When George Gillett, owner of the Vail ski complex in Colorado, describes himself as the proud possessor of "one of God's special works," it's easy to dismiss this as just another self-aggrandizement by just another hyper-acquisitive multimillionaire who has become disgustingly rich during this greed-driven decade of the '80s. However, Gillett happens to have something here.
Vail is now America's biggest ski resort. It is also the busiest, the richest, the friendliest, the most popular and the most diverse in skiable terrain. It is undeniably the best in terms of its far-reaching network of lifts; arguably the best in the grooming of its trails, in its ski school and in its marketing; and certainly top of the line when it comes to stratospheric pricing—daily lift tickets are $35, private adult ski lessons are $65 an hour. Even all this doesn't qualify Vail as a divine work, any more than it would the other enterprises in Gillett's $1.5 billion empire, which includes 12 TV stations scattered across the U.S., from San Luis Obispo, Calif., to Tampa, as well as bank holding companies, meat-packing operations, an oil and gas distribution company, and Vail's sleeker, smaller and more luxurious neighboring ski resort, Beaver Creek.
However, without putting too fine a metaphysical point on it, let's agree that there exists in every mountain a God-given potential for specialness, for monumentality, if you will—a status to which no TV station or meat-packing plant can ever aspire. Let's also agree that, God notwithstanding, monument status is sometimes conferred on a mountain only after mere mortals have done something to make it famous, infamous or unique, Mount Rushmore being the most literal example of this.
Gillett's Vail happens to be blessed this season with two man-made happenings that, though unrelated, together will bring such an aura of new splendor to the place that no one should ever quibble about whether Gillett is the owner of a national monument.
January 30, 1989
First is the expansion of Vail's skiable terrain into the vast exotic wastes of the China Bowl region, four dishes of open powder snow that stretch far beyond the resort's previously available trails and bowls. This was achieved as part of a capital investment of $15.4 million last year, including $4.5 million for the installation of a state-of-the-art high-speed lift. The addition of the 1,881 acres of China Bowl to the existing 1,906 makes Vail larger than California's 3,500-acre Mammoth Mountain, formerly the U.S.'s most sprawling ski area. All that open space in the back-bowl area, plus Vail's marvelously groomed skiing terrain on the front side of the mountain, has moved the place into a class by itself.
As if the blowout into China Bowl weren't enough, there's Vail's second happening—the World Alpine Ski Championships from Jan. 29 to Feb. 12, which will bring the 600 best ski racers from 43 nations to Vail for their most important biennial competition. This is the first time in nearly four decades that a U.S. ski area will host the championships.
The last time was in 1950, when Aspen, then an impoverished little mining-town-just-turned-ski-resort, did it and, in the process, gained for itself a worldwide renown that still exceeds any Vail enjoys. That will change next week with global press and TV coverage of the championships; henceforth, millions of people the world over will consider Vail the centerpiece of skiing in America.
Now that the moment is almost upon us, it may seem that it was inevitable. But when you look back over Vail's rather odd past, you'll find that its rise was never guaranteed—or even very likely.
As viewed from Vail Village, there is nothing impressive about Vail Mountain. There are no great looming peaks, no snowy massif, no sheer rock walls, no avalanche chutes, no waterfalls frozen into crazy ice sculptures. The terrain rises in undramatic rolls and folds, showing no scars from prehistoric volcanoes, no signs of ancient subterranean upheavals. If you climbed to the 11,250-foot summit, you would discover the plain truth about Vail Mountain: It's a docile, round-shouldered pile of earth, sand and soft rock—"the humble cousin ridge," as a local writer put it—set between the sensational saw-toothed majesties of the Gore and Sawatch ranges just across the valley to the north and east.
Until recently, life around Vail was not much more intriguing than the geological history of this big, soft hill. June Simonton, the local writer mentioned above, wrote in her book Vail: Story of a Colorado Mountain Valley, "Did gold strikes, cattle drives, or railroad barons figure in its past? Not at all. Vail, it seemed, was an orphan with nothing to nail it into place in the pattern of Western history." Simonton points out that the Gore Creek Valley, which lies at the foot of Vail Mountain, had always been isolated because it was cut off at one end by a 10,600-foot-high pass and at the other by a canyon no wider than a horse. The place that is now Vail, wrote Simonton. "was a blank spot on early Colorado maps."
