With Covid restrictions starting to loosen up in the Fall of 2021, I set a goal of visiting all three Vail Resorts in Vermont. My mission? I wanted to determine if, under new ownership, they have been stripped of their culture.
The loss of culture is one of the major gripes against Vail Resorts. The common perception is that ultimately, through corporatization, they "Vailify" each and every resort they own. That is to say that Vail, essentially, makes each resort, more Vail and less, Mount Snow, Okemo, Stowe, etc.
Having skied at all three Vermont Vail Resorts on many occasions prior to their sale, I knew the vibe at each very well. That said, I felt that I could offer an unbiased take on how any changes disrupted the culture that had been established under years of different ownership.
This was my intention. Then, life got in the way.
Work, Family and Sports Poses Limitations
Having a full-time job that has nothing to do with the ski industry while being a father of three daughters who play winter sports that, in some cases, I coach, makes getting away challenging at times. I know it did this winter season. Combine that with other media trips that I was fortunate enough to be involved in and thus my mission blew away like a snowflake in the wind.
Despite not being able to visit all three of the intended resorts, I was able to ski at Mount Snow a decent amount this season. For a long time now, Mount Snow has been my home mountain. To say I know it well would be an understatement of epic proportions.
Keeping the Vail Resorts Complaints in Perspective
I have kept myself abreast of the many complaints about Vail Resorts that have been logged on various social media channels and media outlets this winter. Believe me, there were many. However, I am hoping that I can offer some insight into the good and the bad results of some of the changes that have been made at Mount Snow.
Let me preface this all by saying that I don't love or support all that Vail Resorts does. I get angry with some of the decisions they make just like everyone else. However, I view bitching and complaining about many (not all) of these decisions as the height of white privilege. Let's keep this in perspective. We are, after all, sliding down snow on really expensive sticks and if you are able to do that, then the $30 parking fee probably doesn't mean that much to you.
Saying so does not make me a Vail apologist. I just want to make it known that the world of skiing and snowboarding is pretty awesome. I feel privileged to be a part of it and cannot bring myself to bitch and complain about what many deem as a luxury.
With all that out in the open, let's unpack some of the common complaints and other changes that I saw on my own at Mount Snow this winter.
Paid Parking...How Dare Mount Snow?
So where do I begin?
How about with the first thing that set the social media world ablaze last summer?
The audacity, right!?
Maybe and maybe not. Many resorts charge for parking these days, even ones that are not under the Vail umbrella. Maybe I just missed it, but I don't hear people whining about having to pay for parking at Alta, Snowbird, Solitude, etc. Those resorts are on the Ikon Pass and, oh, by the way, instituted paid parking. The goal was to encourage carpooling and minimize the traffic in and out of the Cottonwood Canyons.
Did it work? Eh, not really, but they tried.
The idea of carpooling to reduce traffic was the very premise behind charging for parking at Mount Snow (at least to my understanding). And, you know what? That didn't work either. Why? Because Mount Snow is a family mountain and families of 4 or more can't really carpool with other families of a similar size. That is unless they drive a Sprinter Van. So many skiers and snowboarders just ponied up and paid for parking through the app.
Me? No chance. Despite most of the good parking being taken up as paid lots, the one where I parked regularly was not really that bad of a walk. So walk we did. My biggest issue with this was that I could no longer roll into the Sundance lot mid-morning, find parking and walk to the lift that was steps away. That part was a huge bottle of suck for old-schoolers like myself.
Overall though, I didn't see the paid parking as an issue. I don't think it worked as intended but it really wasn't a huge deal as many people just paid the fee and then complained anyway.
Vail's Beverage Program Ruins Lives, or At Least Mine
What was a huge deal, at least for a craft beer lover like me, was Vail's beverage program. Over the years, I have lauded Mount Snow for its extensive craft beer selection. I even went so far as to say that no other ski resort in America even came close to offering such an ample amount of top-flight local craft beers.
Having two bars (Canned and The Station) specifically dedicated to serving great craft beer, it was never hard to find something new and exciting to try. In fact, I'd often spend hours at each Mount Snow bar doing some of my best research, then report my findings to you so that you too could partake.
Pre Vail, Canned and The Station were not the end of their sudsy limits. Mount Snow even had the infamous Hill Farmstead brewery on tap at the Bullwheel. Once named the best brewery in America, Hill Farmstead beers are extremely challenging to come by and to have them right at your fingertips at a ski resort was unprecedented.
Needless to say, craft beer was very much a part of the après-ski culture at Mount Snow.
Yes, Canned and The Station still focus on craft beer but their selection of local craft beers has been severely reduced by Vail's wonderful (insert sarcasm) beverage program. Sure, you can still find a good local beer or two like the Green Empire Brewing Side Business and Four Quarters Brewing Dollar Dollar Pils that I had there this winter. However, their once-great selection has succumbed to the Vail Resorts beverage program that requires 80% of the beers they serve to be from said program.
