How Corporate Consolidation is Killing Ski Towns
This is a town… legally, at least. So is this, and this, and this—each displays the characteristics of an idyllic small-town community, but largely in the same way Main Street Disney displays the characteristics of an idyllic small-town community. These were towns, they were vibrant communities filled with average Americans living their mountain dreams, but they’ve been gutted—they’ve had their cores ripped out by economic forces from afar, leaving only a shell propped up by the resilient few willing to fight to keep the dream alive. North American ski towns are peppered across remote corners of the continent’s least populous regions, yet for four months in the winter and three in the summer, they become bustling destinations with jets, both public and private, shuttling in thousands of visitors from California, Texas, Florida, and beyond daily, each on a brief reprieve from urban life to soak in the crisp, light mountain air.
For the five other months of the year though, these verge on ghost towns. In Breckenridge, for example, just 20% of housing units are occupied by full-time residents meaning, in those five-months of offseason, neighbors aren’t next-door—they’re on the next block. With the infrastructure to support more than five-times the population, streets simply sit empty.
On the other side of the Sawatch Range, in Crested Butte, only fourteen of forty-three restaurants kept open through the last spring offseason and even of those, many kept drastically reduced hours and limited menus for the limited local covers. And across the Elk Mountain Range, in Aspen, even the airport closes for its theoretically irregular but in practice annual two-week runway maintenance procedure. One could assume that this soullessness is the inevitable by-product of life in a remote, tourism-based economy, but history hardly supports this view.
While today it appears that there’s some sort of fundamental incompatibility between ski resorts and ski towns, the very fact that they’re called ski towns demonstrates that there was once a time when it was all possible. There was a time when a remote mountain town could just have a ski area—in their early days, the resorts were not what gutted the communities, but rather what kept them alive. Before the rugged rural reaches of North America blessed with consistent snowfall and north facing slopes were ski towns, they were boomtowns gone bust: Aspen, Telluride, Crested Butte, Breckenridge, Park City—all mining towns whose best days were behind them. Or, they were rugged resource towns run on logging like Truckee and Revelstoke. Or, like Vail and Snowmass Village, they weren’t towns at all, just ranch land and old mining claims.
But one by one, they all blossomed into ski towns. And whether it was Austrian expats helping lay rope tows in the ‘30s and ‘40s, 10th Mountain Division veterans drawing up the plans in the ‘50s and ‘60s, or developers and local boosters dreaming up lift lines and base villages in the decades since, skiing offered a lifeline to communities on the verge of collapse. From the start, the ski business was pretty simple. Offer lift services; groomed, managed terrain; and on-mountain restaurants, like a theme park would, and charge a daily fee for the services, like a theme park would. Employ the established locals to build new hotels and housing to keep up with increasing traffic.
Employ eager new arrivals hoping to become locals in the ski school and ticket offices. Offer a season pass for locals and serious skiers to keep some cash on hand in fall and early winter. Pray for snow to draw in the day pass crowds, then reinvest those earnings in the summer into fancier lodges and amenities to get the higher dollar customers who didn’t drive up from the nearest town, but flew in from the nearest city. The model wasn’t unique: when the chance is presented, all industries look to corner the highest yield customers. It wasn’t complicated either: hope mother nature provided the goods and build out all the infrastructure—from housing and hotels, to tram lines and terrain parks—to maximize earnings when she did.
And it certainly wasn’t flexible: the more terrain the resort added, or the more snow-making it required, the more it charged for a day pass. Competing for the attention from the world’s wealthiest, ski resorts added and built and added and built. The race to the top reinvigorated ski towns, then, as land and housing ran low and popularity reached its zenith, it began to squeeze them.
Regardless of the strain between ski company and ski town, this business model worked through the 2000s, until, suddenly it didn’t. The issue wasn’t existential yet, but the trends and forecasts indicated that it could soon become so. Skier numbers reached their high point in the late aughts and early 2010s… then they plateaued. 2007 through 2010 were good years, some of the best in fact, in terms of total ski days, but then the numbers fell.
A similar pattern emerged in the number of individual skiers participating in the sport: from 2008 to 2016, the number of unique skiers in the US, or individuals that participated in the sport that year topped out at 10 million, and then began to drop. Warm, dry weather was partly to blame. But weather alone wasn’t a worthy excuse—low snow and shorter winters were, afterall, going to be a factor going forward anyway. Rather, the sport was just too expensive. Day passes were reaching 200 dollars, season passes well over a thousand. Making things worse, the people who had grown up on resort skiing were aging—the industry’s race to the top made the sport entirely too expensive and too old.
