Thursday, April 2, 2015

Creating America's Biggest Ski Area

Simon Hudson checking out the Park City plans Feb 2015 - photo by Louise Hudson
Vail Resorts always thinks big and its acquisition of Park City and Canyons Resort in Utah is no exception. Less than two years into its first foray into Utah, the huge ski resort development and management company announced its $50million plan to merge the two areas into America's largest ski resort.

Vail Resorts intended to complete the ambitious reno over the summer and fall 2015 to be launched for the 2015/2016 ski season. By connecting Park City Mountain Resort to neighboring Canyons Resort, they would link more than 7,300 acres of skiable terrain, creating the USA's biggest ski resort. A brand new interconnect gondola (the first for Park City since 1983) was planned to facilitate the merger as well as upgrades to other lifts, runs, snowmaking facilities, and maintenance areas. A new eatery to be constructed near the gondola, as well as expansions to other mountain restaurants and lodges, would create enough lunchtime seating for the anticipated rush of voracious visitors. The two resorts were already linked by road via free public transit.

Park City - photo courtesy of Park City Mountain Resort
"This comprehensive capital plan for Park City and Canyons is one of the most ambitious and impactful plans undertaken at any resort in industry history, transforming the experience at both resorts and creating the largest single ski resort in the U.S.," said Blaise Carrig, president of the mountain division for Vail Resorts. He added: "The improvements offer skiers and riders more terrain and upgraded lifts to enhance the guest experience and reduce crowding and lift lines, new and upgraded restaurants, more snowmaking and an overall ‘touching up’ of all aspects of the resorts. The plan was based on feedback from guests and the local community as well as discussions with the senior operating teams at the two resorts. We look forward to continuing to work with the county and the city and are hopeful we can bring this plan to life for the 2015-2016 ski season."

Waldorf Astoria Park City - courtesy
Waldorf Astoria
For the 2015-2016 season, the company intended to operate the two resorts as one unified branded experience under the name ‘Park City Mountain Resort’. The Canyons base area, home to the only Waldorf Astoria on a ski slope, was to be renamed ‘Canyons at Park City’. The company planned to maintain the unique history and atmosphere of the two different base areas with differentiated marketing for the diverse hotel and hospitality experiences offered.

The ambitious development was scheduled for completion for the beginning of the 2015/16 ski season. “Just one of the improvements would be big news but we’re doing all of them in a few months,” said Park City Mountain Resort’s Communications Manager, Andy Miller. “If Vail says it can be done, it will be done.” With regular press releases, media fam trips and billboards strategically placed all over the slopes, the project attracted massive media, local and visitor attention during the 2015/16 season.

Park City groomer - photo courtesy of Park City Mountain Resort
The ‘Vailification’ of Park City and Canyons meant cheaper skiing for locals via the Epic Local Pass which went on sale from March 10 2015 at $579 per adult for the whole season with multiple benefits at sister resorts. The Epic Local Pass offered unlimited days of skiing (with 11 holiday restrictions) in Park City and also included unlimited access to Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin in Colorado, with limited restrictions at Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood at Lake Tahoe. A total of 10 days at Vail and Beaver Creek were also included (with holiday restrictions). “There truly is no better ski or snowboard value being offered in the state of Utah,” said Bill Rock, Park City’s chief operating officer, who previously oversaw a $30million refurbishment at Kirkwood. “When you consider the acreage and the variety of terrain, and then add in $50 million dollars of improvements that will completely transform the ski experience and the additional access to Colorado and Tahoe, there is no pass in this market that compares with the Epic Local Pass.” To put this price into perspective, compare the Deer Valley, Utah adult season pass at the earlybird discount price of $1,985 for the 2014/15 season.

Canyons iconic Orange Bubble heated and covered chairlift - Courtesy of Canyons Resort
Bent on attracting newcomers to winter sports, Vail Resorts also introduced new cut-price kids’ passes for local residents including the Park City Youth Pass features unlimited, unrestricted access to Park City for $289 for children (ages 5-12), $309 for teens (ages 13-18) and $399 for college students. Another innovation for the Utah resorts was the Vail Resorts Season Pass Auto Renewal Program whereby the next year’s pass is guaranteed at the lowest price for a $49 automatic credit card down-payment each spring.

Caitlin Martz, Senior Communications Specialist for Canyons Resort, said that the community response to the merger, infrastructure upgrades and investment in the local economy was very positive. “It is a great thing for the town,” she added. “How can you argue about somebody coming in and investing $50million? It is also very obvious that Vail Resorts cares about the area.”

