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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Atlantic Canada’s First Gondola to Open at Cape Smokey

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.

News Roundup: Ripple Effect

  • Saddleback demolishes the Rangeley double to make room for its upcoming high speed quad.
  • Debt-laden Ski Granby Ranch lays off all its employees and won’t issue refunds to guests with canceled vacations.
  • The $2.2 trillion phase three stimulus package passed by Congress doesn’t include assistance specifically for ski areas but there is hope phase four might.
  • Vail Resorts borrows more than $500 million from existing lines of credit in order to increase its cash position and maintain financial flexibility during the outbreak.
  • While many Leitner-Poma staffers work from home, a skeleton crew continues production.
  • Even in hard-hit Italy, one major lift customer plans to commence construction as soon as the immediate health danger has passed.
  • Many Doppelmayr employees are also working from home and production continues in Wolfurt.
  • Aspen Snowmass intends to complete all capital projects as planned this summer including the $10.8 million Big Burn chairlift.
  • Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz personally donates $2.5 million to mountain community charities and an employee assistance fund.
  • Yet another lift project cancelled by Vail Resorts: replacement of Peachtree at Crested Butte this summer.
  • NSAA estimates costs from early closings and lost pass sales will exceed $2 billion in the United States and forecasts capital spending will plunge 50 percent this year.
  • Magic Mountain’s Geoff Hatheway offers a small ski area perspective on COVID-19.
  • Coronavirus may impact the review timeline for Snow King Mountain’s proposed expansion and other projects on Forest Service lands.
  • Katharina Schmitz officially takes the reigns of Doppelmayr USA from Mark Bee, who retired on March 31st.
  • Boyne Resorts estimates $22 million in lost revenue as a result of this winter’s abrupt end.
  • The Vietnamese developer behind both the world’s longest and tallest 3S gondolas plans another island-hopping 3S in the country’s north.

News Roundup: Down But Not Out

  • The last North American ski area still operating, Lookout Pass, closes for the season.
  • Leitner-Poma is hiring installers for projects at Arapahoe Basin, Arizona Snowbowl, Aspen Snowmass, Breckenridge, Keystone and Okemo.
  • A group of 150 former members buys the Hermitage Club and its five chairlifts for the bargain price of $8.06 million.
  • Arapahoe Basin lays off 430 seasonal employees and cuts the hours of year round staff.
  • Children of the man who died on a Vail chairlift earlier this season retain a Denver law firm for possible litigation.
  • In addition to virtually all ski resorts worldwide, coronavirus shuts down urban gondolas including La Paz’s Mi Teleférico, Medellín’s Metrocable, Santo Domingo’s Teleférico and London’s Emirates Air Line.
  • New owners take over Great Divide and will reevaluate proposed lift additions through a master planning process.
  • The newest gondola operation in Australia becomes insolvent and enters administration, partly a result of COVID-19.
  • SAM gathers leaders from Alterra, Boyne, Vail and more to talk about the crisis.  A common theme: capital budgets being reexamined.
  • A Vancouver developer thinks about a gondola as part of a hillside housing development near Cypress Mountain.
  • Lift construction grinds to a halt in New Zealand but carries on in Alaska.
  • Ski Inc. and Ski Inc. 2020 author Chris Diamond shares an optimistic view of the crisis under the assumption it won’t last into next winter.

Arizona Snowbowl to Install Combination Lift

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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.

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In addition to summer and winter, Agassiz operates all fall for scenic rides.

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.

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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-grip quads 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.

A Solid Year Caps a Decade of Construction Growth

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The mostly new Steamboat Gondola features 137 cabins travelling at a brisk six meters per second.

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.

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The Yeti Cruiser at Sasquatch Mountain Resort was one of three new Leitner-Poma Alpha fixed grips constructed across Canada in 2019.

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.

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Vail Resorts completed the largest-ever lift investment at Stevens Pass, purchasing two Doppelmayr quads to replace aging Riblet and Thiokol lifts.

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Gondola to Anchor Redeveloped Site Along Colorado’s Interstate 70

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Photo credit: Andy Colwell via The Colorado Sun

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.

Local approval for the project is still pending but it’s possible the gondola could launch as soon as next summer.  The Mighty Argo Cable Car would join an elite group of scenic tramways and gondolas across Colorado: the Estes Park Tramway, Glenwood Gondola, Monarch Crest Scenic Tram and Royal Gorge Gondola, all of which were constructed by Leitner-Poma and its predecessor companies.

News Roundup: Convoy

News Roundup: Stay Tuned

A Dozen Years In, Revelstoke Reassesses

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Revelstoke Mountain Resort currently operates four Leitner-Poma Omega detachable lifts built in 2007 and 2008.

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.

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Last month, Revelstoke Mountain Resort filed a new master plan with the province.  This map shows the current buildout and phase 2.

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.

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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.

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