Cementing a Place in the Colorado Ski Economy
A conversation with Alterra’s Chief Operating Officer, David Perry
Fashioned in April 2017 when KSL Capital Partners joined the Crown family – the owners of Aspen Skiing Co. – Alterra Mountain Company has quickly become Vail’s rival behemoth in the ski industry duopoly. Skiers, snowboarders and winter enthusiasts watched in awe last year as the conglomerate purchased and partnered with resort after resort: First the former Intrawest properties of Steamboat and Winter Park, then Mammoth Mountain a few days later. The company’s original three holdings were followed by Deer Valley in October 2017, Solitude Mountain Resort this June and its latest acquisition last month, Crystal Mountain. Although some have voiced concerns about the possible “Aspenization” of Alterra’s new procurements, Alterra spokespeople have repeatedly expressed that the strategy is to build a brand that highlights each resort’s individuality.
Nearing the end of the company’s first year in business, we spoke with Alterra’s Chief Operating Officer, David Perry to get the scoop on how Alterra runs its resorts and how its inaugural Ikon Pass is cementing a coveted place in the Colorado ski economy.
COLORADOBIZ: YOU’RE BASED IN DENVER, BUT YOUR RESORTS ARE SCATTERED AROUND THE CONTINENT. WHAT DRIVES YOUR DECISION-MAKING FOR THE COLORADO RESORTS IN CONTRAST WITH THOSE THAT ARE OUT-OF-STATE?
DAVID PERRY: “The foundational model for Alterra is to support local decision-making and to make sure that the unique brands … are left intact. So, although we have our head office here in Denver, we have very strong teams in place at the resorts, and we’re trying to make collaborative decisions … The leadership team on the ground at the resorts is very much in charge, so it’s really no different in Colorado than it is at any other resort. We call our business model ‘head office lite…’
CB: AFTER BUYING CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN IN WASHINGTON, ARE ANY MORE RESORTS IN ALTERRA’S SIGHTS?
DP: Not at the moment. Colorado is a critical state; it’s the No. 1 state in the nation for skier/snowboarder visits, and skiing is a big part of the Colorado economy. We’re really pleased that both our owned resorts and our partner resorts (Eldora, Copper and the Aspen Snowmass area) create a really powerful and compelling offer…
CB: ALTERRA CREATED THE 23-RESORT IKON PASS AND THIS WILL BE ITS FIRST YEAR IN ACTION – ARE YOU WAGING WAR AGAINST VAIL RESORT’S EPIC PASS?
DP: There’s certainly no war going on.
There’s definitely an evolution happening in the pass landscape – skiers and snowboarders are shifting increasingly to buying passes that have multi-resort access. Vail Resorts has done a very good job these last 10 years with the Epic Pass, and we have a lot of respect for what they’ve done. But we also know that the resorts we own and partner with are very compelling as well, and people are very, very loyal to those resorts and are excited to access them on one pass.
So, we think the advent of the Ikon pass is exactly what skiers and snowboarders are looking for, but we also think there’s plenty of room in the market for the Epic and Ikon and other alliances.
CB: HOW IS CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACTING ALTERRA’S STRATEGY – PARTICULARLY AFTER A POOR SHOWING OF SNOW LAST SEASON?
DP: Climate change is very real, and winters are getting shorter and warmer. One of the reasons Ikon is popular is that, [with] geographic diversity, people can buy the pass with confidence, knowing that there will be good snow somewhere...
That said, we take this very, very seriously. For example, one of the organizations we’re very involved with is Protect Our Winters – a few weeks ago I was with a group of leaders from POW in Washington, D.C., talking to legislatures and urging them to understand the issue and to do something about it. There’s only so much you can do at the resort level; you can green your own operation and lessen your carbon footprint, but until policy makers really make significant changes, we’re not goint to have the impact that we need to have in reversing this trend. We visited with people on both sides of the aisle, presenting it as a non-partisan issue, and some of the policy makers were receptive to what we were saying, but in some offices, we were not received very favorably at all, so we have a long way to go.
CB: YOU’VE INVESTED IN WINTER PARK’S NEW GONDOLA AND STEAMBOAT’S BI
IGGER BASE RESTAURANT. HOW ARE YOU BALANCING THESE PROJECTS WITH THE INDIVIDUALITY OF EACH RESORT? ARE MORE CHANGES TO COME?
DP: When we first started the company a little over a year ago, we asked each resort’s executive team to present us their vision of investments that they’d like to see at their resort. In the case of Steamboat, it was the restaurant, and in the case of Winter Park, it was the gondola. So, we supported and funded those projects … We wanted to demonstrate to the loyal guests of each resort that we were serious about investing in their resorts, so we … listened to their recommendations and then refined the project by pulling in expertise from the resorts as well as Denver and collaborating closely on the finished product.
After the first push for customer-facing projects, we rolled up our sleeves with the resort leaders and the team here in Denver and started to work on a five-year capital plan, which we’re in the middle of right now …We’ll share the key projects with the public on an annual basis, but we’re definitely going to continue to invest in both Winter Park and Steamboat; we think they’re just critically important, and they both can benefit from some increased capital investment.
CB: WHAT ARE ALTERRA’S GREATEST CHALLENGES AS A NEW COMPANY?
DP: It’s been a fast-paced first year: forming our company out of six different companies at the same time as launching a new pass product … Our biggest challenges are getting people aligned, combining the best practices from six different companies and getting everyone to agree on how things should go. We’ve really believed., since day one, in the spirit of partnership, and we’re pleased with what we’ve accomplished … acquiring the resorts we have and then forming the strong partnerships we have with the places we do not own. But let’s be honest, we have a ways to go. We’re not an established company yet, but we’ve got a fighter’s spirit for sure.
CB: WHAT’S NEXT FOR ALTERRA?
DP: We believe we have some growth still. We’re going to continue looking for strategic acquisitions as a company so that we can strengthen our Ikon network, as well as continuing to put significant capital into our already owned resorts over the next four to five years. We’re also looking at various international markets; we’ve already got partners in Japan and Australia, but we’re looking to expand our network even further. We’ve also got some big technology projects that we’re looking at investing in the future, because we know that how skiers want to interact with our resorts can be improved from a tech standpoint. It’s probably a little soon to talk about but suffice it to say that people want to make sure that how they buy, book, interact and share information around the resorts that they love is improved and streamlined.
We’re a company of skiers and snowboarders. We care deeply about the experience that people have at our resorts, and we want to make sure that we understand each of the resorts in our network and tap into that passion that people have for them.
Caroline Araiza is a student at Colorado State University, majoring in journalism.