Podcast #119: Pacific Group Resorts VP and CMO Christian Knapp
Manage episode 357331782 series 2699034
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Christian Knapp, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Pacific Group Resorts
February 27, 2023
About Pacific Group Resorts
Pacific Group Resorts (PGRI) owns and/or operates six North American ski areas:
While they don’t have a single unified pass like Vail Resorts or Mountain Capital Partners, PGRI’s ski areas do offer reciprocity for their passholders, largely through their Mission: Affordable product. Here are the 2022-23 exchanges – the company has not yet released 2023-24 passes:
Why I interviewed him
There are more than a dozen companies that own three or more ski areas in North America. The National Ski Areas Association itemizes most of them* here. Everyone knows Vail and Aspen, whether they ski or not. The next tier is a little more insider, but not much: Alterra, Boyne, Powdr. These are the ski companies with national footprints and Ikon Pass headliner resorts. If skiers haven’t heard of these companies, they’re familiar with Mammoth and Big Sky and Snowbird. Everything else on the list is regionally dense: Invision Capital’s three California ski areas (Mountain High, Dodge Ridge, China Peak); Wisconsin Resorts six Midwestern bumps (Alpine Valley, Pine Knob, Mt. Holly, and Bittersweet in Michigan; Alpine Valley in Wisconsin; and Searchmont in Ontario); the State of New York’s Belleayre, Gore, and Whiteface. Some – like Midwest Family Ski Resorts’ trio of gigantors – align with Indy Pass, while others stand alone, with a pass just for their mountains, like Mountain Capital Partners’ Power Pass.
PGRI doesn’t fit any of these templates. The company has a national footprint, with properties stretching from coastal BC to New Hampshire, but no national pass presence (at least before the company inherited Jay Peak’s Indy Pass membership). Its properties’ season passes sort of work together but sort of don’t. It’s all a little strange: a small ski area operator, based in Park City, whose nearest ski area is more than a 400-mile drive away, on the edge of Colorado’s Grand Mesa. PGRI is built like a regional operator, but its ski areas are scattered across the continent, including in improbable-seeming locales such as Maryland and Virginia.
Despite the constant facile reminders that American Skiing Company and SKI failed, small conglomerates such as PGRI are likely the future of skiing. Owning multiple resorts in multiple regions is the best kind of weather insurance. Scale builds appeal both for national pass coalitions and for banks, who often control the cash register. A larger company can build a talent pipeline to shift people around and advance their careers, which often improves retention, creating, in turn, a better ski experience. Or so the theories go. Independence will always have advantages, and consolidation its pitfalls, but the grouping together of ski resorts is not going away. So let’s talk to one of the companies actively growing on its own terms, in its own way, and setting a new template for what corporate skiing balanced with local control can look like.
*Missing from the NSAA’s list is the Schmitz Brothers trio of Wisconsin ski areas: Little Switzerland, Nordic Mountain, and The Rock Snow Park; the list also includes Sun Valley and Snowbasin, which are jointly owned by the Holding Family, but excludes the other two-resort groups around the country: Berkshire East/Catamount, Labrador/Song, 49 Degrees North/Silver Mountain, Homewood/Red Lodge, Perfect North/Timberline, and Mission Ridge/Blacktail - there may be others).
