Even as ski resort giant Vail finalized its deal to purchase 17 ski resorts from Peak Resorts this week, independent ski mountain companies are finding their places in the market.
Their market: People who favor a little bit less — fewer people, fewer bells and whistles, and lower ticket prices at the window.
In a panel discussion at the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum in Stowe last week, “How Vermont’s Small Indie Ski Areas Are Bucking the Merger Trend,” personalities behind four iconic Vermont ski resorts explained how they’re holding their own.
Moderator Parker Riehle, the former head of Vermont Ski Areas Association and a museum board member, said Vermont resorts have faced far worse than consolidation.
He said the 1970s were “the harshest years” in the industry, with inflation, oil prices and, ironically, a string of record snowfall years, including 1972, when Vermont was declared a federal emergency area because of the snow.
By the end of the 1970s, airline deregulation made the resorts in Colorado much more accessible to East Coasters, and Colorado took over as the top ski destination in the country, “especially with the scope and breadth of those resorts they were building out.”
Soon after, California snuck into No. 2, with thanks to the market in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“Which makes the survival of these four especially amazing — incredible given the headwinds that they faced from Mother Nature, economy or whatever,” he said. “So, it’s really a tribute to these resorts’ resilience that they’re still not just surviving, but, in many years, they’re thriving.”
• Barbara Ann Cochran, an Olympic gold medalist and one of the famous Skiing Cochrans, who racked up podium placements throughout the 1960s and ‘70s. The Richmond ski hill her parents started is still going strong, and is a regular stop on the high school racing circuit.
• Lindsay DesLauriers, president and co-owner of Bolton Valley Resort, and daughter of the founder. The family sold the resorts several years ago, but now the DesLauriers name is back at Bolton.
• Matt Lillard, general manager of Mad River Glen, who has 17 years in the industry, starting at Okemo, years before the southern Vermont monster was on Vail’s radar.
• Geoff Hathaway, former marketing guru at Magic Mountain who formed a group of 16 investors to “bring the Magic back” after it shut down for most of the 1990s.
Magic Mountain in Londonderry was founded in 1960 by Hans Thorner, who took a look at Glebe Mountain — the resort’s peak — and felt it reminded him of the terrain in his native Swiss Alps.
Hathaway said European skiers “implanted themselves” into the U.S. ski market — “Stratton was Austrian, we were Swiss.” Thorner was one of the first to implement the “village concept” at a Vermont ski resort.
It’s also a steep, challenging mountain, more like the northern Vermont resorts than other southern hills, he said.
“It’s kind of similar to Mad River Glen in the sense that people who ski there ski really well, you know, and there’s that heritage about really challenging skiing and bringing that to life,” Hathaway said.
Magic Mountain’s heydays were from the 1960s through the early 1980s, when it was bought by Boston Concessions, the same corporation that owned Bromley Mountain. That was the beginning of the end.
As an economic downturn in the real estate market hit the country in the latter half of the decade, Boston Concessions decided to shut down Magic Mountain. In 1991, the place closed, and stayed dead for six years.
It was also the end of the beginning. In 1997, it reopened. And although it was tough going for the next decade, with the place going through multiple owners and with little money put into the operations, the skiers were passionate, and the reputation grew.
Finally, in 2015, a group of investors raised enough money to buy the property and pour $2 million into infrastructure improvements and operations.
“So, Magic was revitalized, kind of brought back from the dead, which is very hard to do,” Hathaway said. “In this industry, once you’re not there, people think you’re gone forever. And in that amount of time, it was almost a whole generation.”
Building a better Bolton
The history of Bolton Valley is tied largely to the last three generations of DesLauriers, particularly Ralph and his children, Evan and Lindsay. But it’s not an unbroken chain of ownership.
Lindsay said Ralph’s family had a farm and some timberland in the area. In 1966 Ralph, then in his early 20s, “had the bright idea to build a ski resort.” The area that became the resort was already known among backcountry skiers, so there was a built-in clientele.
The bread and butter came from the proximity to Burlington, and a huge — by Vermont standards — population of youngsters who didn’t know how to ski.
“He really wanted to make it his goal and his vision to try to teach Vermont kids how to ski. And so right there that first year, they started the after-school programs,” Lindsay said. “And still, you come up after school around 3 o’clock or on a weeknight and the place is jam-packed with hundreds and hundreds of kids.”
