Delivery and disruption: Vail Resorts’ new ‘My Epic Gear’ idea draws skepticism from veterans in the ski rental business
At Vail Resorts’ investors’ conference, held in Vail last week, stock market analysts learned how the company is ushering in a “next phase of growth,” according to a slide presentation available on Vail Resorts’ website.
Key among the areas in which the company aims to “increase guest capture and spend” is gear rental, investors were told, and the company’s plans to do so involve an idea called My Epic Gear, a program in which guests pay $50 per year for a membership. Members can then, for $50 per day, “choose the gear they want, for the full season or for the day, from a selection of the most popular and latest ski and snowboard models, and have it delivered to them when and where they want it, guaranteed, with free slopeside pick up and drop off every day,” according to Vail Resorts.
Among the biggest benefits of the program, according to Vail Resorts, is the fact that there will be “no need to ever step foot in a gear or rental shop,” due to the fact that a new Vail Resorts phone app will “manage the entire membership experience from gear selection to boot fit to delivery.”
In touting the new program, Vail Resorts issued a press release the day before the investor presentation began. Details from that release were published in news outlets across the country, from Forbes to Ski Area Management magazines. But those news outlets did not talk to anyone else in the ski rental business in publishing their pieces, instead publishing thoughts of their own like “it may appeal to those who loathe traveling with their ski boots (Forbes)” or it “could replace the habit of owning gear with renting (Ski Area Management).”
In Vail — one of four places where the membership program will be piloted next season — a feeling of general skepticism surrounds the My Epic Gear idea at local rental shops. And that skepticism won’t come as a surprise to some of the analysts who heard Vail’s presentation. Patrick Scholes with Truist Securities attended the conference and published an opinion on Thursday, detailing for investors the mixed thoughts he had on the My Epic Gear idea.
“While we would envision this business venture will be profitable for (Vail Resorts), we have to think there may be blow-back from local businesses and mountain communities, where (Vail Resorts) arguably already has strained relationships, whom (Vail Resorts) will be heating up the competition with for gear rental business,” Scholes wrote. “In local mountain communities, gear rental shops are typically an important part of the business community and have deep roots … and customers being taken away from them probably will not go over well.”
Scholes referenced the Vail-based rental shop Buzz’s in the opinion published Thursday, and while owner Buzz Schleper said he thinks Scholes is right on most of his analysis, there’s one part Buzz doesn’t agree with.
“I don’t think it will be profitable for them, because I don’t think it will work,” Schleper said. “You can’t rent a boot over an app, you’ve got to try it on. A computer can’t decide what ski is best for you, or what boot is best, it’s experienced skiers that go up and ride every day, we know skis and boots and bindings inside and out.”
Jay Lucas with Ski Base rental shop said Vail Resorts’ delivery idea isn’t necessarily new to the rental market. Lucas said he learned of delivery companies’ proliferation into the market years ago when their customers started coming into his shop in Lionshead.
“We see people who rent from delivery companies complain because the boot they just had delivered hurt, and they had to wait for the van to deliver new boots to their hotel,” Lucas said. “Shops like ours can have you in and out in 5 minutes with new equipment.”
Lucas said finding the storage areas for all the gear will be difficult, as well. Vail Resorts says the My Epic Gear program will have 15 different brands and more than 50 of the most popular and latest ski and snowboard models available.
“Right now the base areas are so busy, adding more storage for a ski program like that will be a mess,” Lucas said. “Managing something like that will take a huge area.”
But if you grant Vail Resorts the benefit of the doubt and assume the company will be able to find the storage for such a program at all of its resorts across the country, that doesn’t get around the fact that delivery services are also very labor-intensive, Lucas said. That point was echoed by Craig Arford with Vail Ski Tech, who has been watching the rental delivery business for years.
“If you were to do everything (Vail Resorts) says they’re going to do with this idea, they’d be doubling or tripling the labor intensiveness of doing rentals,” Arford said. “Before the guest even gets the gear they’d have to get it all organized, make sure it’s right and load it into delivery vehicles.”
Allowing guests to “try a different model of ski or snowboard any day, such as powder skis,” as promised in Vail Resorts’ My Epic Gear press release, will complicate the labor-intensive nature of the idea as well, Arford said.
“They’ll then have to pick up the gear, take it back to wherever they’re taking it, process it, dry the boots, tune the gear and get it ready to go right back out again, all for that one rental,” Arford said.
Good help hard to find
Schleper said one of the hardest parts of building his business over the last 40 years has been finding a dedicated staff, something he has seen Vail Resorts place a low priority on.
“We have guys who have been doing this for 20, 25 years in our shop,” he said. “You don’t find that at Vail Resorts run businesses anymore.”
Schleper pointed to the Vail Resorts-owned Burton Store in Vail Village, which has been closed for weeks. Lucas said similarly, in Lionshead, the Vail Resorts-owned Salomon store has also been closed in recent weeks.
“They can’t keep the shops they have open because they don’t have enough help,” Schleper said. “So if you rented it in Vail one week, they might be closed the next week, so you have to go to Lionshead to get it serviced if you have a broken binding.”
But even with a massive hiring push, “they’re not going to find experienced people,” Arford said. “Not in this labor market.”
