Epic Transformation

What happens when $10 million is dropped into 130-acre, 230-vertical-foot Mt. Brighton?
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When 14-year-old Kirby Winters pulled up a few websites in his Ann Arbor, Mich., home in search of a place to try out skiing last Thanksgiving, he had no idea that he was clicking straight into the long-term growth strategy of the biggest U.S. ski-resort operator: encouraging young first-timers to start skiing or boarding locally, implicitly enticing them to visit bigger, and pricier, resorts as they improve. And along the way, so the plan goes, igniting a lifelong love of the sport.

After learning of the upgrades that Vail Resorts had completed after purchasing nearby Mt. Brighton, Winters took his dad to check it out. By the end of the winter, Kirby had spent hundreds of hours making thousands of runs through the terrain park and slopes of the small resort, transforming himself from an intrigued beginner to a dedicated skier dreaming of bigger challenges out West. As far as Vail Resorts was concerned: Mission accomplished.

Mt. Brighton, about 40 miles west of Detroit, is an unassuming suburban ski area with an oldish chalet lodge. The resort sits behind a sprawling parking lot off a two-lane road that runs behind the Brighton business district—about two minutes from seemingly thousands of chain stores packed into rows of strip malls radiating out from Grand River Avenue and the I-96 expressway.

Patrons are a blend of locals who come out all the time, beginners giving rental skis a try, and visitors who drive an hour or so from across the Detroit metro area. Skiing Brighton involves a lot of short runs, a lot of lift rides, and a lot of stops in the ever-nearby lodge for a warmup or a hangout.

The mountain has just 230 feet of vertical drop. That’s less than seven percent of Vail Mountain’s vertical, or just two of the Lodge Tower condos—Vail’s tallest building—stacked one on the other. Yet the tiny resort was enough to lure young Winters into the mountain tribe. That, Vail officials say, was the whole idea.

“We felt like there was a lot of opportunity in the Midwest and all around the country,” says Taylor Ogilvie, general manager at Mt. Brighton. “It’s our urban ski-area strategy. This is where most of our guests live, so why not get involved in their local hills and get the service standard they’re accustomed to in our Western resorts?” Interestingly, Vail’s original core of resorts—Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone, and Breckenridge—is served by the key drive market of Denver, which has roughly the same population as Detroit. The commute from Detroit to Brighton’s slopes, however, is about half of the commute from Denver to Vail Village.

To pull this off, Vail’s urban approach melds well-designed terrain parks, a focus on racing, and a social-media app. Digital features that cut across Vail’s portfolio of properties, such as virtual pins for various on-snow accomplishments and a virtual race against U.S. Ski Team ace and media darling Lindsey Vonn, help bring Michigan and Colorado closer, Vail Resorts hopes, in skiers’ minds.

To get there, the first step was some $10 million in improvements, with the goal of offering regional skiers the same class of service and amenities on tap at Vail’s better-known megaresorts. Dropping $10 million into today’s sprawling mountain resorts doesn’t buy all that much, but with Brighton’s modest 130 acres (you could drop three Brightons into Blue Sky Basin, with room left over for Two Elk restaurant), that works out to $1 million per 13 acres.

Vail’s to-do list included a major makeover of the physical plant, starting with a much-anticipated snowmaking system featuring new ponds, snow guns, and five miles of irrigation pipes—critical upgrades when your summit elevation is 1,330 feet.

Other capital improvements were a redesigned and expanded terrain park; two high-speed quads replacing older chairs; RFID lift tickets, speeding access to the slopes; Magic Carpet lifts to replace rope tows in beginner areas and an FIS World Cup–style finish area for the junior and high school ski-race arena. Terrain work included weeks of dirt hauling and rearranging, to improve beginner areas, gate-racing runs, and on-mountain traffic flow.

And that was just a start, followed by other high-profile upgrades, such as a down-to-the-studs overhaul of the lodge, with new cafeteria, lounges, bars, and ski-school areas. A new children’s center was also established, with ski-school options expanded to a format more familiar to Vail’s destination guests.