It wasn't until the late 19th century that someone started putting names on the map, and the two men who came to figure most prominently in the nomenclature of the region—Gore and Vail—were strange choices. Sir St. George Gore apparently never set foot in the mountains, the creek or the valley near Vail that bear his name. Why anyone would even name an alley after him, let alone some of nature's best scenery, is a wonder. Lord Gore was a drunken Irish baronet, boorish and filthy rich, a rapacious hunter who spent three years—and $250,000—slaughtering animals throughout the West in the 1850s. His caravan included 100 horses, dozens of servants and guides, and gallons of liquor as well as a green-and-white silk tent for his lordship furnished with a brass bedstead, a bathtub and a commode with a fur-lined seat. Gore and his party butchered countless elk, deer and buffalo, taking only trophies and leaving all else to rot where it fell.
Then there was Vail. That would be Charles Vail, chief engineer of the Colorado highway department from 1930 until his death in '45, a civil servant who spent his life supervising the paving of roads. He was known by his friends as Charley, but not everyone was his friend, for he could be a stubborn cuss. In '39 Vail ignored the wishes of the residents of the Rocky Mountain town of Salida and built a highway over a pass at a point they didn't favor. They couldn't do much about the road once it was finished, but when they heard that the pass was going to be named after Vail, they got mad. They petitioned the governor to get the name changed, and they painted out the P on every sign that read VAIL PASS. The governor quickly changed the name to Monarch Pass. Vail got a different pass, but it was located at an obscure spot far from Salida—at a place formerly known as Black Gore Pass.
Twenty years later the founders of a ski resort in the vicinity of Vail Pass were kicking around ideas for a name for their new enterprise. Someone suggested Shining Mountains—the name the Ute Indians used for the Colorado region. But the president of the new operation, a former ski trooper from the 10th Mountain Division named Pete Seibert, rejected that idea. "When mountains shine," he said, "it means they're icy." And so, without much further ado, the resort was called Vail.
If anything, it should have been named Mount St. Peter, or Ski Seibert, or Pete's Peak, for no one did more to force Vail into existence and then push it into prominence than Seibert. He is now 64 and was long ago ousted from Vail Associates, the resort corporation created by him and his hell-for-leather skiing friends and his pals from the 10th Mountain. Though he has lived in Colorado. Utah or Switzerland for nearly all of the past 45 years, the Down East inflections of Seibert's childhood hometown of North Conway, N.H., still tend to do funny things with r's. So when he confessed recently, "I've always had a bit of a messiah complex," the word came out "messiahr." But the meaning was clear and, truth is, with anyone less than a messiah at the controls, it's doubtful that Vail would have been created at all.
Seibert came to Colorado early in World War II when he joined the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale, which was located about 20 miles from Vail Mountain. In 1945, Seibert saw combat in the Apennine mountains of northern Italy, where he was hit by small-arms fire and two mortar shells, one of which blew off his right kneecap. Doctors told him he might walk again, but he would surely never ski. Of course, messiahrs don't believe in bad news. By '47, Seibert was a ski instructor in Aspen. He was a member of the U.S. team in '50 but did not race in the championships, because he tore ligaments in an ankle just before the competition. In Aspen he met a man named Earl Eaton, a lifelong skier and sometime uranium prospector who was born on a homestead not far from Gore Creek Valley. Like just about everyone else living in the Colorado mountains during those booming postwar years, the two of them began making plans for a ski resort. As Eaton told Simonton, "Everybody in Aspen would talk about going out and finding a ski area—the ski instructors and the ski bums—everybody had big ideas."
For Seibert, these big ideas were more than a matter of casual daydreaming. "I had first started thinking of running a resort when I was 12 years old," he says. "In the early '50s I went to the Hotel School in Lausanne for three years. There was nothing I wanted more in my life than to start a ski area."
In March 1957, Eaton, who had scoured many mountains over the years in search of uranium, led Seibert to a mountain he thought had all the aspects of a perfect ski area. No would-be ski-area entrepreneur had considered it before because its bulk wasn't visible from the valley. The two of them climbed in deep snow for seven hours to reach the summit. Once there they stared in awe at the vast bowls below them and the stunning peaks of the Gore Range beyond. Seibert says, "It was as good as any ski mountain I'd seen."
