Vail Resorts – Epic Operations

Vail Resorts provides a resort experience that relies on it's multidimensional operating model to add value for customers past just skiing or snowboarding.

Background

Vail Resorts, Inc. is a publicly traded mountain resort company that owns eleven ski resorts, runs RockResorts hotels and condominiums, and also has a real estate segment. Four of Vail’s ski resorts, including Vail Mountain which is shown above (1), are among the top five most visited resorts in the United States. With the addition of Park City Mountain Resort, Vail will soon have the largest ski resort in the nation. (2,3)

Picture2

Vail Village(4)

Business Model

Vail Resorts is focused on delivering exceptional experiences to their guests. (3) This philosophy drives the other aspects of the business model. The business model has different implications in the three different operating segments of Vail Resorts.

  • For the mountain resorts segment, given the lack of new mountain resorts, Vail emphasizes maintaining the leadership position of existing resorts.
  • In the lodging segment, Vail’s stated focus is to control the entire experience of visiting the mountain resorts by owning the beds at the base of the mountains.
  • For the real estate segment, Vail emphasizes enhancing the resort bed base, amenities, and aesthetics.

Focusing on this expansion of the guest experience has allowed Vail Resorts to smooth their revenue flows so that lift tickets drive the base of the business, but additional profit comes from owning the entire mountain. Despite a low snowfall in 2012 (after a record 2011 snowfall), Vail did not have a decrease in annual revenue due to the success of their operating model. (5)

Operating Model

In order to own the entire mountain and control the guest experience, Vail Resorts has focused on several main areas.

1. Epic Pass

In order to lure customers into the Vail Resorts ecosystem, Vail offers Season passes which provide unlimited skiing at prices low enough to force competitors to create joint pass programs in order to compete. An estimated 300,000 variations of the Epic Pass are sold every year, bringing a range of customers to Vail properties. (6) Pass sales give a predictable revenue that allow Vail to smooth their financials.

Picture3

Epic Pass Options (7)

2. Epic Mix

When customers arrive at Vail properties not only are they greeted by a cohesive resort, but they also are treated to a social media presence unlike at any other ski resort. Epic Mix allows any skier or snowboarder to tie their Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) enabled season or daily pass to an application which tracks vertical feet based on chair lift rides, provides a mountain guide, and also stores pictures taken by free photographers on mountain. The latest addition is an add on for crowd sourcing lift line wait times. This application and Vail’s focus on technology not only gives users a more cohesive experience, it also allows for network effects based on competition, photo sharing, and social media tie ins.

Picture4 Picture5 Epic Mix Interface (8)

3. Mountain Specific Expansion Plans (9)
Vail Resorts’ five-year resort investments are now greater than $500 million. (10) These plans focus on the requirements for each individual resort properties. For example:

  • Park City and Canyons expansion plans are focused on combining the properties into the largest ski resort in the United States
  • Breckenridge expansion plans include adding summer and other year round facilities in order to increase utilization of existing infrastructure during historic down times due to its already high ski visits.
  • Arapahoe Basin expansion plans revolve around adding and upgrading lifts, snow making, and other ski related projects in order to increase skier visits since it has lower visitation than other properties

This mountain-specific focus enables Vail to work towards a consistent experience for visitors regardless of location, and ensures mountains have enough infrastructure to draw in clientele.

4. Expansions Past Skiing
Vail has expanded their reach on multiple levels in order to increase their attractiveness to customers.

  • Summer operations – Vail is spending $25 million each for Breckenridge, Vail, and Heavenly to add or improve summer activities in hopes of gaining $15 million EBITDA at each of those three resorts. (11)
  • Hotels amenities – Vail strives to provide consistent levels of base area experiences, performing “catch-up” maintenance on new properties, and also earmarking funds for lodging improvements (2)
  • Dining – Recent renovations have included upgrading restaurants since dining accounts for 9% of revenues (5)
  • White Carpet Club – Vail’s new addition to Beaver Creek operations provides a private lounge, drinks, snacks, concierges, and valets for $150 a day at select resorts. Other mountains offer similarly priced add-on experiences to skiing. (12)

Picture6 Breckenridge Summer Mountain Biking (13)

Conclusion

Vail Resorts focuses their investment and innovation on all aspects of the guest experience in order to increase the appeal of their properties. This focus not only results in an initial draw for customers, but also alternate sources of income to reduce Vail’s dependence on weather. Combined, these operating features, provide a strong basis on which Vail is able to execute its strategy of driving revenues through guest experiences.

