OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. — Two of the largest and most-revered ski areas nestled near the shores of Lake Tahoe are joining forces, officials have confirmed, ending years of rumors of a partnership that figures to create a mega resort offering unprecedented access to terrain and perhaps setting the stage for a dramatic transformation to the future of the ski resort industry.
KSL Capital Partners LLC, which owns Squaw Valley USA, will acquire and manage Alpine Meadows Ski Resort, owned by JMA Ventures, through a joint venture. The transaction, announced by both companies in a 5:15 a.m. Tuesday press release, is expected to close prior to the start of the 2011-12 winter season.
“The idea of combining Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows is a long time coming, but the actual transaction originated, very fittingly, on a chairlift,” said Andy Wirth in a Monday evening interview. The resorts informed the Sierra Sun Monday afternoon of the Tuesday morning announcement, which was first reported at 5 a.m. by The Associated Press due to a requested embargo of the information.
“It was on a spectacular California bluebird day when I happened to be riding a chairlift with Todd Chapman, President and CEO of JMA," Wirth continued. "We were talking about what an amazing winter we were all enjoying and lamenting that we didn't have more time to get out and enjoy the snow. As the chairlift ride came to an end, the talk turned to the obvious concerning our two mountain resorts. In the end, this was an effort truly forged in snow and a passion for skiing and riding.”
KSL will be the majority owner of the combined company, under a new company called Squaw Valley Ski Holdings LLC, with an investment affiliate of JMA to convert its ownership of Alpine Meadows into partial ownership, while still remaining affiliated with the resort. According to the press release, JMA will continue to independently own and operate Homewood Mountain Resort on Lake Tahoe's West Shore.
Questioned whether the acquisition was made out of a strategic desire to compete with Vail Resort's stronghold on resorts such as Northstar-at-Tahoe, Heavenly Mountain Resort and others, Wirth said it wasn't, but rather to realize a grander vision of the ski resort experience.
“This transaction is simply about the implementation of a vision, a vision of something greater, and pursuing a tremendous opportunity on behalf of our guests. In everything we do, our motivation is to improve the guest experience,” Wirth said.
Despite an array of rumors speculating on construction projects such as a chair lift connecting the resorts, Wirth said such conjectures are premature, with operational needs and the unification of the resorts being first priority; however, he did not rule out construction projects in the future.
“The initial focus will be to make the customer experience seamless during the transition,” Wirth said. “Before we undertook any capital investments and improvements at Squaw ($50 million dedicated to improvements last July for new lifts, grooming and village upgrades), we conducted extensive diligence by listening to our customers to determine what would be needed to be done to optimize the customer experience. That said, after the completion of extensive research, Alpine Meadows will also see significant investments in the guest experience."
An advantage to Squaw's current guest experience will be variety, Wirth said, with visitors being able to purchase a season pass that includes both resorts.
Furthermore, according to the announcement, those who purchased the following passes for winter 2011-12 — Gold, Silver and Bronze passes at Squaw, and Unfiltered, Slightly Filtered and Filtered passes at Alpine— will become valid for skiing and riding at both resorts.
Besides the passes, another advantage, Wirth said, is geography, with each resort historically having high snow counts, and hence, longer ski seasons.
“Both mountains also receive, as most locals know, the highest amounts of the best quality snow around – over 800 inches last season,” said Wirth.
The welfare of all employees at both resorts will be considered as much as possible, Wirth said.
“Squaw and Alpine both have outstanding employees, and their welfare will be a top priority as we work out the details of the combining of the two resorts. No organizational or structural decisions or actions would or could be made until after the closing of the transaction,” he said.
Alpine will retain its character under a unified vision and leadership, Wirth said. Careful business analysis also was invested into the acquisition, as Squaw measured Alpine's attractiveness to its own visitors, and vice-versa.
“Our research shows that what united guests of Squaw and Alpine is their desire for exploration, discovery and adventure.” Wirth said. “Our research also shows that the number one choice of Squaw skiers, when not skiing or riding at Squaw, is Alpine, while the number one other resort skied by Alpine customers is Squaw.”
Wirth said both parties agreed the cost of the acquisition would not be discussed. He added that the transaction is subject to US Forest Service and the California Tahoe Conservancy.
The merger comes less than a year after Squaw Valley was sold to KSL, a Colorado-based investment firm. Squaw was founded in 1949 by Alex Cushing, a legend in the industry for helping launch the sport in the U.S. after he landed the 1960 Winter Games, the first Olympics to be televised. Alpine Meadows opened the following year.