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Vail Resorts Chases After Australian Skier

SYDNEY, Australia — When the self-confessed snowboarding addict Risma Utami planned ski trips from her hometown of Sydney, Australia, conspicuously absent from the wish list of destinations were the slopes in the nearby Snowy Mountains.

“Europe, Japan and New Zealand are cheaper, you have better quality snow there, more challenging slopes, great accommodation, less waiting time at the lift and more skiing,” Ms. Utami, 29, said.

With climate change threatening Australia’s already meager alpine skiing resources, the Snowy Mountains might not seem an obvious choice for the first international foray by Vail Resorts, the United States ski hill operator, which last week agreed to pay $136 million for Perisher Ski Resort.

Perisher is Australia’s largest and most popular ski resort, but in a country better known for deserts and beaches, it faces some significant natural hurdles.

The summit of Mt. Perisher, at just over 6,500 feet, is nearly 2,900 feet below the base of Vail’s Breckenridge Ski Resort, one of the almost a dozen resorts it owns in the United States.

Perisher’s annual snowfall has varied between 151 inches and a woeful three inches over the past five years, according to OnTheSnow.com, the snow sports website, forcing the resort to increasingly rely on artificial snow-making.

But for Vail, the deal was as much about attracting more well-traveled and well-heeled Australian skiers to its United States resorts as getting its hands on Perisher’s limited, albeit profitable, assets — particularly as climate change bites.

“Mountains in the northern hemisphere are generally more luxurious, bigger, better mountains than those in the southern hemisphere,” Robert A. Katz, Vail’s chairman and chief executive, said after the deal, which will offer Perisher season-pass holders access to Vail’s North American resorts.

“In Australia, for somebody looking at Perisher and saying ‘should I buy a pass?’ on worries maybe the season won’t be that good this year, they now know they can also ski in the United States for free,” he said.

The challenges facing the Australian ski industry are only expected to rise as the climate becomes hotter and drier. Since the 1950s, the Snowy Mountains’ snowpack has fallen by about a third and is expected to decrease by half or more before the end of this century, according to Csiro, the top Australian science body.

With uncertain snow conditions, smaller mountains and hefty lift prices, many Australians already choose to ski in places such as Niseko, Japan; Queenstown, New Zealand; or Whistler, British Columbia. Colorado, Vail’s home state, is also popular.

Australians love their adventure sports and the country is among the wealthiest per capita in the world, making Australians a small but important market for global ski resorts that target international visitors, who stay longer and spend more than locals.

Some North American resorts credited Australian skiers with helping them weather the recent recession, said Ben Cardenas, marketing manager at Travelplan Ski, an Australian travel agency.

About 900,000 Australians ski or snowboard, and in 2011 and 2012, when the Australian dollar was trading around parity with the United States dollar, almost half of the Australians who did snow sports on their last holiday went overseas, according to Roy Morgan Research.

With a weakening yen, some of the world’s best powder snow and facilities, Japan has become a key competitor to American resorts, especially as the United States dollar has risen.

“We’ve definitely noticed a big surge in bookings to Japan and we think this has a lot to do with affordable ski options,” said Kellie Carty, an executive at Flight Center Travel Group.

Peter Murphy, a Sydney-raised surfer, snowboarder and skier who runs the tour operator SkiJapan, said he did not believe Vail’s move would threaten the “pre-eminent” position of resorts such as Niseko among travelling Australian skiers because flight times between Australia and Japan are shorter than those to the United States, time zone adjustments are easier and snow is reliable.

But analysts were largely positive about Vail’s move, expecting cash flows from Perisher to prop up off-season earnings, while some speculated it could bring about a similar response from other international ski groups.

“It is something that even New Zealand or Japanese ski resorts may get threatened by,” said Ryan Lin, a senior analyst at the research firm IBISWorld. “They might consider similar tie-ups with some Australian ski resorts.”

via April 7, 2015, in The International New York Times

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