In DCSki’s new Interview Series, we take a look at interesting people connected with the ski industry. Earlier, we interviewed Peter Landsman, Editor of LiftBlog.com. You can catch that interview here. Next, we spoke with Chris Diamond, a veteran of the ski industry.
Chris Diamond’s career began in 1972 as the assistant to the president of Vermont’s Killington Resort. By 1977, he was president of Mount Snow. He eventually moved west and spent 17 years as the President and Chief Operating Officer of Colorado’s Steamboat.
Chris retired from Steamboat in 2015, but he hasn’t slowed down since then. After retiring, he wrote the book Ski Inc.: My Journey through Four Decades in the Ski-Resort Business, from the Founding Entrepreneurs to Mega-Companies. That book went to print in early 2017, and almost before the ink dried, tectonic shifts began to occur in the ski industry. Chris soon saw the need to write a follow-on book, titled Ski Inc. 2020. Published just recently, this new book talks about the emergence of the Alterra Mountain Company and its challenge to Vail Resort’s supremacy. The book covers the dramatic changes mega passes are creating across the ski industry, as well as some of the challenges and opportunities ski resorts now face.
DCSki recently interviewed Chris to discuss his book, his perspective on the industry, and where he sees the industry moving forward next.
DCSki: You’ve had quite a career in the ski industry — your first job was at Killington in New England, and you eventually migrated over to Colorado, where you spent 17 years as President and COO of the Steamboat Ski Resort Corporation. When did you first get the ski bug, and what was your very first memory from the slopes?
Chris: My first book, Ski Inc., details how I started working at Killington while in college at Middlebury. That’s where I got the bug. My earliest memories go back to a small, rope tow area near Greenfield, Massachusetts called Cummington Basin. It’s been closed for many years.
How many total ski resorts would you say you’ve skied at now?
Probably 150 in the United States and Canada, and about 10 in Europe.
Prior to retiring, how many ski days did you manage to get in per season? I would guess that a benefit of serving in a leadership position at a ski resort is that ski days qualify as duty hours, since you need to perform hands-on quality control!
Correct! I probably averaged 50 days/portions of days a year.
During your time at Steamboat, what is a change you oversaw that you’re particularly proud of?
The creation of an Urban Renewal Authority to guide redevelopment of the base area.
While overseeing Steamboat, what topics consumed most of your time?
How would you compare and contrast Steamboat with other ski areas in Colorado?
Steamboat still has the charm of being a real ski town, and not a glitzy resort. It’s similar to Crested Butte in that way, but much larger.
Do you have a favorite ski trail at a resort?
Nope… There are just so many great runs everywhere.
Is there a ski resort you’ve always wanted to visit but haven’t had the chance to?
Big Sky, Montana.
In 2016, you penned the first edition of Ski, Inc., leveraging your 44-year career in the ski-resort industry. What made you decide to capture that history in print, and what was the response to your first book?
I don’t think I received any negative feedback. I wanted to capture some of the characters that helped guide my career and give them credit for incredible accomplishments.
You recently released Ski Inc. 2020, the second edition of your book. Did you expect that you would be writing a new version so quickly?
It’s not a second edition, but a second book, building on some of the themes introduced in the first. When Alterra was formed to challenge Vail and the pass wars began, I knew I had to write about that.
I’ve found it hard to keep up with all the mergers in the ski industry these past few years, and your book was an antidote to that confusion. But I don’t think the roller coaster ride is over yet. Are you planning to write a third edition of Ski, Inc., and if so, what do you think its main theme will be? You’ve talked about some of the American ski conglomerates having their eye on international resorts.
I think the big changes have already occurred. The question is whether consolidation will begin to include more “mid-sized” resorts or international resorts.
In Ski Inc. 2020, you cover some disrupters you see affecting the ski industry. First among them is climate change. What is the most interesting trend you’ve seen in terms of resorts reducing their environmental footprint?
Providing more guest education on the issue.
Do you expect resorts will become more vocal in raising awareness of the risks of climate change?
You also talk about the challenge of staffing at resorts, especially in mountain towns where the cost of living has reached dizzying levels. I recently interviewed Peter Landsman, who runs the web site LiftBlog.com. He mentioned there’s a push in Europe to develop chairlifts that require less employees to operate, with some lifts no longer having workers at some stations. Do you see that trend making its way to the United States, and could that be one way that resorts reduce the employee housing challenges?
I don’t see that happening… Safety concerns and a different, more litigious environment here would make that difficult. For a service business like skiing, it’s tough to make significant changes in staffing. We might see more “grab and go” food and beverages, perhaps.
