This past Wednesday, many Midd students like myself were likely confused when an email with the subject line “Changing But Not Saying Goodbye” landed in their inboxes. In it, Sugarbush Resort owner Win Smith explained that Summit Ventures NE LLC had agreed to sell the majority of its Sugarbush assets to Alterra Mountain Company. Alterra currently owns 14 ski resort destinations in North America and 27 around the world on their Ikon Pass. The price of the transaction, which should wrap up in early January 2020, was not disclosed, as the company is privately held. “Sugarbush Resort is a premier East Coast mountain destination and we are excited to expand the Alterra Mountain Company family in the Northeast, with Sugarbush joining Stratton in Vermont,” Rusty Gregory, Alterra’s CEO, said in a press release.
Addressing the “Sugarbush Community,” Smith wrote of the considerations and emotions that went into the decision, describing it as walking his daughter down the aisle at her wedding. “I have tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat knowing that I am about to give away someone I have raised and loved. Looking down the aisle, however, I am delighted to see someone waiting who will also love, respect and care for her as I have done,” he wrote.
Smith explained that the Sugarbush team will remain in place, and Alterra will not seek to change the culture or values of Sugarbush. Smith’s family, along with three others, purchased the resort 18 years ago from the American Skiing Company and throughout the years have turned down offers to sell Sugarbush.
Smith cited the challenges arising in the ski industry, including climate change and the cost of doing business in Vermont. He also discussed how the multi-resort season pass has altered the industry, and Sugarbush will have an increasing amount of trouble competing against Vail Resorts, Alterra Mountain Company, and other large corporations. He referenced the acquisition of Peak Resorts by Vail as the tipping point in his decision.
Students expressed their initial reactions to the acquisition. “Growing up skiing on the East Coast, I always felt like each mountain I skied at had a unique almost family-like quality to it,” said Philip Klinck ’20, a member of Middlebury’s ski patrol. “Unfortunately, it’s harder and harder for ski resorts to cut it on the East Coast these days for a number of reasons, and so we are seeing a lot of acquisitions and buyouts.”
In an article published in VT Ski+Ride, Smith stated that he “expects Alterra to bring the sort of resources that fuel innovation,” and increase Sugarbush’s purchasing power and ability to provide substantial resources, including employee healthcare. Ben Arquit ’20, also a member of Middlebury’s Ski Patrol, echoes Smith’s hopes in his reaction to the acquisition. “The positives to these acquisitions are that mountains get proven management and benefits from the big corporations,” he said, citing things like being able to make snow in the early season and thus open earlier. “The downsides are that smaller mountains may lose their small mountain charm that many locals have grown to love. In addition, the management may not be as responsive to complaints/suggestions from skiers as they were before,” Arquit said.
Though such a phenomenon is a common worry when large corporations expand their influence, Smith assured members of the Sugarbush Community that he “[has] no plans to retire to a gated golf community in Florida and still plan[s] to ski at least 100 days this season and in many more years to come.” Gregory also has experience running independent operations with local followings. Prior to his current role as CEO of Alterra, he served as CEO of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area in Mammoth Lakes, California for 20 years. According to Gregory, Sugarbush’s “fiercely independent spirit, unique brand and loyal clientele” made it a match for Alterra.
Smith will stay on and manage the resort at a minimum through the transition, which, coupled with Gregory’s past experience with local ski areas, should somewhat mitigate the loss of a local feel. “As someone who grew up skiing at Sugarbush, I really feel like I know the mountain and the culture that they have been trying to create in the Mad River Valley. I hope that Alterra recognizes what is special about Sugarbush and will do their best to shield those things from what I’m sure will be a number of big changes,” Klinck said.