Vail Resorts’ Katz: “If Colorado becomes Texas, we all have a lot more to think about than skiing”

By | November 3rd, 2009

KatzRob Katz is the chief executive of Vail Resorts, which owns Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Heavenly, Keystone, and, of course, Vail. Parts of Colorado just received record amounts of early-season snow, which is all the excuse I needed to talk skiing with Katz.

So how’s the weather?

The weather is terrific, if you are in the ski business. We just had one of the largest storms any of us can remember in Colorado — coming before Halloween. The good news is that the snow and the cold temperatures allow us to get a great base at the resorts. In fact, we just announced we would open Keystone a little early because of the weather.

I’m told there’s a new way to take advantage of all that snow. Can you tell me about the Epic Pass?

The Epic Season Pass, introduced last year, has been one of our most successful programs. For $599, it allows folks to ski at any of our five resorts and Arapahoe Basin all season, without any restrictions. It provides people with a great value — on average people received a 50 percent savings from the window price last season. In addition, it allows people to ski like a local, heading out for a quick trip to the mountain without worrying about paying for lift tickets each time.

Let me get back to the subject of snow. I realize that no one can control the weather, but when someone comes to a place like Vail, they expect snow. What happens when they don’t get the conditions they were expecting?

The good news is that our resorts, and Vail in particular, have some of the most consistent snowfall seen anywhere in the world. Also, the vast majority of our guests are not solely focused on snow — but on the entire experience. In fact, you can typically see the most smiling faces on a bright sunny day. While snow gets a lot of attention in our industry, it’s the experience we provide people that really is the differentiator.

Global warming has been a hot topic at ski resorts. How has Vail and its other ski resorts prepared for a likely warming trend in the weather?

Climate change is a long-term phenomenon, which will have fluctuating weather patterns. Our company’s concern about climate change is for the planet as a whole, not really about skiing. If Colorado becomes Texas, we all have a lot more to think about than skiing.

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Like many other resorts, Vail has to strike a balance between development and conservation. Is it possible to do that without offending conservationists — or developers? And if so, how do you do it?

One of our internal mantras is not to get trapped in false choices, such as thinking you have to pick between the environment or financial success. We firmly believe you can do both and I see our company proving that every day. Our company has really taken a strong leadership position, both within the travel industry and for public companies in general. And we have done so, while also delivering very strong financial results and stock price performance.

The key is finding those solutions that align the interests of all your stakeholders. We spend most of our time with environmental groups cooperatively looking for solutions, rather than fighting. In fact, the Nature Conservancy was a partner in putting together our recently announced Hayman Restoration Project.

Can you tell me what percentage of Vail Resorts’ income is from skiing? Would you consider yourself a ski resort company or a real estate company?

Our guidance for the current fiscal year has skiing and lodging, or our resort operations, representing almost all of our profitability. We don’t see ourselves as a real estate development company- we see ourselves as a resort company, that uses real estate development to improve the look and feel and the amenities of our resorts.

I’m sure Vail, like most other resort areas, conducts customer satisfaction surveys. What have those surveys told you about your guests’ opinion of your resorts? What do they like?

We religiously track guest satisfaction in numerous areas. One of the most important to us is something called the Net Promoter Score. It basically tracks how likely someone is to recommend your resort to a friend.

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I am very proud that even during last year’s downturn, we reported the highest company-wide net promoter scores since we began tracking almost 10 years ago. Candidly, our guests love so many things about the experience we provide, it would be hard to provide the full list, but if I had to pick the top, it would be the guest service provided by our employees.

What do they dislike, and what are you doing to fix it?

Probably one of our lowest scoring parts of the experience is food service. We serve over two million lunches per year and historically have had a tough time doing so, while also providing great quality and value.

What are you doing to fix it?

This year, we will be attacking this issue head on, with a number of new programs. First, we have revamped all of our hamburgers (our #1 selling item) from the ground up, but keeping the price the same, and are confident that guests will see a dramatically improved product. Second, we are offering a “Lunch for Less” option everyday at every restaurant, where for $9.95 guests can purchase a complete meal, including an entrée, side and a drink. And third, we are offering up to a 20 percent discount to folks who purchase a prepaid meal dining card.

I have a personal question. I have several family members who haven’t skied and are not interested. I’ve been an avid skier since age three, but I can’t persuade them to try it. What can I tell them?

I would strongly encourage your family members to come with you on a vacation to Vail.

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First, they should try ski school to feel more comfortable alpine skiing. We have the best ski school in the world. Second, they could also try Nordic (cross country) skiing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, tubing, hiking, ice skating. Last, they could spend time in one of our spas, have lunch and dinner in some great restaurants and head out for some nightlife. Ultimately, a mountain resort vacation is about spending time in the outdoors with friends and family — it’s not just about skiing. As you know, its hard to beat that as great family experience.

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