Ski season is going to be a bit different in North America this year. Two ski industry giants, Vail Resorts and Aspen Skiing Company, have been picking off notable ski areas like pawns on a snow-covered chessboard. Vail acquired Whistler/Blackcomb in British Columbia toward the end of 2016 and then grabbed Vermont’s Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont this summer. This year, Aspen Skiing Company, in a venture with KSL Capital Partners, also made moves, acquiring Mammoth Mountain in California and the assets of Intrawest, which include Mount Tremblant in Quebec and Steamboat in Colorado. Aspen Skiing Company independently operates four ski areas around Aspen/Snowmass.
On another front, Aspen Skiing Company, or Skico as it is familiarly called, is growing its hotel business. The storied Little Nell has been part of its portfolio since the 1980s. However, in 2010, Skico purchased an existing property in Aspen and named it the Limelight Hotel. The second hotel under the moniker was built from scratch by Skico and opened earlier this year in Ketchum, Idaho. The move raised some eyebrows, as Ketchum is a mere mile down the road from the privately-held Sun Valley Resort. Could a move into the greater Sun Valley real estate market be a harbinger of things to come?
As family-owned resorts, Sun Valley and Aspen Skiing Company are rarities in the ski industry. The Crown family of Chicago owns Skico, while Sun Valley is owned by the Holding family, which also owns Sinclair Oil and Little America Hotels & Resorts. Both are also part of the Mountain Collective, a multi-property ski pass allowing purchasers two free days of skiing (and other benefits) at each of the 16 participating resorts. (The Mountain Collective competes with Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass, which includes unlimited skiing at 45 resorts worldwide).
While speculation abounds, for now, Sun Valley is not for sale, nor is Aspen Skiing Company setting its sights on it. Kelli Lusk, Sun Valley’s public relations and communications manager, says the Holding family is holding onto ownership and has no plans to sell. All Alinio Azevedo, chief operating officer for Aspen Skiing Company’s hospitality division, will say is that “we have a great relationship with Sun Valley at corporate levels–and the families are good friends.”
He then pivoted to focus the discussion on the Limelight brand. After Skico acquired what became The Limelight Hotel in Aspen in 2010, the company considered how to grow a brand out of a single property. “We saw an opportunity gap — a gap in resort markets between the high-end and the next level down in terms of accomodations,” says Azevedo. Additionally, “there are people who want to stay in luxury quarters, but they are not willing to pay for the extra service. From a physical standpoint, we are four-to-four-and-a-half star properties with high-quality rooms, but without the full-service hotel experience.”
Brand concept in hand, the next step, says Azevedo, was deciding “where can we replicate this type of environment, a hotel which becomes a living room for the community….a place to connect guests with the locals and vice versa….and a base for adventure.” Skico found the environment suitable in both Ketchum and in Snowmass (where a Limelight will open in the fall of 2018).
After Snowmass, Azevedo says, “Our goal is to have eight to ten hotels in the next five years.” Where will Limelight enter the spotlight? “We are looking in communities that center around adventure (all likely in North America) — whether it’s skiing or nature or trekking or surfing.” The expectation is that most of the hotels will be new builds, but “we are not shutting down from existing opportunities that may present themselves if they align with our brand strategy.”