Then Vail Resorts came and entirely reimagined the industry. Vail is a town—a manufactured, Alps-like village bisected by Interstate 70 about an hour-and-a-half-long drive from Denver. Vail Ski Resort, understandably, towers over the town of Vail. But nowhere in this resort or this town will you find the offices of Vail Resorts—or MTN, as it’s labeled on the New York Stock Exchange—they’re just not here. This is a sign of something bigger, that Vail Resorts the company has effectively decoupled itself from the physical ski resort, and in doing so, has transformed the industry. Since the early 2000s, Vail Resorts had owned and managed Vail, Beaver Creek, and Keystone in Colorado along with Heavenly in California.
This wasn’t necessarily unique—KSL Capital, Powdr, Mont Saint-Sauveur International, and even Sinclair Oil had all collected an arrangement of North American ski resorts. What Vail Resorts did that made it unique was that as skier numbers began to stagnate, it went on a spending spree. In 2012 the conglomerate bought three smaller resorts, in 2013 it bought the prestigious Canyons Resort in Utah, the following year it bought Park City. Then it went international, purchasing an Australian resort. From 2016 to 2018, Vail went even bigger, taking over iconic resorts in Whistler Blackcomb, Stowe, and Crested Butte.
In 2019, it bought Peak Resorts which owned 17 areas across the midwest and northeast. In the face of worrying winters and aging skiers, Vail began scooping up resorts—some of them tiny, some of them world class, but all of them now available on a single season pass. To little fanfare, Vail launched the Epic Pass in 2008, offering its buyers unlimited skiing at any of the five Vail-run resorts.
And oddly, for a pass that boasted some of the best skiing in the rockies, the price was low—very low: only $579 for an unlimited pass. For comparison, an Aspen pass that same season, at its very cheapest, was $1,769—more than triple. Odder still, in the years that followed, as Vail bought up resorts and entered deals that gave Epic Pass holders access to top resorts like Telluride and Arapahoe Basin, the pass stayed cheap, at least for the industry, crossing the $800 plateau for the first time in 2015, and still managing to stay under the $1,000 mark all the way through 2024. The Epic Pass was and is, in the world of skiing, a cheap season pass, but it was not a cheap product, it was an entirely new product. It wasn’t meant for the hardened ski obsessed locals that hit the hill a hundred days a season, it was for a market that had previously been served by day-passes, multi-day punch passes, and those that had been priced out entirely: the 10 to 20 day a year skier of varying age, economic standing, and location. Now, the thinking went, a well-to-do businessperson in New York, or Chicago, or Boston could buy an Epic Pass and ski their nearby local hills every other Saturday and justify the purchase.
If they wanted to ski in Colorado or Utah or British Columbia over a family vacation, they just had to get there—the skiing, at that point, would essentially be free. The penniless college kid who grew up skiing with their parents could ask for an Epic Pass for Christmas—they’d fulfill their obligations to ski with family over Christmas, then could load up with friends and road trip rockies resorts staying in airbnbs and avoiding prohibitively expensive lift tickets. The young professional living in Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, or even LA and New York could buy the pass and split the expenses of day-long or weekend-long trips to the mountains with a host of like-minded friends. And, if they executed it right, what they’d lose in margins they’d make up in volume, creating a new and loyal customer base that didn’t sit on the sidelines priced out, and didn’t pay for day passes. As this graph of total Epic Pass product purchases suggests, they executed it right. And as this 2023 Investors’ Conference Report from the company boasts, they’ve gotten really good at getting customers to buy passes over lift tickets.
But the impact was bigger than Vail Resorts. With Vail’s Epic Pass, and the emergence and maturation of a competitor, Alterra, and its Ikon Pass boasting a similarly impressive list of mountains under its cheap mega pass, skiing was suddenly reinvigorated, as 2018/19 visitor totals finally broke the near decade-long trend of flattening numbers. By the following season, the mega passes’ takeover was complete: for the first time on record, the share of ski days logged on season passes outnumbered those on day and multi-day tickets. Through consolidation under two major umbrella brands, skiing got a shot in the arm–it became younger, slightly more accessible, and far more flexible. And under the two brands, the ski industry reinvented itself: Alterra and Vail had stable, predictable income stemming from non weather dependent pass sales, they had a dependable cash flows to take on capital projects in the offseason, and they had bad weather insurance—if it didn’t snow in one region, their losses would likely be canceled out by a good snow year somewhere else.
