Go to skinet.com/ultimatevail for a complete guide to Vail, including dining, lodging, and après info.
For nearly 50 years, Vail Resort has, quite simply, helped create, shape and define the American ski vacation. Built from the ground up in a quiet Colorado mountain valley by a visionary World War II veteran, the little ski area that could has grown into America’s largest ski resort. Now more than ever, the question remains: What’s the secret to this resort’s enduring success?
First, Vail has been able to channel skiing’s old-world roots—borrowing from the best traditions of European ski culture—and update them to become the quintessential American winter resort. The key to it all might be remarkably straightforward: the ability to change. Vail, perhaps more than any other resort on the continent, is constantly—some would argue chronically—reinventing itself. And in the process, reinventing the sport. From the first skiers floating down the Back Bowls in 1962 to the opening of the posh Arrabelle at Vail Square—a resort within a resort—last season, Vail continues to set the agenda for the winter traveler.
Such high status makes the resort both a target and a triumph. The resort is simultaneously revered (topping SKI’s annual reader survey in 13 of 20 years of rankings), reviled (witness the “Vail Sucks” T-shirts of the 1980s and the environmentalist arson attacks in the 1990s) and intensely envied (even cruise lines and theme parks look to Vail for inspiration).
The foundation of Vail’s success is not that hard to understand. A week—or a day—on its slopes reveals a ski mountain so immense (5,289 acres, 193 trails and 32 lifts) that it really does evoke the “all things to all people” cliché. And its seemingly ever-growing Tyrolean-tinged base village is so loaded with first-class restaurants, bars, shops and lodges that the casual skier—or even nonskier—leaves the valley satisfied, as well.
That, actually, might be the solution to the whole puzzle: The great majority of skiers are on the slopes maybe six hours a day, which leaves a full 18 hours to fill. Deer Valley, Utah, might have been the first ski resort to build its whole operation around service. But Vail’s inspired vision—especially in recent years—is the realization that visitors eventually click out of their skis and boards and want to be entertained, lodged, fed and pampered off the slopes.
The consequence of that strategy is development. Lots of it. Most resorts work to limit growth—or, at least, downplay it. Vail embraces growth. With a bear hug. To date, the “Vail Renaissance” has added nearly 300 hotel rooms to the base and, when completed, will have cost some $1.6 billion. (Let other resorts work with millions of dollars, Vail deals in billions.) Vail Resorts’ own $250 million Arrabelle has energized the formerly faded Lionshead area, where the Eagle Bahn gondola rises from Vail’s west end. A Four Seasons is scheduled to open late next year; a Ritz-Carlton the following season. And a W Hotel and St. Regis are in various stages of discussion and development. So it goes.
On the skiing side, on a busy day, Vail will host approximately 20,000 snow riders—the population of a small Midwestern city. Spread over more than 5,200 acres, that averages out to fewer than four skiers per acre. But tell that to a skier waiting in line at the Vista Bahn at 10 on a Saturday morning. Vail Mountain crowds—especially on weekends—can be brutal.
Which brings us to the biggest problem facing Vail: its own success. But with an efficient bus system and two new high-speed quads installed on the eastern boundary of the mountain, Vail is working hard to direct skiers and boarders onto the slopes via either edge of the resort in hopes of reducing congestion in the middle. In addition, some critics are predicting that Vail’s already acute parking crunch on weekends is about to get worse with the launch this season of the new Epic Pass, which provides unrestricted skiing at Vail Mountain (in addition to its sister resorts—Colorado’s Beaver Creek, Keystone and Breckenridge, and California’s Heavenly resort).
Even Vail’s most passionate detractors grudgingly admit that one of the biggest knocks on the resort—the relatively genteel nature of most of its terrain—is also one of its greatest assets. The “Grand Traverse,” as Vail is lampooned in places like Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Squaw Valley, Calif., can make virtually any level of skier feel heroic. That’s a wise strategy around which to build a ski resort, as the great band of intermediate to low-level experts is the heart of the ski market. And they take vacations. With their families.
