Vail Resorts buys biggest ski resort in North America, Whistler: What does it mean for Aussies?

Vail Resorts just dropped the mic on the ski industry with the purchase of the biggest ski resort in North America, and one of the most loved by Australians, Whistler.

The publicly listed Vail Resorts started as just one resort off the i-70 in Colorado's Rocky Mountains and is now a global conglomerate dining on ski resorts for breakfast. In recent years Vail, which included Beaver Creek, Keystone and Breckenridge resorts, has acquired nine resorts in six years including Northstar and Kirkwood in California. They have also invested hundreds of millions of dollars into upgrades at each acquired resort.

The company bought The Canyons in Utah and wrangled Park City Mountain Resort from a dissatisfied town of locals and combined both resorts with a $50 million linking gondola to create the largest ski resort in the US known simply as Park City. They have had some challenges though. A court battle was put into place when Vail applied to trademark Park City as theirs and the town of Park City revolted forcing Vail to withdraw their application.

The Australian dollar is important to Vail. We are the leading international inbound market to most of the commercial US and Canadian ski resorts and our dollar matters. So when Vail bought Perisher in 2015 it not only made business sense to pay $176 million for the resort and an Australian database of dedicated skiers, it also meant that Australians would benefit from the Epic Pass for unlimited access to 13 resorts, including Australia, for around US$800.

Now in a move that has stunned the ski industry, the company announced this week they would be acquiring 100 per cent of one of the most iconic ski resorts in the world, Whistler Blackcomb for around $1.4 billion. The former Winter Olympic Games venue is the largest ski resort in North America, over 3200 hectares and brings Vail Resorts' combined acreage on the one Epic Pass to 17,000 hectares. 

This is great news for Whistler locals who will now pay 50 per cent less for their season pass when it becomes an Epic Pass with Vail Resorts in the 2017/2018 season. Australian "Epic Pass Australia" pass holders (all the resorts with some limited access) will not include access to Whistler Blackcomb for 2016/2017 either, they too will have to wait until the season after the upcoming one.

We asked Rob Katz, chief executive officer of Vail Resorts, if the Whistler acquisition would mean a price rise for Epic Passes.

"Even though Whistler Blackcomb is one of the most impactful offerings that we've added to the Epic Pass, we still would absolutely not change our current pricing approach," said Katz.

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Australians love Whistler, dubbed Whistralia by many due to the plethora of Aussie accents working each winter. The Vail acquisition is good news for those on an Epic Pass but not such great news for the Mountain Collective, the Epic Pass main competitor of which Whistler was a member, until now. Whistler Blackcomb will remain on the pass for 2016/2017 but not afterwards.

"Whistler Blackcomb is very popular in Australia, and we are confident that combining this position with our own efforts in Australia, along with our Perisher acquisition and the Epic Australia Pass can be quite transformative to our collective engagement with Australian guests," said Katz.

"We feel that this is one of the most important opportunities we could create for the long-term sustainability and growth of our business. Much like Park City, we are confident that both companies will be much stronger together and our financial results will reflect that."

As a chief executive of a publicly listed company, Katz rightly for shareholders gives little away. He is, however, clearly strategic with steerage of the brand he is the caretaker of.  On numerous occasions I have pushed him about Japan and the acquisition of a resort there, which would be in the best interest of Australian skiers who can't decide between the US, Canada and Japan every year.

Now, with the purchase of Whistler it feels Japan is one step closer as Whistler has a significant Asian ski visitor record.  Katz is, as always, considered in his response.

"I think we certainly have plenty on our plate with Whistler Blackcomb, but there is no doubt that its positioning, its connection to Asia is incredibly strong, and Australia has a strong connect to Asia.  But, it's also important that any acquisition be the right resort, the right fit, the right time.  And our company takes a very patient and thoughtful approach to any growth."

Translated? Watch this space.

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Follow Rachael Oakes-Ash on Twitter & Instagram @misssnowitall and on facebook.com/misssnowitall

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