By Karen D. Lorentz
SKI Inc. 2020, released on Oct. 29, is must reading for anyone interested in what’s happening in the ski industry or trying to keep track of the consolidations and emergence of major ski companies. Or understand the changes and how they are transforming the ski business.
The subtitle may be long but says it all: “Alterra counters Vail Resorts; mega passes transform the landscape; the industry responds and flourishes. For skiing? A North American Renaissance.”
And while some may worry about what mega passes and mega companies mean for the independents, the book offers a positive view for those ski areas that are well managed and maintain their loyal customer niches.
SKI Inc. 2020 is worth reading because author Chris Diamond is a 44-year ski industry veteran and his editor and collaborator Andy Bigford has spent nearly 40 years in ski-related publishing. They know the subject inside out. That includes other major players — POWDR (Killington and Pico’s parent company) and Boyne Resorts, and the former Peak Resorts —which are covered in respective chapters.
From SKI Inc. to SKI Inc. 2020
Chris Diamond’s memoir SKI Inc. launched in Dec. 2016. Subtitled “My journey through four decades in the ski-resort business, from the founding entrepreneurs to mega-companies,” is a book that offered an “insider’s” view of the ski industry.
Beyond sharing the workings of the ski industry and personal insights, the book included a look at the major conglomerates, trends and challenges, and Diamond’s thoughts about the future.
Most notable was the chapter on Vail Resorts and a prediction: “Vail Resorts will also certainly find a way to enter the Northeastern market, regardless of the weather vagaries and the challenges of providing the ‘Experience of a Lifetime’ under those conditions.”
While the latter came true with acquisitions of Stowe Mountain Resort (2016), Okemo and Mount Sunapee (2018) and recent Sept. purchase of Peak Resorts 17 properties (including Mount Snow and other eastern areas), Diamond acknowledges that he never foresaw the rise of a new company that would challenge Vail Resorts’ supremacy.
But in early 2017, a new partnership of KSL Capital Partners, owner of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, and Henry Crown and Company, owners of Aspen, purchased Intrawest’s resorts. In Jan. 2018 they formed Alterra Mountain Company, a private company that would eventually own 15 resorts; they also partnered with another 25-plus resorts and launched the Ikon Pass for 2018-19.
Diamond traces the story behind Alterra’s rise and challenge to Vail Resorts (NYSE:MTN), the world’s largest ski company which went public in February 1997. He also includes a very thorough chapter on Vail Resorts, which went on its own buying spree.
The significance of Vail Resorts and Alterra is that about half the annual U.S. skier visits are now done by these two mega ski companies and their pass partners. “The ski resort business has been radically and disruptively yet positively transformed,” Diamond observes.
But he doesn’t just document this change, he also takes a look at the next two biggies POWDR and Boyne Resorts. Both are privately owned by families interested in maintaining their ownerships and growing their own resorts.
The chapter on POWDR is a must-read for Killington aficionados who will appreciate the insights on the Killington acquisition and goal to transform the area with “a lot of tough love, time, and investment” as well as the admission by POWDR chairman John Cumming that there were some mistakes made in the beginning.
Diamond started his ski career as an assistant to the president of Killington in 1972, learning the ski business from area founder Preston Leete Smith, legendary marketing director Foster T. Chandler, and finance gurus Martel D. Wilson and Joseph D. Sargent. After Mount Snow was acquired (1977), he became VP and GM there until being named its president in 1989.
From 1994 to 1996 he served as the vice president for business development and president of the Vermont resorts for S-K-I Ltd., Killington and Mount Snow’s corporate parent. With SKI’s sale to ASC and ASC’s acquisition of Steamboat, Diamond became president of Steamboat in 1999, retiring June 30, 2015 when he turned his attention to the first SKI Inc. That book stemmed from a realization that he had worked for the nation’s first three big ski companies, starting with Sherburne Corp./S-K-I Ltd., then ASC, and finally Intrawest, which had purchased Steamboat as the result of ASC’s demise.
In SKI Inc. 2020, Diamond helps us keep track of the consolidation trend with chapters and appendix that enumerate which ones existed and owned which areas when and who the current players are that own them now.
Perhaps most importantly, he analyzes the mega company season passes, which offer tremendous value and opportunities for skiers, yet whose pricing presents major challenges for the independents. “Ingenuity and innovation at small- and medium-sized resorts — many are chronicled in the book — have led to successes at those areas run by their passionate owners. They can survive and even thrive in the drastically changed ski business environment,” Diamond notes.
The daunting challenges to the entire ski industry are not ignored — climate change and sluggish participation trends — are at the top of the disrupter list, Diamond says. But he also argues that the future is “brighter than ever.”
That makes for interesting reading for any skier who wants to understand or work in the ski industry.
Published by Diamond Publishing and distributed by West Margin Press, the 240-page book, which includes a color photo section, is available at select bookstores. Shop local, the Book Nook in Ludlow already has the book on order. (Also available on Amazon in both hardcover and as e-book).