One of the motivations for this week’s merger which brought Whistler Mountain and Copper Mountain in Colorado under the Intrawest umbrella, according to all parties involved, was the looming specter of Vail. The American Skiing Company, which owns eight New England ski areas, and the Aspen Ski Company are other big players in the rush to resort consolidation, but the proposed merger of Vail Resorts with Ralcorp Holdings in Colorado — currently under review by the U.S. Justice Department — seems to have been one of the most important factors in bringing the two local ski operations together and making Intrawest the biggest player in the mountain resort business, at least for the moment. According to Intrawest’s Hugh Smythe, the Vail people are specifically targetting some of Whistler’s strongest destination markets, including Japan, the UK and Germany. And, as Smythe pointed out several times in Wednesday’s press conference, Whistler is going to have to boost skier visits substantially to fill the 1,200 new hotel rooms that will be coming on line next winter. It’s a point that hasn’t garnered much attention locally, amongst all the discussions about buildout, affordable housing and preserving neighbourhoods, but Whistler’s hotel occupancy rate has been dropping even while skier visits have generally been increasing. And the gap is going to widen substantially if more effort isn’t put into attracting new visitors — quickly. The solution, or part of the solution, according to all assembled Wednesday, is the merger. That’s hard for Whistlerites, even those who would like to have seen the two mountains remain competitors, to argue with, although it should be remembered that Intrawest has been one of the pace setters in the resort consolidation race since 1991 when it acquired Mont Tremblant. Intrawest had already bought into two family run operations this year, at Mammoth Mountain and Squaw Valley, before this week’s merger, and as Smythe said, Wednesday, the company isn’t done acquiring resorts. But in case anyone missed it, the mountain resort business is big business now. It’s not inconceivable that given the way the resort business has mushroomed in recent years, and with Whistler’s absurd rate of growth, that both local mountains would have to come under common ownership at some point anyway. It may be that the merger was done at just the right moment in the resort’s history.


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