Vail’s Annual Report; What’s the Future of Resort Real Estate?

This 10K was filed a couple of weeks ago for the year ended July 31. There are about 760 ski areas in North America. Vail owns five major ones that accounted for 7.7% of skier visits (about six million) during the last season. We don’t get many chances to see individual data from many of them, so taking a look at this is worthwhile. It’s particularly interesting, in our current economic circumstances, to see how the real estate component of Vail’s business is faring.

 Numbers by Segment

 Let’s start with a little table that shows Vail’s revenues over the last five years broken down by its three business segments; mountain, lodging and real estate. The numbers are rounded to the nearest millions of dollars and are for the years ending July 31.
 
                                                2010       2009       2008       2007       2006
Mountain                               638         615         686         665         620
Lodging                                169         176         170          162         156        
Real Estate                            61         186         297          113            63
Total Revenue                      869        977     1,152           941          839
 
Here the operating expenses for each segment:
 
                                                2010       2009       2008       2007       2006
Mountain                                456         451         470         463         443
Lodging                                  167         169         160         144         143        
Real Estate                              71         142         251         115           57          
Total Expense                       694         763         882         722         642
 
And here is the EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) for each:
 
                                                2010       2009       2008       2007       2006
Mountain                               184         164         221         202         177        
Lodging                                   2              7            10           18           13
Real Estate                             (4)          44            46             (2)           6
Total EBITDA                        182         215         277         218         196
 
Some of the above numbers don’t add precisely because of rounding and some minor accounting stuff. I’ve ignored that to minimize the eyes glazing over factor.
 
The Mountain segment “…is comprised of the operations of five ski resort properties as well as ancillary services, primarily including ski school, dining and retail/rental operations.” Lift tickets are about 45% of revenues there. Of the three segments, it contributes by far the most revenue and EBITDA. You can see that segment revenue in 2010 is only about 3% ahead of where it was after peaking in 2008.
 
Lodging revenues come from owning and managing hotels near their resorts. It also includes revenue from golf and a transportation company they own. It follows a pattern similar to the Mountain segment, peaking then falling in the recession and ending up just 8% higher than it was at the end of fiscal 2006. I should note that the Lodging revenue numbers include $19 million and $18 million in 2010 and 2009 respectively for transportation. That’s from a company Vail bought and there were no transportation revenues in earlier years. One could argue that lodging revenues are really up only about 3.5% over five years, similar to the Mountain segment.
 
Real Estate
 
Real estate is the development and sale of homes and condos of various sizes. Look at the 2008 peak in real estate revenues in the chart above. 2010 real estate revenue, at $61 million, is only 3% below the 2006 amount of $63 million. But the 2008 real estate revenue peak of $297 million is almost 5 times the 2006 or 2010 levels. You don’t see that level of rise or fall in either the Mountain or the Lodging segments.
 
Though accounted for separately, the three segments are closely related as Vail discusses. Selling real estate and increasing the lodging options increases the bed base and options for customers. Putting in a new high speed lift or opening new restaurants or retail makes the resort more attractive and may increase the value and desirability of the real estate. At the risk of oversimplifying, mountain development makes the real estate more attractive and real estate development can make the mountain more attractive. The trick is to coordinate development so as to maximize the value of both. 
 
The real estate revenue stream is highly variable due to the nature of the business. Even when you get deposits and sign sales contracts for a property, you don’t recognize any revenue until the title to the property passes to the buyer. Your revenue depends on when you start the project, how big the project is, how well it sells, and any delays you incur in completing it. When you do close a sale and recognize the revenue, it’s in amounts of at least hundreds of thousands of dollars (the recently completed One Ski Hill Place project had an average selling price per unit of $1.4 million). You don’t have thousands of closings of similar, smaller amounts like you were selling lift tickets.
 
