Alterra Mountain Co. is the biggest ski resort company you may never have heard of—yet. That’s because the $1 billion company is an amalgamation of 12 ski properties plus 14 resort partners that came together a scant nine months ago. “We did in months what it took Vail 18 years to do,” says CEO Rusty Gregory, who acknowledges that the acquisitional streak did “feel a little fast sometimes.”
But there’s method behind the merger madness. In the idiosyncratic ski resort business—uniquely vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature—size really matters. Running a mountain, even a relatively small one, requires buying, operating and maintaining pricey ski lift and snow-making equipment, then crossing one’s fingers and hoping for a season that, at a minimum, covers your costs. A few bad seasons in a row can—and has—sent many well-managed but thinly capitalized resorts into Chapter 11.
That’s a challenge that Gregory, a former ski lift operator who rose through the ranks to run California’s iconic Mammoth Mountain for decades, knows well. The weather wild card was also a big part of the thinking behind the merger of KSL Capital Partners, the Henry Crown Co. and Intrawest, which created a family of properties that spans five U.S. states and three Canadian provinces.
“Being able to create a geographically diverse portfolio of resorts guarantees that we will always have good snow someplace,” says Gregory. “And, therefore, we’ll be able to make sure that our guests, many of whom buy season passes in advance, have good alternatives, regardless of localized weather conditions.”
“As you move up the experiential ladder, you want to try other areas, so the business proposition for us is to have all these rungs of the ladder wrapped up in one nice, neat package they can access.”
Alterra began leveraging its large footprint with the March unveiling of its $599–$899 Ikon all-resort pass, which gives 2018/2019 passholders access to all 12 of its properties (Steamboat and Winter Park Resort in Colorado; Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, Mammoth Mountain, June Mountain and Big Bear Mountain Resort in California; Stratton in Vermont; Snowshoe in West Virginia; Tremblant in Quebec, Blue Mountain in Ontario; Deer Valley in Utah; and CMH Heli-Skiing & Summer Adventures in British Columbia), as well as to an additional 14 partner resorts.
The multi-resort pass offers consumers purchase security while helping Alterra lock in guest loyalty. “Consumers want to know that if they invest in a pass, they’ll be able to ski someplace that season,” says Gregory. “It also plays to the fact that skiing is inherently aspirational. As you move up the experiential ladder, you want to try other areas, so the business proposition for us is to have all these rungs of the ladder wrapped up in one nice, neat package they can access.”
Offering the first real alternative to Vail’s Epic Pass, the Ikon positions Alterra to challenge Vail’s dominance as a multi-resort option. Gregory, however, is quick to note that the company’s overarching, customer-facing market strategy is very different. “Vail has done a great job at creating a high-quality brand experience at a lot of different resorts, but our approach is to do exactly the opposite,” he explains. “We intend to celebrate the different personalities of our properties to create a portfolio of brands that provide one-of-a kind rather than standardized experiences.”
For Gregory, who was an investor in Alterra before his partners convinced him to take on the CEO role, any trepidation about the challenges ahead were more than offset by the chance to pursue a personal passion. “Being able to ski more in a wider variety of places is a big part of what drove my decision to be in this industry,” he says. “There’s a business opportunity in sharing that passion with other people. My goal is to tie all of that together in experiences that families can afford to do more often so that we not only create a successful business financially but also one that grows participation. We want to give families good reasons to come up and experience the best version of themselves in the wonders of the mountains.”