From there, the hard part began—cutting red tape and meeting the stiff requirements of the U.S. Forest Service to gain permission to lease the mountain from the government; raising money from frugal friends and suspicious strangers; buying land from ranchers in Gore Creek Valley and building a village. "Everybody else thought we were crazy," says Seibert, "but we were convinced we could do any damned thing we decided to do." Ultimately they did do every damned thing they decided to do, and the cost for all of it—three lifts, including a gondola; trails; buildings; snow-grooming equipment; salaries; interest on loans—came to $1,550,000. That was big money in those days, but it is just one third the price of a single high-speed quad chair lift today.
Among the 10th Mountain Division pals Seibert recruited for Vail was Robert Parker, a former editor of Skiing magazine. He was Vail's first director of marketing and became a legend in the business before his recent retirement from Vail Associates. Over the years Parker was in on the creation of some of the ski industry's best promotional ideas, including the brilliantly successful Ski the Rockies campaign, which promoted ski packages with airlines and travel agencies, as well as an early 1960s series of international ski races that ultimately developed into the World Cup circuit. Parker was also a talented publicity man, and, thanks to his press releases and personal contacts, ski journalists and industry flacks everywhere were pounding the drums for Vail long before the first lift ticket was sold.
Still, success was anything but guaranteed. Vail opened on Dec. 15, 1962, precisely on schedule, but there was no snow in the valley, and it was just ankle-deep on top of the mountain. Some curious cowboys and their wives turned out to ride the lifts up and down just for the hell of it, and there were a few skiers. Seibert was asked recently if there ever was a time when he had doubts about Vail's future. He didn't hesitate: "Yes. It was January 10, 1963. We collected exactly $60 for lift tickets. Twelve skiers were on the mountain at $5 dollars a piece."
Suffice it to say, business never got worse. However, that day in 1963 wasn't the low point in Vail's history. That was to come on the cold, sunny morning of March 26, 1976, when four skiers died and eight were injured, some seriously, as two gondolas plunged 125 feet to the ground. At the time it was the worst ski-area mishap in U.S. history.
The cause of the accident was a frayed cable that tangled in the workings atop a lift tower. This bounced and buffeted the cars passing that point until two were flung loose from the line and the whole lift jerked to a stop. After administering to the victims on the ground, ski patrolmen clambered up lift towers and worked their way along the cable to lower to safety no fewer than 176 skiers who were trapped in the 31 other cars.
There were many heroes that day, but then came the lawsuits, demanding more than $50 million in damages. In the long run these caused more trouble and upheaval at Vail than the tragedy itself. Seibert says, "The gondola accident and the high exposure to litigation facing the company were a major reason the board decided to sell the company in the next few months. We had gone public with the stock in 1966. I was still chairman of the company, but I had lost control. When it came time to consider some offers to sell out, the board made its decision because it was afraid of the liability we might incur as a result of the accident."
Later in 1976, Harry Bass, an autocratic Texan whose money came mostly from his family's ownership of a firm called Goliad Oil and Gas, purchased a controlling interest in Vail Associates for about $13 million. "I personally didn't favor Harry Bass," says Seibert. "In fact, Twentieth Century Fox was very interested in buying Vail. But the studio hadn't released Star Wars yet and came up short of Bass's bid. So, Vail went to him, much to my disappointment. If Star Wars had been out, maybe things would have been different."
Bass's takeover of Vail quickly led to Seibert's ouster. "Harry and Pete had a personality clash that wouldn't let them be in the same state together at the same time," says one observer. Looking back at those bitter times, Seibert recalls, "When I started Vail, I didn't necessarily plan on its being a lifetime commitment. But then when I had to leave, I suddenly discovered that I'd made a much deeper lifetime commitment to the place than I'd realized. It hurt to go."
Seibert bought a small ski area in Utah called Snow Basin and stayed there for seven years before returning to Colorado to work at (but not own) a new area called Arrowhead. As it happens, Arrowhead is 10 miles from Vail, and some sections of it lie adjacent to Beaver Creek. It was Seibert who had arranged the $4.4 million purchase of the Beaver Creek land in 1971 from a recalcitrant old rancher he had been trying to coax into selling for years. "I saw Beaver Creek as a little diamond in Vail's navel," says Seibert. He was in Utah when Beaver Creek opened in 1980.
