O’Donnell laments trends of ski industry, predicts others
November 14, 2006
Real estate development at the base of ski resorts has evolved into a “necessary evil” in the highly competitive industry, according to Pat O’Donnell, who retired Monday as the head of the Aspen Skiing Co.Most of O’Donnell’s 30-year career in the ski industry was spent in an environment that didn’t require development of condominiums, hotels and commercial property. He hinted that he preferred hauling people uphill and turning them on to the joys of sliding down the mountains and enjoying the beautiful scenery.But the industry changed. “We got into a capital shootout,” he said, referring to the competition among resorts to add gondolas, high-speed chairlifts and upscale restaurants on the ski area slopes. Once the industry started adding faster lifts, customers’ expectations grew. Now a competitive resort must have the whole mountain covered with high-speed chairs or risk getting shunned.There was no way ski area operators could pay for all the amenities simply by “selling lift tickets and cheeseburgers,” O’Donnell said. For example, the Crown family, which owns the Skico, has committed to $50 million to on-mountain improvements as part of the “renaissance” of Snowmass. A big chunk of that change this year went to the $13 million Elk Camp Gondola, slated to open in December.Snowmass could never sell enough lift tickets to justify that expenditure, O’Donnell said. The replacement of outdated chairlifts and antiquated restaurants had to come from real estate development at Base Village, said O’Donnell, who stepped down as the Skico’s president and chief executive officer after 10 years in the post, and 13 years with the company.The trend is even more pronounced at other resorts in Colorado. A great deal of the focus of Vail Resorts and Intrawest is on development.”It became a necessary evil,” O’Donnell said.Hopes for different type of trendO’Donnell, 68, said he won’t return to a ski industry job. Still, he hopes he created a different type of trend for the industry during his last year at the Skico helm. O’Donnell said he wants the Skico’s actions on global warming to inspire the U.S. ski industry to play a larger role in environmental activism.The Skico devoted part of its advertising campaign this year to drawing attention to global warming. Ads in such publications as Ski and Outside warned about potential consequences of global warming on skiing as a sport. Some scientists believe snow could disappear from Colorado’s slopes by 2100.The Skico’s ads directed readers to a website, http://www.savesnow.com, that discusses the issue and shows what actions people can take to bring about change.The campaign was controversial within the industry, according to O’Donnell.”We were getting criticized from within the industry,” he said. “How it started off was kind of ‘how dare you.'”It was said, ‘You guys are fearmongering. It’s supposed to be fun and enjoyable. You guys are running part of your ad campaign trying to scare people, and it’s negative.'”O’Donnell didn’t identify where the criticism came from, but he made it clear it didn’t bother him – much.”I refer to that within the company as getting hit right between the eyes with a marshmallow. It didn’t hurt, but it was still offensive,” he said.Officials at Colorado Ski Country USA and the National Ski Areas Association, trade groups for the industry, said they were unaware of any criticism over the ads, but noted they might not have been privy to it.O’Donnell’s bold predictionThe Skico is used to being a trendsetter on environmental causes. It was the first resort operator to go with to 100 percent renewable energy.”Eighteen months ago we were the only one buying renewable energy and wind power,” O’Donnell said. Almost immediately the Skico started getting calls from other resorts asking how they could buy renewable energy. The Skico was glad to share its formula.”Today, 18 months later, 47 ski areas” are buying wind power, according to O’Donnell. “How gratifying is that?”He believes the ski industry will also follow suit on activism over global warming. For one thing, ski areas cannot afford to sit idle on global warming. Too much is at stake for them. Since the health of the industry will depend on what humanity as a whole does, the ski industry has to build awareness of the issue, O’Donnell reasoned.He said others in the industry understand that line of reasoning. Now the Skico ads are being labeled “very clever,” he said. He believes they will be mimicked.”I’ve said to people within the industry, ‘I will bet you a dollar to a doughnut that within 12 months and no longer than 18 months you will see other ski areas within the United States messaging along these lines,'” O’Donnell said. “Exactly what medium they will use I don’t know, but you’re going to see part of their campaign say ‘climate change, come on folks climb on board.'”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.orgThe Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.