Our view: Time will tell
April 15, 2017
What are the implications of the announced sale of Intrawest/Steamboat to new owners?
Steamboat Ski Resort should enjoy increased stability as a member of a broader resort group, but there are many questions to be answered.
The community of Steamboat Springs has grown accustomed through the years to changes in the ownership of Steamboat Ski Resort. And, by definition, ownership changes are both unsettling and healthy at the same time.
As we anticipate the closing in early fall of the sale of Intrawest Resorts and Steamboat Ski Resort to a new company being funded and created by Aspen Skiing Company and KSL/Capital Partners, there are many questions to be answered. But resort officials are unlikely to be free to discuss many of them until the deal is done.
What we think we know, without a doubt, is that the ski resort industry has reached an era in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to exist as a fiercely independent, standalone destination resort. That applies not only to Aspen and KSL's Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows, but also to Steamboat Ski Resort.
Vail Resorts' brilliant CEO, Rob Katz, has put the entire ski industry on notice, gobbling up Park City, Utah and Whistler Blackcomb, B.C., to go along with Vail's dominance in Summit County. All the acquisitions have made Vail's multi-resort season pass, the Epic Pass, exceptionally influential in the ski vacation industry.
For $859, less than the full price of a season pass at Steamboat, skiers can enjoy unlimited access to Vail's big destination resorts.
Aspen CEO David Perry observed in an article in the Aspen Times this week that his resort's visitors are uncommonly loyal to Aspen, but they also want to experience other ski mountains. The challenge posed by the Epic Pass is that, once Vail customers purchase it for the home resort, they have a strong disincentive to vacation at a destination resort outside the Vail portfolio. Vail Resorts offers plenty of options that are already covered by the Epic Pass.
And that's what major ski areas like Aspen, Steamboat, Squaw Valley, Winter Park and Mammoth Mountain are up against. The new alliance among those five Western resorts through the Aspen/KSL acquisitions will only make the islands that resorts like Jackson Hole, Telluride and Crested Butte occupy even more remote.
So, one way to look at the Aspen/KSL acquisition of Intrawest and Steamboat is to contemplate whether the community of Steamboat and Steamboat Ski Resort would continue to prosper on an island or become marginalized over time.
We understand there are local residents who would prefer that Steamboat stay the way it is, and we're cognizant of the fact that loyalists have plenty of questions they want answered. We're also aware that many of those answers won't be provided until after the sale closes in early autumn.
The list might include the following.
• Will the cost of skiing increase significantly under new ownership, or will a new multi-resort pass make it less expensive for locals?
• Does the new company intend to develop new resort properties in Ski Time Square?
• Was the decision to refurbish the Steamboat gondola this spring instead of replacing it made with the approval of the tentative new owners? Or would they prefer something else?
• Will Steamboat Ski Resort employees enjoy better wages and benefits under new ownership?
• How would the new (yet to be named) ownership company move forward with Steamboat's ski season airline program?
• Will the new ownership company take measures to provide additional housing for its seasonal and perennial workforce here?
Time will tell.