What we talked about
The bomber western winter; closing Wintergreen early; the existential importance of Eastern snowmaking; why Mid-Atlantic ski resorts are such great businesses; growing up in the ski industry; Mt. Bachelor in the ‘90s; Breck in the early Vail days; why founding the Mountain Collective was harder than you probably think; the surprising mountain that helped start but never joined the pass; how essential the existence of Mountain Collective was to Ikon Pass; why Ikon didn’t kill Mountain Collective; the origins and structure of Pacific Group Resorts (PGRI); reviving the historically troubled Ragged Mountain; the two things that PGRI did differently from previous owners to finally help Ragged succeed; the Mission: Affordable pass suite; how Jay Peak turbocharged reciprocity between the company’s resorts; how reciprocity for Jay Peak may shape up for 2023-24 passes; why we’re unlikely to see a Mission: Affordable pass at Jay Peak; why Mount Washington Alpine hasn’t had a Mission: Affordable pass; the future of Jay Peak – and, potentially the rest of PGRI’s portfolio – on the Indy Pass; the fate of Ragged’s Pinnacle Peak expansion; how and why PGRI started running and eventually purchased Wisp and Wintergreen; wild and isolated Mount Washington Alpine; could that Vancouver Island resort ever be a destination?; thoughts on replacing the West End double at Powderhorn; why PGRI has not prioritized lift replacements at the rate of some of its competitors; priorities for lift upgrades at Wisp; winning the bid for Jay Peak; reflecting on receivership; the chances of getting a new Bonaventure lift; and whether PGRI will buy more ski areas.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
The lazy answer: PGRI just bought Jay Peak, and while writing the various stories leading up to and after the auction in which they acquired the joint, I established contact with PGRI corporate HQ for the first time. My first impression was not a great one (on their side), as I managed to not only jack up the company name in the headline announcing their opening bid, but get the fundamentals of the story so wrong that I had to issue a correction with a full article re-send for the only time in Storm history. Which apparently created a huge PR pain in the ass for them. Sorry.
Maybe the stupid jokes eventually disarmed them over or something, but for whatever reason Knapp agreed to do the pod. As you know I don’t typically host marketing-type folks. I work with them all the time and value them immensely, but that’s just not the brand. The brand is talk-to-whoever-is-in-charge-of-whatever-mountain-or-company-I’m-talking-about. But Knapp is a unique case, the former CMO of Aspen Skiing Company and the creator of the uber-relevant-to-my-readers Mountain Collective Pass. So Knapp joins the equally impressive Hugh Reynolds of Snow Partners as the only other marketing lead to ever carry his own episode.
Ahem. What I was trying to get to is this: yes, this was a convenient time to drill into PGRI, because they just bought one of the most important ski resorts on the Eastern seaboard and everyone’s like, “Now what, Bro?” But this is a company that has been quietly relevant for years. It cannot be overstated what an absolute shitshow Ragged Mountain was for five decades. No one could get that thing right. Now it is one of the most well-regarded ski areas in New Hampshire, with knockout grooming, a killer glade network, one of the state’s best lift systems, and a customer-friendly orientation that begins with its ridiculous Mission: Affordable season pass, one of the few all-access season passes under $400 at a thousand-foot-plus mountain in New England.
Which set them up perfectly to glide into the Jay marquee. Almost any other buyer would have ignited mutiny at Jay. No one I’ve spoken to who skis the mountain regularly wanted the place anywhere near the Ikon Pass. So no Alterra, Powdr, or Boyne. Epic? LOL no. Locals have seen enough downstate. Another rich asshat cackling with cartoon glee as he shifts hundreds of millions of dollars around like he’s reorganizing suitcases in his Escalade? F**k no. Jay will be shedding the scabs of Ariel Quiros’ various schemes for decades. PGRI hit that Goldilocks spot, a proven New England operator without megapass baggage that has operated scandal-free for 15 years, and is run by people who know how to make a big resort go (PGRI CEO Vern Greco is former president and GM of both Park City and Steamboat, and the former COO of Powdr Corp).
PGRI is just good at running ski areas. Wisp opened Thanksgiving weekend, despite 70-degree temperatures through much of that month, despite being in Maryland. Visitation has been trending up at Powderhorn for years after steady snowmaking improvements. It’s hard to find anyone with a bad opinion of Ragged.
But PGRI has never been what business folk call a “consumer-facing brand.” Meaning they let the resorts speak for themselves. Meaning we don’t know much about the company behind all those mountains, or what their plans are to build out their network. Or build within it, for that matter. PGRI has only stood up one new chairlift in 16 years – the Spear Mountain high-speed quad at Ragged. Powderhorn skiers are side-eyeing the 51-year-old, 1,655-vertical-foot, 7,000-foot-long West End double chair and thinking, “are you kidding me with this thing?” Five years into ownership, they want a plan. Or at least to know it’s a priority. There are lesser examples all over the portfolio. It was time to see what these guys were thinking.
Questions I wish I’d asked
I had a few questions teed up that I didn’t quite get to: why is Ragged still owned by something called RMR-Pacific LLC (and operated by PGRI)? I also wanted to understand why some PGRI ski areas use dynamic pricing but others don’t. I’m still a little confused as to the exact timeline of Pacific Group purchasing Ragged and then PGRI materializing to take over the ski area. And of course I could have filled an entire hour with questions on any of the six ski areas.