Schleper said the ski rental business isn’t like Vail Resorts’ other lines of business, like food service, where you can hire inexperienced workers for a single season and then rotate those workers out of the company.
“You need to be talking to a live person, who goes out skiing every day, who knows equipment and who has been in the business,” Schleper said.
But even in food service, Vail Resorts has not been able to keep its customers happy, a point echoed by Arford and Schleper.
“Look at on-mountain dining — everybody’s complaining,” Schleper said. “It’s overpriced, it’s a bad product, bad service, and now they want to take over the rental business? Give me a break.”
Vail Resorts’ has acknowledged some of its deficiencies in food service in recent months, with CEO Kirstin Lynch telling investors dining revenue has underperformed this season.
At Vail Resorts’ March 28 investor conference in Vail, analysts were told that the company also sees dining, along with gear rentals, as ancillary businesses “positioned for increased guest capture and spend.”
Arford said when it comes to increased guest spending, the slides shown to investors at the March 28 conference miss an important point.
“They’re showing what they’re going to charge in this gear rental subscription —– $50 per day — and comparing it to their competitors, but the prices they show are from their shops, which are the most expensive shops in the valley,” Arford said. “They’re comparing it to ‘the traditional demo rentals,’ but demos are top of the line, the most expensive skis made. They’re saying they’re $330 for four days, but we’re $192 for four days with top-of-the-line skis.”
Arford said he has doubts that Vail Resorts’ demo equipment will be top of the line under the My Epic Gear program, as well.
“What they call demo quality will probably be more like what we call sport or high performance, not demo quality which is the absolute top of the line, the best skis made,” Arford said.
The big disruptor
Schleper said he heard that Vail Resorts, in pitching the My Epic Gear idea to investors at the investor conference in Vail last week, called itself a “disruptor” of the local gear market in pitching the idea. The Vail Daily was able to confirm this claim with someone who attended the event.
“Disrupt, how cruel is that?” Schleper said. “When I was a kid there used to be gas wars, these big gas and oil companies wanted to drive the smaller mom-and-pop businesses out, so they’d cut the price, which was great for consumers, but after they drive out the mom and pops, they raised the rates higher than they were before.”
Arford said growing up in Greeley, he saw the same thing happen with dairies.
“That was a business strategy, to lower the prices and wait for the small dairies to fold, and then raise the prices after a couple years when the family-owned dairies could no longer compete and went out of business,” Arford said.
“Vail Resorts, in their corporate greed, is trying to sterilize Vail,” Schleper said. “They want to run all our small shops out of business — they’re going to ruin Vail, they’re going to ruin the personality of Vail, the character, the people that made it strong. It’s like the Pink Floyd movie “The Wall,” where the evil force comes and tries to destroy the earth.”
But amid the sentiment, both Schleper and Arford said in the case of the rental business, it’s not going to work.
“They’re not going to take our customers away from us,” Schleper said. “Because it’s about personalized service — do you really want to rent from a computer?”
‘Competition is good’
The My Epic Gear idea is centered around a new app, developed by Vail Resorts, which will allow guests to take a 3D scan of their foot before arriving in town. The scan will then be used to find “the optimal length, width, and arch height with customized insoles,” according to Vail Resorts. Male subscribers will be able to choose from 10 different boot models and three insole options, while female skiers will have 11 different boot models with 3 insole options.
Russ Shay, co-owner of Surefoot bootfitters, said Vail Resorts deserves credit for attempting to advance bootfitting technology with its 3D scan app.
“They’re just trying to use technology and modernize everything as much as they can,” Shay said. “People have horror stories about standing in rental shops getting fitted for ski boots, and how long it can take, and they’re just trying to streamline it, and I applaud them for that.”
But Shay also has doubts about an app’s ability to fit a boot.
“There never going to be able to actually pull it off, because everyone’s going to have their own interpretation of how the boot should fit,” Shay said. “So, no matter how much information they get, the person has still got to put the boot on, they still got to go out and ski in it, and if they don’t like it, then they’ll bring it back. But what it can do is cut down on their interaction with the customer.”
Shay, like Schleper and Arford, said he is not worried about losing clients to Vail Resorts through My Epic Gear.
“They’ve been trying to go after our dollars for 25 years,” Shay said. “So it’s not like anything different is happening. … I think competition is good, it makes me strive to do a better job for my customers.”
Vail Resorts CEO Kirstin Lynch, in the company’s March 27 press release, described My Epic Gear as a way of reimagining gear rental.
“Having the right gear is essential to the experience of every skier and rider, however, the traditional model of gear ownership and gear rental has not changed in decades,” Lynch said. “My Epic Gear reimagines gear ownership and gear rental, whether guests want the certainty of their gear for the season or for the day, transforming the quality, service, convenience and cost of one of the most critical parts of the mountain experience. Like many other business models in lodging and transportation that leverage technology and scale to allow guests to transition from ownership to the benefits of the ‘access economy,’ My Epic Gear will leverage our extensive footprint and experience selling, renting and delivering gear, our prime slopeside locations across our mountain resorts, our data, the relationships we have with top gear vendors and over two million Pass Holders, as well as the scale to invest in the technology and most popular gear for the guest.”
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