DENVER - Vail Resorts Inc. said Thursday it is buying the family-owned Afton Alps ski area in Minnesota and Mount Brighton outside Detroit for a total of $20 million cash, giving it access to urban markets ripe with beginning skiers and snowboarders, as well as those who like to travel.
Starting immediately, Afton Alps and Mount Brighton season pass holders can get 25 percent off the window rate on lift tickets for Vail Resorts' Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone resorts in Colorado and the Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood ski areas in the Lake Tahoe area.
Broomfield, Colo.-based Vail Resorts plans to connect Afton Alps and Mount Brighton to its seven other resorts through season pass and lift ticket products before next ski season.
"Very excited," Afton Alps base operations manager Joe Yasis said of the news. "We're ecstatic."
Vail Resorts plans to upgrade each ski area's snowmaking, parking, terrain parks, racing programs, dining and entertainment options, and instruction programs. Exact budgets haven't been determined.
It also will review the potential for adding more summer activities. Both Midwest resorts already have golf courses.
Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz said the acquisitions are part of a new strategy to drive season pass sales and build broader customer loyalty. That strategy is focusing on urban-area small ski areas, where many learn to ski or ride before being tempted to destination resorts in the West.
"More people in the Midwest take a trip somewhere else to ski than any other market," Katz said. "By having a local presence and really making a better connection with people, we can do better a job getting them to come to our resorts over other resorts. Or if we make it a better experience to learn to ski and ride, that's a huge opportunity for our company.
"It's a terrific way to get closer to where the customer lives," Katz said.
Improving beginners' experience has been a key initiative of the ski industry overall as it works to keep people interested in the sport.
The nearly 300-acre Afton Alps is about 33 miles from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, which has more than 161,000 skiers and snowboarders, Vail Resorts said. The 130-acre Mount Brighton is about 45 miles from Detroit and within reach of more than 307,000 skiers and snowboarders. Together, the markets have more skiers and snowboarders than Colorado, Katz said.
By contrast, Vail Resorts' four Colorado resorts are all at least 70 miles from Denver.
Mount Brighton's general manager didn't return a phone message seeking comment Thursday evening.
Afton Alps, founded in 1963 by three farmers living out a dream to build a ski area, wasn't looking for a buyer when Vail Resorts approached but found the Colorado company's focus on creating "an experience of a lifetime" appealing, said co-owner Amy Reents.
"We think it's a promising new future for Afton Alps," she said. "It preserves the legacy that the Augustine family has made, and it gives customers and employees an opportunity to join an amazing group of ski areas."