King of the Hill: How Vail Resorts Conquered the Ski Industry

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Rob Katz and some of his Vail Resort troops.Photograph by Matt Nager

Since it was installed in 2010, the “orange bubble” chairlift at The Canyons in Utah has become the resort’s most iconic feature. The high-speed quad, which whisks skiers 8,700 feet to the summit of Lookout Peak in just nine minutes, was the first in North America to have heated seats and a plastic shield — the bubble — to protect riders from frigid air and snow along the way. It’s just like a gondola, but you don’t have to take off your skis. Any skier would love it.

But Robert Katz is not any skier. He’s the CEO of Vail Resorts, the $1.4 billion resort powerhouse that owns The Canyons. Vail bought the resort in 2013, and then — through a mix of luck, lawyers, and shrewd business — snatched up neighboring Park City Mountain Resort in 2014, merging the two into a single mega-resort now known as Park City. Vail now owns 14 resorts, which have a total of 305 lifts, and Katz thinks long and hard about all the little things that go into making the properties successful — check-in times at the ski school, why this lift line is a minute longer than that one. And the bubble, which he thinks has some flaws. For one thing, he tells me as the lift carries us up to Lookout Peak, the plastic shields are prone to scratching. There are also social and psychological challenges to consider: What if two people are freezing and want the bubble down, but the third rider is claustrophobic? “Some people really like the bubble,” Katz says. “Some people really don’t like the bubble.”

Today, Katz has no personal quibbles with the bubble, the first ride of his season, a week before Christmas. The air outside is frigid, not even 20 degrees, but it’s bluebird, too. “Could this be any better?” he exclaims as the shield rises and a burst of crisp, dry air floods in. He adjusts his goggles, zips his company-issue jacket to the neck, and skis down Chicane — the kind of long, blue, corduroy-rippled run that Park City is known for — making the easy, arcing turns of a lifelong skier.

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Katz is wearing a gray ski suit, and not because he likes the color. Among the first things codified when Vail Resorts swallows a mountain is the color of employee ski gear. Black is mountain operations; yellow is ski safety; red is ski patrol; green is photography; blue jacket and blue pants is ski instructor. And gray? “It means desk job,” he says, chuckling. “It means the people who rarely go skiing.”

We climb onto the Tombstone Express, and Katz points to the summit of Ninety-Nine 90, the resort’s highest point and home to its most expert terrain. Somewhere up there, he says, is one of his two teenage sons. Katz can, and does, sometimes chase his boys down the steeps. “But I’m not hucking off cliffs,” he says. “I just don’t like getting hurt.”

What Katz prefers is fun, at work as well as on the mountain. In fact, “Have fun” is one of the six company values he’s instituted at Vail. Managers are given pins to hand out to employees who exhibit spontaneous eruptions of joy, and each year a “Have fun” award is given to the employee who did the most to promote fun at work. None of this would work, of course, if Katz himself was some kind of corporate drone, so he tries to be as approachable as possible. He encourages all Vail Resorts employees to share their ideas, and that includes today, on the mountain, where despite helmet and goggles, he is recognized all over the place. A ski-school guy, a maintenance guy, and some patrollers all make a point to stop and say hello, and Katz genuinely seems happy to speak with them.

At the top of another lift, an older operator, whose name tag identifies him as a former resident of Great Neck, New York, pulls Katz aside. After a quick chat, the operator yells, “Have a great day!” as the CEO skis away. Then he quickly corrects himself: “No, have an epic day!” — epic being the omnipresent adjective at Vail. (You will never use the word epic unironically again after visiting a Vail resort.)

I mention that it sounded like the two had been discussing something about ski school. Katz, whose arched eyebrows make him look like he’s permanently smirking, laughs. “He was asking if we would put in a ski shul!” he replies. “Do you know what that is? A synagogue. I bet that’s not something you expected to hear someone ask today.”

A broad smile on his face, Katz adjusts his goggles and skis on.