Visitors raved about the improvements and turned out in droves, according to anecdotal reports. Vail doesn’t release skier numbers from individual resorts, but Brighton’s parking lot was overflowing consistently throughout its inaugural new-ownership season. The great weather—Michigan’s snowiest winter, breaking a 103-year-record—obscured one key enhancement: the dramatically recharged snowmaking system, which is vital at a resort with a summit elevation of 1,330 feet.

“We put a tremendous amount of effort and money into our snowmaking system,” Ogilvie says. “This year we didn’t need it as much, but our system was designed for an average winter, when we can get some thaws and rain and recover very quickly and refresh with a few inches of new snow to keep a great skiing surface.”

Last year’s unusual winter, which was cold as well as snowy, also dampened another anticipated effect of the renovation: spillover into local businesses. Civic leaders were pleased to see the millions of dollars spent to spruce up the ski area, says Brighton Chamber of Commerce director Pamela McConeghy, and they expect it to boost business in town. However, “The weather really was bizarre this year,” she adds. “It was a great year for snow, so lots of people were skiing at Mt. Brighton. But for the downtown people, it’ll probably be better as they go forward. It was so cold, people didn’t stop in many places in town.”

While it can’t yet control the weather, Vail Resorts keeps a firm hand on as many of the other elements as possible. In the short term, that includes everything from lift tickets to restaurants to the enticements to book a ski vacation at a sister resort out West.

In the longer term, it’s an effort to influence a couple of trend lines that are headed in the wrong direction for a resort operator: number of visits per capita and average age of visitors. Skiers and boarders 24 and younger made up little more than 20 percent of the market in 2012–13, according to the National Ski Areas Association. That figure had been more than 30 percent as recently as 1998.

“It’s a feeder system for the new skiers,” says Tracy Graf, marketing director for Vail’s urban ski areas. So far, her division has two properties. Around the same time as the Mt. Brighton purchase, Vail also acquired Afton Alps, in Hastings, Minn.

Snowboarder Brandon Reilly, 17, of nearby Fowlerville, Mich., called the Vail influence “a total change” from previous years. “Before, kids were just making their own jumps for something to do,” he says. “Now they have big kickers and lots more rails and stuff.”

At Afton, 40 miles outside Minneapolis, Vail didn’t need to do as much renovation, so it invested in other projects, such as an outdoor terrain-park village complete with yurt, food truck, and fire pit.

In both cases, adds Brighton’s Ogilvie, “There is some looking way out in the future. We have a lot of young skiers and boarders. That’s why we put a lot of time and money into our terrain parks. And we want those people to continue to visit our resorts.”

A key tactic in the feeder-resort model is the season pass, and Vail’s ownership creates a compelling reason to buy a pass at Brighton. Vail’s famed Epic Pass, which offers access to Vail’s 11 resorts, along with deals on resorts in Europe and even Japan, ties in well with season passes at Brighton, says Mindy Harris, who lives with her husband and two kids within view of the resort. “We ski at Vail and we just got back from Canyons,” Harris says.

Her kids, 10 and 14, have skied at Brighton since age two. They each spent more than 50 days on the slopes this past season. “It’s not like out West,” she says, “but it’s a huge asset to the community now that it’s upgraded. It’s nice to be able to eat at the restaurant again.”

On a late-season Saturday at Brighton, Brady Schuster, 23, of Crown Point, Ind., had an upcoming trip on his mind, though he was headed to Aspen and not Vail. “Lessons are so much cheaper here, I figured it was a good place to get started,” he said during a lunch break midway through his first-ever day of skiing. While he was happy with his decision, he shared the observation of many beginners that “going straight is not too bad, but turning is brutal.”

Gary McCririe, supervisor of Genoa Township, which contains the ski area, was effusive about the job Vail has done both on the facility and in the community. “The community can’t stop talking about it,” he says. “They made such a significant impact in terms of the improvements and also the experience.”

McCririe, born in Genoa Township and raised in the city of Brighton, has skied at Mt. Brighton for 47 years. “One thing I can’t remember for many, many years is a full parking lot,” he says.

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