With that as background, what’s Vail’s take on real estate and real estate development? The first thing I’d note is that “Real estate held for sale and investment” was $422 million at July 31. That’s up 35.7% to $311 million from the same date last year. The amount the previous year was $249 million. Vail specifically states that “…we currently do not plan to undertake significant development activities on new projects until the current economic environment for real estate improves. We believe that due to our low carrying cost of real estate land investments combined with the absence of third party debt associated with our real estate investments, we are well situated to time the launch of future projects with a more favorable economic environment.”
 
Talking about their One Ski Hill Place project, they note that they “… closed on 36 units, or 61% of the 59 units that were under contract…while 23 units that were under contract defaulted. Additionally, we have another real estate project substantially completed (the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Vail) which units under contract will begin closing during the first quarter of Fiscal 2011. We have increased risk associated with selling and closing units in these projects as a result of the continued instability in the credit markets and a slowdown in the overall real estate market. Certain buyers have been or may be unable to close on their units due to a reduction in funds available to buyers and/or decreases in mortgage availability and certain buyers may successfully seek rescission of their contracts…We cannot predict the ultimate number of units that we will sell, the ultimate price we will receive, or when the units will sell. Additionally, if a prolonged weakness in the real estate market or general economic conditions were to occur we may have to adjust our selling prices in an effort to sell and close on units available for sale, although we currently have no plans to do so."
 
Back in April, when I wrote about Vail’s January 31 quarter, they had reported that 13 holders of contracts to purchase Ritz-Carlton Residences had sued to get out of the contracts and get their deposits back because of a disputed delivery date. I wrote,
 
“If you really wanted your new 2nd home, you probably don’t sue because it’s a little late being finished. Maybe you negotiate for some free upgrades (heated toilet seats?), but you don’t sue to get out of the deal. Unless, of course, you can no longer afford to buy the place and/or it’s now worth a lot less than you’ve agreed to pay for it.”
 
The problem appears to be worsening and I’m quite certain Vail isn’t the only resort that develops real estate that has these kinds of issues.
 
The Financial Statements
 
I hate resort balance sheets. When you see a current ratio that’s deteriorated from what, in traditional financial analysis, would be called a dangerous current ratio of 0.91 to an even worse 0.51 over the year you get worried. But then you remember (especially if your introduction to this industry was trying to run an equally seasonal snowboard company) that it’s all about cash flow, and you don’t borrow money and pay interest just to make your current ratio look better at the end of the year.
 
The total liabilities to equity ratio improved slightly from 1.44 to 1.40. Debt maturities are only $1.87 million in 2011, but increase to $35 million in 2012.
 
The decline in current assets is almost completely the result of a fall in cash and cash equivalents from $69 million to $15 million. Total liabilities have hardly changed at all.    I would note that cash flow from operations has fallen from $217 million in fiscal 2008, to $134 million in 2009 to $36 million in 2010.
 
You’ve seen the revenue and expense numbers by segment in the table above. Vail worked hard to reduce and manage its expenses, but income was down.   Operating income was $69 million, down from $106 million the previous year and $176 million the year before that. Net income was $30 million, down from $49 million in 2009 and $103 million in 2008. Net income as a percentage of revenue fell from 8.9% in fiscal 2008 to 5.0% in 2009 and 3.5% in 2010. 
 
As explained above, Vail’s three business segments each support the other. The Mountain and Lodging segments took a hit in the recession and are still impacted, but are starting to recover. The real estate is not and I don’t see that happening in the immediate future. As Vail management notes in the lengthy quote above, real estate development is off the table until the economic improves. They are uncertain about their ability to sell or close on sold properties and are concerned that prices might have to be reduced. They’ve got a lot of cost in completed units and undeveloped property and at some point could have to recognize some reductions in carrying value.
 
As I said when I started, we don’t get to see the numbers for most of the large resorts. The value in looking at Vail is not just in knowing how Vail is doing, but in understanding some of the pressures that any resort with real estate is likely to be under.