As the CEO of Vail Resorts, the aggressive 800-pound gorilla of the ski business, Katz is one of the most powerful people in the outdoor industry. Since he took over in 2006, Vail Resorts has evolved from an operator of five mountains into a global hospitality Goliath with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for acquisitions. At $538 million, the Park City–Canyons deal, which created the largest ski resort in the United States, was the priciest in the history of the sport. This past August, the 50-year-old Katz one-upped himself by capturing the crown jewel of North American skiing, British Columbia’s Whistler-Blackcomb Resort, for $1.06 billion. And in February the company made its first East Coast acquisition, snatching up Vermont’s Stowe Mountain Resort, for $50 million. That sent Vail Resorts’ stock price, already one of the best-performing on Wall Street, up to more than $180. This would be an impressive feat in any business; but in skiing, a declining industry with a history of corporations ruined by ambitious expansions, it’s downright unheard-of.

Among skiers, the idea that Vail Resorts thrives while most everyone else struggles inspires both awe and revulsion. Skiing may be big business, but it clings to its scrappy mom-and-pop core. The sport was built by people who moved to the mountains to chase adventure and subsequently have watched their beloved sport be subsumed by rich people who turn their small towns into crowded, pricey tourist destinations. Vail Resorts is the corporate embodiment of this phenomenon.

Last summer, shortly after the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote to withdraw from the European Union, a blogger known as the “Angry Snowboarder,” in Breckenridge, Colorado — whose resort has been owned by Vail for nearly two decades — wrote a spoof press release announcing “Brecksit,” a measure by the town to rid itself of the “evil power money hungry corporation that is destroying our village.” Longtime Vail watchers appreciated the joke. Ski shops in Colorado have long sold vail sucks T-shirts, and within days of the Whistler purchase, fuck vail bumper stickers started to appear on vehicles around British Columbia.

At the same time, there’s a good chance that more than a few of those motorists will be lining up this fall to purchase a Vail Epic Pass, Katz’s signature innovation. He introduced the concept in 2008 — a season pass to all the company’s resorts (which then numbered five) — for $579, a price so spectacularly low that people didn’t believe the offer was legit. Last season the company sold more than 650,000 Epic Passes at $809 apiece, generating a ridiculous $525 million in cash for services not yet rendered. There are Epic Pass holders in all 50 states and in 99 countries. And with every new property, Katz builds on the pass’s value, attracting more buyers from more areas in an industry that is flat at best.

The Epic Pass explains why, starting in 2012, Katz picked up three mom-and-pop mountains in the Midwest: Wilmot, located halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago; Mount Brighton, near Detroit; and Afton Alps, outside Minneapolis. None of these will ever be considered world-class, but that’s not the point. “We get access to 800,000 skiers in Chicago and 400,000 each in Detroit and Minneapolis,” Katz says. At those smaller resorts, a season pass was already as much as or more than an Epic Pass, so buyers get that, plus improved facilities. But more important, when those Midwesterners plan a big annual trip out West, they’ll be taking their Epic Passes to a Vail-owned property — in California, Heavenly rather than Squaw; in Utah, Park City instead of Snowbird — and buying their chili bowls and replacement goggles at Vail-owned shops and restaurants.

Vail Resorts now has some 30,000 employees; 42,547 acres of skiing; and, last year, more than 10 million skier visits and $452 million in revenue, up from $241 million in 2013. It owns and operates 30 lodges and more than 200 retail shops. And that’s just the beginning. The important point, Katz says, is that Vail is not just collecting resorts. “We want resorts that make our network more powerful, sophisticated, and smarter,” he explains. And you can be sure Katz is kicking plenty of tires. “There are other areas of the world,” he says, places like Japan and China, which would unlock even more massive numbers of new Epic Pass buyers — and in the process make Vail, along with its CEO, all the more dominant.

Vail was founded by a Colorado-born uranium prospector named Earl Eaton and his friend Pete Siebert, a veteran of the Army’s vaunted 10th Mountain Division. The two men drew up a resort plan around No Name Peak in 1954 and broke ground in 1962, opening with two double chairs, a Poma lift, and one of the country’s first gondolas. Vail achieved international fame in the mid-1970s, when President Gerald Ford and his family had a house in town. By the 1980s it was one of the most famous ski resorts on Earth and a playground for upscale skiers, many of them, like Katz, from the East Coast.