What are some future automation possibilities? With more lift tickets being sold on-line, I imagine that reduces the need for staffing at ticket windows.
Yes. In the future, people will have passes or buy on-line before arriving at the resort.
In your book, you touched on one of the key challenges the ski industry has faced for a long time: attracting new people to the sport. I think you mentioned that over half of first-timers who take a beginner lesson never return to the sport, which is why so many ski areas have focused on improving learning programs over the past decade or so. In what ways have ski resorts adapted in order to overcome that first-timer hurdle?
Terrain-based learning helps, and making sure the better instructors still do introductory lessons.
You mentioned that ski areas have had success with “Kids Ski Free” programs, which offer children in a certain grade free ski days at partnering resorts. But in practice, those programs effectively require parents to already be passionate skiers, don’t they?
Not at all. They just provide transportation! If parents are enthusiastic about the sport, I imagine they’re likely to pass that enthusiasm onto their children.
How can resorts market to individuals who have never skied and don’t have any friends or family who ski?
This is tough. People ski because parents or friends introduce them.
Mega passes are reducing the cost for frequent skiers and opening up new possibilities for resorts they can visit. But as the cost of mega passes goes down, the price of daily lift tickets seems to go up. Does this run the risk of further reducing the pipeline of new skiers into the sport?
Future trends will be to keep lowering the price as long as skiers commit in advance. For example, Vail’s Epic Day Pass.
Speaking of that, another change we’ve seen recently is the move towards dynamic pricing, where tickets are sold in advance at varying discounts based on supply and demand. In the Mid-Atlantic, many local skiers plan trips at the last minute, choosing to skip a day at work if conditions are particularly good that day. Here we are in mid-January, and for most of the month many Mid-Atlantic ski areas only had a few trails open, due to unseasonably warm weather. Skiers who purchased non-refundable tickets a month ago are probably pretty disappointed now. Do you think demand pricing makes sense across the ski industry, or is it better suited for certain geographies? Is it just a reality that skiers will have to adjust to?
Demand pricing will remain a reality, whether skiing, hotels or airlines. A larger trend is towards a mega pass like Epic/Ikon or the regional equivalents. If you’re in the Mid-Atlantic and have an Epic Pass, you just head north if local conditions aren’t good.
A lot of substantive changes in the industry were occurring just as you were trying to put the finishing touches on your new book. One change you described is that skiers have completely changed how they decide where to ski — their primary decision now is which pass to buy. Once they figure that out, then they decide where to use it. How has that changed the ways ski resorts are marketing?
Marketing dollars now go to sell the passes… not the individual resorts.
Is there a danger in resorts losing their local flavor, brand, and identity?
It hasn’t happened yet. A ski area is more than just the slopes. It’s the larger community.
The Epic and Ikon passes provide a lot of benefits to their parent companies: bringing in substantial capital prior to the start of the season and helping to smooth out capital variations that could otherwise occur in lean winters. They’re also increasing skier days and the peripheral income that occurs during those visits, such as lodging and dining. Is another unspoken benefit for resorts reduced liability expenses? Purchasing these mega passes requires signing a waiver release that is clearly stacked in favor of the resorts. Is it fair to say skiers are receiving a discount in exchange for agreeing not to sue resorts should an accident occur?
I donâ€™t think there’s been any change.
Speaking of liability, how has that landscape changed over the years? What are some of the ways that ski areas in the United States have made their slopes safer?
That would take a whole new book [to cover]!
What steps can resorts take to maintain safety as mega passes drive more and more people to the slopes?
Once every chair is filled, the resort is at capacity. Additional folks are just standing in line. The concern is more along the lines of managing key intersections and choke points in terms of skier traffic, or dealing with limited terrain because of weather conditions.
Have you seen ways American and European resorts differ in their approach to safety on the slopes or safety education programs?
In Europe, youâ€™re on your own… You can’t sue because of perceived negligence. Is it dramatically less safe because of that attitude? I think not.
You note in your book that diversity continues to be a challenge for the ski industry — both in terms of visitors as well as staffing at resorts. How can resorts start to move the needle towards making skiing more inclusive?
They can start by making sure their staff is diverse.
Have you seen any programs that seem especially promising?
Mountain High in Southern California is the gold standard here, where caucasian skiers are the minority.
By increasing skier days, you’ve noted that these mega passes could lead to over-crowding at resorts — with longer lift lines, battles for parking spots, and bumper-to-bumper traffic on the roads. Do you envision that reaching a breaking point for skiers? How might the ski industry adapt if that problem increases?
Each area will have to develop its own plan. Some by increasing terrain, and some by just limiting ticket sales on some days. Crystal Mountain, Washington is doing that now.
