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The relationship between Vail the town and Vail the ski resort has had any number of peaks and valleys over the years. The current relationship seems, well, complicated.
Vail Town Council members over the past few weeks have heard any number of complaints about management this season of Vail Mountain. Everything from parking to open terrain to staffing has filled voicemail boxes and email accounts.
Vail Town Council Member Jen Mason brought up the topic at the group’s Jan. 4 meeting, when she and other council members talked about whether current problems on the mountain might negatively affect the town.
“I’d just gotten a lot of feedback from the community,” Mason said this week. She added that the mountain seemed overcrowded in the early season when little terrain was open.
Vail Resorts either wasn’t doing anything, or not enough to try to cut down on those numbers, Mason said. The company should have sent messages to its network of pass holders noting the lack of terrain, she said.
“There has to be a way to manage this,” Mason said, adding she’s unsure what the answers might be.
Mayor Kim Langmaid this week called this season’s operations on Vail Mountain “a concern.”
Maintaining the experience
Langmaid echoed Mason’s remarks that the town needs more information about “who’s coming and when” in order to possibly work on improved management systems in order to maintain a great guest experience.
Before being elected to the council in November, Council member Jonathan Staufer never shied away from criticizing Vail Resorts. He’s long questioned the company’s expansion.
Noting that it’s been some time since Vail was at the top of Ski Magazine reader polls, Staufer said “It’s hard to be the Tiffany of mountain communities when Vail Resorts is intent on being the Walmart.”
Staufer, who grew up in Vail, added that there’s a difference between “business and busy-ness — right now it’s the latter.”
The number of people — many of whom are local residents — complaining about terrain, overcrowding and other issues will eventually trickle to guests and become a problem for the town, Staufer said.
Too many guests is becoming a common problem in resort areas. Officials from a number of destinations talked about the topic at the 2018 Governor’s Tourism Conference in Vail.
More recently, Mammoth Lakes in California created a buzz with a song encouraging visitors to come, but not act like jerks when they arrive.
That trend is the impetus behind Vail’s still-developing “Destination Stewardship” project, an effort to encourage responsible visitation. That effort is expected to start this year.
That effort “will give us tools” to better manage visitation, Staufer said.
Others have noted that Vail Resorts’ headquarters used to be in the same county of its namesake resort.
Harry Frampton said the company’s move to Broomfield has had an impact on the Eagle County resorts.
Frampton once ran Beaver Creek, and is a co-founder of Slifer Smith & Frampton Real Estate and East West Partners. When he was in top management at what was then Vail Associates, Frampton said there was an understanding that Vail Resorts needed to be a leader in creating a better community in the valley.
As the company has grown, Frampton said Vail Resorts has “lost that sense of connectivity and that sense of partnership. That’s not good.”
Frampton, who lives in Vail, said he hopes that the town and resort company can forge a more effective partnership to align strategic directions between both entities.
‘Better, not bigger’
Frampton, among others, favors a “better, not bigger” approach to managing Vail and Beaver Creek.
That probably includes the resort company taking better care of its employees.
“I want Vail Resorts to be profitable, but they need to invest in a meaningful way in our mountains.”
Longtime local real estate broker Craig Denton said Vail’s problems aren’t unique. He talks frequently with brokers in other resort areas, and has heard many of the same stories, particularly regarding workforce housing and new full-time residents’ affecting the supply.
“If you want people to service you, (workers) have got to have somewhere to live, and close.”
While there’s plenty of concern in Vail about Vail Resorts, Barry Davis thinks there’s more to be understood about this season.
Davis was first elected to the Vail Town Council in November, but has lived in town since 1999.
Davis noted that some of the loudest voices about Vail Resorts are “passionate, experienced locals.”
That said, Davis noted that it looks like many resort guests are “having a really great time.”
Davis is often up on the mountain, and recently took part in the season’s first “Ski with the Electeds” event.
“It was a beautiful day, and not all the terrain was open, but the mountain skied great,” Davis said.
Many people view cars parked on the towns frontage roads as signs of overcrowding. Council member Kevin Foley believes the town should ban the practice. In his view, people parked on the roads essentially benefit just one business — Vail Resorts.
Davis would like to see more data about frontage road parking and more.
“Vail (Resorts has) got a pile of issues,” Davis said, particularly a staffing shortage that’s hit many, if not most, businesses in the valley.
Current criticism may be popular, but Davis wants to see more data.
The resort company is going to make data-driven decisions, Davis noted. That’s a different perspective from that of the long-term local who remembers a time when the average winter guest was perhaps more invested in skiing and not as much in other amenities.
Davis said he wants to work with the resort company, but he’d also like to see how the entire season goes, and how the town’s relationship with the resort company evolves.
A strong partnership with the resort company is essential, Davis said. And, noting recent outstanding sales tax revenue figures, “there’s a lot of positive impact when (guests) fill bars and restaurants.”
But, Staufer said, it’s essential to find that balance.
“We have an incredibly special and unique product,” he said. “If we (foul) that up, it will take years to get back.”