The future of Perisher: Vail CEO interview
The Snow Gauge went one-on-one with Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz and asked the tough questions about Perisher developments, expansion plans and just what can be done about expensive lessons.
Key points from the chat:
- Much hinges on a government report on Perisher that is slated to be handed down in October
- Village and key developments at Perisher could still be a decade away
- There’ll be no superpipe in Perisher
- Concedes more needs to be done with lesson pricing
- A Japanese resort is in the Epic Pass crosshairs
GC: What have you learned in the two years since Vail bought Perisher?
RK: We’ve been incredibly impressed with the consistency of the resort. The weather has been up and down … but I have been amazingly impressed by how Perisher through all that can provide this terrific guest experience. Investments in snow making, getting the terrain open, putting ski school classes on the hill even early in the season if they don’t have great natural snow. Season pass sales were up 70 per cent from 2015 to 2016. And now we are seeing another big boom from putting Whistler on the Epic Pass.
GC: The next big thing people are waiting for are developments. Where are we at with the proposed Leichhardt lift, superpipe and village development?
RK: We’re in the middle of a review by the government of what the right approach should be for the resort and the lease situation going forward. We think it is critical to come out of that review with a plan that aligns with what the community wants, what the resorts wants, what the government wants to be able to make the investments. Some of those things it may take a decade to create but unless you have those alignments it’s hard to take those first steps. (Katz says Vail has invested around $4 million each year in Perisher since taking over in 2015).
Perisher CEO Peter Brulisauer joins the conversation
PB: On the mountain side we have a master plan that we have been executing to. On the village side – whoever has responsibility for planning the village as a result of the review would have to come up with a new masterplan for the village … the timeframe for that will be after October 17.
GC: What about the smaller stuff, will we see a new lift (say in Leichhardt) for 2018?
PB: I think the timeframe is pretty tight for 2018 but we really want to see what the outcome of the review is …
GC: And the superpipe?
PB: We have informed the Olympic Winter Institute that we were no longer willing to go ahead with the development as a result of prolonged discussions with the department of planning and trying to get that approval. We are unsure what the Olympic Institute will do but it won’t be happening at Perisher (environmental concerns are key).
GC: One thing I did notice this year was a significant change in the lockout period for Australians using the Epic Pass in North America (almost doubling the first two seasons lockout days to 21). There’s some concerns that this kind of thing will only increase given Vail’s market power …
RK: The lockout dates are to try to make sure the Epic Australia Pass can be offered at the lowest possible price. In many cases, especially when you think of the currency differential, it’s a great deal even compared to the US-priced Epic Pass. We are really trying to tailor it to the Australian skier and when they typically come to the US … I think if you look back the price of the Epic Pass has stayed pretty stable. Our goal is to add resorts on but keep in affordable. It is still priced competitively compared to Australian-only passes in the market.
GC: So will we see more lockout dates in the future?
RK: We certainly don’t have any plans for that. And I think the structure of the pass now is really kind of set for how the Australian typically travels. Again, if they want to travel to Vail or Whistler over Christmas they can pay for the upgrade …
GC: Any other resort purchases on the horizon?
RK: We have talked before about being interested in being in Japan. We know that would be quite impactful for folks in Australia … Every year there is some surprise, there’s something new that gets added to the pass to make (customers) feel they are getting a better deal. There’s a lot of resorts in Japan – the question is what are the right ones to own? Then the right conversations and dialogue with the right people. Sometimes that happens right away, sometimes it takes a long time.
GC: What did you make of the Aspen takeover of Intrawest?
RK: Good. I think it is terrific to see new investment in the industry.
GC: The counter argument is that we are seeing less and less players in the space and the danger of what’s effectively a duopoly that sees the little resort gets squeezed out …
RK: I don’t see that at all. In our company we have urban resorts that charge $30 a day, Kirkwood $90 a day, Keystone that might charge $120. Each of these resorts is positioned to succeed in different parts of the market … if Intrawest and Aspen offer an unrestricted unlimited season pass like we have, that’s great. It’s what skiers want.
GC: Random question … my sister did a big trip using the Epic Pass across the US (and will return next year as she had a great time). She had one big beef though – that lesson prices were prohibitively expensive. Is there something that can be done about this? An Epic lesson add-on perhaps?
RK: It’s very true. We do have special kids’ offerings for passholders now. But it’s a great point. When we started initially moving to season passes a lot of initial season pass holders were not that interested in lessons. But we have moved so many people to season passes there are people that do want those lessons so we’ve had to create new products … (we have made some changes) … but it is just the beginning and we have to do more on that front. The kind of person who is a season pass holder now is different and we do have to catch up with that.