As I read your book and your discussion of these mega passes, I found myself thinking about a different industry: amusement parks. With the exception of some companies like Disney, it seems like there’s been a trend towards reducing the price of annual passes at amusement parks such as Six Flags or Cedar Fair Parks. This has resulted in long lines at attractions, as more families find it cost effective to make multiple trips to these parks. Don’t want to wait in a long line? No problem! These amusement parks are happy to upsell line-cutting add-ons. Sometimes a one-day line-cutting pass costs more than the entire annual pass. Do you think ski resorts will begin to follow in the footsteps of amusement parks, selling an add-on that takes one to the front of a long lift line? I can’t think of any ski areas that have done this yet, and I wonder what the cultural impact would be. But I’m guessing it’s something more than one resort has started to think about.
Amusement parks are very different. People only go to a park a couple times… it’s not like skiing. Disney is unique in its appeal and location in major metro areas.
It feels like a lot of change has happened in a short period of time in the ski industry. Previously, disruptive change — such as high-speed lifts or shaped skis — seemed to occur at a slower pace. What additional shifts do you see on the horizon, and can we expect to see a rapid pace of change?
Continued improvement in snowmaking technology. Even faster lifts. And better food!
Thanks for providing your insight, and for capturing an important history of the ski resort industry in your books. One last question: do you have one best ski day you can recall? Where was it, and what made it so special?
I remember a powder day at Steamboat skiing with a friend who has since passed. We got to the top of Hurricane and realized no one had been down. It was 18 inches of fluff over perfect corduroy. A great run… and a great day. It was special because it was the last time I skied with that friend.
M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.
Thanks Scott. He seems to be a man of few words. His answer about diversity is a non answer.
Good stuff. People were in line at ticket windows monday when so many school systems were out. Online purchse will take a bit to catch on. I was able to get a friend a lift at 25% off using my PEAK Explorer friend discount. We had no line at Guest Services. I see the reason cost has the added legal side in the USA.
His comment.. "If you’re in the Mid-Atlantic and have an Epic Pass, you just head north if local conditions aren’t good.". Do they think everybody who skis has unlimited resources? I'm a guy who just retired and should be skiing twice as much as I used to 10 years ago. But instead, the lack of affordability is just making me more angry at the entire industry and makes me want to not give them my business. From $209 lift tickets at Vail to the price changes at our local places (eg. Whitetail), I'm to the point where I'm planning 1 trip a year and going to smaller resorts (Grand Targhee, Powder Moutain, etc...). I'm avoiding the mega resorts like the plague.
A very frustrated skiier.
Great questions, Scott. Thin answers by Mr. Diamond. I get the impression that if he could have gotten away with a "Just read my book" he would have been happy to end the interview. I was especially disappointed with his answers about season pass cost verses day ticket cost and its impact on first time skiers and his cavalier reply concerning advance ticket sales/demand pricing. I'm with itdoesntmatter. Mr. Diamond's answer concerning industry diversity offers absolutely no insight at all. I guess it would have been too much for him to briefly describe Mountain High's program. It all makes me feel that a recreational resort skier is not the target for this book.
For the record, the correct name for the ski area Mr. Diamond mentioned as including his earliest skiing memories was called Berkshire Snow Basin. It was run by Ruth and Stan Brown and located in West Cummington, Massachusetts. My dad sometimes spliced their rope tows, and I had a great day skiing there in the mid-1960s.
Although Berkshire Snow Basin started out as an all-rope-tow ski area, it eventually had 3 T-bars. It opened in 1949 and closed in 1989 according to the NELSAP website. The grown-in runs can be seen today as you drive Route 9 between Pittsfield and Northampton, MA.
I read Chris Diamond's Ski, Inc., when it came out a few years ago. I enjoyed his tales of the early good ol' days at Mt. Snow and Killington, found his discussions of the growth of resort towns interesting, but then became bogged down by the latter chapters on ski industry and ski association politics. Two out of three: not bad. The book is titled appropriately: Ski Inc - wth emphasis on the Inc.
Have to agree with snowsmith, itdoesntmatter, and LHC that Mr. Diamond's responses to Scott's questions were brief, even terse, and fell short of some well-supported arguments that he could probably make. I was most perturbed by his lack of understanding of those segments of the snowsports clientele who are interested in trying out modest local hills with their families, do not wish to jet away to high-end all-inclusive resorts, and cannot afford (or chose not to dedicate) huge sums of cash to skiing. The attitudes displayed by those atop the Ski Inc. world can draw in or push away the potential skiers, snowboarders, their families, and the next generations of snowsports enthusiasts.
Reconsider and broaden your perspective, Mr. Diamond.