FIS chief, Doronin once business partners; return of World Cup to Aspen unrelated, according to organization
The owner of 1 acre of land planned for a luxury hotel at the base of Aspen Mountain and flanking the America’s Downhill course led the 2014 takeover of Aman Resorts with a global businessman who now presides over the International Ski and Snowboard Federation, also called FIS.
Soviet-born and Swede Vladislav Doronin, chief executive of the Swiss-based luxury hotel brand Aman Resorts, and Swedish-British Johan Eliasch, president of FIS, became the respective chief executive and board chairman of Aman Resorts in 2014, according to published reports, press releases, and court documents.
Eliasch loaned the new Aman ownership $25 million and invested $25 million as part of the acquisition, according to court records and reports. He also served as chair of Aman’s board of directors in 2014-18, once holding a 14% stake. He no longer is on the board, Aman and FIS publicists said this week.
“Jonah Eliasch currently has no role at Aman Group or any of its affiliate companies, nor does he sit on any of Aman Group’s boards,” an Aman spokesperson said in a response to a question regarding Eliasch’s status, whether as a board member or investor, with Aman.
Eliasch was scheduled to be in Aspen this week for the World Cup, an FIS spokesperson said. Doronin’s team did not respond to a question if he would be in Aspen for the event. He and Eliasch have not been in contact since 2019, according to the FIS spokesperson.
- 2014 — Vladislav Doronin acquires Aman Resorts; Johan Eliasch becomes board chair.
- 2017 — Men’s World Cup ski races held on Aspen Mountain. FIS announces they will not return to Aspen until the aging Lift One on the west side of the mountain is replaced.
- January 2019 — Aspen City Council grants conditional approval for a luxury hotel as part of the Lift One corridor improvement project on the west side of Aspen Mountain. A citizen’s petition forces a referendum on the council’s vote.
- March 6, 2019 — Following an emotionally charged and highly contentious campaign, the Aspen electorate approves the 81-room Gorsuch Haus by a margin of 26 votes. The approved development also includes a new chairlift, another lodge for fractionals, a ski museum, shops, and retail. The entire project is to amass approximately 320,000 square feet of commercial space.
- June 2021 — Eliasch elected president of FIS with 65 votes, or 54.8% of the total. Is fifth president in FIS’s 97-year history, replacing outgoing Gian Franco Kasper. Eliasch had endorsement of British PM Boris Johnson.
- July 2021 — Norway Island LLC (the Gorsuch Haus development team: Jeff Gorsuch, Jim DeFrancia and Bryan Peterson) purchases 1 acre of land on the west side of Aspen Mountain for $10 million from Aspen Skiing Co. The property sale includes the existing lower terminal for Lift 1A and the surrounding buildings as well as vacant land farther up the slope.
- March 4, 2022 — Deed of sale recorded in Pitkin County shows Aspen City Holdings (ACH) buying Norway Island’s land for $76.25 million. According to public filings, ACH is an LLC created by OKO Group, which is controlled by Doronin.
- May 17, 2022 — FIS announces the Men’s World Cup skiing races will return to Aspen in 2023.
WORLD CUP RETURNS
Fans flocking to the base of Aspen Mountain this weekend will see an international cast of men’s downhill ski racers scorching down America’s Downhill course, finishing near Lift 1A. This weekend comes in high anticipation after the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team announced May 17, 2022, that the FIS Congress, the governing body that sets the World Cup schedule, was doubling the number of U.S. alpine events for the 2022-23 circuit.
“For the last five years, the U.S. has hosted two alpine World Cup events: the women’s Killington Cup in Killington, Vermont, and the men’s Xfinity Birds of Prey at Beaver Creek, Colorado,” the announcement said. “Once the schedule is approved, the 2022-23 winter will mark the expansion of the domestic World Cup footprint as U.S. Ski & Snowboard will bring alpine ski racing to Palisades Tahoe in California and Aspen Mountain in Colorado, marking the most World Cups on American soil since the 1996-97 season.”
The announcement of World Cup’s return to Aspen Mountain was a stunning development for many who understood the global event wouldn’t be back until a modern, faster lift replaced the old Lift 1A that ferries racers up the hill. Lift 1A still runs to this day, but the Lift One Corridor project Aspen voters approved in March 2019 calls for a new, faster lift to replace the aging one.
According to FIS documents and meeting minutes from an April 2022 conference, before the schedule was set to include Aspen, “The aim of the new Alpine calendar is to include iconic sites and major markets and to keep interest in the World Cup at its peak through the entire season and after the World Championships are concluded. It was acknowledged that the selection of venues for FIS Calendars must be in the best interest of FIS as a whole and not just for a chosen few. The Council agreed that FIS should give more time to find the possibility to include more venues on the Alpine calendars, including the possibility of extending the season by one week. A final proposal will be circulated for approval.”
The World Cup announcement came less than three months after an affiliate of Doronin’s OKO Group, a Miami-based real-estate developer, bought a .96-acre piece of land near the bottom of Aspen Mountain by 1A, and its entitlements to build a 64,000-square-foot, 81-guestroom slopeside lodge complemented by four condo units, commercial space, an underground parking garage and a worker-housing unit.
The FIS spokesperson said Eliasch was unaware that Doronin had bought the property until this week, and that Eliasch “since 2018 has no role at it (Aman).”
“The discussions about Aspen as FIS World Cup host started already in 2021,” said an FIS spokesperson in an email to The Aspen Times. “It is part of the FIS strategy to make snow sports more global and attract viewership in the US. President Eliasch has not talked to or met with Mr. Doronin since 2019 and has had no knowledge of Aman’s and/or Mr. Doronin’s involvement in the property in Aspen you are referring to until yesterday. President Eliasch only cares about the future of snow sports. This year’s races in Aspen will be broadcast live on CNBC. NBC will cover the events as well. This is a huge step forward in promoting our sport and position it on the US market.”