Gone is the Hill Farmstead. Bye, Bye Upper Pass and Bay State Brewing. Hell, I couldn't even get a damn Switchback (a local beer legend). But, Thank God they had Sierra Nevada (again, this is sarcasm)
Don't get me wrong, I love Sierra Nevada and many of these other craft breweries would be nowhere without them. However, I can drink that anywhere, anytime. Part of the attraction of coming to Vermont is that they brew some of the best beer in the country and for years, Mount Snow featured it. Now they serve fucking White Claws in all flavors at Canned, a bar that was created with the premise of serving good craft beer by the can.
When I visited Sugarbush, an Alterra resort, this winter, you know what I drank? A wide assortment of Vermont Craft beer, not Bud Light. Why? Because they are not shackled by a dumb program that forces them to sell drinks you can get anywhere. Sugarbush, in contrast, is able to offer good local beers.
In fairness to Vail, I have been told by people within the food and beverage services at Mount Snow that this was a research gathering year for them. That ultimately, the numbers will show that patrons want back the craft beer selection they have come to appreciate over the years.
My fear though is that, with so many new pass holders visiting Mount Snow with little to no recollection of this former staple within the resort's culture, the data won't warrant a change and ultimately, this limited local selection will become the status quo.
Sorry Vail Resorts, at the moment it appears you dropped to the ball on this aspect of Mount Snow's culture and not in a good way
Where Have The Iconic Food Dishes Gone?
I'm not sure if you have ever had them, but the eggplant fries that were on the menu at Cuzzins were sneaky good. So good that one order was never enough. Light, flaky and perfectly cooked every bite was an explosion of savory goodness.
So too was the Peanut Butter and Bacon sandwich. Simple, but oh so delicious, it was another must-order item any time I dined at Cuzzins.
Both are gone now. Victims to a trimmed-down menu. So trimmed down that they don't even make nachos anymore. Not that Mount Snow's nachos were legendary or anything but to not have nachos at a ski resort is blasphemy.
Actually, let me correct myself. There was one Nacho at Mount Snow. He was this really cool J1 worker from Argentina that wore a beret and worked the lift line. I'm not sure that counts though.
I'm going to give Vail the benefit of the doubt on this one and hope that these menu changes are not permanent and just a byproduct of Covid. There is a work shortage and it definitely has hurt the service industry. Thus slimmed-down menus with simpler food items have become commonplace countrywide.
If you don't have the workers to execute the dishes and keep up with the demand, it is probably better to keep it simple stupid. It appears that is what Mount Snow has done here at Cuzzins. I'm not so sure that any of the three dishes that I mentioned above are really that tough to handle but, for the time being, they are gone. Hopefully, it is not for long.
Vail Resorts recently announced that they upped their pay to $20 an hour for resort employees. In theory, this should attract more workers which in turn will make Mount Snow run a bit more like it did in the past. And, with some luck, we'll see eggplant fries back in our lives again really soon.
Stop Allowing People to Reserve Seats for Bruce
While I'm on the subject of Cuzzins bar at Mount Snow, let's address the reservation situation for Bruce Jacques. The reservation system itself is a bit annoying. However, I deal with it because I have not had any problems and the people working in the lodges are always so accommodating. There have been countless times this winter when I did not have a reservation and due to cancelations, they were able to seat me, my family and my friends right away.
This, however, is not the case when it comes to seeing the Bruce Jacques show at Cuzzins. Reservations are a requirement and I found them extremely challenging to get this winter.
That is to say that I did not get them. Not even once.
I am not sure how far out you have to book them but I tried anywhere from 2 days to a week, to even two weeks out and had ZERO success. What's the damn deal? I know his show is legendary, but how far out does one have to book their reservation for this?
To be honest, I'm mostly just pissed off because I couldn't get in. Every weekend I was there, I sat at Canned and watched a bunch of lodge bunnies dressed to the nines in their fur pom pom beanies and heeled boots walking in to see the show while I continuously got canceled. Maybe we can make a prerequisite that requires one to ski or snowboard at least one run prior to seeing Bruce?
I also have to imagine that, there were some other issues that came along with the reservations for Bruce's show. For example, did tables that were seated in Cuzzins prior to the show have to be closed out and asked to leave? If so, that probably required enough time to turn them over for the Bruce crowd to come in ultimately leaving downtime where potential food and beverage sales were lost.
In the end, this is more of an annoyance than anything. Nonetheless, I do hope it will be resolved in the future. As we move away from the pandemic it would be nice to see Vail Resorts do away with the reservations altogether or at least the ones for the Bruce Jacques show.
Reservations Were not Required at All Mount Snow Restaurants and Bars
Given my disdain for the Bruce reservation system, you can imagine that I was elated to see that there were no reservations required at the Bullwheel nor The Station Taproom this winter. This was a welcome surprise and one that I have to believe was well received by many who visited the resort this winter. Consequently, I actually found both Mount Snow restaurants easier than ever to get into.