Without being tied to a single mountain, Vail could turn its focus to real estate development at the base of Vail Mountain, or marketing strategies for when it just wouldn’t snow, or building out the Epic Brand—in the process, as it sought to maximize profits for its shareholders, the company became omnipresent in the areas in which it operates. Vail, the resort, is here—nestled in a tight valley sitting at the base of some of Colorado’s tallest peaks. The nearest airport, given its needs for flat land, is 35 minutes away here, although many visitors choose to fly into here, the far-larger Denver International Airport. Either way, Vail Resorts has made sure it’s convenient to actually get to Vail itself with its Epic Mountain Express, offering $99 shared shuttles for the two-hour trip from Denver or $49 ones for the quicker drive from Eagle County Airport. For those that would balk at the prospect of sharing a shuttle, they also offer $319 private SUVs on the same 35-minute drive.
In all cases, as long as it’s Epic Mountain Express, Epic passholders, of course, get rewarded with 20% off. But on the other end of the shuttle, visitors need accommodation and Vail, of course, has that handled too—there are Vail-owned hotels, like the Lodge at Vail; there are other hotels bookable through Vail; or there are independently-owned apartment and house rentals, managed by Vail-owned Legendary Lodging. In all cases, Epic passholders get a discount once again. But to ski one needs skis, so next up on day one is the rental shop—Vail has that handled at Vail Sports which, once again, offers discounts for Epic passholders.
But visitors also need jackets and pants and goggles and all sorts of non-rentable gear so they could head to outposts of recognizable brands like Helly Hansen or Patagonia or the North Face—yet, despite their branding, visitors are once again feeding money to the conglomerate as these too are Vail owned and operated franchise stores, part of more than 250 Vail-owned retail stores around the world. After that is dinner, which too can be accomplished without giving a dollar to anyone but Vail at restaurants like Margie’s House, then drinks at 10th Mountain at the Hythe hotel. While skiing the next day the trend can continue with dining at one of the dozens of Vail-run on-mountain restaurants—again with a discount for passholders. Then, if the day ends and a visitor loves the lifestyle so much that they want to make it more regular, they could tour property listings with an agent from Slifer Smith and Frampton—the largest real-estate broker in the Vail Valley which, also, is owned by Vail resorts. While the most extreme example, the reality isn’t far off from this—facing natural pressures from shareholders to grow revenue, Vail is increasingly focused on vertically integrating the visitor experience.
Why should a Vail visitor give money to anyone but Vail itself? They’re developing offerings for almost any transaction a visitor could make, then incentivizing allegiance to the Epic system by offering a slew of discounts. In the process, Vail is competing against local businesses—they’re eliminating one of the few opportunities for local success to be tied to their success. What’s left is the financial impossibility of minimum-wage work in the Vail Valley.
There are no easy answers to where a Vail employee might start their day. The conglomerate’s new minimum wage is $20 an hour—a near-fortune compared to minimum-wage at most entry-level jobs in America—but most entry-level jobs aren’t located here—in a narrow mountain valley bounded by two often-impassable sections of highway boasting some of the highest living costs in the world. Currently, the cheapest publicly-listed apartment for rent within Vail city limits is going for $2,100 a month. Assuming 40-hours per week of work, which might come if the slopes are busy and the snow is abundant, a given lift-operator might make $3,200 a month.
Therefore, after tax, they might make ever-so-slightly more than what it costs to keep an apartment in the town in which they work. But of course, in a small-town environment like this, and considering the competitiveness of housing, most rentals never make it beyond the classifieds. There, one can find deals like this $1,150 a month room in an apartment in Edwards—a 20-minute drive away, assuming one pays for the $425 a year Vail employee parking pass. This gets closer to the 28% of income financial experts recommend spending on housing. To get under that 28%, it’s going to require an apartment with roommates somewhere like Eagle or Gypsum—more than thirty-miles or 50-kilometers from Vail. Vail Resorts understands this financial impossibility and their fix is to act as both the employer and the landlord with their employee housing program—offering hundreds of rooms near the resort for $500 or $600 a month.
