After a decade as Vail Resorts’ chief marketing officer, Kirsten Lynch, a data science and analytics expert who grew up in downtown Chicago, became the company’s first female CEO in November. Consider it a coup for the Epic Pass: the preeminent global lift ticket was Lynch’s primary focus as VR’s CMO, and pass revenue grew from $135 million to $653 million during her tenure. Here, Lynch, a mother of two who lives in Boulder and has also worked for Ford, PepsiCo, and Kraft Foods (where she oversaw marketing for mac ’n’ cheese), details her new role and her approach to some of skiing’s biggest issues—as well as, ahem, her favorite Back Bowl to ski at Vail on a powder day.
You grew up a city kid skiing at Wilmot Mountain in Wisconsin. Can you take me through your life as a skier from then to now?
I was surrounded by skyscrapers and concrete, noise and traffic. Getting exposed to skiing when I was 6 ignited a real passion in me. My family went to Wilmot on the weekends; I thought I was so cool, skiing in pink powder cuffs even though there was no powder. That led to trips to ski Keystone and Breckenridge—and my dream to live in Colorado someday. After 15 years working in Chicago, my husband and I quit our jobs and moved out here. I didn’t have a job with Vail Resorts before moving; I was just pursuing my dream and hoping it would work out. I joined Vail a few months after arriving and have been with the company since 2011. It’s amazing to think about how skiing at Wilmot as a kid set all of that in motion.
It’s a 15-inch powder day at Vail. Where do you start your morning, and where do you go once everything is open?
If it’s 15-inch powder day, I really think anywhere at Vail would be amazing. But the best ski day of my life was in Outer Mongolia Bowl, so if we had that much powder, I would likely head there.
What are your favorite runs at Vail and Beaver Creek?
It’s so hard to choose favorites. I love skiing China Bowl at Vail, and I love skiing all the runs off the Larkspur lift at Beaver Creek. And I am really looking forward to taking my kids to McCoy Park when it opens this season. We always have to stop at the Candy Cabin [at the top of the Strawberry Park Express lift], of course.
You’ve talked about how you think growth in the ski industry will come from urban areas in much the same way you got into the sport as a kid. Why do you think more metro residents are going to start skiing, and how soon do you think resorts like Vail and Beaver Creek will see that growth?
I think Vail and Beaver Creek are already seeing the benefit of our passes’ connection to local ski areas near major cities. This is why we bought, and invested capital into, ski areas outside of Chicago and Detroit and on the East Coast. It’s not a new trend; a lot of lifelong skiers got their start at these smaller ski areas, just like I did, because they’re close to home. The goal with the Epic Pass is that as these newcomers advance and potentially take a trip out west, they’ll come to our resorts like Vail and Beaver Creek. Based on our data, we already see this happening, and I think it will be key for the future vitality of the industry.
On a similar note, skiing is still a mostly White sport. How important is it to attract a more diverse clientele and increase inclusion, and how can you do that at Vail’s resorts, given the high cost of entry?
I am very passionate about this, as is our entire company. The ski industry and our mountain communities need to work together to create a more welcoming environment to everyone who wants to try our sport. At Vail Resorts, we kicked off a multiyear DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] strategy, focusing first on fostering a more inclusive company culture. We’re also expanding our youth access program to all 34 of our North American resorts, where we partner with youth development organizations and provide free lift tickets, lessons, and equipment rentals. Our EpicPromise Progress Report highlights what we’ve done in this area.
Before taking this job, you spent a lot of your time shaping the Epic Pass into what it is today. It’s obviously been hugely successful from a business standpoint, but it’s also brought a lot more people to Vail’s resorts—and VR recently reported a 42 percent increase in pass sales going into this season. What would you say to those who contend that selling so many passes leads to overcrowding at places like Vail and diminishes the skier experience?
First, it’s important to know we want to welcome new skiers and riders to the sport and our resorts. Second, committing to a pass before the season starts is a core strategy for us, because it creates stability for our employees and communities by mitigating the impacts of weather variability and at the same time provides incredible value to consumers. We continuously invest in the guest experience, as demonstrated by our plan to build 19 new lifts across 14 resorts ahead of the 2022–23 season—part of a $320 million capital plan. This includes two at Vail: a high-speed quad in Sun Down Bowl, and upgrading Game Creek Express to a six-passenger lift.
Why should someone choose Epic over Ikon?
They’re both great products and have encouraged guests to commit in advance, which is good for the entire industry. The resorts you get with Epic are world class: Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Whistler Blackcomb, Park City, and many more. Plus, you can save on ski and ride school, food, rentals, and lodging. Another key differentiator is our Commitment to Zero and investment in our communities through EpicPromise. We recently released our progress report on this, and announced we achieved 85 percent renewable energy across our 34 resorts and gave $19.4 million in community support.