When Vail Resorts’ Chairman of the Board and CEO Rob Katz addressed members of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade on September 11, 2018, it had been 17 years since the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. More important, it had been a decade since the meltdown of the global economy and the Great Recession that followed.
Indeed, it’s almost as though Katz could see the looming financial crisis coming. Mere months before the 2008 market collapse, Vail Resorts introduced its Epic Pass, a low-priced (US$579 at the time) season pass that not only included Vail and Beaver Creek, but Keystone, Breckenridge and A-Basin as well. Passholders only needed to ski a half-dozen days for it to pay off.
With close to 800,000 Epic Pass holders around the world (plugged into its highly advanced database) today, Vail Resorts could be described as being a tech player as much as it is a travel company. It’s right up there with Amazon, Google and Facebook as a corporation that disrupted an existing industry.
How did Vail Resorts survive, and even thrive, during a time in which its main competitors Intrawest and American Skiing Corporation disappeared like a snowball in late spring? According to Katz, “We remained very focused on our core business and our people. We didn’t acquire any new resorts and didn’t get into any businesses (author’s note: code word for “real estate”) that might get us into trouble. We made a decision to cut salaries—some by as much as 15 per cent—to save jobs. And we offered stock options to our employees at $14 per share.”
Did someone say “stock options”? Chances are you’d be pretty happy if you’d loaded up on those options as a kind of forced savings plan. At press time, Vail Resorts stock was flirting with $300 per share—a whopping 20-fold increase.
With its acquisition of Whistler Blackcomb two years ago, Vail Resorts now had, what Katz calls, “a truly iconic mountain resort; one that everyone from around the world wants to experience.” Although the full-meal deal Epic Pass price has crept up to US$929 (for 2018-19), to travelling skiers it offers access to a mind-boggling 65 resorts around the world.
In person, Katz looks more choir boy than rugged mountain man, but he’s rock-solid when it comes to knowing what his customers want. He was assertive yet tactful around issues like the price of lift tickets and employee housing. He heaped praise on a Whistler Blackcomb zero waste landfill initiative that has now been adopted by all of the Vail Resort properties, which includes a cast of significant B-size resorts like Stevens Pass near Seattle, quirky Kirkwood in California and funky Crested Butte in Colorado.
Katz addressed all of the pain points that currently affect the sport.
On the cost of skiing: “It’s our job to make the public aware of ways in which we’ve made skiing more affordable. We want you to come skiing at our resorts, but please buy your tickets in advance. If you wait until the last minute to ski, well, you’ll pay more. Purchasing in advance also lets us be strategic when it comes to things like planning our season.”
On climate change: “Weather is the biggest variable in the ski industry, and we try to make sure that our resorts offer a wide variety of different activities like snowshoeing or snowmobiling. Our Epic Promise for a Zero Footprint will eliminate carbon emissions, waste production and environmental impact by 2030.”
On grumblings in Whistler: “Driving innovation requires change, and we do change things when we come to town. There was a lot of (local) negativity when we went into Park City a few years ago. But within a year, the local newspaper published an editorial praising us for doing every single thing we said we’d do. We appreciate that all of these towns have their unique culture and we certainly don’t want our resorts to be cookie-cutter.”
On the challenges of finding and keeping staff: “Employee culture is number one. We want to promote a career path to everyone who works at Vail Resorts, and provide continuous opportunities for leadership and growth. With over 40,000 employees worldwide, there’s plenty of room for advancement.”
On the cost of housing at Whistler: “Finding housing for our employees is a challenge across our organization, not just at Whistler Blackcomb. We expect to have a significant announcement within the next month on the Whistler housing situation.”
On the lousy treatment by mainstream media: (A highly shared Bloomberg News story last year was titled Is Vail Resorts Killing Whistler’s Spirit?) “I have no issues at all with the media. They have their jobs to do. We don’t get too caught up in it [media coverage]. The truth is, we have so many channels to communicate with our guests.”