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Wonders of Winter Zip Lining

Alpine Rush Zip Line at Copper Mountain - photo by Tripp Fay
It’s all about the rush, the sense of flying through the towering treetop canopy, with a bald eagle’s view of the immense whiteness of a winter wonderland. Winter zip lining started spreading around North American ski resorts in the mid 2000s, adding yet another activity-based après ski alternative.

Winter Ziptrek at Whistler - Courtesy of Ziptrek EcotoursWinter Ziptrek 
This was part of the ski industry’s push to diversify, appealing to a wider demographic, keeping visitors on the hill longer into the evening, and providing a menu of non-skiing options. Zip lining also adds a significant cool factor and helps provide all-season appeal for ski areas.

Jori Kirk
One of the early pioneers of zip lining in Canada is Jori Kirk, who started Cypress Hills Eco-Adventures Ltd in 2010 after graduating from the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary. “If I'm not mistaken, the first commercial canopy tour in the U.S. was built in 2005 in mainland Ketchikan, AK,” says Kirk. The first in Canada was at Grouse Mountain, Whistler.

Super Fly Ziplines at Cougar Mtn
Since the early days, there has been some confusion in terminology between canopy tours and zip line tours. “Canopy tours are guided, with a series of zips and suspension bridges through the natural canopy of trees,” Kirk explains. Zip line tours, on the other hand, take participants through a series of manmade structures. However, even the industry has used the terms interchangeably. 

The wide appeal of zip lining, says Kirk, is the “storytelling factor” as well as the social aspect: it can be enjoyed by any age-group, both genders, and in relatively large groups of family or friends. “It is also very inclusive as it takes very little expertise to conquer a zip line tour,” Kirk adds. Although most winter zip lines were originally summer structures, it is relatively cheap and easy to winterize them and keep them running year round. “People are already there, the zip line course is there, staff are there. Close it down or make incremental revenues? I would choose the latter 10 times out of 10,” says Kirk. “I don't believe the places that do this are expecting to operate at full capacity, but it is a great way of offering another option for guests.”

Zip lines vary considerably from resort to resort – some have seats, some dangle participants from ropes and hooks, some are single, others double lines, and some have more of an assault course set up with climbs and platforms.

Take off at Copper Mountain - photo by Tripp Fay
Copper Mountain’s ‘Alpine Rush’ is a village experience with dual zip lines strung 30 ft above West Lake, enabling tandem riders to traverse the ice rink between condos, shops and restaurants. The Guided Canopy Tour at Crested Butte Mountain Resort has five lines ranging from 120 - 400 feet long, connected by three wooden suspension bridges and massive platforms designed for winter use with tough grips and snow grates. “It’s about a two hour tour, with two guides, that make it fun and interactive,” says Director of Innovations, Erica Mueller. “It is something different for people to do on a day off from skiing or after skiing and really attracts all age groups,” she adds, although participation is limited to those weighing between 70 and 250 lbs. It is open summer, fall and winter, with some weather-friendly modifications in the colder months.

Vail’s all-season, four-line, 1,200-foot-long zip line provides another après ski experience, next to the tubing hill at Adventure Ridge. The Purgatory Plunge at Purgatory Durango Mountain Resort drops zippers on two lines off a massive tower, offering vertical as well as horizontal plummeting. Gunstock MountainNew Hampshire has five ziplines, the longest 1.5 miles, with speed control and opportunities to stop and appreciate the scenery and wildlife.

Dual seated Zip Line at Park City - photo Dan Campbell/Courtesy Park City Resort
The longest zip line in Utah is at Canyons Resort with two different routes over mid-mountain pine trees. The Flying Eagle Zip Line at Park City, Utah is a two-person circuit, 110 feet above the resort, starting and finishing at the same spot.

Ziptrek Ecotours Twilight Winter Tour
Two companies operate zip lines at Whistler Blackcomb, Canada. Ziptrek Ecotours runs a network above Fitzsimmons Creek between the two resorts offering Twilight Tours in winter. And the Adventure Group has multiple side-by-side Super Fly Ziplines connected by trails and boardwalks at Cougar Mountain.

