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Vail Resorts CEO takes blame for customers’ long wait times

Higher-than-expected call volume led to ‘unacceptable’ waits, said Rob Katz
N-WB Frustrations-Quarterly 27.51 FILE PHOTO BY JOEL BARDE
Rob Katz with Pique editorial staff in a 2018 sit-down. The CEO of Vail Resorts took personal responsibility last week for what he called ‘unacceptable’ wait times for customers seeking assistance by phone. File photo by Joel Barde

As a former Whistler Blackcomb (WB) guest services and sales agent who has skied Whistler every winter since 1969, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger supporter of the resort than Brian Buchholz. 

So he wants to be clear that voicing his recent concerns with WB’s customer service comes not only from a place of understanding, but admiration for the resort he has skied at 51 winters in a row. 

“There is no one who is more of an enthusiast for Whistler Blackcomb. Anywhere I go in the world, or when I’m meeting people on the street or strangers on the hill from Texas, I am a rah-rah guy,” he said.

Buchholz’s frustrations began on Friday, Dec. 4, when he phoned Guest Services to secure his credit from last season ahead of the Dec. 6 pass purchase deadline. After sitting on hold for an hour and a half, a WB employee told him the credit was no longer valid. Asking him to double-check, the employee quickly returned saying that the credit was still available, and guaranteed that he would be able to use it before the deadline. 

The following day, Buchholz decided to visit Guest Services in person to make sure, and was once again told that the credit wasn’t valid, with a supervisor adding that the directive from Vail Resorts’ headquarters came down that morning. Eventually, he was given the number of a third-party arbitrator to settle the dispute. 

Then, on Monday, Dec. 6, he called Guest Services again and was informed that the arbitrator was not meant to deal with pass credits. (A WB spokesperson confirmed that ACM Claims is contracted by Vail Resorts to process insurance claims and refunds under its Epic Coverage program.) Speaking with another supervisor, he was finally given the OK to use his credit towards a season pass. 

“So in the course of three conversations I got a yes, no, yes—and I want to go skiing!” Buchholz recounted. 

“It’s not just one person that got it wrong. It was a team effort that got it wrong.” 

A WB spokesperson, while unfamiliar with this particular situation, said he didn’t know why there was confusion among staff about the pass credit deadline. 

What is clear, however, is that Buchholz isn’t alone in his concerns with WB’s—and by extension, Vail Resorts’—customer service in this atypical ski season.  

On Friday, Dec. 11, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz sent an email to pass holders apologizing personally for the “unacceptable” wait times for customers seeking help. 

“Weighing heavily on my mind is the frustration I have heard from too many pass holders and guests regarding their customer service experience with our call centres,” Katz wrote. “If you are included amongst those who have been unable to reach a customer service agent for help, or encountered long call centre or chat wait times, I want you to know we have heard you loud and clear. And we agree. It is unacceptable, and I personally apologize to you for your experience.”

Despite doubling staffing and introducing a new online chat function, Katz went on to say that Vail Resorts’ call centre was ill equipped to handle the more than fourfold increase in the number of guests seeking assistance. 

“It is a huge miss on our part, especially for a company that tries to be an out-front leader within our industry,” he wrote. “This is certainly not the fault of our call centre agents, who have tried their best to provide great service under difficult circumstances. It is my fault for not ensuring we were better prepared.” 

Adding to the confusion for many are the differing automated responses customers can hear when calling WB’s reservation centre. In some instances, callers will be placed on hold, often for extended periods, while at other times they are asked to join a queue so an agent can return their call at a later time. Others still got a recording explaining that the company has “taken steps to create peace of mind that will ensure your enquiry will be actioned,” but offers no avenue to leave a number to be reached at. This, according to a spokesperson, is linked to a systems issue that apparently predates Vail Resorts’ acquisition of WB and defaults from one automated response to another based on the volume of calls.  

VAIL RESORTS’ Q1 NET REVENUE DOWN $132M FROM LAST YEAR

Meanwhile, Vail Resorts posted its first-quarter financials on Thursday, Dec. 10, and they show the continued strain from COVID-19 on the Colorado ski giant. 

For the three months ending Oct. 31, 2020, Whistler Blackcomb’s parent company’s net revenue was down USD$131.5 million compared to the same period in 2019, while net loss was $153.8 million for the quarter, primarily as a result of the pandemic. 

“Our first fiscal quarter historically operates at a loss, given that our North American mountain resorts are generally not open for ski season operations during the period,” said CEO Rob Katz in an earnings call (Dec. 10), adding that the first quarter’s results are largely driven by winter operations from its Australian resorts as well as summer activities at its North American properties. “Our results for the first quarter continued to be negatively impacted by COVID-19.”

Resort reported EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) loss for the period was $94.8 million, compared to $76.7 million for the same quarter last year, primarily as a result of the negative impacts of COVID-19 and “partially offset by disciplined cost management and $15.4 million of lift revenue” associated with the expiration of credit offers to 2019/2020 pass holders.

On that front, Vail Resorts has seen some positive movement. Season pass sales through Dec. 6 had increased approximately 20 per cent in units, while pass sales dollars stayed flat for the quarter due to redeeming credits to 2019/2020 pass holders whose season was cut short by the pandemic. Without deducting the value of the credits, pass sales dollars rose approximately 19 per cent compared to last year.

“We are very pleased with the growth in our season pass program, particularly given the challenging circumstances surrounding the impacts of COVID-19. We expect that the total number of guests on all advanced purchase passes this year will exceed 1.4 million including all passes for our North American and Australian resorts, demonstrating the significant loyalty of our guest base and the strong demand for our mountain resorts,” Katz said. “Since September, pass sales exceeded our expectations primarily driven by continued strong demand from destination guests and significant growth in pass sales to guests who were not previously in our database, particularly in lower frequency Epic Day Pass products.” 

In North America, the company said its U.S. resorts “experienced improved demand from leisure travellers throughout the quarter relative to the fourth quarter of fiscal 2020,” but summer visitation stayed “well below historical levels.” Unsurprisingly, demand at Whistler Blackcomb for the quarter was “significantly below prior year levels due in part to travel restrictions” and the border remaining closed to international guests, the company reported. 

Reopening its North American resorts with strict health and safety protocols in place, Katz said, “the safety of our guests, employees and communities continues to be our top priority.

“Currently, the reservation system, which opened to pass holders on Nov. 6, 2020 and lift ticket purchasers on Dec. 8, 2020, continues to have available capacity for almost all days during the core season across our resorts. The reservation systems and our contingency planning around our operations has positioned us to react quickly to the changing circumstances surrounding COVID-19 restrictions across our resort jurisdictions, which we expect will continue throughout the season.”

The company also said it has “significant liquidity,” with $614 million in cash on hand as of Nov. 30, and $587 million of availability under its U.S. and Whistler Blackcomb revolving credit facilities. 

To read the full quarterly report, visit investors.vailresorts.com.