Katz wasn’t born into a skiing household. Neither his father, a lawyer, nor his artist mother had any interest in the sport. But Katz was curious, so he got into skiing in the typical East Coast way, joining school trips to a resort within driving distance of his New Rochelle, New York, home — in this case Hunter Mountain, in the Catskills. That led to trips to Vermont and Maine, and soon Katz was an East Coast expert, tearing up icy black runs on a pair of 210s with brake straps.

After graduating from Wharton in 1988 with a degree in economics, he took a job at Drexel Burnham Lambert, one of the hottest investment banks on Wall Street. Not long afterward he made his first trip West — to Vail, as it happens. “I was completely blown away,” Katz says. “It was like The Matrix or something: You can’t go back.”

In February 1990, Drexel famously imploded amid allegations of insider trading and securities fraud. The firm’s master­mind, Michael Milken, went to prison. But Katz did fine, following some of his former bosses to a new private-equity firm, Apollo Investments. In 1991, Apollo bought a piece of Vail Associates and handed Katz the account, which was in trouble. Katz helped the company through a bankruptcy and reorganization that ultimately resulted in Apollo taking full control.

Katz visited Colorado often to work and ski. But by 2001 he and his wife, the cookbook author Elana Amsterdam, an early proponent of gluten-free and paleo eating, were getting antsy. Their sons were two and one, and the idea of life in a Manhattan apartment seemed less attractive every day. Then came September 11. “It felt like a trigger,” Katz says. The family pulled up stakes and moved to Boulder, Colorado.

Katz continued to consult for Apollo, but for the most part he put his ambition on hold. Instead, like countless Colorado transplants before him, he decided to get to know himself a little better. He took up yoga and meditation and attended New Age-y seminars. “I was on a path to who knows,” he says. “I wasn’t quite sure.”

Then, in 2006, Vail’s CEO resigned, and Katz was offered the job. He was intrigued. He had recently attended seminars on something called Matrix Leadership Training, which teaches leaders to create groups that “function as open, living systems.” Katz says: “You can’t just connect to the leader. People must connect to one another. Hence the word matrix.” At Apollo, Katz had never really worked with people; he was a risk assessor, a numbers guy. Leading Vail would be an opportunity to put the Matrix concepts into practice. He also knew the company inside out and had no shortage of ideas about how it could be improved. He accepted the offer.

On his first day on the job, he dropped a bombshell: Vail, he announced, was moving from its longtime headquarters in Beaver Creek to a new LEED-certified building two hours away in the Denver suburb of Broomfield. The company, he explained, needed to think of itself not as a ski resort but as a global travel business. “Four Seasons isn’t based in Nevis,” he tells me. “It’s right in Toronto.”

Nearly everyone was upset by the news; some employees burst into tears. Katz spent the day listening to people yell and cry and attempt to talk him out of it. But he calls it one of the best decisions he’s ever made. It showed, he says, that he would not bury bad news and that he was a man of his word. It also signaled that everything was subject to change.

When Katz, still at Apollo, began working with Vail, it was just two resorts, Vail and Beaver Creek. By the time he took over as CEO, the company also owned Keystone, Breckenridge, and Heavenly, all acquisitions that he had led, though none of the mountains worked together. Vail had also veered into other businesses, such as hotel and real estate development. So Katz looked at his company’s disparate holdings and asked, “What are we going to be the best at?”

He couldn’t claim with any confidence that Vail was best at developing real estate or Caribbean resorts. But multiresort ski management? “Our level of sophistication in how we run our resorts is unparalleled,” he says. “That was the goal.”

Katz and I glide into the line at Park City’s Motherlode Express four-pack, where, for the first time today, there’s something of a logjam. Katz pulls out his iPhone, removes a glove, and pokes at a green icon on the screen. This is EpicMix, an app that Katz asked his engineers to create in 2010 to make sense of all the data the company gathers via the RFID chips embedded into every Epic Pass. EpicMix allows skiers to track vertical feet, share and purchase photos taken by company photographers, and view a constantly updated list of waiting times at resort lifts. “Eight minutes,” Katz says. Nearly every other number on the list is either one minute or zero. “Must be some kind of motor problem,” he explains.