These tiny, dorm-style accommodations are in tremendous demand, often filling up months before the start of the season, but never accommodating all workers, leaving hundreds to work through the financial impossibility of the free-market. The truth is, these jobs don’t need to be sustainable—Vail doesn’t need to offer a living wage to fill its rosters. The pure prospect of being able to live in the mountains is attractive enough to incentivize plenty of financially flexible young people into working a season or two on the slopes, even if they might not make more than they spend. Vail knows this.
Vail’s mission statement even implies this. It reads, “our mission is simple—to create the experience of a lifetime for our employees, so they can, in turn, provide exceptional experiences for our guests.” Creating a job so rewarding people are willing to effectively pay to do it is no crime, but what it does mean is that Vail’s money doesn’t stay in the Vail valley. It primarily goes to a transient, short-term labor pool that’ll be gone come spring—never integrating with the long-term local community.
Of course, there are some resort jobs that require more specialized skills and pay more, but not many. Ski patrol, for example, is a dangerous job that requires skills that take years to learn so it’s a role typically filled by careerists, rather than transient seasonal workers, but in Vail’s case, that only justifies a $21 minimum wage—a menial bump over the resort-wide $20 minimum. But Vail’s a big business, right? It’s a publicly-traded company on the New York Stock Exchange. Surely it must have HR and marketing and vice presidents and executives and all the higher paying jobs that make for more sustainable urban economies, right? Well, yes, Vail does have that… just not in Vail. In 2006, the conglomerate moved about one-hundred of its administrative positions two hours down the road to an office-park outside Denver.
Because of the living costs that Vail itself pushed up, it was simply cheaper for Vail to run Vail away from Vail. Through time, with each resort it gobbled up, it slowly cut local management positions and aggregated administrative tasks in this Denver headquarters meaning the resorts themselves were left with few jobs outside mountain operations, hospitality, and retail—the lowest-paying, least-sustainable positions. Therefore, in sum, what happens when Vail buys a resort is simple: income potential lowers as jobs get slashed and cost of living rockets skyward as the volume of visitors and therefore demand does too. Now, Vail itself—the resort from which the conglomerate was born—was never truly a town. It was a development from day one so, at least within city limits, the argument can be made that nobody’s been displaced.
There’s no history of habitation before the lifts started spinning. But this is not the case everywhere. 60 miles or 100 kilometers away, in the tiny, idyllic town of Crested Butte, the Facebook comments on the 2018 announcement of Vail’s purchase of the local resort read like those of an obituary.
This was a ski resort that ran a marketing campaign titled “This is not Vail,” and a locale referred to as “The Last Great Colorado Ski Town”—noted for its increasingly unique blend of affordability, remoteness, and skiing prowess. Now this tenuous balance was going to get disrupted by the world’s largest skiing conglomerate, and it was absolutely disrupted. Whereas in the month of Vail’s announcement the average sales price of a single-family home in Crested Butte sat at $762,000, today, less than five years on, it’s skyrocketed to over $1.5 million. The same, all-to-predictable story played out once again—big tracts of open land were split up, sold off, and converted into $5, $10, or $15 million ranches; downtown houses previously home to locals working just blocks away were bought up, renovated, and sold as second-homes and investment properties to those earning an income in Dallas, Miami, or New York; the workforce that kept the town ticking was pushed farther and farther down-valley, and the small city of Gunnison increasingly became the bedroom of decades-long Crested Butte locals. There was a brief moment of homeostasis in the North American ski industry—an era when it could all coexist—but in today’s reality, skiing is simply extractive.
Coastal money comes in and, despite good intentions, it pushes up the cost of living, it crowds out the locals, and then ultimately, that money doesn’t go to the locals it's displacing—it goes to the shareholders of a conglomerate. But this phenomenon is familiar to these towns given their histories in mining, logging, and other resource-based economies. The way their populations could make a living all centered around quite literally extracting value from the surrounding nature.
The story of a struggle between small communities and big mining conglomerates is a tale so archetypical that it hardly bears repeating. In fact, the similarities between Crested Butte’s history and the plot of the movie Avatar are so striking that many have pondered if the film was directly inspired by the town. Skiing was supposed to be the way out, the path forward, a way to have it all—income to live in America’s most striking nature, coming from an industry far less destructive to that nature. But the long-run consequences of this turned out to be the destruction of the towns themselves. It appears a devil’s bargain—you can have the nature and the town, but not the income to live there.