Meanwhile, the March 5, 2022, purchase by Doronin’s group came eight days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and was arguably just as unexpected as the World Cup announcement that followed.
The seller, Norway Island development group, had been highly visible on the Aspen campaign trail three years earlier, when locals Jim DeFrancia of Lowe’s Development, Jeff Gorsuch, and Bryan Peterson pitched to voters a Gorsuch Haus hotel as part of the larger Lift One Corridor project up for approval.
For a ski-proud community itching for World Cup to return — the tour’s last stop in Aspen was 2017 — and under the impression that it wouldn’t be back until 1A was replaced with a new lift, project proponents touted the Lift One Corridor proposal as the panacea. That’s because, in addition to a second lodge, a ski history museum, and retail space, Lift 1A would be replaced by a new lift stationed 500 feet down the mountain by Dean Street.
“Aspen was a premier stop for international ski racing from 1950 to 2017. Now the FIS has told us that no more World Cup races will be staged here until the lift and the base area upgraded. This is our chance to do exactly that and put Aspen back in the running as a host for World Cup races and the top skiers in the world,” said one Aspen resident in regards to the Lift One Corridor referendum, as part of “pro” and “con” remarks the city solicited in advance of the election.
“World Cup is not coming back until we replace Lift 1A and improve the base area. The Lift One Corridor Plan has been designed with ski racing in mind. Jeff Gorsuch and Bryan Peterson, the partners on Gorsuch Haus, are both former ski racers who are working to make Aspen a future host for the greatest racers in the world,” said another resident.
In a squeaker, Aspen residents voted 1,555-1,529 in favor of the Lift One Corridor proposal in the election March 6, 2019. Vested rights on the two hotel projects expire at the end of 2025; hotel developers have yet to submit building permit applications, according to city officials.
Two-plus years later, in June 2021, Eliasch stepped down from his chief executive role of the ski and tennis giant HEAD, based in Austria, after he was elected president of the FIS.
Eliasch’s campaign had plenty of firepower, with endorsements from American skiing legend Lindsey Vonn, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and then-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Following his election, Eliasch said the status quo at the FIS would be no more.
“I think it shows the FIS family is ready for change,” he was quoted as saying in an Associated Press article. “I always said, ‘If you want to keep things the way they are, I am not your candidate.’”
He became the FIS’s fifth president in its then 97-year history. He was the top vote-getter among four candidates, including Sarah Lewis, the then-FIS secretary general who told The Aspen Times in 2017, the last time the World Cup tour came to Aspen, when the finals were held, that the organization had a “desire to come to Aspen for World Cup races. (But) there are conditions that need to be fulfilled. Following the finals, there will be discussions.”
Lawsuits linked Eliasch and Doronin in the 2014 acquisition of Aman Resorts.
Not long after Doronin and a partner on the deal, American entrepreneur Omar Amanat, closed on the acquisition of Aman, the two soured on each other. Amanat had failed to put in his share of a $30 million on the deposit, upsetting Doronin.
Amanat thought he had found a backer in Eliasch, who was the CEO of HEAD then.
According to an article published Sept. 4, 2014, by Fortune — “The global battle for the ultimate hotel chain” — Amanat (no relation to the Aman brand) “says he was flabbergasted to discover, soon after, that Eliasch was friends with Doronin. Amanat accuses him of concealing the relationship. (Eliasch, in a letter cited in the litigation, denies being in cahoots with anyone.) Once on the board, Amanat contends, Eliasch aligned himself with Doronin, and the pair prepared to set a coup in motion. By April, the battle had escalated to a full-on war.”
Amanat’s case was pursued in New York and London courts, which in 2016 gave Doronin control of Aman.
Following a favorable ruling in July 2014 by a London court for Doronin and Eliasch, who were defendants in an Amanat suit, the press office of Vladislav Doronin stated in part: “I am confident that I will win this legal battle and can then continue rebuilding and expanding the Aman Group to make it the best in the world, regardless of this latest attempt to remove Mr Eliasch from his role as Director. I will do whatever is necessary as, for me, the Aman Group comes first.”
More details of the takeover came out in a federal suit filed in March 2019 in Southern California by New Jersey investor Nader Tavakoli, who accused Doronin of conspiring with Eliasch to squeeze Tavakoli out of the deal.
Tavakoli’s lawyers had claimed that in 2013 he engineered the deal to buy the Aman chain from from India-based DLF Group Hospitality, with financial support from Doronin. Tavakoli, who gave restructuring advice on the Aman acquisition, expected that he would receive a seat on the Aman board as compensation, as well as equity interest, once the new company and board were formed.
Eliasch controlled a company called Sherway Group Ltd. and used it to help Doronin push out Tavakoli and secure a seat for himself and Eliasch on the Aman board, alleged the suit, which was settled out of court in 2019.
“Part of Doronin’s scheme was accomplished through his long-time friend, Defendant Carl Johan Eliasch, and an entity Eliasch controls, Defendant Sherway Group Limited,” the complaint said.
A Sept. 24, 2018-dated affidavit from Eliasch, which was part of the suit, noted his association with Doronin: “On April 22, 2014, I attended a Board meeting in Miami, Florida as a member of the Board of Directors of Peak Hotels and Resorts Group Limited. During the three or four days around, and including, the date of that meeting, I stayed at the home of Vladislav Doronin, located in Miami Beach, Florida. Apart from my travel to Miami for the April 22, 2014 Board meeting, I have not otherwise traveled to Florida for business.”
Occupancy down from last year; airport transitioning to spring schedule
As the winter season heads towards the end, occupancy in Aspen and Snowmass combined is still slightly down from where it was last year.