The data is Vail’s secret weapon, and not just because it helps people avoid lift lines. By analyzing Epic Pass data, the company can see exactly which runs its visitors are skiing, and with whom. The information allows Vail to target its marketing and personalize emails: Expert skiers get aggressive pictures; the mom who skis once a year sees happy kids on the green runs.

One short run later and we’re at the base of the new Quicksilver Gondola — the year-old link between The Canyons and Park City. Previous owners of both mountains had talked for years about building a gondola between the two properties, but no one could figure out the logistics. Then Vail showed up. Suddenly it was only a matter of money, and Vail has plenty of that. The gondola opened before last season as the signature piece in the $50 million in capital improvements Vail made during its first year of ownership.

At this point Vail is so large that Katz’s every move is viewed with enthusiasm on Wall Street and skepticism by those who fear the soul of skiing is being lost. There is a “Hate Toward Vail” subReddit and a “Fuck Vail Resorts” Facebook page. Avran LeFeber, Breckenridge’s Angry Snowboarder blogger, says he resents the “congested roadways, overworked local workforce, and stressed ecosystem” that Vail and its Epic Pass have brought to his “quaint ski town.”

Vail and Breckenridge have clashed repeatedly over the years, most recently over the desperate need for parking to support the 20,000 skiers who pour in on the biggest weekends. (The two sides can’t agree on where to put the proposed parking structure or who should pay for it.) One politically active local says of Katz: “I’d really love him if I was a stockholder. But the verdict’s still out if you’re a citizen.”

On that anti-Vail subReddit, there are complaints about “rich, out-of-state gapers,” “super-high prices,” and overzealous ski patrollers. But there’s also plenty of ambivalence. “It’s love-hate for me,” one poster says. “When they buy a mountain they transform the vibe to conform with ALL their mountains. On the other hand, they make resorts better by actually investing.”

Maybe Katz’s biggest adjustment in moving from the insular world of private equity to running a publicly traded company is how visible he has to be. “I was not totally prepared for that,” he says. “I had never been in the media before.” Private-equity guys seldom face journalists or critics. Anytime someone in Breckenridge or Lake Tahoe is pissed at Vail, they yell at Rob Katz. He gets calls and emails. He’s been scolded at the grocery store, in lift lines, and at his kids’ school. He’s been the subject of protests. And as long as people are civil about things, he’s happy to engage. “These communities rightly feel that these mountains are treasured, iconic, and that they belong in the control of the community,” Katz says. “Whoever is in charge is responsible for anything that goes wrong — or any fear about anything that might go wrong.”

And things do go wrong. After the Park City deal last year, news broke that Vail was attempting to trademark the words Park City. Residents were outraged, and businesses with Park City in their names feared they’d have to change them or hire lawyers they couldn’t afford. The result was a large and angry protest at city hall with people carrying placards that read, among other things: you’re so vail, you probably think this town is about you.

One of the foremost agitators was Dana Williams, Park City’s colorful former mayor who left office in 2014 after three terms. Williams calls the Epic Pass “probably the most brilliant thing for the industry since snowboarding,” but says that the trademark issue was “a really big deal and has left a bad taste in locals’ mouths.”

“People bitched and moaned like it was the Death Star coming in,” says another local, a former employee at The Canyons who asked that his name not be published. “They really stepped on their dick with that one.”

When I ask Katz about the trademark, he shakes his head as if he knew this was coming. It was all a misunderstanding, he says. The application for a federal trademark was actually filed by Powdr Corp., Park City’s previous owner, years before Vail took over. “We were really just continuing the process,” he says. Had they pursued it, he continues, the trademark would have been applicable only to the resort and would not have affected shop owners in town. But the optics, as they say, were undeniably bad, so he dropped the matter. “We have bigger things to worry about,” he says.

