If you follow the ski industry, mark your calendar for four months from now, the week of December 4th. Very early one morning that week, the largest mountain resort operator in the world will release its fiscal 2018 first quarter results and, more importantly to this audience, outline capital expenditures for 2018. Last year, this is the moment Vail Resorts committed to building three six-packs as part of $103 million in capital spending for 2017 (the company later added a fourth detachable to this year’s class, the Red Buffalo Express at Beaver Creek.) In December 2015, MTN announced a high-speed quad for Vail Mountain and in 2014, $50 million in improvements including three new lifts at Park City plus another six-pack at Vail. So, what might be on the likely $120+ million agenda for 2018?
Game Creek Express #7 six-pack. The current 1985 version of Game Creek is the oldest operating lift on Vail Mountain and one of three remaining CLD-260 style Doppelmayr detachables there. It is likely to be replaced with a six-pack, increasing capacity by at least 25 percent in popular Game Creek Bowl. Of the recent six-pack upgrades at Vail, two were built by Doppelmayr (Avanti #2 and Mountaintop #4) and one by Leitner-Poma (Northwoods #11.)
Orient Express #21 six-pack. Three years newer than Game Creek but still with DS grips, Orient Express serves some of the most popular terrain in Vail’s famous Back Bowls below the equally popular Two Elk Lodge. A six-pack upgrade would be the first such lift in the Back Bowls or Blue Sky Basin.
Wildwood Express #3six-pack. A 1995 CTEC, Wildwood is not as old as other detachables recently replaced at Vail, but it serves a high-traffic pod between Mid-Vail and its namesake Wildwood. Parts from this lift could be used as spares for Riva Bahn/Pride Express and Cinch, Bachelor, Grouse Mountain and Strawberry Park high-speed quads at Beaver Creek.
Born Free Express #8 replacement. Born Free is the 1988 sister ship to Orient and runs parallel to the Eagle Bahn Gondola, built 1996. Vail could opt to address both lifts in the coming years with a gondola like Keystone’s or replace only Born Free with a new high-speed quad or six-pack.
Golden Peak Race lift. In April, Vail submitted a master plan amendment to add a third lift on Golden Peak above the Riva Bahn mid-station. This short fixed-grip chairlift or surface lift would primarily serve an extended race course.
Arrow Bahn Express replacement. Beaver Creek doesn’t see nearly the traffic that Vail does and has seen ten new lifts since 2000. However, Arrow Bahn Express is by far the oldest lift at Beaver Creek, built in 1988 to serve a separate Arrowhead ski area. A CLD-260 like Game Creek, Orient and Born Free but with lower hours for its age, Arrow Bahn might make it a bit longer.
Vail Resorts says in its third quarter results that Epic Pass sales are up 10 percent over last year. The company typically announces new capital projects just after Epic Pass sales conclude in late November.
In a move that should surprise no one, this morning Vail Resorts officially went east, agreeing to buy the mountain operations of Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont for $50 million from a subsidiary of insurance giant AIG. The move had been rumored for months and was signed on Friday. Stowe will join Vail Resorts’ hugely popular Epic Pass next season and will become the second mountain newly-acquired by Vail to abandon the Mountain Collective following Whistler-Blackcomb. Like Whistler, Stowe will probably also abandon its SKIDATA RFID lift access technology in favor of the proprietary Epic system.
“We’re thrilled to add Stowe Mountain Resort to our family of world-class mountain resorts. With the investments in both mountain infrastructure and base area facilities that AIG has made over the years, Stowe Mountain Resort has become the premier, high-end resort for East Coast skiers and snowboarders. We look forward to working with AIG to continue enhancing the guest experience and to ensure the resort’s long-term success,” said Rob Katz, chairman and chief executive officer of Vail Resorts.
Like the flagship Vail Mountain, Stowe has invested heavily in new lifts from both Doppelmayr and Leitner-Poma in recent years, adding six new lifts since 2004. Four of those additions are located on the redeveloped Spruce Peak at Stowe. The addition of Stowe’s eight chairlifts and two gondolas brings Vail Resorts to operate more than 260 lifts across 13 mountain resorts. Vail has already announced four new high-speed lifts (three Leitner-Poma, one Doppelmayr) to be built at Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Vail for next winter. The purchase of Stowe is expected to close sometime this spring.