Maybe it was just fortunate timing, but I was usually able to walk into both locations and either find a seat right away or one within minutes of being there.
The Bullwheel has always been a staple for us. It's hard to turn down one of Chelsea's Bloody Mary's. However, in recent years it had become a bit of a project trying to get in there and the service itself was good but a little chaotic.
This winter everything ran like a well-oiled machine. Drink orders were done at the bar only and foodservice upstairs was limited to a couple of items. These changes made all the difference. Those looking for larger-scale meals were deferred downstairs (they could still bring the food upstairs to eat). Doing so, ultimately limited the wait time at the bar making for a smooth and pleasurable experience.
In contrast, the lines for the bar at The Station were not short and the bar area was crowded. However, the wait time for drinks was usually pretty limited. The Station has always been jammed for years and the bartenders are accustomed to it. They definitely know how to handle a crowd.
As a result of the whole Bruce debacle, I found myself at The Station more often than not this winter. Each time, I was able to find a table with ease or post up at the bar itself.
What Mount Snow really did well there was book some solid musical acts. The bands that I saw were talented and very entertaining thereby lessening the blow of not being able to après ski at Cuzzins.
This was a major win for Mount Snow and something that I do hope remains as we continue to move forward.
If You're Standing in Epic Lift Lines, It Just Might be Your Fault
Arguably the biggest complaint lodged against Vail Resorts this winter was the "epic lift lines." Posts, memes, pictures, etc. dotted the social media world and Mount Snow was certainly in the line of fire. The Bluebird lift line is notoriously long.
But guess what? It always has been.
So don't stand in it.
There are 19 other lifts at the ski resort. Feel free to use them. This includes the Grand Summit Express chair which is a mere steps away from the Bluebird lift. The line is often shorter and it takes skiers and snowboarders to the same spot.
Mount Snow also has 135 trails at your disposal. Go out and find them. Doing so will disperse skiers and riders to other parts of the mountain, lessening crowds on the front-facing trails and reducing lift lines at the base area lifts.
I skied roughly 13 days this winter at Mount Snow. I rarely stood in a lift line and if I did, it was hardly longer than 10 minutes. There are ways around it. Open up the Epic Mix app, take a look at the trail map and learn some of the other parts of the mountain. Everyone will be thankful for this in the long run.
Beyond becoming more familiar with Mount Snow as a whole, the two new lift upgrades going in as I type should be super helpful. Both high speed and not in the main base area they can pump people up to different parts of the mountain rather quickly.
Despite these upgrades, I have my suspicions that the Bluebird lift will still draw a crowd but hopefully slightly less of one.
Is Vail Resorts Ownership Ruining Mount Snow?
I was asked this very question by a fellow skier while riding the lift up this winter. My answer then is the same as it is now. I don't know and I need more time to decide. As much as I would like to take a stand and definitively say yes or no, I cannot. Thanks to the pandemic, the jury is still out and we may not see a verdict for at least another year or two, maybe more.
As much as everyone in the ski community wants to blame Vail Resorts for all of the world's problems, a lot of it is not their fault. Vail didn't start a pandemic. Vail didn't start a work shortage or supply chain issues. Vail didn't create a housing shortage. Instead, they reacted to these uncharted waters as best they could.
Was everything Vail Resorts did correct? No, but how could it be? We as a ski community haven't seen anything like this before. Their reduction in price of the Epic Pass by 20% last spring definitely exacerbated some of the issues. It ultimately brought more people to the mountains than resorts could handle. But at the time when passes were being sold, everyone seemed to be pretty stoked on the new, lower price. They really didn't foresee the true effect it would have when combined with other, larger societal issues.
Of the 6 topics that I covered, the three that I was most critical about, craft beer, specific food items, and reservations for Bruce Jacques are definitely aspects of Mount Snow's culture that changed. Two of them, the food and the reservation system, were byproducts of the pandemic. Either way, I'd like to see all three return to the ways of old. As society becomes less shackled by the bonds of the pandemic, hopefully, they will, especially in light of the investments in their employees that Vail Resorts recently announced.
I already mentioned that Vail is raising their minimum wage to $20 an hour but, that's not all. Vail plans on devoting $175 million annually to its employees. This will go towards the aforementioned minimum wage as well as increased HR support, a commitment to accelerate progress on affordable housing, updated perks and benefits, and an expanded focus on career development.
Again, I'm no Vail apologist just someone trying to look at this whole scenario in a different light and not just whine and complain. At the moment, Mount Snow is not the same resort it was pre-pandemic when it was under Peak Resorts ownership. However, I'm not sure too many resorts are. Some changes that were made at Mount Snow were good. Others definitely affected the resort's culture in a way that I didn't love. Yet, at the moment, some of those negative changes could still be in limbo. This leaves us in a wait-and-see mode when it comes to determining if, in fact, Vail Resorts has truly stripped Mount Snow of its former culture.
What are your thoughts on how Vail Resorts ownership has affected your home mountain or others you ski? Let us know your take on how things are going in the comments section below.
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