When Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal rolled into Jackson Hole, Wyo., last season with an entourage of 35-including two dwarves-the resort made sure that the man Forbes magazine ranked as the world's sixth-richest had a good time. Staff members were instructed to address the prince as "royal highness" and to zip their lips about his activities. One employee at the Four Seasons, where the prince bunked down, reportedly was fired for blabbing on a public bus. The resort planned to run its gondola after-hours (for $6,000), but the prince canceled at the last minute because it was too cold. To accommodate his royal highness' schedule, which included sleeping late and dining at 11 p.m. so he could remain on Saudi time, the resort opened a sports shop one evening for a private shopping spree. To top it off, the resort barely blinked when the prince flew in his private ski instructors from, ahem, Aspen.
Just like Las Vegas, which has long appreciated the value of treating high rollers royally, many ski resorts are willing to do whatever it takes to lure the rich and famous. Big spenders not only drop $10,000 and up per day, celebrities also burnish a resort's reputation as a not-to-be-missed hot spot. When royalty skis Vail or John Kerry boards at Sun Valley, the resorts make headlines worldwide. Moreover, Americans love to rub elbows with celebrities. "Everyone wants to have a Clint Eastwood moment at Sun Valley or spot Jack Nicholson at Aspen," says one resort executive. "It creates an aura of excitement for anybody on vacation."
Skiing has long enjoyed an egalitarian tradition: Banker or busboy, people are judged by their slope skills, not their portfolios. That's still true. But in an era of bargain passes and crowded slopes, offering preferential treatment to those willing to pay for celebrity treatment is a way to maximize profits, resort officials say.
Resorts, taking their lead from the airline industry, are increasingly segmenting the market by price. Skiers can pay to get on the slopes before the lifts officially open, cut liftlines once they do and eat gourmet meals in restaurants closed to the masses. They can park closer, have their warmed boots and waxed skis delivered to their rooms, then hit the slopes while others wait in rental lines.
Nothing exemplifies this social stratification better than the growing number of private clubs at resorts where, in return for hefty membership fees, skiers can relax in leather chairs and sip brandy. While federal equal-access laws prohibit resorts from operating private clubs on Forest Service lands, resorts get around it by carpeting adjacent private properties with members-only establishments.
At Beaver Creek, skiers can choose from three clubs whose initiation fees range up to $75,000. At the elite Beaver Creek Club, valets attend to every need and concierges book snowcat trips or dinner reservations. The public can eat dinner at Beano's Cabin, but don't show up there for lunch, when it's available solely for members, who are greeted with a pair of slippers.
Vermont's Stratton Mountain Club is among the most successful. Opened last February with a $39,000 initiation fee (since raised to $49,000), the club sold out its 300 memberships in one season, thanks to perks such as ski valets, private dining, a children's playroom, underground parking and locker rooms. Buoyed by the club's success, Stratton is considering building two more. "We're responding to our clients' wishes," says Stratton's Myra Foster. The resort's latest gold-plated offering is a VIP instructor program: $8,900 gets you your favorite instructor on weekends and holidays all season.
Parking is another area where big spenders enjoy an advantage. While most skiers park in the outer lot and hop a shuttle to the lifts, 100 Vail skiers can drive into the heart of the village and walk to the lifts. Of course, they had to plunk down $100,000 to purchase spots in a heated garage. Such cconvenience isn't cheap, though it's more affordable at Jackson Hole, where a spot in an outdoor lot goes for $500 per season.
Private clubs are one thing-this is America, where wealth has always meant bigger homes, better cars and exclusive privileges. Many ski areas, however, operate on federal land. That's why locals were outraged when Copper Mountain, Colo., instituted its BeeLine program, allowing customers who pay a premium or stay at resort lodgings to cut liftlines. The Forest Service studied the issue in 2003, then allowed the program to continue. After all, clients willing to pay more have always been allowed to cut lines by signing up for a lesson. "It was a pricing issue, not an equal-access issue," says White River National Forest's Ed Ryberg.
Vail and most other resorts have skirted the controversy by marketing the privilege as a prime reason to hire an instructor or guide. Another tactic is to hire a celebrity skier. Visitors to Utah's Deer Valley, for instance, can pay $1,500 a day to ski with 1952 Olympic gold medalist Stein Eriksen. At Jackson Hole, skiers can rent Olympic gold medalist Tommy Moe for $500 per person.
Sometimes resorts pick up the tab. A former owner of Copper was known for throwing over-the-top New Year's Eve parties to impress potential investors. Dom Perignon flowed like water. Guests feasted on fresh lobster. At midnight, a $50,000 fireworks display lit the night. "It was an unlimited budget, and he always wanted us to exceed the unlimited budget," says a former Copper executive. Employees resented the excess-and having to steam-clean vomit from the carpet.
Jackson Hole's employees never had to stoop to such tasks, though one was designated to be at the Saudi prince's disposal at all times. "If somebody is willing to pay," says resort spokeswoman Greer Terry, "we're more than happy to make whatever arrangements they desire."