Another part of “Bolton’s roots” are the exploits of her older brothers Eric and Rob, who learned to ski in the Bolton backcountry and went on to star in 1990s films by Warren Miller, later founding their own film company with other sibling Adam.
“On the one hand, you have this totally homey family mountain deeply rooted with generations of skiers. Kid-friendly, everybody centers back, small village base and, as a parent, you feel comfortable letting your kids have total freedom, and that’s really cool,” she said. “And then on the other hand, you have this really radical backcountry experience that is like the total other end of the sport, where you’re exploring and pushing the limits, having these amazing, expert adventures.”
Cochran’s is family
For all the traveling Barbara Ann Cochran — a gold medalist in slalom at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan — has done, her family’s Richmond hill is still where it all begins.
It’s where it all began for a lot of people, and Cochran’s Ski Area is something of an extension of the family. Barbara’s parents, Mickey and Ginny, built the place on their property along the Winooski River in 1961.
It was mainly built for their kids, Bob, Barbara Ann, Marilyn and Lindy, who were racers-in-training between the ages of 7 and 10 and needed somewhere they could train during the week.
“And that’s really how we got started. It was like, the lodge was my mom’s kitchen,” she said. “It’s never private, it’s always been public. I think you could ski there for 25 cents.”
The ticket prices are a little more nowadays, but Cochran’s — and any of the ski resorts represented on the red bench last week — keeps its prices lower than the bigger resorts. Even though Vail and Alterra make season passes cheaper, some of their resorts, like Stowe, can have triple-digit prices for day passes.
The famous skiing family has also kept new visitors coming from all over the country and the world, Cochran said. She said the ski area got a big bump last year, when NBC visited the area as part of its lead-up to the Olympics in South Korea.
“There was a family from the state of Georgia that saw it on NBC and said, that’s where I want our kids to learn how to ski,” Cochran said.
Mad, Mad world
There was a “recurring theme” from the ski museum’s red bench last week, said Mad River’s Lillard.
“It’s that strong personality people can attach to and feel that spirit, and that community,” he said.
Lillard said Mad River got its start because founder Roland Palmedo, who helped build out Stowe in the mid-1940s, “decided that Stowe was too corporate.”
“So, he went to find his own mountain and create that community that he wanted to have as an adventurer and an outdoorsman himself,” Lillard said.”
Mad River is near-mythical in some of its traditions. The Single Chair that Palmedo installed in 1948 is still there. Snowboarders still are not.
There’s no snowmaking and its 2,000-foot vertical drop has been ranked the most challenging on the East Coast.
Lillard said it’s North America’s only cooperatively owned ski area — skiers buy shares and attend town hall-style meetings to vote on the ski area management — “so we are now, literally, owned by that same community of skiers.”
“That’s all built around the people that are there, and how we want to spend that time,” he said. “It’s about being part of something, and holding on to that and passing it on to your kids.”
With many of Vermont’s most iconic resorts passing into the ownership of large out-of-state companies that offer multi-resort ski passes, some of Vermont’s smaller independents are joining forces to appeal to skiers and snowboarders who want a less corporate experience on the snow.
Bolton Valley Resort, Suicide Six and Magic Mountain have all joined the new Indy Pass, which for $199 offers two lift tickets each at 34 independently owned resorts around the United States.
The pass, which is newly available in the upcoming season, takes direct aim at the pricing that studies show has pushed skiers and snowboarders out of the sport. And it rallies the smaller areas against the marketing might of giants like Vail and Alterra.
At last week’s talk in Stowe, Riehle asked the panelists what they’ve done in response.
“The short answer is, we doubled down on who we are,” Lillard said. “We didn’t want to change that experience. We didn’t want to change what we’re offering. And we knew that we had something that people wanted to be a part of.”
DesLauriers said it was interesting that 2017, the year Vail bought Stowe, was the same year her family bought Bolton back from Red Stone Properties, and that was a little nerve-wracking. But her dad’s experience in the local ski industry suggested the best way to be Bolton was to continue to be Bolton.
Vail’s Epic passes might cheaper for some families, but there’s more to a vacation than just the pass — there’s food and drink and rentals, and all of that can jack up the price.
“But how many vacations are you going to take?” she said. “They’re aiming somewhere else. And I think for us, it’s rooting into our community. And it’s about knowing our market, knowing who we’re talking to, who wants to ski with us, and how to make skiing possible for those people.”
VTDigger contributed to this report.