Vail’s Quarterly Results. If You’re a Winter Resort, Be a Big One. With Rich Customers. And Great Facilities.

In Vail Resort’s March 6 conference call, CEO Bob Katz described snow conditions during the quarter ended January 31st in the following terms:

“In Colorado, snowfall levels were the lowest in over 30 years and for the first time in as many years, we were not able to get Vail’s Back Bowl open until Mid-January.”

“In Tahoe, we experience weather patterns that have not been seen since the late 1800s including having zero inches snowfall in December.”
“…snowfall levels at our six resorts were down 60% through January as compared with the prior year.”
After those cheery pronouncements, you might have expected him to leap up, yell, “We’re doomed!” and throw himself out the window. Or, maybe more poetically, off the top of one of the resort’s not necessarily snow covered mountains.
But he didn’t and, in fact, he didn’t have any reason too. Vail’s total revenue did in fact drop during the quarter to $373 million from $395 million in the same quarter last year. But most of the decline came from the inevitably and notoriously bumpy real estate segment. Revenues in the mountain and lodging segments were down only $5.7 million. Net income fell from $54.4 million to $46.4 million.
Really not bad for a disaster of a snow year. How’d they do that?
Vail’s Four Key Drivers  
The first thing they point to is their season pass program. About 45% of the quarter’s total lift revenue recognized was from season passes. It was 39% in last year’s quarter. It’s good when people give you their money early. It motivates them to show up even if conditions aren’t great and spend money on restaurants, lodging, meals, lessons and other stuff. Those season pass holders, during the quarter, came to Vail’s resorts just half a day less than in the previous year’s quarter in spite of the conditions. With snow since the end of the quarter, that’s normalizing.
The second driver Vail points to is all the money it’s invested, and continues to invest, to give it the highest quality assets. They specifically point to the snow making capabilities that allowed them to have more terrain open than other area resorts.
Investments in those assets, they assert, let them increase prices. Their ability to do that is their third driver. Ignoring season passes, Vail’s effective ticket price was up 9.1% in the quarter.
And finally, notes CEO Katz, “…our resorts attract a high income demographic that allows us to benefit from the enhanced consumer spending, especially in the luxury segment, as we realized significant increases in guest spending per visit…”
The average daily rate of their lodging rose 13.8%. Ski school revenue per visit was up 17%. Dining revenue was up 9.5% and rental revenue was up 9.1% per visit.
I guess the moral of the story is to have rich customers and spare no expense in treating them well. At the end of the day, the 14.6% decline in visits during the quarter were mostly offset by strong season pass revenue, higher list ticket prices, and more spending per visit on other services. Ski school, dining and retail rental revenue ended up declining 0.1%, 6.4% and 0.6% respectively during the quarter.
Customers don’t seem to come to Vail’s resorts worrying about saving money. It no doubt has something to do with the fact that 55% of their visitors were destination visitors who came from somewhere besides the local area and stayed a while.
Financial Statement Metrics
Due to seasonality, winter resort balance sheets can be intriguing exercises in financial analysis as they jump around from quarter. That’s especially true when there’s real estate involved. But Vail’s January 31 balance sheet is pretty strong. It’s nearly unchanged from a year ago, but what change there has been is positive. I guess I’ll pay it the highest compliment I can pay a balance sheet by not spending much time on it.
The one thing I might point out (on a positive note) is that though they have about $725 million in long term debt (almost the same as last year’s $734 million) there are essentially no principal payments due on any of it until 2019.
I gave you an overview of their quarterly income statement at the start of this article. Vail divides their business into three segments. The first, Mountain, includes the resort properties of Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone, Beaver Creek, Heavenly and Northstar as well as all the services associated with those resorts. The Lodging segment is the hotel rooms and condos that Vail owns or manages. Obviously, that’s closely associated with the Mountain segment. Finally, there’s the Real Estate segment, which owns and develops real estate around the company’s resorts.
I suppose most of you already knew that.
Mountain revenue in the quarter rose from $191 million to $195 million. Lodging revenue fell from $50.8 million to $47.1 million, though it benefited from a favorable $2.9 million litigation settlement.  Real Estate revenue declined from $25.3 million to $12.6 million. Total revenue, then, was down 4.6% from $267 million to $255 million.
In the Real Estate segment, during the quarter, among other things, four condo units sold for $1.1 million each, and one condo unit at their Ritz-Carlton Residences for $2.4 million. As you can see, it doesn’t take many closings moving from one quarter to another to really move the revenue and expenses in the Real Estate segment around a whole bunch.
Vail reduced operating expenses during the quarter by 4.6% from $267 million to $255 million. Mountain segment expenses rose by $2.2 million because poor snow meant they spent that additional amount on snow making.
Operating income dropped from $97 million to $84 million. Pretax income was down from $89 million to $76 million. No expense between those two numbers changed much from the same quarter last year.
The net income drop from $54.6 million to $46.4 million benefited from an income tax provision that was $4.5 million lower this year than last.
Vail is also big on reporting its EBITDA numbers by segment (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. Those of you have followed what I’ve written about winter resorts know that I recognize the validity of trying to isolate operating results to give better focus on how a business is running. But given the winter resort business model, I sometimes have a hard time filtering out interest expense, amortization and depreciation.
As Vail says, upgrading and improving their assets on a continuous basis is one of their key drivers and the amortization and depreciation is a direct result of that. I know it’s non-cash, but it’s an inevitable part of running a quality winter resort. They indicated that resort capital expenditures will be between $75 million and $85 million in calendar 2012.
Be that as it may be, EBITDA for the Mountain segment fell from $127.2 million to $120.6 million. Lodging’s EBITDA rose from $881,000 to $1,213 million. Real Estate’s EBITDA was a loss of $3.5 million compared to a loss of $197,000 in the same quarter last year.
Vail had a quarter where revenue and profit fell, but you might have expected much worse given the lack of snow. It’s a shame we don’t get more public results, and discussion of those results from more winter resorts. It would be interesting to see the extent to which other resorts, if any, benefit from the same factors as Vail.   There’s nothing like a good long term strategy consistently applied.