You can have the town and the income, but not the nature to enjoy. Or, as so many of the most pristine slices of the mountains have chosen, you can have the nature and the income, but you cede the town. Unnatural forces can flex this triangle—can allow for a careful, tenuous balance of the three factors, but it's tremendously difficult to maintain through the decades. Therefore, Vail and other conglomerates didn’t create this devil’s bargain, but rather, their influence made the decisions for the communities. Small, delicate towns were forced into option number three.
They’d have jobs—more than they could possibly need or even want—and they’d have nature—even if it’d be stressed to its limits by an influx of passholding visitors—but they’d no longer have affordable access to their own town. It’s a tricky thing—housing affordability. Even the largest cities, states, and even countries have repeatedly failed to stop the savage economic forces that break the careful balance of income and cost, so the issue is certainly not unique to ski towns. The primary difference is that they’re phenomenally more vulnerable to outside forces. These towns are truly tiny—Aspen, Telluride, and Breckenridge combined have a full-time population smaller than innumerable American towns whose names you’ll never even hear, let alone know.
Therefore, one small outside action—one boardroom decision to sign on the dotted line and sell to the highest bidder has the potential to fundamentally alter and fracture an entire community. But this might just be the tragic trade-off of small-town life. It’s the story of the local factory getting automated; the story of the mine closing up shop; the new interstate shortcutting the old highway; the railroad stopping service. Remote places are vulnerable and while this doesn’t necessarily need to be the conclusion of life in these mountain communities, it does seem an inevitable step in their perpetual evolution. If there’s one thing the uninitiated might have noticed in this video, it’s that skiing is unbelievably expensive. Why does it cost each visitor one or two thousand dollars to get access to land that is actually government-owned, covered in snow that falls naturally? Well, the truth is that making those slopes actually safely skiable, and more so enjoyable for thousands or even millions of people, is a tremendous amount of work—there are an unbelievable number of daily, monthly, and yearly steps involved just to allow for those seven or eight hours a day of skiing and we wanted to dive deeper into them—far deeper than we could in this already-long video.
That’s why I’m extremely excited to announce our brand-new Nebula-original series called the Logistics of X. Every few Wendover videos, if there’s some sort of underlying logistics to the topic worth exploring, we’re going to dive deeper into it on Nebula. And these are not low-effort companion videos—we produce these the exact same way we produce Wendover videos, with the exact same budget, effort, everything, so they’re just as good, if not better. And the first one, the Logistics of Ski Resorts, is up now. I think it came together really nicely with stunning 3d visuals and some really interesting deep-dives into things like the mad-rush to install a lift in the few summer months when the ground is snow-free; how you manage the snow to prevent a deadly avalanche; and also the incredible overnight process of grooming the slopes to make them accessible to beginner skiers.
Basically, we know you all love our logistics videos and we want to make even more of them, getting even more into the nitty-gritty, and this series is the way. And the reason we’re able to do this is thanks to Nebula—for those of you who don’t know, Nebula is a creator-run streaming service that I co-founded in 2019 that now has over 650,000 paying subscribers. And these are not subscriptions that people forgot to cancel—we have one of the highest proportions of daily active users in the industry because creators are able to use the unique economic model to do stuff they can’t on YouTube. Some channels, like Jet Lag: The Game, release episodes early; others, like Real Life Lore and now Wendover, make series’ allowing you to dive deeper on the topics you watch on YouTube; others still, like Patrick Willems or Abagail Thorn, make huge, ambitious, dream projects with the bigger budgets that Nebula is able to offer; but in addition to all that, all creators release their normal videos ad and sponsorship free. Nebula is not really designed to be a replacement to YouTube, but rather an expansion pack—there are limitations of the algorithmic-driven, ad-supported video model, so Nebula is able to offer a creative ecosystem that unlocks more and therefore is a better experience for the creator and for you, the viewer. When you sign up at our link, Nebula.tv/Wendover, we actually get a portion of your subscription
fee for as long as you stay subscribed which gives us predictable, stable monthly income, not impacted by shifts in ad-rates, that allows us to confidently reinvest in the channel. Tens of thousands of Wendover viewers have already signed up, and the vast majority are still subscribed so clearly they find it worth it. So if you want to watch the Logistics of Ski Resorts, the future episodes we add to that series, and everything else Nebula has to offer, click the button on-screen or head to Nebula.tv/Wendover to sign up where you’ll even get $20 off an annual subscription, and genuinely, thank you so much for your support.