What I got wrong
When I summarized Ragged’s traumatic financial history, I said, “ownership defaulted on a loan.” It sounded as though I was suggesting that PGRI defaulted on the loan, when it was in fact the previous owner. You can read the full history of Ragged’s many pre-PGRI financial issues on New England Ski History.
I said that Midwest Family Ski Resorts had announced two new high-speed six-packs “in the past couple years.” They’ve actually announced two within the past year, both of which will be built this summer: a new Eagle Mountain lift at Lutsen, and a new sixer to replace three old Riblets on the Jackson Creek Summit side of Snowriver.
Somehow though I got through this entire interview without calling the company “Pacific Resorts Group” and I would like credit for this please.
Why you should ski PGRI’s mountains
Well let’s just fire through these real quick. Jay: most snow in the East. Nearly 300 inches so far even in this drab-until-the-past-two-weeks New England season. Some of the best glade skiing in the country. Just look:
Ragged: Also strong on glades, though it gets maybe a third of Jay’s snowfall if it’s lucky. When the snow doesn’t come, Ragged has some of the best grooming in New Hampshire:
Wisp and Wintergreen: you know, I take my kid to Mt. Peter, a small ski area outside of New York City, every Saturday for a seasonal ski program. I’d say 80 percent of the parents arrive in street clothes, drop their kids, and sit in the lodge zombie-scrolling their phones for 90 minutes. Why? Why wouldn’t a person ski every opportunity they have? This is what Wisp and Wintergreen exist for. Sure, you live in the Mid-Atlantic. No one is trying to pretend it’s Colorado. But these are good little mountains. Wisp is a zinger, with terrific fall line skiing. Wintergreen sprawls, with a fun trail network and two high-speed sixers. If you live anywhere near them, there’s absolutely no reason not to pick up their sub-$400 season passes (though Wintergreen’s is not a true season pass, excluding Saturdays and holidays, which are reserved for club members) to supplement the Epic or Ikon Pass you use for those Western or New England vacations:
Powderhorn: If you live in Grand Junction, you can fight your way east, or stop on the Mesa and go skiing:
Mt. Washington Alpine: I know you’ll all tell me this is for locals, that no one would bother trekking out to Vancouver Island when they can reach Whistler in a fraction of the time. But I don’t know man, I’ve done enough wild voyages to the ass-ends of the earth to have convinced myself that it’s always worth it, especially if skiing is involved:
Besides, you’re not going to find Whistler crowds here, and this is about enough mountain for most of us.
On Wisp and Wintergreen opening and closing dates
I mentioned on the podcast that Wisp opened in November. The exact date was Nov. 25 for Wisp. The resort is still open today, though on “limited terrain,” and I imagine the season is winding down quickly. Wintergreen opened on Dec. 20 and closed Feb. 26. Ugh.
On the world’s largest snow fort
Knapp said he helped start this tradition when he worked at Keystone:
On the Mountain Collective
Knapp and I had an extensive discussion about his role founding Mountain Collective, which debuted in 2012 with two days each at Alta, Aspen-Snowmass, Jackson Hole, and Palisades Tahoe. At $349, it’s underwhelming to today’s ski consumer, but it’s impossible to overstate how miraculous it was that the product existed at all. I won’t give away the whole story, but this 2012 Powder article crystalizes the shock and stoke around the realization that these four resorts were on the same pass, Brah!
On Pinnacle Peak at Ragged
PGRI is probably hoping I will stop asking them about this stalled expansion at Ragged sometime this century. No luck so far, as I presented Knapp with the same set of questions that I’d asked Ragged GM Erik Barnes on the podcast last year. Here’s what I was talking about: in 2007, PGRI took over Ragged. From 2014 to 2019, the mountain teased this future expansion on its trailmaps:
Then, without explanation, the expansion disappeared. What happened? “The expansion does not make financial sense,” Knapp told me last year. But I wanted a more thorough explanation. Knapp delivered. This is still one of the most talked-about projects in New England, and its sudden abeyance has been a source of curiosity and confusion for Ragged skiers for a few years now. Listen up to find out what happened.
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