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Solving the Resort Puzzle

Fall Line
By Martin Forstenzer
posted: 02/13/2004

WHEN BEAVER CREEK OPENED IN 1980 AND DEER Valley first fired up its lifts the following year, few industry insiders realized that it signaled the end of an era. Now, more than two decades since a full-size U.S. resort has opened, a new era may be dawning. But its premise may surprise you: Think small.

A handful of recent ski resort start-ups are targeting narrow customer niches. "New ski areas are becoming much more focused on particular market segments, says Bruce Erickson of the SE Group, leading ski resort consultants. "Developers are more carefully crafting their areas to match what they perceive their markets to be. You could characterize this as a 'boutique' approach, whether they're upscale boutiques or extreme-skier boutiques.

The boutique ski-area idea is partly a response to the increasing difficulty of developing a major ski area on federal land due to stricter environmental regulations and the daunting task of securing enough good terrain. It's also a response to the economic realities of the industry. With the sport showing little growth in recent years—only a 6 percent increase in skier days in the past decade—new resorts are tailoring their mountains to attract specific types of skiers.

Blacktail Mountain, Mont., which opened in 1998, has the distinction of being the first new ski resort to open on U.S. Forest Service land since the now-defunct Panadero/Cuchara Ski Area started up in Colorado in 1982. The key to Blacktail's success was its relatively low impact on the environment—there are just three lifts (two doubles and a triple) and 30 trails. With only 300 skiable acres, the area has no ambitions beyond accommodating the skiing market in its own little corner of northwestern Montana. It's the quintessential local resort and, ironically, despite its novelty, there's a retro feel to the place.

Another new minimalist resort, Silverton Mountain in southwestern Colorado, has taken a different approach. Silverton—with its ultrasteep terrain—is exclusive in its own way: It was created for expert skiers only. Occupying a combination of private and U.S. Bureau of Land Management turf, the resort runs one double chairlift and, currently, provides only guided skiing. "Most of my favorite ski areas had gotten too big and were getting too expensive and too crowded, says 32-year-old founder Aaron Brill. "I figured the only way to find a resort I liked was to go out and open one myself.

Meanwhile, other resort entrepreneurs are taking a different route; reopening some of the 300-odd U.S. ski areas that have closed in the past 20 years. In 1999, White Pine Ski Area, a little Wyoming hill on Forest Service land, rose from the dead in the hands of a former Alta patroller. The modest 25-trail resort, which had originally operated in the 1930s, has been retrofitted with two new triple chairs to serve a regional market.

Crotched Mountain, N.H., has also found new life. The tiny resort, which opened in the early 1960s and closed in 1989, opens its ticket windows again this season with four lifts on 75 acres, intending to focus on attracting church and school groups from the Boston area.

This targeted, boutique business approach gives new ski-resort owners a chance to compete in a hypercompetitive market and also provides skiers with some interesting choices.

Some developers who wanted to sell real estate along with skiing—an idea with a growing corps of critics—have simply shifted their resort projects off federal land to get away from tightening regulations. Located next to Big Sky, Mont., the new Moonlight Basin ski area, which is scheduled to open this season with limited development, is completely on private land. Tamarack Resort in Idaho, previously known as Westrock and before that Valbois, was originally planned for Forest Service land, but after years of struggling, was moved onto nearby state land. The resort plan then sailed through the Idaho legislature to unanimous approval, and the sski area's management says it will open with two detachable quads next season.

The concept at Tamarack is that skiing will be just one component of an 1,100-acre recreational real estate project that will include an 18-hole golf course and Cascade Lake frontage. According to Tamarack CEO Jean Pierre Boespflug, a former ski instructor at Val Thorens, France, and Squaw Valley, Calif., the ski area will be large enough to accommodate 7,000 skiers and boarders a day, but will limit the number to just 3,500. Homeowners will get unlimited access to the ski area (and other facilities). After that, skiers from the general public will be allowed in until the resort reaches its daily limit.

"Skiing by itself has a tinge of the masses. When you're skiing, you're always with crowds, Boespflug says. "Tamarack is an attempt to change that vision and have essentially a boutique resort with a private club, limiting the number of skiers.

Despite a few recent successes, however, the odds of launching a new ski area on federal land are getting longer. "Every year that goes by, the regulatory climate becomes tougher, says U.S. Forest Service Winter Sports Coordinator Ed Ryberg.

There are plenty of cautionary tales involving developers who spent fortunes to build ski areas, then ran out of funding or collided with federal regulations. One of the most recent high-profile flameouts was the planned nine-lift Pelican Butte resort in Oregon. After several attempts to build the ski area on a steep-bowled mountain in the Cascades failed, the Jeld-Wen Corporation picked up the project in the 1990s and spent millions trying to gain federal approval. At times, it looked like the bid would succeed. Then the ski area encountered energetic opposition from environmentalists. And after the Clinton Administration enacted tough new protection for national forest lands, the company abandoned the project.

The federal environmental review process can be incredibly costly and complicated, and state and local requirements usually add to the difficulty. Nonetheless, the opening of an extreme-skier mountain on one end (Silverton) and a small, local family resort on the other (Blacktail), shows that starting new resorts on federal land is still possible—with the right plan.

"The potential for growth in skiing isn't in big chunks, it's a matter of developing a smaller chunk of the market efficiently, which means that you have to target correctly, industry consultant Erickson says. "There's growth out there, but you've got to fight for it. If you can't steal market share, you've got to create market share. The way you do that is by focusing your product, whether it's high-end boutique or regional family market or extreme skiing.

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