Citations

  1. “VAIL Like Nothing on Earth.™.” BlogVailcom Vail Desktop and Mobile Backgrounds. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
  2. Olmsted, Larry. “America’s Largest Ski Resort: A Paradigm Shift Coming to Utah (Update).” Forbes. 25 Oct. 2015. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
  3. “Our Strategies.” Vail Resorts Management Company. Web. 6 Dec. 2015. <http://www.vailresorts.com/Corp/info/strategies.aspx>.
  4. “VAIL Like Nothing on Earth.™.” BlogVailcom Where to Stay in Vail Part 1 Vail Village and Golden Peak Comments. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
  5. Thompson, Derek. “No Business Like Snow Business: The Economics of Big Ski Resorts.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 7 Feb. 2012. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
  6. “New M.A.X. Pass Aims to Dethrone Epic Pass with Skiing at 22 Resorts.” The Denver Post. The Denver Post, 10 Mar. 2015. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
  7. “Saving Money | The Ski Diva.” The Ski Diva. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
  8. “Epic Mix.” Vail Resorts Corporate. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
  9. “White River National Forest – Planning.” White River National Forest – Planning. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
  10. “Vail Resorts Commits $110M In Resort Improvements For 2015-2016 | Transworld Business.” Transworld Business. 26 Aug. 2015. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
  11. “Vail Resorts’ CEO: Transforming the Business of Skiing.” Barron’s. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
  12. Peterson, Andrea. “New Ways to Ski First Class.” WSJ. Wall Street Journal, 03 Nov. 2015. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.
  13. “Mountain Biking in Breck.” Mountain Biking in Breck. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.

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4 thoughts on “Vail Resorts – Epic Operations

  1. As an avid skier I think a lot about the impacts of global warming on the skiing industry and worry that someday ski resorts may have to shutdown because they are not making profits. Ski resorts have very high operations costs that make it difficult to run if ticket sales are not high. It sounds like Vail has found a multi-pronged approach to maintain profits when other resorts suffer from declining ticket sales and high costs. They consider the customer experience in every aspect of operations, thus hedging against losing customers to other resorts. It gives me hope that despite the low snowfall in 2012 they were not in the red. Do you think their operating system could be expanded to smaller, more local resorts? Vail has a lot of assets that they are able to leverage to continue to acquire new ski mountains, but many ski resorts are individually owned. How do you think they can learn from Vail’s focus on owning the entire mountain and controlling the guest experience and do you think they could adapt a similar model to the epic pass? I personally think that different ski resorts have different personalities and attract different kinds of skiers. Vail demonstrates how ski resorts can succeed by dissecting what their exact personality or value to the customer is. Other resorts have an opportunity to learn how to target the right value proposition from Vail.

    1. This is a great point, I feel like Vail has a bit of an edge because of their big name resorts, however when I was researching Vail I did find this article: http://www.denverpost.com/business/ci_27685406/new-m-x-pass-aims-dethrone-epic-pass

      It is an example of other resorts trying to do a similar thing to Epic, I assume with an eye to use the cash that they would get in a similar way. Hopefully independents would be able to band together (independent hotels are trying to band together for loyalty via a new rewards program called Stash) and offer something similar, but I’m not sure how successful this will be. It will be interesting to watch if resort consolidation continues or if independents are able to resist!

  2. As a longterm resident of Vail and someone with a deep love of skiing and mountains, I am consistently impressed by Vail Resorts. Yes, they are a profit driven company aimed at getting more people to the mountain and capturing as much value as possible from each person. But at the same time, they recognize the importance of caring for the environments they rely on – from taking care of the mountain to taking care of the communities they are a part of. The introduction of EPIC was controversial to locals; on one hand, they did not want their home overrun by tourists, but at the same time, most locals rely on the tourist industry for survival. Vail Resorts did an excellent job of engaging locals and aligning its decisions with local residents and companies such that everyone is better off with many of the decisions they make and ultimately there is little controversy. They invest in small local businesses, help develop school programs for students to learn about the unique mountain environment, and at the same time have really disrupted the ski industry with the introduction of EPIC. Obviously since Vail owns “the whole mountain” they capture more value the more people (skiers or not) come to their resorts. I wonder if similarly “low” priced season passes are an option at ski resorts that own fewer of the restaurants, lodging, and realestate around their resorts.

    1. Thanks for bringing the local perspective to this! I saw a lot about local controversy (will Vail hurt or help the Park City locals), but you definitely give a better view of how Vail tends to interact with residents!

      As for ski resorts that own less of the mountain, I will be interested to watch how these smaller operations react to the EPIC pass. See comments above for details about Intrawest, Boyne Resorts and Powdr’s cooperative M.A.X. pass to try to get skiers to spend!

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