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photo By Dmitry Molchanov

Mergers do let you ski more areas with one pass.

By Julie Kailus

Can’t keep track of who’s buying whom and how it’s going to affect you? You’re not alone. Colorado has taken center stage in some of the ski industry’s most massive shifts in how business is getting done. There have been buyouts, sellouts, consolidations, conglomerations, new corporations and just about every other scenario, all incrementally eating away at the no-frills, family-run ski-area environments of the past.

But is that a bad thing?

Not necessarily, says David Perry, president and COO of the yet-to-be-named joint venture formed recently when Aspen Skico owners Henry Crown and Co. joined KSL Capital Partners (owner of Tahoe’s Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows) to purchase Denver-based Intrawest, which comprises Steamboat and an operating partnership with Winter Park in Colorado; a Canadian heli-skiing operation; and additional mountains in Vermont and West Virginia. The portfolio now also holds California’s largest ski operator, Mammoth Resorts, which includes Mammoth Mountain, Snow Summit, Bear Mountain and June Mountain resorts.

It was already the biggest deal in ski-industry history. But the new venture upped the ante in August by buying Utah’s Deer Valley.

“With the two major ski companies in North America based right here, Coloradans are ultimately the beneficiaries. They care about their lifestyle, and these shifts are significant because Colorado is at the epicenter at these industry changes,” Perry says of his new conglomerate and Vail Resorts, which owns 13 ski properties worldwide, four of them in Colorado. “This company is being put together for a reason: It’s a growth platform, and we’re excited about our network of resorts. Skiers and travelers are going to be the winners as we get more involved in the market.”

Eldora was recently purchased by Utah-based Powdr Corp., which since 2009 has also operated Copper Mountain.

This deal is just the latest in a series of transitions around the state. Boulder’s backyard ski area, Eldora, was recently purchased by Utah-based Powdr Corp., which since 2009 has also played parent company to Colorado’s popular Summit County ski area, Copper Mountain.

Now that Eldora and Copper have changed hands again, consumers are left wondering what will become of the popular Rocky Mountain Super Pass, which has historically included access to Copper, Eldora and Winter Park, plus days at Steamboat, Crested Butte, and additional out-of-state and international ski areas.

While no pass deals are changing this season, there could be a shakeup—a good one, according to Perry—starting next year.

In southwestern Colorado, a recent flurry of acquisitions has also changed the skiing experience around the bottom half of the state. Investor James Coleman, who snatched up Durango’s Purgatory ski area in 2015, and more recently nearby family-oriented Hesperus, also owns New Mexico’s Sipapu and Pajarito ski areas and Arizona’s Snowbowl, which skiers now have unlimited access to on the $799 Power Pass.

So Long, Mom and Pop

So what’s left of Colorado’s mom-and-pop ski areas? In the true sense of the phrase, not much. Loveland ski area has been historically family owned and operated, albeit from Texas, but the matriarch died a few years ago. These days, more often than not, there are hybrid efforts at ownership and operations. Investors are still trying to find the right balance of keeping the characteristics that skiers are attached to at historic mountains, yet making them functional and financially sound in a modern world.

For example, a Canada-based outfit known as Dream now runs locals’ favorite Arapahoe Basin, once owned by Vail. But A-Basin’s quirks—like its spring tailgating barbecues—are still intact, even as the ski area’s boundaries and amenities undergo significant expansion this year.

Likewise, homegrown owners Andy Daly, a former Vail Associates Inc., president, and real estate partners Tom and John Gart of the iconic Gart Companies, are baby-stepping the reinvention of Powderhorn on Colorado’s Western Slope.

Monarch, too, has been an interesting story. It’s owned by out-of-state investors but has kept its footprint small, finding its financial footing despite having zero lodging on the mountain. More people each year come to Monarch simply to ski, many opting for a longer but traffic-free drive from the Front Range. This ski area’s quiet, snowy setting and appealing natural mix of terrain is enough—for now.

Yet Colorado is not exactly a reflection of the ski industry as a whole. The National Ski Areas Association oversees more than 300 ski areas, a majority of which are independent rural mountains. What may be surprising is that more and more of these small- to medium-size areas are back in the black, attracting record skier numbers during the holidays—and skiers who are intentionally forgoing the bells and whistles at the most visible resorts.

Perry echoes the sentiment. “Our company and Vail—we may only represent, like, 7 or 8 percent of the industry. We may be the largest and most high-profile, but there are 400-some resorts that are not part of this.”

So how does big business keep the personalities and habitudes of the resorts Coloradans love? It should focus on improving each resort’s experience in a way that retains and accentuates its own identity, says Perry. “Winter Park is Denver’s favorite—it’s beloved. We want to make Winter Park more Winter Park. These are the places where people have emotional attachments and some of their best days of the year, and where their families gather. Why would we want to homogenize them?”