complaints about Vail Resorts snowball

complaints about Vail Resorts snowball

For years, Jonathan Rich has called Hunter Mountain his local ski slope. When he decided to take his family skiing there on a holiday weekend in January, he expected it to be crowded. What he wasn’t expecting was a miles-long traffic jam just to get into the ski slope parking lot.

“There were just unplowed (parking) lots after a storm and no one working down in the lots to try to direct traffic,” said Rich, who lives in Kingston. “It was just a complete mess.”

When he returned a couple of weeks later — on a regular Saturday — there were still lines through the town of Hunter just to park. “I’ve never seen that before … ever,” he said. “I’m skiing less this year because of how much of a pain the whole process is there.”

Long-time regular skiers and snowboarders at Hunter have taken to social media to criticize Vail Resorts, which bought Hunter Mountain in 2019 and manages the ski area, for their poor time on the mountain.

Hunter skiers aren’t the only ones accusing Vail Resorts of “#vailfail” online. The company, which owns 40 ski resorts around the country and world, has been criticized over the ski experience at many of its properties. Complainants accuse Vail of overselling ski passes and not properly staffing resorts, which in turn has led to longer ski lift lines, less favorable conditions on the mountain and a generally less satisfying experience for skiers.

But the company says the pandemic is to blame.

“What has changed since Vail took over Hunter? The answer is COVID,” said Adam White, Vail Resorts senior manager of resort communications in the Northeast region, who noted that visitation is down this year at Hunter compared to previous years. “The pandemic coincided with the acquisition by Vail, so we have not had a season that has not been impacted by COVID.”

Labor issues have been a common problem for many companies across all industries. Travel restrictions and a general unease about flying internationally have made it difficult for seasonal employers to rely on a portion of their workforce to come from abroad.

Vail Resorts also requires all employees to be vaccinated at its properties, which affects the available pool of potential local workers.

But one of the biggest complaints from skiers has been that the company has prioritized its season pass program, Epic Pass, over day passes. From a purely business standpoint, that makes sense. Season passes cost more than a day pass and encourage customers to return to Vail properties more frequently where they will spend more money.

In March 2021, Vail lowered both of its Epic Pass prices by 20 percent in an effort to make skiing and riding more affordable and inclusive, White said. The company offers two Epic passes, one that provides access to all its domestic resorts and costs $783, down from $979; and an Epic Local Pass, which was reduced to $583 from $729 in the 2020-21 season.

Yet, by lowering the season price pass, the company is also incentivizing repeat visits, which critics say is making some ski areas overcrowded. In the Northeast, locals have lashed out online at the company for overselling ski passes and causing lines for everything from parking to rentals to lifts.

An outspoken Instagram account called @epicliftlines, which has more than 46,000 followers, frequently claims that the company has prioritized shareholder profits over efficient management practices like proper staffing.


“Had the worst experience at Hunter today, total VAIL FAIL” wrote one commenter on a post on Jan 7. “So crowded and overbooked. Lifts closed, not enough staff, no patrol. Breaks my heart!”

In response to questions about management changes at Hunter Mountain, Adam White said that “largely the same management team in place (at) Hunter was there pre-acquisition,” but others say that the change in upper management has affected the customer experience at “ the people’s mountain.”

Putting the freeze on deals for bus riders

For years Hunter was the top destination for riders of Jamie Kiley's ski bus service, OvRride.  Lately, Bellayre has been gaining ground, he says, though Hunter has retained its fun, friendly appeal.

For years Hunter was the top destination for riders of Jamie Kiley’s ski bus service, OvRride. Lately, Bellayre has been gaining ground, he says, though Hunter has retained its fun, friendly appeal.

OvRride

Jamie Kiley operates OvrRide, a bus transport service to Northeastern ski slopes. For nearly 20 years, OvrRide has provided transport and ski packages for New Yorkers wanting to get up to Hunter Mountain. Yet, when Vail Resorts took over, Kiley had to establish a new relationship with the new corporate owners to maintain his status as a tour operator for Hunter.

It has been a transition from working with local managers who work and live in the Catskills to the corporate team that is based out of Colorado, Kiley said. “That was hard work. There were a lot of hoops to jump through, paperwork and things that used to be handshake agreements that have become more official.”

Other changes have followed. OvrRide trip leaders used to get complimentary lift tickets when bringing up a group, but now they must buy their own tickets. And OvrRide used to be able to offer packages that included lift tickets and equipment rentals in one package price. But Vail has centralized operations and now no longer allows rentals and daily lift ticket sales to go through the tour company.

It’s not just the discontinuation of all-inclusive tickets that have impacted OvrRide’s business to Hunter. OvrRide says it had to fight for calendar dates when they could service customers to the mountain and the rates they were allowed to charge.

As a result, OvrRide has seen its customer base shift to destinations like Belleayre, where access is not limited and packages include rentals, tickets and lessons, Kiley said.

“At this point, the word is out that Hunter is crowded,” Kiley said. “Less people want to go to Hunter.”

Epic Pass: Good for business or epic fail?

There is no question that operating 40 ski mountains worldwide, including 8 in the Northeast, has been difficult for Vail Resorts during a global pandemic.

The stock price for the company lost a third of its value this season. On Nov. 5, Vail Resorts shares were selling at $372 a share and as of March 1 were down to $251 per share. When the company reported its first quarter earnings in December, much of the report focused on the success of the Epic Pass.

The company grew its Epic Pass sales in the 2021-2022 season and reported “significant unit growth from destination markets, particularly in the Northeast,” Chief Executive Officer Kirsten Lynch said during the earnings call.

The disconnect between Vail’s business priorities and the people strapping on their skis and boards is user experience. Though it’s hard to definitively pinpoint what has impacted the customer experience the most at Hunter, complaints on social media range from staffing shortages causing chair lifts to be closed, to not enough enforcement snowmaking, to the of masks throughout the mountain.

The discontent expressed online is not unique to Hunter either.

On the Facebook page for Stowe Mountain Resort, which is also owned by Vail Resorts, one user on Feb. 19 commented on a company post: “Don’t sell so many lift tickets/passes and parking/traffic won’t be a problem. Don’t Colorado Vermont.”

Some skiers in the Northeast, like Jonathan Rich, say they are rethinking if they will buy an Epic Pass in the future.

“It makes me more sad than angry. It was our home mountain.”

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