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Vail Merges but Keeps Its High-Brow, High-Tech Image

Vail Valley stretches its alpine opulence for 15 miles along and above I-70 in the Colorado Rockies. Newly expanded Vail/Eagle County Airport has daily major airline jet service with connections worldwide. There are 4,112 skiable acres at Vail, with more than half of them in its vast Back Bowls.

Posh sister resort Beaver Creek to the west offers 1,529 acres, now 4,040 vertical feet and the ultimate in mountain real estate, including multimillion dollar vacation homes bowing at Bachelor Gulch, a new Center for the Arts, even "alpine escalators" to save walking to the lifts.

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There are 41,305 units in swank hotels, inns, pensions, condos; in Vail alone, linked by a free shuttle bus system, guests wander among 227 shops, 111 bars and restaurants, parking structures, library, museum, hospital, and athletic clubs.

New this season at Vail is a 12-passenger heated and lighted gondola rising to Eagle's Nest, its restaurants and the new Adventure Ridge, where night or day guests can skate, tube, snowshoe, cross- country ski, snowboard, and go on snowmobile rides. Vail's 10th high-speed quad chair at its new $31 million, 83,000 Golden Peak base facility now gives access to the summit in two high-speed rides. The plush new on-mountain Game Creek Club is "members only" during the day but allows the public into Vail's "most luxurious restaurant" at night. And now under study by the US Forest Service is a 2,000-acre expansion of the Back Bowls into two north-facing bowls.

Meanwhile, recent approval by the US Justice Department and Colorado Attorney General of the announced merger between Vail Resorts (Vail and Beaver Creek) and Ralcorp Holdings (Keystone and Breckenridge) means some 40 percent of all Colorado Front Range skiers will be skiing at resorts controlled by the largest skiing company in the world (some $320 million in revenues and 4.6 million skier visits annually), according to a Vail Resorts spokesman.

To complete the merger, Vail Resorts has agreed to divest Keystone's Arapahoe Basin ski area, which only accounts for an estimated 2 to 3 percent of Front Range traffic.

'Shaped' Skis: Flash in the Pan?

Even around mountain-accessible cities like Denver, shaped skis seem unlikely to broaden winter recreational possibilities, not while ski manufacturers and most resorts continue to concentrate on relatively narrow but highly affluent markets.

The January issue of Ski Area Management magazine candidly assesses a major problem in broadening access: public perception of cost versus value. Despite shaped skis jumping 37 percent of specialty shop ski sales last year (and a projected 85 percent in 1997), SAM says aggregate orders for all alpine skis have slipped to only 600,000 from a peak of well over a million in the 1980s. (On the other hand, SAM reports snowboard purchases rose 12 percent but prices only 1 percent, reflecting in part stiffening competition for rising snowboard demand.)

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"A poor perception of lift ticket value causes core participants to ski less and do less to encourage others to take up the sport," laments SAM, noting that most newcomers are brought to the sport by existing skiers.

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