Why other resorts love to hate Vail
Aspen, CO Colorado
VAIL, Colo. ” There are the cracks about Breckenridge’s “public skiing” and the jabs about jean-clad Texans clogging the slopes in Steamboat Springs.
Telluride has its hippies ” and Tom Cruise ” and Aspen has its green ad campaign ” along with the distinction of being a huge energy suck, thanks to all its massive, underused second homes.
But no ski resort is as universally loathed as Vail, or at least it sure seems that way.
Our home mountain is the muse behind those “Vail sucks” T-shirts they sell at other ski resorts. It’s the target of bumper sticker campaigns, often seen slapped on the back of a beat-up pickup truck parked at the base of some mom-and-pop ski hill.
Crested Butte picked Vail ” not Aspen or Deer Valley, which are undoubtedly posher ” to be the focus of an ad campaign that touted the secluded mountain hamlet’s down-home charm. If you never saw it, imagine this: a girl, clad in sunglasses, riding a bike stocked with beer in the front, over the message, “This is not Vail.”
You get the picture.
Vail resident Tim Moffet knows all about Vail hate. Moffet co-owns Tiga Advertising, a company that sells advertising inside those skier shuttle buses you see trolling resort parking lots. When he’s visiting other ski resorts, he hears the comments ” made mostly in jest ” about Vail’s shortcomings: its “plastic Bavarian village,” the expensive lift tickets and the fact that it’s owned by a publicly traded corporation that now calls Broomfield, not Vail, its headquarters.
Moffet takes it as a compliment. If Vail weren’t so great we wouldn’t get this kind of attention, he said.
“The first place my mind goes to is, in Vail, we ought to be flattered. Envy like that is high flattery,” he said.
Moffet may be biased, but he isn’t completely off-base, either, said Ralf Garrison, a ski industry analyst, who knows all about anti-Vail bumper stickers ” “I might have been one of those guys writing those bumper stickers,” said the former Crested Butte ski bum.
Vail has become the icon of success in the ski industry and thus, the favorite punching bag in ski-resort rivalries, Garrison said.
But even if Vailites tire of having to defend their home resort, there’s a lot of good that can come out of a rivalry, Garrison said. As ski resorts continue to compete for the same group of snow lovers, it’s up to those resorts to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. That’s why we have Aspen’s glitz and Steamboat’s cowboy image, Deer Valley’s skier-only aristocracy and Killington, Vt.’s, anything-goes vibe.
And Vail? Well Vail is the country’s massive, 5,289-acre Goliath.
Since the 1980s, Vail’s marketing slogan has been “Vail. There’s no comparison.” So to be fair, when other ski resorts compare themselves to Vail, it’s partly our fault.
“We do pay attention to what other resorts are doing in the industry,” said Bill Jensen, president of Vail Resorts’ mountain division. “So I do watch the competition. But I don’t spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to the competition … I don’t lust after something our neighbor has.”
That’s because Vail has plenty, Jensen said ” plenty of size and plenty of terrain, from the Back Bowls that made Vail famous to the still relatively new Blue Sky Basin, which aims to give inbounds skiers an out-of-bounds skiing experience.
It’s all about the skiing, he said. That’s what makes Vail so great.
“Everyone can buy a lift network and restaurants and buy nice uniforms,” Jensen said. “It goes back to the natural attributes.”
For the local living in the smaller, less-successful, older ski town, Vail’s biggest vulnerability is what it doesn’t have ” a history. Unlike the Tellurides and Crested Buttes of the world, with their mining pasts and historic downtowns, Vail, the ski resort, was born in 1965. Vail, the town, came after those first lifts were installed.
Vail isn’t alone in that category. Keystone and Copper Mountain are other examples of “purpose-built” resorts. But Vail’s international reputation, it’s wealthy clientele and financial success makes it a better target.
“I think the good thing that goes along with Vail is the market position it has achieved,” Garrison said. “The bad thing about the position that Vail has is that it becomes an iconoclastic resort.”
“Now if you are a Rastafarian trustfunder with a little hemp in your pocket in Telluride that says, ‘We aren’t Copper,’ it doesn’t quite work. They haven’t become enough of a resort,” he added.
While the locals in Steamboat Springs may indulge in a little smack talk about Vail, that type of negative campaigning isn’t part of the ski town’s marketing tactics. Sandra Evans-Hall, vice president of Steamboat Springs’ Chamber of Commerce, said her group prefers to focus more on explaining to consumers what Steamboat represents, not what it doesn’t.
“Steamboat has chosen to be kind of the family friendly, open space kind of town,” she said. “That healthy competition allows each (resort) to find those places where we can be different. It’s not necessarily a resort-bashing program, but more of a resort pride and differentiation program.”
Jensen acknowledges that great marketing is all about pointing out the differences between your product and your competitor’s. Jensen recalled his own marketing technique while working for the Sunday River ski area in Maine in 1989. The crew used to create table tents at the base that compared their snow to other resorts.
