This summer's resort-consolidation fireworks show sent up another rocket this week with the announcement that Deer Valley, Utah, was acquired by the newly formed KSL/Aspen-ownership group, bringing the recent buying spree to a lucky 13 resorts, including many iconic destinations, including Steamboat in Colorado., and Squaw/Alpine and Mammoth in California.
The Deer Valley deal was a surprise move, as the luxury Utah resort has built its reputation on the intimacy of its service, and the family vibe of both the resort experience and the business itself, putting it in stark contrast to the efficient, but decidedly corporate vision now coming to dominate resorts during this era of acquisition and consolidation.
What isn’t a surprise is the season-pass battle sure to hit the slopes before next season, as this season's programs are well underway including the Rocky Mountain Super Pass, Mountain Collective, and the M.A.X. Pass. With KSL/Aspen previously taking over six Intrawest resorts, among others, the group now has the potential to offer a season pass that rolls up to more than a dozen resorts, from coast to coast, and can legitimately compete with Vail Resorts hugely successful, and paradigm-changing, 15-resort Epic Pass, which currently costs $849 for adults and $449 for kids for full unrestricted access to all resorts. Stay tuned.
Bob Wheaton, Deer Valley president and general manager, told SKI that the complex and, at times, emotional decision to move ahead with the sale to KSL/Aspen reduces down to simply: “The right group at the right time.”
“Because of who was interested, and what’s happening in the ski industry, we thought it was a good time to take advantage of the opportunity,” says Wheaton, who has been at the resort essentially since its opening day in 1981, having started on the mountain crew.
“We’ve been paying attention to what’s going on in the industry” and this group was the best fit “for everyone involved,” Wheaton says. During the acquisition process, Wheaton says it was important for him and Deer Valley management and ownership to receive “confirmation and reconfirmation” that the resort’s community-based vision would continue.
Wheaton says that the new ownership should provide additional resources for upgrades and expansions to Deer Valley. Top of the list is the so-called Mayflower expansion—which has been in the works for several years—on the east end of the resort. At buildout, plans call for six to seven lifts, 1,000 acres of terrain plus lodging and other amenities. “The Mayflower project remains on the front burner,” Wheaton says.
However, the question remains: Can Deer Valley still be Deer Valley and also be part of a large corporate structure? Deer Valley loyalists sure do hope so, as it's the resort's genuine commitment to service and caring interaction between staff and guests that set it apart from other resorts.
Founder Edgar Stern led Deer Valley down a different path in 1981 when he famously brought his vision to Park City of running a ski resort like a five-star hotel, with all of the attendant personal service and amenities. Stern understood early that skiing was just part of the resort experience, and eventually it was the other interactions at the resort that would build repeat business, both local and destination.
This move by the still unnamed KSL/Aspen Denver-based group turns up the heat on an already white-hot rivalry with Vail Resorts, the world’s largest ski operator. And the dynamic is looking more like a cage-match these days, with the KSL/Aspen group acquiring one of the world’s most prestigious resorts that sits only a few miles up valley from Vail’s Park City resort, the largest resort in the U.S.
That squeezes a lot of corporate egos, and competition, into one small ski town. And with Utah resorts famously working amicably together, and also quietly criticizing Colorado resorts for their take-no-prisoners approach to competing for market share, it would seem that something has to give.
In the meantime, it appears to be smiles all the way around. “Deer Valley Resort is one of the preeminent mountain resorts in the world and is a tremendous addition to our existing portfolio," David Perry, president and chief operating officer of the new KSL/Aspen group, said in the announcement. “Prior to this acquisition, we were able to offer our guests exceptional experiences throughout most of North America’s major ski regions, but we did not have a resort in Utah, a state that is renowned for great skiing and mountain-town life. Park City and Salt Lake skiers have always known that powder, blue skies, a huge variety of terrain, and exemplary guest service have always set Deer Valley Resort apart.”
The merger with KSL/Aspen includes Deer Valley Resort Lodging and Reservations, the lodging operation that the resort acquired in 2009. Solitude Mountain Resort, in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, which Deer Valley bought only three years ago, is not part of the deal.
With the plate-tectonic shift of the resort landscape caused by the ongoing empire building of Vail Resorts and KSL/Aspen, the obvious question still stands: Who’s next?
Ongoing industry rumors mention the Holding family, owners of Sun Valley, Idaho, and Snowbasin, Utah, as a potential target for acquisition. Sun Valley, the crown jewel of the Holding portfolio, isn’t close to a major metro hub, with proximity to a large drive market often a key component for prospective buyers.
Though it doesn’t get the media play of the sexier Park City-based resorts, Snowbasin is quietly less than 50 miles from Salt Lake International Airport. And as a result of hosting alpine events for the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics, Snowbasin has beautiful day lodges and a world-class lift system. That's probably enough to bring suitors to the door.
And the old adage that everything is for sale at the right price, along with the concern of being stranded on your own marketing island, could conceivably bring other big-name independents into play, such as Telluride, Colo, and Jackson Hole, Wyo., along with smaller resort operators, such as Triple Peaks, which owns Crested Butte, Colo., and Okemo, Vt.
Deer Valley ownership was motivated by the consolidation wave, and decided it was time to act. So what do other independents and resort operators have in mind to respond? For instance, after losing a protracted legal battle and selling Park City Mountain Resort to Vail Resorts in 2014, Powdr Corp rebranded as an "adventure lifestyle company" and moved into the acquisition game itself a year ago, buying Eldora Mountain Resort, located a few miles outside of Boulder, and an easy drive from Denver and Colorado’s huge Front Range skier base.
Powdr Chief Revenue Officer Wade Martin sees the recent moves by Vail Resorts and KSL/Aspen as bringing into a tighter focus the way ahead for independents, and Powdr in particular. “It crystalizes the opportunity for us,” Martin says. “We’re not fighting over the same guests. We’re all about being the local favorite, and offering an authentic experience.”
That doesn’t mean Powdr resorts—such as Colorado’s Eldora and Copper Mountain, Killington, Vt., and Mt. Bachelor, Ore.—aren't looking to capture more of the lucrative travel market. “Destination guests want a local, authentic experience, but you can’t offer a true local experience without having locals there first,” Martin says.
For those keeping score, Deer Valley is just the latest reshuffling of the resort deck, as evidenced by KSL/Aspen's recently finalized $1.5 billion deal to acquire Intrawest, and other resorts.
Previously, Vail Resorts snagged Stowe, Vt., its first foray into Eastern skiing, in addition to the mega-move in summer 2016 of acquiring Canadian giant Whistler Blackcomb in another billion-dollar deal. Whistler subsequently racked up more skier visits last season than any resort ever in North America. For more on the march of resort consolidation, head here.
Announcements by KSL/Aspen meticulously note that the Aspen Resorts are not part of the new partnership, and will remain independent. However, with the Crown family owning Aspen Ski Co., and also being founding partners of the joint venture with KSL Capital, one of the strengths of the new group is to leverage the season pass, marketing and support-services opportunities between the two resort operators. Time will tell on how tight, or loose, a confederation this will become.
As far as the Deer Valley deal goes, reassurances or not, new ownership will certainly drive changes throughout the resort. But one bedrock ground rule of Deer Valley’s operation will not to be changing … at least in the near term. Snowboarding still will not be allowed.