On December 15, Vail Resort celebrates its 50 anniversary. The ski industry has seen a number of golden anniversaries recently, including Breckenridge in 2011 and Park City this year. All of these milestones are worthy of celebration, but Vail plays a unique role in snowsports. Over the last five decades, no resort has influenced the North American ski experience like Vail, and the resort has been alternatively lionized and despised by the snowsports community for it, with justification for both. Any resort you visit this winter has been touched in some way by Vail’s relentless drive to evolve the ski experience. Hence the name of this piece: Why Vail Matters.
And in the sake of full disclosure: OnTheSnow.com is owned by Vail Resorts, but the corporation played no role in the production of this story. We’re just skiers who found it interesting.
Passing through a corridor of enticing storefronts, restaurants and lodges, Vail's legendary Bridge Street curves left and disappears on its route to the mountain. Like so much of Vail, this bustling, cobblestone avenue, with its Alps-Meets-the-Rockies ambience, was meticulously designed to encourage guests to "find out what is around the corner.” It’s no accident that the original village is laid out this way; Vail co-founder Pete Seibert reportedly measured the car-free streets of Zermatt, Switzerland, and then built Vail Village to match.
Over the last five decades, this is what Vail has done better than anyone in skiing — constantly examine every aspect of its operations, then create new solutions or copy the best practices from any travel destination in the world to deliver the consummate mountain experience. Vail has never been just a ski area; the resort’s operators always strived to immerse guests in the entire mountain lifestyle, if only for a week each winter. Long before it was a trend, Vail sought to be a complete “resort,” one that was founded on the ski area operation, but inclusive of the business community, the town and the workforce, everyone from patrollers to developers to bartenders. Vail wasn’t just about the terrain or lifts, but providing the entire package, from lodging to shopping, après ski to dining, alternative activities to nightlife, world-class events to arts and culture. The players and landscape have changed over the years, and there have been disagreements, setbacks and many outspoken critics along the way. Yet Vail never lost its entrepreneurial spirit, never stopped trying to get every part right—all with the goal of entertaining guests 24/7 in an environment that merges the traditions of the Alps with the blue skies and dry powder of the Rockies.
In the Beginning
Vail opened in December 1962 with Colorado’s first gondola and two chairlifts, including the High Noon lift into the Sun Up and Sun Down bowls. It was blessed with strong bones, highlighted by the bowls, but founded on an abundance of frontside cruising that appealed to the new wave of skiers just discovering the sport (and still appeals to a majority of visitors today). Within three seasons, Vail was Colorado’s most popular resort. By the close of the decade, already having spread west to Lionshead, Vail was listed among the “super resorts of American skiing” by SKI Magazine.
"Vail was never just about the terrain or lifts, but about providing the entire package, from lodging to shopping, après ski to world-class events."
Co-founder Seibert’s vision of a Zermatt in the Rockies married the mountain to the old-world Tyrolean architecture of the pedestrian-only Vail Village. Dozens of other purpose-built U.S. resorts have since tried to match it; none have come close. Vail Village comes off as organic and alive, with glamorous shops and intimate spaces.
Equally important were the early pioneers who lived and breathed the mountain lifestyle while also developing a true community: native Vermonter John Dobson opened a general store with his wife Nancy and conceived the Covered Bridge; Pepi and Sheika Gramshammer brought their inimitable Austrian hospitality to the village with their Hotel-Gasthof Gramshammer; Dave and Renie Gorsuch launched a retail empire that would come to define the upper end of the Vail experience and help spread it worldwide.
This fact stands out from 50 years of progress: When Vail decides on a direction, it goes all in.
High-speed quads were a novelty in the early 1980s when Vail embraced the game-changing technology in one fell swoop, forever altering all skiers’ and riders’ expectations for uphill transportation. The mountain installed four detachable lifts for the 1985-86 season (Vista Bahn, Mountaintop, Game Creek, Northwoods), and the rest of the resort world soon followed.
The makeover coincided with the arrival of then-owner George Gillett. Under Gillett, Vail surveyed visitors and used the information to make improvements, from streamlining reservations to expanding snowmaking and grooming. Gillett’s contributions included the opening of China Bowl, which expanded Vail’s signature terrain to create the now legendary seven Back Bowls. In 1989 Vail became only the second U.S. resort to host the World Alpine Championships, dramatically expanding its international presence and reach. The Vail Valley also hosted the event in 1999 and will again in 2015.
In the 1990s, Vail was a pioneer in recognizing that guests wanted more than just skiing and riding on the mountain. Two Elk Lodge at the top of China Bowl set a new standard for on-mountain food and ambience; the Game Creek Club was a forerunner in the private club trend, serving as a members-only facility by day and open to the public for dinner at night. In the mid-1990s, Vail created Adventure Ridge, an ambitious on-mountain, non-ski activity center (ski biking, tubing, kids’ snowmobiling, nighttime dining), providing access via the new 12-passenger Eagle Bahn Express gondola from Lionshead. It also turned its attention to establishing Golden Peak as a third gateway, building its first major day lodge there and adding a high-speed lift to accelerate access to the upper slopes and into the Back Bowls.
The opening of Blue Sky Basin in 2000 proved to be a watershed event. Now boasting 650 acres of all-natural bowl and gladed terrain in a micro-climate that traps snow like a catcher’s mitt, Blue Sky Basin has no wide boulevards or glitzy lodges; instead, guests can grill their own lunch at Belle’s Camp. Blue Sky was the most environmentally sensitive terrain expansion of its time, but the approval process was divisive, marred by the eco-terrorist arson fires of 1998. The company and the community came together with remarkable resiliency, and in recent years the Vail Resorts parent company has been recognized as a leader in environmental issues, dramatically reducing its energy usage and creating an in-house charitable program that promotes sustainability and employee volunteerism. In 2012, Vail Resorts was named a recipient of a Global Vision Award from Travel + Leisure for social responsibility and environmental stewardship.
Those resistant to change and uncomfortable with Vail’s sheer size can disagree, but the resort today is the best it has ever been. Vail will never have the steepest terrain, the most snowfall or the coziest village atmosphere, but it will continue to be the leader in innovation and in providing the total experience.
In 2012, Vail responded to the worst snow year in memory and an uncertain economy by installing the state-of-the-art Gondola One, which pays homage to the original lift from Vail Village. One’s 10-seat cabins increase uphill capacity by 40 percent from the Vista Bahn and feature heated cushions and free WiFi.
Despite economic and real estate woes, no resort has ever come close to matching the $1.6-billion renaissance that transformed Vail from east to west over the last several years. The signature achievement is Lionshead’s rebirth, marked by the 2008 opening of The Arrabelle at Vail Square, and followed by The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Vail. Vail Village’s unprecedented facelift includes the arrival of anchor properties such as the Solaris Residences, with a skating rink, state-of-the-art bowling alley and movie theater, plus the amenity-laden Four Seasons and The Sebastian.
With large terrain expansions mostly a thing of the past, Vail now innovates in other ways under the Vail Resorts banner, including redefining how you pay for—and chronicle—your time on the slopes. Vail Resorts wasn’t the first to offer low-price season passes aimed at the drive-in market, but it was the first to strategically expand the new pricing to target destination guests and then to create a smorgasbord of tailored options across its seven resorts. Meanwhile, its EpicMix program allows guests to track vertical feet, earn pins, gather photos, then share it all on social networks.
Pete Seibert once invoked a passage from a French mountaineering book to summarize Vail’s quest, and it still applies today, perhaps more so than ever: “Once you’ve reached the summit, you must continue climbing.” Five decades in, the most influential resort in North America still seems to be doing just that.