PARK CITY — The drama was essentially over by the time he arrived.
When Bill Rock rolled into town this past October, the ink had long since dried on the $182.5 million check his employer, Vail Resorts, had written to become the new owner of Park City Mountain Resort.
That check had been cut a month earlier, ending a period of prolonged and contentious limbo that began when PCMR missed a deadline in April 2011 to send payment to its landlord, Talisker, Corp., to renew the lease on much of the land that houses its ski runs.
Three years of legal maneuvering ensued, played out amid threats that PCMR, the town’s flagship resort, might not be open for business at all.
Much like the old mining days, the townsfolk — many of them with livelihoods hanging in the balance — feared for the worst and hoped for the best as they watched the rich folks deal their cards.
In the end, Vail played the trump card. The resort management company, whose headquarters are at its famous namesake resort in Colorado, had already locked up a 50-year deal with Talisker to operate the Canyons Resort that neighbors PCMR. In negotiating to purchase PCMR and merge the two properties, Vail not only had Talisker’s blessing, but its vested interest as well.
Plus, it had the $182.5 million.
Seeing the handwriting on the wall, John Cumming, CEO of Powdr Corp., PCMR’s owner, took the money and bought Snowbird in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Almost immediately afterward, Vail announced its intention to merge PCMR with Canyons by the 2015-16 ski season, creating, at 7,300 acres, the country’s largest ski area.
While all this was going on, Rock was an interested spectator 700 miles away in California, where he was chief operating officer for the three resorts Vail Resorts manages in the Sierra Nevadas near Lake Tahoe: Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood.
Like anyone and everyone in the Vail management hierarchy, he not only wondered if the Park City deal was going to come down, but he was also wondering who was going to get to run it if it did: “I was hoping my phone would ring,” Rock says.
When it did, offering him the position as COO of both PCMR and Canyons, he packed up his family, moved to Park City, bought a house and rolled up his sleeves.
The new COO sat down recently with the Deseret News to talk about the business of merging two of Utah’s iconic ski resorts and Vail’s ambitious plans for the future.
DN: Thank you for your time and the chance to talk. And welcome to Utah. What appeals to you most about your new job?
BR: It’s just an amazing opportunity to come to Utah and Park City and create the United States’ largest ski resort. When you’re in my generation of the ski industry, you’re never going to get a chance to build a new resort. You’re not going to be Pete Seibert building Vail or Edgar Stern building Deer Valley. That’s not happening any more. But nobody’s going to get to do what we get to do here either. It’s unprecedented, and it’s an honor to have a part in something this unique and exciting. We have a great team assembled here that is going to be able to do an amazing thing. What happens here is being watched by everyone in town, everyone in the state, everyone in the ski industry. It’s gratifying and humbling at the same time, but I feel really fortunate to be able to do this.
DN: What do you mean by unprecedented?
BR: We will create a skiing experience that doesn’t exist in the United States right now: a 7,300-acre resort. If you think about that, it’s huge. You’re going to be able to start your day at Canyons, have lunch in Park City and come all the way back. That’s very rare to be able to do anything like that.
DN: How much work will be involved in creating this new merged resort?
BR: We’ve announced a $50 million program. The centerpiece of that is the gondola that will connect the two resorts. In addition, we will upgrade two lifts, build a new restaurant, remodel two others and increase snowmaking.
DN: And the time frame to get all this done?
BR: Next winter is our goal. That’s pending approvals from the city and the county, but we’re very confident that by next winter you can be touring around on the new gondola. It will be crazy. An 8 1/2-minute gondola ride will get you from terminal to terminal. We’ll have a midstation at Pinecone Ridge, where you can get out, take pictures and ski in the canyon most days, if snow conditions allow.
DN: Any friction in merging two resorts that have been separate for the past half-century?
BR: I would say it’s an opportunity rather than a challenge. These have been two independent resorts, and we get to create one team to operate them together. That’s exciting. We get to take a deep breath and take the best of both and put it together and create something new. People have thought about this for a long time and to actually make it happen is exciting.
DN: As soon as the sale was announced things happened fast. The merger was on the drawing board almost immediately.
BR: I guess what I’d say is we’re a very forward-thinking company. I’ll leave it at that. We were forward-thinking, and we were ready when the opportunity came our way.
DN: Any healing to be done in the community?
BR: I wasn’t here when all the negotiating was going on, so I wasn’t involved in that. But the feedback I’ve gotten since I arrived is everyone’s glad to be moving forward. Once the outcome was decided I think people were, OK, good, the mountain’s going to run, things are going to get better, let’s get on board.
DN: Will this create new jobs for the area?
BR: The combined resort’s integrated operating team has been recently announced, and we do not anticipate adding new employees due to combining the resorts. Park City’s always been a compelling destination, and now we'll be able to put our brand here and create this new thing. Yeah, it’s going to create a lot of good things.
DN: What do you see as the most immediate benefit for locals?
BR: The biggest change anyone’s seen so far is the epic pass (a season pass for $749 that allows unlimited skiing at all of Vail Resort’s properties). That is a huge benefit. I haven’t heard anyone complain about the epic pass. It has been a transformational change in the ski business. Certainly anyone who skis more than a handful of days a year ought to be buying one. And the more you ski, the less it costs. It’s changed the mindset about who buys a (season) pass. It used to be mostly for local people who really skied a lot, and it was expensive. Now, someone visiting from another country or another part of the U.S. is buying the epic pass. No one ever thought you’d see season passes selling in Florida, and yet that’s exactly what’s happening. An epic pass holder in Salt Lake probably benefits the most. You’ve got two resorts in Park City (PCMR and Canyons) to choose from and you’ve got the other regions (Tahoe and Colorado) if you decide to travel that aren’t that far away.
DN: As the winters keep getting warmer, does the weather worry you?
BR: (Laughs) I don’t worry about the weather; I worry about things I can control, that our team can control. I do worry about how we’re going to react to the weather and how we’re situated to deal with the weather. It’s always great when it snows, obviously. The snow is the centerpiece. We want snow, and we want cold temperatures for snowmaking.
DN: Is there anything that can be done about climate change?
BR: There’s a lot of concern and discussion about climate change and our industry. What really matters now is running a business that’s doing the best we can to implement sustainable practices and doing our part to contribute toward reversing climate-change trends. Our position, if some of the most dire predictions come true, is that we’ve got a much bigger problem than not skiing. If the snowline goes above Jupiter Peak, skiing will be the last of our worries.
DN: How about the future? Any plans to open up the undeveloped terrain on the forest service land between PCMR and Canyons?
BR: We haven’t gone there yet. We’re just focused on what we’ve got on our drawing board now. Any single one of these projects we talked about would be big news in and of themselves, then do it all in one summer, it’s like, wow.
DN: How about your personal transition. How has that gone?
BR: Park City has lived up to its reputation as a world-class place. It has been exceptionally welcoming to me but more importantly to my family. We have 9-year-old twins and it’s been a very smooth transition. It feels like home in a very short period of time. People in this town are very forward-thinking, very smart and very welcoming, so it’s been fun to come here.