By Karen D. Lorentz
For anyone looking for a good winter book, Chris Diamond’s 44-year memoir, “Ski inc.” is highly recommended reading. For anyone looking at the Killington Village conundrum or wondering about the new Killington Valley promotion it is also a must read.
Subtitled “My journey through four decades in the ski-resort business, from the founding entrepreneurs to mega-companies,” the book will be of interest not just because it offers an “insider’s” view of the ski industry, but also because Diamond’s career began at Killington, included Mount Snow and S-K-I Ltd., and culminated with his being president of Steamboat (Colo.).
Beyond sharing the workings of the ski industry and a good deal of personal insights, the book also includes a look at: national ski organizations like NSAA and SIA, the major conglomerates, today’s trends and challenges, and Diamond’s thoughts about the future.
Building a career in Vermont
Diamond, who grew up skiing in Massachusetts, worked as a bartender in Killington during his Middlebury College years. After a stint in the marketing department in 1969-70, he served in Vietnam, returning to start his ski career as an assistant to the president of Killington in 1972. Killington loyalists will appreciate Diamond’s memories of learning the ski business from none other than Killington Ski 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 in 1977, he became vice president and general manager 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.
Diamond became president of Steamboat in 1999, retiring June 30, 2015, when he turned his attention to this book.
Asked why he wrote it, Diamond said in a phone call from Steamboat Springs that he had realized a few years ago that he had had the experience of working for the nation’s first three big ski companies, starting with Sherburne Corp./S-K-I Ltd., then ASC, and finally Intrawest.
While generally praising his Vermont experiences, Diamond notes a strategic mistake of not building base villages, writing: “Looking back at these early experiences at Killington and Mount Snow, there is one clear regret I have relative to their status today as regional resorts versus ‘what might have been.’ While the outside perception of the ski business insists that the core financial driver is real estate, nothing could be further from the truth. Well-run resorts make money on operations. That said, real estate is very important for destination ski resorts in that it can support or enable the strategic vision.”
Back in the 1970s, he explained, Killington had 18,000 beds (in a region that extended from Manchester to Brandon; Whitehall, N.Y., to White River Junction) and that skiers were satisfied with the lodge, motel and inn accommodations and travel. However, the lack of a modern base village with the amenities that current guests desire has put the resorts at a strategic disadvantage, he noted, explaining that skier visits have dropped dramatically from earlier times and that “no other major area in the country has seen that happen.”
“Okemo, Stowe, Stratton, and even Sugarbush have been able to add new beds and improve their competitive position in Vermont,” Diamond observes. While he recognizes that environmental regulations are tough — “government in Vermont is the enemy,” he said, he reiterated that “windows of opportunity to reset the base areas” at Killington and Mount Snow were not acted upon.
Since many are aware of the downward slide of Killington’s second owner, Les Otten’s American Skiing Company (ASC), Diamond’s insider view will no doubt resonate, but perhaps occasionally surprise. Paying Otten the highest compliment for his snowmaking prowess and other contributions to skiing, Diamond nevertheless places the blame for ASC’s downfall squarely on the culture that Otten and his top-down management style engendered, specifically faulting the indebtedness taken on due to an unfettered spending spree that Diamond notes lacked a steady EBITDA approach (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization).
He also notes that ASC had a very good fiscal 2006 season (Otten was no longer head of company) and had the company had two more years, it company might have survived.
The chapter on the failed $91.4 million 2002 sale of Steamboat by ASC to Tim and Diane Mueller explains much about the mystery surrounding it. However, Diamond notes that ski area executives in ASC were as baffled by the rude way the deal was called off as the Muellers were. (At the New York closing ASC officials left the room and phoned in to the Muellers, saying the deal was off. The Muellers later won a lawsuit against ASC for $5 million.)
Eventually, Intrawest purchased Steamboat from ASC for $265 million in 2007 and efforts focused on reinvigorating that area after the debacle of the failed sale. Diamond also explains how Intrawest, which was then the largest owner of North American ski resorts, is no longer no. 1.
From Vail Resorts to the future
Diamond’s chapter on Vail Resorts offers a fascinating look at its rapid rise to become the largest owner/operator of ski resorts in the world.
The stock, which traded at $16.08 on March 6, 2009, now has a price/earning (P/E) ratio of 41.72 with the stock at $164 on Nov. 22, 2016, with a market cap of $6.14 billion.
But it’s not just the company’s success and acquisitions that are of interest. The Epic Pass launched in 2008 has had huge ramifications. One of which now has Okemo and Killington resorts as sisters on the M.A.X Pass.
“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,” Diamond opined.
Asked why he notes a “property like Killington would be a very desirable acquisition,” Diamond explained that the Vail model is to sell Epic passes and his opinion is Vail would consider areas with good location and the largest customer bases, noting a Stratton or Okemo might also be possibilities.
Other intriguing observations include who should own ski areas and how they might be better run as part of mountain towns.
As for the ubiquitous question “Do/did you get to ski every day?” the reader will enjoy that answer as well as how sailing became a passion thanks to one Martel “Marty” Wilson, Killington’s CFO when Diamond worked there.
Ski fanatics and operators alike will appreciate the candid look at the growth, mistakes, and personalities behind some of the nation’s most successful resorts.
The just-released hardcover is 216 pages with photo section and can be ordered direct from Diamond’s website, skidiamondconsulting.com — just in time to solve gift-giving dilemmas one may have for the snow aficionado who has everything.
Photo courtesy of Steamboat Pilot & Today
Chris and Eileen Diamond serve as grand marshals in the 2015 Winter Carnival parade.