As for the gondola accident, all of the suits were settled out of court. The payout totaled only a fraction of the $50 million mentioned in the original suits, and most of the amount was covered by insurance. In 1984, Bass, too, was ousted from the chairmanship of Vail Associates, after an ugly confrontation with his children, whose trust—set up by him—controlled enough Vail stock to force Harry out. Bass had spent much of his time in Vail while he owned the place, but friends say that he has not been back since he was dumped. Seibert says with a chuckle, "I keep telling Harry he should come back. Hell, if I could come back, it should be real easy for him."
The Reverend Don Simonton (husband of June Simonton, the writer) has lived in Vail for 22 years. "I may tend to overromanticize the old days, but Vail was built by guys who were in the ski business because they loved skiing," he says. "They winged it. They had fun. It was a matter of friendship as much as a matter of business. A corporate mentality took over after that. Now they plan everything constantly. The executives come and go, interchangeable people. They don't study the past. They come in equipped with all the answers about us without knowing our history, our character. An old cowboy friend of mine summed it up once: 'Vail Associates is run by guys with M.B.A.'s and BMWs who come here, play a few sets of tennis, divorce their wives and move on.' "
Simonton, a Lutheran pastor, works out of the village's Interfaith Chapel, a church he shares with the congregations of six other denominations. And how is it having a ski area as your parish? "Well, we have a lot of pure and simple gold-plated hedonists around here, a lot of people who are wholly dedicated to remaining young and good-looking," he says. "There are a lot of people here, too, because they love the mountains, love the West. Not everyone cares about skiing; the ranchers sure don't. I see this parish as a ministry of reconciliation, building bridges between the different subcommunities, between skiers and nonskiers, old-timers and newcomers, between hard-nosed businessmen who own expensive houses here and have-not local employees who feel they've been forced to move out of Vail because they can't afford it."
Vail is a company town. The ski resort is the only reason the place exists. What happens at VA, as the locals call Vail Associates, happens to all 4,500 citizens of the town. Rod Slifer was one of the Seibert-era pioneers, and he also served as mayor of Vail from 1977 to '84. When asked to compare the various VA regimes, he says, "I think Peter and George Gillett have similarities. The mountain and skiing interest them, and the quality of skiing comes first. Harry Bass ran it like a business. He didn't put money back in the mountain, he drained it off. Pete and George believe in the European idea of business: think of the future, think of your kids. This isn't a place to grab instant profits, it's a long-term investment. I think George Gillett might be the best owner Vail ever had. He has lots of money, he has lots of contact with the town, he makes people here feel good."
Gillett, 50, is a short, stocky, bespectacled bundle of physical energy and business evangelism. He grew up in Racine, Wis., the only son of a wealthy surgeon, who financed George's expensive boyhood hobby of racing motorboats and sent him to Amherst College with the expectation that he would study hard and become a doctor. It didn't happen.
"I was a terrible student," Gillett says. "Among other things, I discovered the game of bridge and the women of Smith and Mount Holyoke. I had never been outside a disciplined environment, and I was quite young and I was no good at science courses. I didn't flunk out, but after three years my father called me back to Racine. He told me that I could continue to live at home, but that I was now completely on my own. He told me that if I wanted a college education, I would have to do it alone, but that it didn't appear to him that I was much interested in college. He told me that somewhere I had got the idea with those motorboats on the lake and cars in the driveway that money grew on trees. He also said that if I thought that I would ever inherit a dime of his money, I was wrong, because the Gillett tradition was that the money goes to the women of the family, and, therefore, my sister would get whatever there was."
Young Gillett found a job on the graveyard shift at the local American Motors plant, attended Dominican College in Racine during the day, got a degree in liberal arts in 1961 and came to believe that his father's stern approach had been the best thing that ever happened to him. "Among other things, my father told me that whatever I did, I should always love it, and that I should try to help people be happy if I could," he says. "By saying these things, he unburdened me from having to lead a traditional life or follow traditional patterns."
