Eight years ago, Elk Meadows ski area in southern Utah closed. Subsequent developers planned to transform it into a private resort called the Mt. Holly Club, like the Yellowstone Club in Montana, complete with Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety as its director of skiing. But the plan blew up and the investors defaulted on a loan held by a New York City hedge fund, which foreclosed on the property.
As it happened, the men who ran that hedge fund were looking for something else to do, and they liked to ski. So they bought the ski area at auction last December for $1.58 million -- not a bad price for 1,200 acres (400 of which are skiable), five chairlifts, two lodges and some condominiums outside the town of Beaver, Utah.
In early to mid-December, the dormant ski area will re-open as Eagle Point, Utah's 14th resort, in a region that very quietly gets 400 inches of snow each winter.
The new owners are not burned-out execs intent on burying their problems in feather-light Utah powder. Neither are they unrealistic with their ambitions. Located 244 miles from Las Vegas and 217 from Salt Lake City, Eagle Point's success hinges more on gamblers than Altaholics.
"Salt Lake's awesome. You don't need to come all the way down here if you live up there," said CEO Shane Gadbaw, 35, one of three Wall Street friends to buy Eagle Point. "What we're trying to establish here in the long term is a destination resort with strong ties to Las Vegas. We really want to be the Vegas ski resort."
Later this month, Eagle Point will unveil a large-scale marketing effort including billboards and radio advertising in Las Vegas. The new owners renovated their lodges and are currying favor with locals -- who enjoyed a private skiing experience of their own for eight years on Eagle Point's deserted slopes -- with cheap ski passes, not to mention a substantial infusion of jobs and money.
They plan to install a terrain park next year, but for now their goals are modest: They're hoping to notch between 25,000 and 30,000 skier visits this winter.
With so much focus on future plans, it's easy to forget about how close Eagle Point came to being an exclusive resort -- which remains the rarest segment of the ski industry.
For some perspective on the challenge of making a private ski resort work, there are currently two large-scale examples in America: one, the Yellowstone Club in Montana, is two years removed from claiming bankruptcy and is operating under new ownership; the other, fledgling Battle Mountain in Colorado, is also under new ownership and is "reconceptualizing" its development plans in light of the devastated market, with no grand opening in sight.
"We're getting everything lined up so that when there is a market, we can get right to work," said Dave Kleinkopf, co-owner of Battle Mountain.
Located in Minturn between Vail and Beaver Creek (the initial developers promised $180 million in benefits to locals in exchange for annexing their land), Battle Mountain will eventually offer 674 skiable acres, four fixed lifts and cat skiing, Kleinkopf said. He estimated there will be about 100 skiers on the mountain each day.
"It's almost like lift-serviced heli skiing."
”--Charlie Callander, VP of marketing at the Yellowstone Club, on what it's like skiing at a private ski area.
That's about how many skiers you'll find on the slopes of the Yellowstone Club, which costs $300,000 per family to join, not including $22,000 in annual membership dues that extend to golf and other summer activities. Charlie Callander, senior VP of marketing and sales, said the Yellowstone Club counts about 325 families as members. They get to ski 2,200 acres and use 15 lifts, an expanse that feels like a ghost area most days.
"It's almost like lift-serviced heli skiing," Callander said, confirming that the resort has trademarked the term "private powder."
Members must own property to belong to the family-driven Yellowstone Club, which means buying a plot of land (starting around $1.65 million), a condo (starting around $3 million) or a single-family home (starting around $5 million). Kleinkopf said he's still not sure how Battle Mountain's membership and fee structure will break down, or whether property ownership will be required.
While there remains no magic potion to make a private resort succeed, ironically, both Kleinkopf and Callander cited their resorts' close proximity to neighboring public resorts -- Big Sky and Moonlight Basin in Montana, and Vail and Beaver Creek in Colorado -- as being one of the most desirable amenities to their members.