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Maxed Out: Dear Vail Resorts—loyalty is a two-way street

getty maxed out march 24
Going up?

Kirsten Lynch

CEO, Vail Resorts

Dear Kirsten:

I trust you don’t mind the informality. Your nice email earlier this week seemed so chatty and informal I feel as though you’d prefer we be on a first-name basis.

“Thank you sincerely for being a Pass Holder.” You’re welcome. Thank you for continuing to offer a Senior Pass option for Whistler Blackcomb, something not available under the Epic™ program. It makes living and skiing here a bit easier, and more affordable.

“Your Loyalty to our mountain resorts is greatly appreciated.” Well, one out of two is batting .500, which will get you a fat contract in the major leagues. But the fact is, Kirsten, I don’t feel any loyalty to your mountain resorts. I might have but I don’t feel Vail Resorts has any particular loyalty to my mountain community. And as we all know, loyalty has to be a two-way street. Otherwise it’s just fealty. And while Canada still has Queen Elizabeth’s picture on our folding money, feudalism never really took root here.

Happy to hear about your clarity to, “... never waiver from our commitment to continuously reinvest in our team members, our resorts, and in you, our Pass Holders.” Nice thoughts. Kind even. But let’s unpack the actions behind them.

I can guarantee many workerbees at Whistler Blackcomb  will be happy about your decision to peg the minimum wage at $20 per hour. I know I would have been happy with that during my 18-year tenure at WB. My wage as a lead hand never cracked $18.50.

But North America is a big continent. Canada, the U.S., Mexico. Mexico is important as a source of visitors but we don’t need to consider them for this since none of your resorts are that far south.

Canada isn’t the U.S. though. Vice-versa. Back when I worked in banking, the only thing scarier than one of my clients telling me they were going to expand into the U.S. was someone from south of the border telling me they wanted to expand into Canada. Quebec notwithstanding, we have different countries, different cultures, different business climates, same language. It’s that language thing that trips people up. “Hey, they’re just like us.” Wrong.

Same with $20. I’m too lazy to do it month-by-month, but for, say, the past 10 years, the average exchange rate between the Canadian and U.S. dollar has been about 1.2. One of your dollars got you a buck-twenty of ours. Right now it’s more like $1.26.

I know Vail is all about consistency across all its resorts, but that’s a big difference. Especially since the cost of living here is demonstrably higher. If you want to see for yourself, head to the grocery store and liquor store if you’re ever up here. KD, a product you are intimately familiar with from your time as senior marketing director at Kraft, costs about twice as much here. You won’t believe how much more a six-pack is.

And if you think that change will, “... ensure that our resorts are fully staffed next season...” you are likely in for a rude awakening. WB, for one, will not be fully staffed next season. Higher wages are good. But they’re meaningless without housing. This community has built a lot of employee housing since the last time WB built any. But not for the staff you’ll be paying $20/hour. That’s on you and we’re still waiting for you to make good on the planned and approved new employee housing project. It’s way more important than...

New Lifts and Terrain On-Mountain.” Plans here are for a new gondy at Creekside and a new six-pack to replace the Red Chair. Thing is, that only facilitates throughput. Which is irrelevant if you don’t have the staff to operate, say, restaurants, rental locations, grooming, all those many things that keep all those many people whizzing up new lifts happy. Op. Cit., housing.

Somehow, in your email, you’ve conflated new lifts and terrain with, “... continuous improvements to your experience—from lift-loading efficiency to improved guest service...” I don’t know how to sugarcoat this, Kirsten, but at least at WB, Vail has no guest service. None. Possibly negative.

Guest service, guest relations, is where I spent 18 years. Frontline. Day-to-day. Solving problems. Fixing things. Exceeding guests’ expectations. That last sentence was the foundation. It was what was expected of us. Exceed guests’ expectations. We were empowered to do that. Fix things. 

The few people I still know who work there can’t do that any more. They aren’t empowered. They don’t even call themselves guest services. Product sales. That’s what they call themselves. They can’t fix dick.

Lift goes down. People sit, get cold, wonder when it’ll get going again. Get a hot chocolate voucher at the top. But they have to ski all the way down and swap it for a different voucher at product sales to be able to use it. The same day. 

When we did guest service, they got a voucher they could use then and there. Or on another visit. If they were stuck longer, they got a $5 or $10 voucher they could use at the restaurants. Any day. Even longer? They got a voucher for a free lift ticket.

We were empowered to fix passes when it turned out a guest bought the wrong pass. Like some of the people who bought “Local” Epic passes. That didn’t turn out to be at all local. But they couldn’t swap them for the pass they wanted because pass sales ended. Tough luck. Suck it up. 

We were empowered to fix skis. Replace skis. Comp rentals. If we went too far we were told that was okay but maybe next time try a different approach. Better to go too far than not far enough. 

Got a computer glitch? Call IT. They were local. Not in Broomfield. Things got fixed right away. Not another job in a long to-do list.

You see, when Blackcomb Mountain opened in 1981, 16 years after Whistler Mountain opened, they didn’t have much to brag about. Not lifts. Not terrain. Not reputation. So they put their money on guest service. In a remarkably short period of time, they were kicking Whistler’s ass. Whistler played catch-up. People skiing up here got used to a high level of service. Got used to empowered staff. Staff who could fix their problems. Happily. Now they wonder where the hell that disappeared to. 

Broomfield. That’s where.

Your predecessor and your company’s absurd focus on centralized management has destroyed a lot of value up here. I’m hoping you understand that. I’m hoping you’ll fix that. I’m not optimistic.

Blow me away, Kirsten. Prove me wrong. There are lots of people up here that’ll build monuments to you if you do.