As for the jabs directed at Vail? Jensen doesn’t much care as long as the naysayers can spell Vail’s name right.
So go ahead and knock Vail around. Knock Vail for being located on Interstate 70, for its shallow history, for its wealthy clientele ” which Jensen said Vail never sought out, but still enjoys.
That wealthy clientele certainly has helped Vail Resorts’ bottomline, but at what expense to its image?
Perhaps not much.
When Vail got knocked down to No. 2 in SKI Magazine’s poll this year, it wasn’t usurped by some allegedly authentic, mom-and-pop ski hill that vows to keep it real. No, Deer Valley, the ultra-posh, skier-only resort in Utah took the No. 1 spot.
Still, Deer Valley doesn’t quite hold the cache that Vail does outside of the ski industry. Our ski town’s wealth disparities are so well known that Joe Gyourko referenced Vail in a Wall Street Journal article about the growing elitism in New York and San Francisco. He compared the phenomenon there to the “Vailization effect.”
“The reference to Vail arose because we see very little population growth in these markets, high and growing house prices, very little new housing construction and a growing faction of rich people living in the area.” said Gyourko, a professor for the Wharton School of Business at University of Pennsylvania, when asked via e-mail to explain his choice of words. (Gyourko added that he didn’t mean anything negative by that, by the way.)
Vail isn’t the only resort to conjure up such ideas. Aspen earned its high-class cred years ago with its Austrian ski instructors, the celebrities the resort attracted and the high-class gentry that followed, Garrison said. And back in the ’70s and ’80s, when Garrison was still skiing in jeans and making snarky bumper stickers in Crested Butte, it was Aspen that was the biggest target, he said.
Lately, though, Aspen’s been throwing its stones at Vail. When Rock Resorts, the hotel management division of Vail Resorts, announced it would be taking over the management at Aspen’s Hotel Jerome, a few residents couldn’t help but express their disdain in the local paper, even if jokingly.
“I remember my first response was, ‘Why wouldn’t Vail want to be in Aspen?'” said Jeff Hanle, the spokesman for Aspen Skiing Co.
Hanle chuckles when asked about the Vail versus Aspen rivalry ” or any rivalry, for that matter. Those barbs are usually traded just by locals, not ski resort reps, and while Aspen Skiing Co. enjoys the pride its local residents have in the resort and town, fueling those competitions isn’t part of the Aspen marketing strategy.
“Everybody’s got great skiing and great attributes,” Hanle said. “What every resort really does is market their unique strengths.”
Aspen locals take pride in shorter lift lines and uncrowded slopes ” though, “we are ski operators and we want more skiers,” Hanle said.
And it makes sense for those in Vail to brag about its size and relative easy-to-get-to location off I-70, he said.
So why are both so often put down by everyone else?
“Because they are both very successful, high-end resorts with fantastic skiing,” Hanle said. “They are the best ski areas in the country … They certainly have more name recognition for Aspen and Vail than any other resorts worldwide.”
Vail’s goal is to provide a “remarkably consistent experience,” Jensen said. Skiers who frequent Vail have come to expect well-groomed runs, good snow, fast, dependable lifts and fantastic customer service. Vail has earned its status by providing a consistently good experience, Jensen said.
“We try to appeal to a broad section of the marketplace,” he said. “We’re proud of how many locals ski, how we have this mix of day-skier traffic which rounds out our mountain, and then yes, the baby boom generation has done well financially and Vail has benefited from it, and Aspen has benefited from it. I do think resorts would like the wealthy customers that we see at Vail to be at their resort.”
But like any company, Vail is evolving. While the resort has no plans to abandon the wealthy customers that have helped make Vail successful, Vail also is reaching out to younger snow lovers. Events like The Session, a snowboarding competition held in mid-winter, and the ski season kick-off party, Snow Daze, which will host rap artist Ludacris this year, are examples of how Vail is trying to lure tomorrow’s second-home owners to the slopes today.
“I think we’re fairly good at compartmentalizing our customer sub-segments,” Jensen said. “The mountain helps us do that. We have a customer who likes the front-side groomers, we have the terrain park in Golden Park for younger snowboarders … With 5,280 acres we can accommodate 15,000 to 20,000 people without a significant amount of crowding.”
But can Vail always succeed in being all things to all people? Garrison suggests the answer to that is no.
“I think we are going to see a split, and one part of that split is a combination resort and community that is balanced on a year-round basis and does include a mix of locals and visitors and second-home owners and probably sustains itself (year-round),” Garrison said. “There’s going to be another kind of resort that is exclusive in nature, and you’ll be able to tell pretty easily by the gate you have to go through to get to it.”
For Vail to continue to be as successful as it has been, it will need to model itself after the first example, Garrison said. And to do that, Vail will need to hold onto what few locals it has, or risk turning into Garrison’s second example.
“As Vail grows and isn’t so much just a resort, and has to blend in the second-home owners, it will have to look for early warning signs, to check if you don’t have the heart and soul of the community anymore,” he said.
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