The most significant news of the ski offseason turned out to be a bombshell.
When Colorado-based Vail Resorts ended months of speculation and officially announced in June that it had acquired fabled Stowe Mountain Resort in a $41 million deal, it signaled an impending shift in culture for both the Vermont ski area and the iconic ski town which it calls home.
But it wasn’t the only sale to shake up the landscape of the New England ski industry, where a change of hands could lead to the rebirth of a favorite in Maine.
Rangeley’s Saddleback Mountain Resort, closed for the last two seasons while exhaustively seeking new owners, entered into a purchase agreement over the summer with an Australian property company. While opening for the 2017-18 ski season remains a “top priority’’ for the Majella Group, there is still no promise that the lifts will run for the first time in three years. Still, the sense that there is now a “when’’ rather than an “if’’ is a comfort to the northern region lacking in winter tourism dollars of late.
In April, former Bolton Valley Resort owner Ralph DesLauriers became its owner once again as part of a group that purchased the Vermont ski area with a vision that, DesLauriers said, includes a “major revitalization of the resort over the next few years.’’ Also in Vermont, another Colorado entity threw its own investment into the Green Mountains when Aspen Skiing Co. and KSL Capital Partners acquired Stratton Mountain Resort in a reported $1.5 billion agreement for Intrawest Resorts’ properties, which also includes Steamboat and Winter Park in Colorado.
But none of the exchanges is as immediately prominent as Vail’s new presence on the East Coast could become.
The purchase ended a seven-decade run for global insurance behemoth American International Group as Stowe’s primary owner. AIG still retains ownership of the majority of the Spruce Peak base area, including the posh 312-room Stowe Mountain Lodge and the resort’s country club, but handed the keys to the mountain operations to Vail, the first venture into the region for the mountain resort company’s growing portfolio.
The most significant impact from the sale is Stowe’s immediate addition to Vail’s modestly-priced Epic Pass, now good at 15 resorts — including Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Whistler-Blackcomb, Kirkwood, and Heavenly — across the United States and Canada with no blackout dates or other restrictions for $899.
A season pass at Stowe only last season would run you $1,860.
“Adding Stowe to the Epic Pass is a tremendous benefit for our guests,’’ Stowe spokesman Jeff Wise said. “The biggest significance is the benefit to Stowe guests and skiers. We’re excited to offer guests access to exceptional experiences at Stowe as well as at our iconic destinations throughout North America.’’
It also tosses a new player squarely into the eyes of a competitive market. An adult season pass at nearby Sugarbush Mountain Resort was going last month for $1,149 (The resort also joined The Mountain Collective Pass program over the summer, giving purchasers two days at various spots — Jackson Hole, Taos, and Alta among them — for $489). Jay Peak Resort season passes, good at Jay Peak and partner Burke Mountain Resort, were $1,209. At Killington Mountain Resort, a season pass could be purchased for $899 through June 15, but is now $1,179.
“We welcome them as a new player in the market,’’ Killington said in a statement to the Globe. “The introduction of the Epic Pass is going to be healthy for the consumer. Regardless of the new competition in the market, we are ready to kick off the longest season in the East and host the 2017 Audi FIS Ski World Cup.’’
The Epic Pass doesn’t automatically make Stowe a budget option though. Last season’s walk-up lift ticket rate was an all-time high for New England at $124, and this year, a 48-hour advance purchase will be $99 during peak periods. But those costs also illustrate what makes the Epic Pass so attractive to those who haven’t been able to afford a season ticket to Stowe in the past.
It could also lead to an overcrowding on Mount Mansfield, not unlike the area experienced during last year’s rebound winter for the Vermont ski industry.
Following a 2015-16 campaign with a scarcity of natural snow, the Northeast benefited from a change in the weather last season, reporting 3.9 million visits according to trade group Ski Vermont, wth consistent snow keeping many ski areas open until late April and May (or, in Killington’s case, June). It also brought headaches to Stowe’s parking areas, where increased visitors at peak skiing periods led to snarled traffic along Mountain Road.
Wise said Stowe wouldn’t speculate on season pass sales or disclose any financial information, but he did reveal that the resort is enhancing both our guest parking capacity and public transportation in preparation for the upcoming season, which aims to help with some of the overflow issues. Stowe is adding a new parking lot between the Midway Lodge and gondola base, with 150 parking spots providing access to both the lifts and base facilities.
“Additionally, we’re creating approximately 300 permanent staff parking spots at our cross country center, which removes cars away from the resort base areas,’’ Wise said.
From a commerce standpoint, Stowe’s inviting stable of hotels, restaurants, and other seasonal activities are looking for Vail to have a positive impact on the community while also increasing focus on guest experience.
“Stowe Mountain Resort has been a great partner here for a long time,’’ Stowe Area Association marketing manager Sharon Harper said. “Businesses here in general are very supportive of each other, and as a whole, the businesses look forward to continuing this relationship under Vail Resorts.’’
On that note, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz over the summer gave $100,000 to the Stowe Land Trust, a group aimed at conserving land in Stowe, as well as neighboring towns Waterbury and Morrisville. Last month, Katz announced a $58 million charitable fund to aid nonprofit, social service organizations that provide support to the mountain resort communities where Vail Resorts operates.
For the first time ever, that now includes the East Coast, already leading to speculation as to which resort Vail might next add to its new region, adding more options to its ever-expanding gateway of resort access.
An epic move, indeed.