So is zip lining here to stay? “I really do not know. I don't seeing it going away any time soon,” says Kirk. “There will likely be less development of new tours and closures of poorly managed ones as the profitable one rise above the rest. If the current zip line companies place their focus on providing a great experience, it is doubtful that they will disappear from the scene.” Kirk’s company was named the 2014 Canadian Tourism Small to Medium-Sized Business of the Year.
Super Fly Ziplines at Cougar Mtn

Thursday, March 19, 2015


Slovenia’s skiing has been put into the international spotlight by Tina Maze, the most successful female ski racer in Slovenian history. Multi-tasking Maze is one of the few winter athletes who competes - and regularly wins on the international level - in all five skiing disciplines: Slalom, Giant Slalom, Super G, Downhill and Combination.
Kdranjska Gora: Courtesy of Kranjska Gora Tourist Boar
In her own country, Maze is a superstar: five-time winner of best Slovenian athlete, a fabulous fashion model and a pop star with Slovenia’s most watched You Tube music video. Born in 1983, Maze grew up in Crna na Koroskem, in northern Slovenia less than two hours drive from the country’s top ski resort, Kranjska Gora which hosts the men’s World Cup Slalom events every March.

Kranjska Gora: Courtesy of Kranjska Gora Tourist Board
Tourists come to Kranjska Gora from all over Slovenia, Germany, Croatia, Italy and also Great Britain. According to Kranjska Gora Tourist Board Director, Mirjam Žerjav, out of a total of 177,398 overnight stays in the resort during the 2013/14 season, domestic visitors accounted for 81,429 and foreign visitors 95,969. Of the international visitors, the majority was from Croatia (21,117) followed by Italy (17,416), Britain (13,997) and Germany (3,634).

LTO Kranjska Gora
British ski operator Inghams has been bringing skiers to family-focused Kranjska Gora on and off over the past 20 years. Their numbers have ranged from year to year, from a maximum of around 3,000 to about 300 predicted for the 2014/15 season. This is in line with national ski visitation numbers which reached a peak in 2008/9 at 207,790 but were down to just 128,296 skiers in 2013/14 - reflecting the slow recovery in the European economy since the recession.

LTO Kranjska Gora
Compared to typical ski holidays in Switzerland and France, prices are low in Kranjska Gora. During the 2014/15 season, for example, a week’s stay with Inghams in a four-star hotel in February cost around £579 per person (including flight, resort transfer, accommodation, breakfast and dinner) and was discounted to £429 by the end of January.

In the past two decades, there has been considerable investment in hotels, new apartments and sports facilities, says Žerjav: “All the lifts are practically new - the investment in the past ten years was over 20million EUR. And all hotels have been renovated, an investment of around 50 million EUR.” Hotel beds have increased from 1,384 in 2006 to 1,905 in 2013 and apartment beds have risen from 1,384 in 2006 to 3,054 in 2013.

LTO Kranjska Gora -
Set near the Italian and Austrian borders with the spectacular Julian Alps as a backdrop, the affordable ski resort with 30km of skiable slopes appeals particularly to novice and intermediate skiers. As the most forested country in mainland Europe, the scenery is also highly rated. With a good variety of ski trails and the challenging World Cup run at Podkoren, this is one of Slovenia’s most popular ski resort for families, says Zuber Sameja, Inghams’ product manager for Slovenia. Snow cannons, producing more than 500.000 m3 of artificial snow, supplement precipitation on 85 percent of the ski terrain.

Factors which encourage skiers to try Kranjska Gora include family facilities, novelty, affordable skiing, good value après ski, the blend of Austrian and Italian cuisine in traditional inns, and the friendliness of local people. “Skiers want to try something else and also Kranjska Gora holds the World  Slalom and Giant Slalom Cup every year,” Zuber adds. The town of Kranjska Gora, set in the Zgornjesavska Valley is picturesque, attracting domestic and international visitors summer and winter due to its mountain and lakes appeal.

LTO Kranjska Gora
As well as the ski hill, winter amenities include a snow park, cross country trails, ice climbing, night skiing, sledding, snowshoeing, ski touring, and kids’ activities. Hotels are equipped with triple and quad rooms, most with door-to-slope skiing. There are many family-friendly events throughout the winter, including in December a live nativity scene which is constructed in the Ice Kingdom. As well as the Vitranc Cup (part of the World Cup series), the Planica World Cup Finals, a ski jumping event, is held each March.

Night skiing at Kranjska Gora - photo by Aleš Fevž
The national profile of Slovenia’s ski industry received a boost when ski racer Tina Maze burst onto the World Cup scene around 10 years ago, winning in all five alpine disciplines, as well as nabbing two Olympic gold medals at Sochi. Awarded best female athlete of the year for 2005, 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014, she is a Slovenian national heroine. “We’ve yet to see internationally but certainly she is a great ambassador for ski Slovenia and she is present at many U.K. events hosted by Spirit Slovenia,” says Zuber.

“Slovenia tourism is working very hard and, as a frequent visitor, I have seen many changes that are positive - especially new German ownership of the main airport of Ljubljana, quite a few gateways from Croatian airports, too, so more possibility of improving numbers,” Zuber adds.