Gillett's early forays into business were traditional enough—first with a huge paper company, Crown Zellerbach, as a salesman and then as an associate with a management-consulting firm, McKinsey & Co. In 1966 tradition went to hell. Gillett read a study about the coming boom in the leisure-time business in America and decided that his best opportunity lay in sports and leisure management. Six months later he called NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to ask if there were any teams up for sale.
There is still awe in Gillett's voice when he recalls that episode: "Rozelle actually took my call. I was—what?—27 years old, a kid from Racine. I always thought that maybe Pete mistook me for one of the razor-blade Gillettes. My father always used to get a laugh by saying that we had one fewer e and a lot fewer G's than they did. Anyway, I was frank with Pete about who I was and what I had in mind. For some unknown reason, he took me seriously, and he told me that a previously unsold 22 percent of the Miami Dolphins was available. Well, I had a little nest egg put away and I knew where I could get some other money, so, brash kid that I was, I phoned Joe Robbie, and he agreed to see me."
Gillett and one of the heirs to the Racine-based Johnson Wax fortune bought that 22% of the Dolphins, and in January 1967 Gillett moved to Miami to become business manager of the team. "I did some marketing that winter and spring. Ticket sales rose. We drafted Bob Griese. Things looked great," he says. "But I saw exactly one Dolphin game—that was an exhibition against the Broncos in July—and then I was gone."
Opportunity had beckoned once again—an opportunity that was just as bizarre in its way as his buying into the NFL: He became president and general manager of the Harlem Globetrotters. Abe Saperstein, the Trotters' founder and owner, had died in 1966, and the trustees of his estate decided in August '67 to sell the team. When Gillett heard that, he quickly sold his slice of the Dolphins, found another friendly angel to augment his own small fortune and purchased the Globetrotters for $3,710,000.
"The problem with the team was not the show or the management," Gillett says. "The main thing wrong was that it was a one-generation attraction that appealed to middle-aged males, period. We had to broaden that audience to include younger people and women."
One of Gillett's first moves was to widen the Trotters' TV exposure. He went to CBS and asked what kind of rating numbers the network needed to break even in prime time. "They had to have at least an X in the ratings," Gillett says, "so I rashly countered by volunteering that if they didn't get X, then we would do the show for nothing but if they did better than X, they would pay the Globetrotters for a series of prime-time shows. They liked that a lot, but, of course, I had taken a terrible risk." Not So terrible, as it turned out. The Trotters' ratings were X and then some, which assured the team of prime-time exposure for several years.
Still, Gillett wasn't satisfied. He wanted even more kids to see his lovable basketball clowns, so he and Fred Silverman, the programming genius who remade network TV during the 1970s, hatched the outlandish idea of creating a Saturday-morning cartoon series about the Trotters. This, too, worked. By the early '70s the Globetrotters were netting $3 million a year, and Gillett and his three partners sold the team in '75 for more than twice what they paid.
Since then Gillett has simply become richer and richer as his business empire has become bigger and bigger. His 12 TV stations, which reach about 13% of the U.S. audience, make up the fourth-biggest television entity in the U.S., after the three major networks. A banker told The New York Times in 1988, "George is what Rupert Murdoch and Marvin Davis would like to be when they grow up." He's a master of business as it is practiced in the acquisitive '80s: For example, his 1987 purchase of six stations from Storer Communications for $1.3 billion was a joint venture with the takeover firm of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.; the deal was financed in part by the junk-bond experts at Drexel Burnham Lambert.
There's a sense that Gillett has only begun to build his empire. He is constantly reaching out to gather in a wider range of enterprises. Some critics refer to him as "a deal junkie," and there are plenty of skeptics (and xenophobes) around Vail who have no doubt that he plans to sell their mountain to the richest Japanese investor he can find the instant he thinks the price has peaked.
Gillett bought the whole spread for $130 million in 1985 and has since pumped in some $51.4 million, including the China Bowl project and improvements at Beaver Creek. His Colorado kingdom is probably worth $400 million now, and even though the ski business in general is nearly flat, Vail stands as a megaresort that almost certainly will become stronger, bigger and richer in the years ahead.
