Slopes sold to big buyers

| December 2, 2010 | 0 Comments
Squaw Valley CEO Andy Wirth and Eric Resnick

Eric Resnik, managing director of KSL Capital Partners, and Squaw Valley USA CEO Andy Wirth are part of the team transforming he legendary ski resort.

Lake Tahoe saw the sale of two of its iconic ski resorts this past fall, as Vail Resorts purchased Northstar-at-Tahoe Resort and private equity fund KSL Capital Partners bought Squaw Valley USA. Both companies plan to bring a wealth of expertise and improvements to their respective mountains, though many wonder if corporate ownership will destroy the local appeal that made the resorts famous.

“I envision a very positive impact,” says Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association. “The ski industry has gotten to the point where you really have to have access to capital and strong professional management, and that’s what both of these organizations know how to do.”

Publicly traded Vail Resorts, which owns Heavenly Mountain Resort as well as five Colorado properties, announced in late October that it had purchased Northstar-at-Tahoe Resort from Booth Creek Resort Properties. The $63 million acquisition includes the mountain, operations, commercial space in the Village and Northstar Property Management.

“Vail is a very well respected company, and I think this bodes well for North Tahoe as well as South Tahoe,” says Julie Mauer, vice president of regional marketing for Vail Resorts. She adds that, although Heavenly and Northstar are now sister resorts, guests should still expect very singular experiences. “Each resort is its own brand,” she says. “Heavenly and Northstar are very different in terms of location, topography of the mountains and visitors. Vail doesn’t want to try to cookie-cut them.”

“It was really an upgrade to Heavenly when Vail came in,” adds Roberts. “Vail will be able to drive more destination visits that, accordingly, will be shared with other resorts; when people come to Tahoe they don’t necessarily stay in one place.”

This season, guests were able to purchase Vail’s Epic Pass, which allows access to all of the company’s properties as well as Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort. At Squaw Valley USA, new CEO Andy Wirth sees the ownership change as a “transformative time” for the resort.

“KSL Capital Partners is a very experienced team in the hospitality sector,” he says of the privately held organization. “Its primary focus is the guest experience.” Wirth notes that the company has pledged $50 million in improvements over the next three to five years. Plans emphasize improving existing services, though the company will also look at mountain design and planning as well as expanding family-friendly terrain and offerings.

“KSL is taking an already legendary mountain and adding a lot to broaden its appeal, while maintaining the soul of the mountain, which has brought Squaw through six decades,” says Wirth.

Corporate ownership may mean improvements stretching far beyond the slopes. Kevin Sheridan, of Sheridan Brokers Northstar Real Estate, believes that the management changes will have a positive impact on the region.

“Anytime that a new operator comes in, there is a sense of optimism because they bring a fresh outlook and attitude on how things are going to be bettered,” he says. “Property values around resorts run by Vail have always been very high because people come to experience the amenities. If the economy cooperates and the stars align, I’m very optimistic that property values will increase at Northstar.”

The changes in ownership from smaller-run companies to large operations both more or less coincided with huge early season snowfall. Perhaps even the snow gods are offering down their blessings. By Alison Bender. TQ

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