And then there are Vail’s famed Back Bowls, so reminiscent of the above-timberline terrain of the great resorts of the Alps. They are unmatched in North America, giving snow riders of all abilities the kinds of experiences that are imprinted on the psyche and live in family videos and snapshots “forever,” which also happens to be the name of one of the most memorable runs in the Back Bowls.
As legend has it, on April 17, 1962, the spring before Vail opened, founders Pete Seibert and Earl Eaton led a small group to the top of the mountain to camp overnight at more than 11,000 feet. The group included Austrian ski-racing star Pepi Gramshammer, whom Seibert had lured away from Sun Valley, Idaho, to help market his fledgling resort. Different versions of the story claim Gramshammer, whose lodge is still a Vail Village fixture, came up with the name “Forever” to describe either the length of the run down the backside the next day, the views of 14,005-foot Mount of the Holy Cross or the long hike out of what would become Sun Down Bowl.
Seibert, a New Englander, fought in Italy as a member of the famed 10th Mountain Division in World War II. Having worked and studied at many of the classic alpine resorts of Europe, Seibert had always harbored a dream of building his own. His search for the ideal site ended when Eaton, another Army veteran, told Seibert about a perfectly pitched, north-facing mountain near Eaton’s family homestead that he had stumbled upon while prospecting for uranium.
Fortune smiled on Seibert. The mountain spilled over into a stunning, wide expanse of bowls cleared of trees by a forest fire a century earlier. “I knew that we had the best mountain that I had seen here in the States regardless of the location, and we were just fortunate that we were halfway between Aspen and Denver,” Seibert recalled while relaxing at Pepi’s restaurant a few years before his death, at age 77, in 2002.
From the start, Seibert had an evangelist’s faith in Vail. “We had what we wanted: a mountain that was below timberline—11,500 feet—and a base elevation that was above 8,000 feet, so we’d have pretty good snow,” he explained. “And, of course, there’s nothing like the Back Bowls—they’ll blow your socks off.”
Seibert circled the country in the late 1950s and early 1960s, drumming up investors and publicity for his fanciful ski development in a remote Colorado mountain valley. His real genius, however, was in designing the mountain and integrating it with the village at its base. “Pete was a visionary,” says Vail developer and former mayor Rod Slifer. “He had a knack, particularly as it related to how the village ties into the ski mountain. He just visualized all of that, and that was his great strength.”
Vail has managed an elegant tightrope walk over the years, balancing between the refined and raucous. For every film festival, culinary classic or New York Philharmonic performance, there’s a young-blooded festival headlined by Ben Harper, Snoop Dogg or the Counting Crows. The resort that has twice hosted the World Alpine Ski Championships also stages the Honda Session snowboarding bash.
Vail’s young new CEO, 41-year-old Rob Katz, took the job in 2006 when longtime CEO Adam Aron stepped down. An avid skier, Katz can just as easily sound like a college ski bum as he can the top executive of America’s biggest ski empire. “There is no question that skiing is one of my special passions,” Katz says. “I love being on the mountain. The wind. The cold. The speed. The way it feels.”
But Katz’s leadership—and Vail’s success in the immediate future—will ultimately be judged by his business acumen, not his obvious enthusiasm for the sport. And he has no doubt what industry he works in: entertainment. “People come out to Vail to have a good time,” Katz says. “That’s the bottom line.”
One of the keys to Vail staying on top is “to keep listening to the guests and reacting,” he says. Katz views the terrain-park phenomenon of the past decade as “a terrific example of the ski industry listening to guests, particularly people with kids. We just have to keep doing things like that.”
Katz’s nearly two years at the helm have been marked by two major moves: relocating the company’s headquarters from the Vail valley to the Denver suburbs and offsetting energy consumption at all five Vail resorts with wind-energy credits. But his most audacious project is still ahead: Ever Vail.
Katz has visions of building a $1 billion “green resort village” on the western edge of Vail starting in 2010. Complete with a gondola, residences, a hotel, shops, restaurants and skier services, the project would transform nearly 11 acres into a state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly base village. The base village, Katz believes, of the future. Ever Vail, indeed.
- SKI Magazine, December 2008