.
While 2018 saw a record number of gondolas, multiple bubble chairs and a Telemix, 2019’s projects trended smaller with 22 fixed grip chairlifts and five surface lifts. That’s the most platters and T-Bars built in the last 15 years. Two of them anchor terrain expansions while another two service youth racing programs. Loading carpets were included on five new fixed quad lifts, allowing them to run at slightly faster speeds.
After two huge years, gondola construction fell to two new installations in Colorado, one in New Hampshire and pulse versions in New York and Florida. Detachable chairlift construction was just above the decade average of ten per year. Only one of this year’s high speed chairlifts included bubbles and another heated seats.
Halfway between Denver and Summit County’s ski resorts, 22 million vehicles a year transit I-70 in the town of Idaho Springs. Local businesswoman Mary Jane Loevlie sees an opportunity for 400,000 of them to stop and take a gondola ride from the historic Argo Mill and Tunnel to a new summit plaza. The Colorado Sun reports a group of investors led by Loevlie has partnered with Leitner-Poma to build The Mighty Argo Cable Car, an eight passenger gondola system in what was once a mining boom town. “We are marrying outdoor recreation and heritage tourism at a reclaimed EPA Superfund site,” said Loevlie at a community gathering yesterday. “You know what, we are putting the fun in Superfund.”
The concept resembles Silver Mountain, Idaho, a successful public-private partnership that saw construction of a 3.1 mile gondola adjacent to Interstate 90 atop of one of the nation’s largest EPA cleanup sites. The Colorado project initially focused on constructing a hotel, conference center and stores but morphed to begin with the gondola due to revenue potential. The 10 minute lift ride would ascend 1,300 vertical feet to a restaurant and park. Capacity would be 600 visitors per hour, modest by ski lift standards. Bike carriers would be included for adventurous guests seeking to take advantage of nearby trails.
More than $200 million was invested to create Revelstoke Mountain Resort, an Ikon Pass destination in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. While the skiing is undeniably fantastic, the resort’s timing was poor, launching on the cusp of the global financial crisis in December 2007. Acquired by Northland Properties from an American developer just a year into operation, Revelstoke has slowly grown to 3,100 acres, two gondola sections and two quad chairlifts with a third set to open this year.
Revelstoke features a continent-leading vertical rise 5,620 feet and the longest run goes on for nearly ten miles. The lower village lies along the Columbia River at 1,680 feet. Despite the addition of snowmaking in 2011, the entire lower mountain is sometimes closed due to lack of snow. The resort’s new master plan focuses on higher alpine terrain where snowfall is plentiful and reliable. The lift currently under construction, originally called Cupcake but now known as Stellar, will service a teaching zone at 5,600 feet near the summit of the Revelation Gondola.
In addition to the new Leitner-Poma quad, all four existing lifts will be brought up to their maximum capacities of 2,600 to 2,800 passengers per hour this summer through carrier additions. That means 22 new gondola cabins, 21 chairs for The Stoke and 42 more for The Ripper.
After this summer, Northland plans to shift back to adding alpine terrain Revelstoke is famous for. A high speed lift in the North Bowl of Mt. Mackenzie will provide access above The Ripper with a vertical rise of 1,970 feet. The new South Bowl quad will add 395 acres at even higher elevation with panoramic views of the Columbia. Phase 2c envisions a lift duo backing up the Revelation Gondola and a new intermediate quad known as Lift 15. “The focus of Phase 2 will be on increasing uphill lift capacity to accommodate increased visitation, as well as terrain development at higher elevations in more snow-reliable areas within the resort’s current boundary,” notes the approved plan.