Nevertheless, Gillett says, "Vail is the last thing I will sell—ever. This is my family's home, and Vail will always be ours." His attachment to the mountains seems genuine, and his fascination with the details and trivia of the ski business seems boundless. He has a house at the foot of Vail Mountain and lives there with his wife, Rose, and four sons, ages 13 to 19. Although he can't ski anymore this winter because he had knee surgery in December, he usually gets his kicks on the slopes, stopping to commiserate with any and all lost, confused or fallen skiers he comes across, chatting them up, helping them off the mountain if they are hurt—and rarely identifying himself as the owner of the hill. "What I'm trying to instill in this place is an innate sense of hospitality," he explains. "We want our customers to love everything about their experience here—from their arrival at the airport in Denver to the smiles they see on the faces of our lift attendants."
Vail has never had the glitz-and-glamour flair that Aspen has always flaunted—and at one time this seemed a flaw. But in the Gillett era the place is earnestly dedicated to promoting a low-key, early-to-bed, relentlessly wholesome form of après-ski. Children are catered to with storytelling ski instructors, a costumed character on skis called Sport Goofy and ski-through amusement parks such as Fort Whippersnapper. Vail marketing these days is also geared to sell skiing as a low-risk, easy-living, even luxurious kind of pastime that is just right for the older folks—particularly the wealthy 50-to 70-year-old crowd.
Mike Shannon, 30, a whiz-kid former bank executive whom Gillett hired three years ago, is president of Vail Associates. He is a dead ringer for the 10-year-old Jay North playing Dennis the Menace, but he speaks with the metallic authority of the case-hardened M.B.A. that he is. "We want our skiers to be pleasure-oriented," he says. "What we are trying to implement is a program to take the intimidation out of skiing and introduce everyone to a greater comfort level."
This is a long way from the dashing, broken-legs-be-damned image that the sport once projected, but risk-free comfort is what the new wave of skiers seems to demand. Jerry Jones, 46, the man in charge of the Beaver Creek end of Vail Associates, has long been considered one of the best marketing brains in the ski business. For 14 years he was locked in fierce competition with Vail, first at Aspen's Snow-mass and then at another Colorado resort, Keystone. "In the baby-boom years of the 1960s and '70s, the ski industry used to make its clientele jump through all kinds of nasty hoops to go skiing," he says. "We'd make it hard for them to get room reservations, hard to get transportation, hard to buy lift tickets. But they didn't care. They wanted to ski in the worst way, and they'd go through anything to get on a hill. But no more. There are maybe eight million consistent skiers in the U.S. now, which means there are 235 million Americans who don't ski. In the past, we always turned our backs on that huge mass of people who didn't ski. We can't afford to ignore them anymore."
Vail is selling the masses harder than ever. Gillett makes sure the resort gets plenty of exposure on his TV stations. Beyond that, Vail has begun a campaign to beef up the farm system of skiing—the local low-mountain, low-rent areas that blossomed during the boom years and gave new skiers their first cheap thrills before sending them on to the big leagues. In the past 10 years the number of ski areas operating in the U.S. has declined from 1,000 to 650. Gillett thinks resorts like Vail can help stem the tide by subsidizing some of the badly wounded little guys. To that end, Vail last year leased Ski Broadmoor, a small, struggling area outside Colorado Springs. Gillett says, "What I want is to make a model out of Ski Broadmoor, to find out what Vail can do to give sustenance to the feeder system. There have to be ways to help: We could pool costs to get insurance cheaper, we could come up with generic marketing that would let several areas use the same ads by interchanging logos, we could lease our grooming equipment to a small area, we could send out our ski-school people to share Vail's expertise. There are so many possibilities, and it is such a critical challenge that I hope we can get more of the ski industry involved. We have to."
In the course of such monologues, Gillett becomes more and more enthusiastic. His chest expands, his eyes glisten, his hands fly about excitedly. This is his way. He goes on with rising passion: "We're not selling just skiing anymore, we're selling entertainment! We're selling an entire entertainment environment. And the most important thing in that environment is quality! And quality has to come first. If you're bottom line-driven and you compromise on quality, you have missed the point! If you worry about cost before you worry about quality, you've gone wrong. This may be what's wrong with a lot of American business, with the TV networks, with the automobile industry, with the ski industry! They don't demand quality!"
By now, he is fairly shouting. His eyes are fiery. He's an evangelist when he gets going on subjects that move him. And if Vail really has ascended to the rank of a national monument, having it in the hands of a man who stands up and yells for quality is perhaps not such a bad arrangement.