Around Vail Resorts, there’s said to be a cult of Rob Katz, and it is not hard to see why. All full-time employees take a personality test that provides a personal leadership profile, interpreted and displayed as four foam blocks in different colors, each representing a distinct leadership trait. On every desk at Vail you’ll see those four blocks stacked in order according to the employee’s strongest to weakest trait. Katz’s stack leads with red, for “drive.” The motto on the side: “Be brief, be bright, be gone.” His weakest block is blue, which indicates a need for more data in decision-making.

“We use it as a language to talk about how we’re interacting with one another,” says Tim April, who started working at Vail before Katz arrived and is now the company’s head of IT. “It is also a useful tool for introspection and self-analysis,” April adds, though he admits that from the outside it can seem a little weird. “When people come into the organization, there’s an assimilation they have to go through to get comfortable with all these things, to get to the same place we are.”

You’ll inevitably find Vail on lists of the best and most fun places to work; in January, Fast Company magazine named Katz one of the “most creative” people in business. He’s celebrated for things like the colored foam blocks and other quirky leadership tenets. “Radical candor,” for instance. Or a requirement that department heads contribute to all subjects in meetings; in other words, the IT chief is expected to weigh in on food-and-beverage matters. And through it all, of course, everyone is supposed to — make that required to — have fun.

As Katz sees it, the way to create a great company is to create great leaders at every level. He’s fond of talking about top athletic coaches who leverage data and expertise while also motivating players with emotion. “The way you show up, the way you engage, it’s all about emotions,” Katz says. “How do we keep the energy high? How do we keep people connected and trusting and going to battle?”

He’s determined to teach that ethos not only to Vail’s full-timers but also to the 23,000 seasonal workers from 18 different countries the company hires every winter. “What can you do in four months?” he asks. That’s something he very much wants to figure out. “I have already been out there sharing with patrol, saying, ‘You’re going to have somebody in for four months. Don’t you owe it to that person to make his or her life better? Shouldn’t you make it so that when they go home to their parents, they’re like, ‘You know what? I have the coolest boss.’ That should be the ultimate.”

That said, raising the experience of seasonal employees doesn’t amount to much if those employees have to sleep eight to a room or drive over an hour to work because they can’t afford to live in a resort town. This isn’t lost on Katz. “Other than climate change, affordable housing is the ski industry’s most perplexing challenge,” he says. “There’s no simple solution.” Solving the problem requires cooperation, and that’s complicated. Locals tend to resist new development, so every new project requires a protracted fight. Last year Katz committed $30 million to help fund affordable-housing projects near Vail Resorts in Utah and Colorado — a 380-bed complex in the works at Keystone and a plan for inexpensive rentals near Vail’s base.

Of course there’s one big problem that Vail can’t throw money at: climate change. The effects of a warming planet are undeniable in ski towns, where glaciers are receding and seasons are shrinking. So an argument can certainly be made that Katz is doubling down his shareholders’ investments in an industry with a terrible future.

Katz thinks about this a lot, because he has to, but it’s clearly not his favorite subject. “Skiing is certainly something that’s affected by the weather,” he says between bites of an elaborate Asian pear salad served at the Miners Camp, the new lodge at the base of Park City’s new gondola. “So if the weather changes, skiing will be affected. We may be seeing that already with greater weather intensity. It does seem like we’re seeing a lot more variation.” Katz seems to be picking his words carefully here, as though shareholders are eavesdropping.

He takes another bite of salad. “We are worried about it like everyone is worried about it,” he says. “We don’t see ourselves as somehow the one business that would be affected by that kind of global change. We have a lot of guests on both coasts of this country. I’m worried more about them than I am about skiing.”

Perhaps that’s true in the long term. More immediately, Katz must please his shareholders, which means finding new ways to keep Vail Resorts growing — such as buying more mountains or making more money from the customers he already has. Many people like to point out that Vail’s huge (and still growing) footprint is a negative. In fact, it’s an opportunity that no resort company has ever had before. This, Katz says, is the network effect, and it’s powerful. “What we’re trying to do is say, ‘OK, what are the things that we’re not going to change? Let’s really push the envelope on everything else.’ ”

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