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Could Charles Skinner Bring Da UP Back to Its Former Glory?

A couple of weeks ago, the Midwest got major news that the Skinner family will be purchasing both Indianhead and Blackjack - two ski areas in Michigan's Upper Penninsula. In our video covering the news, I mentioned that I thought this was the most significant news since Vail entered the Midwest market in 2012. I believe this sale will mark the turning point for Blackjack and Indianhead and the entire UP. So today, I wanted to discuss why I am so excited for the future of this region, why the skinner family is a perfect fit for these resorts, and why this acquisition caught me completely off-guard.

But let's start with a quick disclaimer that these are just my thoughts on the news, and this video is by no means absolute or the only way of thinking. I'll try to be as balanced as I can, but the truth is, I think this is a massive step forward for the UP and Midwest.

This News Was a Shocker For Me

The first thing I want to talk about is how much of a shock this news was for me. No joke, just a few weeks ago - I called Granite Peak the ultimate UP killer, and now they are buying the resorts they diverted a lot of traffic from?! This just seemed crazy to me. But it began making a little more sense when I took some time to digest the news.

Granite Peak is located only about two hours from Blackjack and Indianhead, meaning they can share valuable resources and staff between these locations - which is a considerable asset when rebuilding a ski hill. Watching Granite and Lutsen over the past couple of decades, it's easy to see how much success they've had and what better way to expand your offering and solidify your business than adding another resort to your portfolio. This is especially true as the ski industry continues to move toward more consolidation.

The truth is Big Snow has a lot to offer, including plenty of skiable terrain, excellent consistent pitches, plenty of expansion on private land, and lots of natural snow. These elements expand upon Granite Peak's current offering and, with some development, could make that extra two hours - well worth the drive. And although some of the stats are not quite as impressive as Lutsen's, both these UP resorts offer a unique vibe and expand the Skinner families market into three distinct regions.

This, coupled with the massive skiing demand we have seen in the past couple of years and Charles Skinner's history of reinventing ski hills, made me flip my mindset about this sale. What I think we are seeing here is the start of a new destination ski resort in the UP - something that has been needed for a long time.

And it should be noted that acquisition is going to be a long-term investment. Many of the changes we envision, such as highspeed lifts and expanded terrain, are likely several years away because a lot of other issues need to be addressed first.

The Problem With UP Ski Areas Currently

For those unaware, most of the ski resorts across the UP were built and developed starting in the late 60s and stretching into the early 80s, but that's where most of the reinvesting stopped. As a result, the vast majority of hills in the UP contain chairlifts and infrastructure dating back to those opening years, despite a massive jump in industry technology and innovation in the past couple of decades.

And you might be asking why? And the truth is that they didn't need to at the time. The UP was a happening area in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and it was common for skiers from the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, and even Chicago to make the drive up for the weekend. Financially these resorts were doing very well, and with their more expansive terrain and natural snow, they controlled the Midwest from a destination resort standpoint.

But there was a shift in the early 00s that would change this for the next couple of decades. Highspeed lifts and modern snowmaking entered the game, and many resorts closer to these metros began reinvesting heavily in these improvements. An excellent case study is Rib Mountain, or what we now know as Granite Peak.

Rib Mountain to Granite Peak

Before Charles Skinner took on a lease for the property in 2000, the hill consisted of just 12 runs, minimal snowmaking, and a few lifts. However, by 2014 the hill boasted six lifts, including three high speeds, one of the most impressive snowmaking systems in the Midwest, and over 50 runs.

The key to this rapid expansion was reinvesting back into the hill year after year, something many of the UP resorts didn't do during their successful years.

As one could imagine, this creates a massive problem for new owners looking to take on a ski area in the UP. Almost everything at the resort needs to be renovated, replaced, or upgraded - something that is not cheap to do the other looming problem is the lack of clientele.

Due to the lack of reinvestment over the prosperous years, many who used to travel and vacation in the UP from Twin Cities, Milwaukee, and Chicago stopped going. This created a perpetual problem in today's market skiers not visiting the ski areas due to lack of reinvestment but not generating enough money to re-reinvest.

Finding An Investor

This doesn't take a financial analyst to figure out that if this cycle were to continue long enough, these ski resorts would have to close their doors. The obvious solution is to find an investor willing to sink millions and millions of dollars into the faith and vision that this would bring back that skier population.

But finding an investor is not an easy task. Actually, it's almost impossible. The ski industry is certainly not the most lucrative business, and to gather so much money for such a risky proposition is something banks and many businessmen and women are not going to do.

So for several years, everyone in the industry, including myself, was concerned about the future of the UP - we all knew what it needed, but we also all knew it was somewhat of a pipedream… that was until a few weeks ago.

Not only did we get the investor that the area needed, but we got one with decades of experience, one that has proven to flip resorts 180 degrees, and that investor is, of course, Charles Skinner.

Reviving the UP to its Former Glory

Although detailed plans are far from being released, it's evident that Charles will likely have a long-term development plan for this resort. Of course, it will take years and years to develop, but it has the potential to be what the UP used to be in the 80s - a destination region for the Midwest ski population.

I think this is so critical to the success of the UP because we need to give people a reason to travel to the region again. We are beginning to bring in new generations of skiers and riders, ones that likely never experienced the UP back in its heyday and might not even know it exists.

Updating and creating a newer modern resort, coupled with Lutsen and Granite Peaks existing marketing and brand awareness - will drive new traffic to the area - something it has desperately needed over the past couple of decades. This has the potential to not only benefit Blackjack and Indianhead but the local community will as well.

Imagine how much of a difference increasing tourism traffic could have on the local economy. In my opinion, this will also be a massive advantage for other ski areas. These areas will likely also increase in traffic, and having such a great diversity of hills within 30 minutes is unique to the Midwest.

Less than thirty minutes away, you have Big Powderhorn, White Cap Mountains, and Mt. Zion. Just under an hour away, you even have the Porkies. These ski areas offer a different experience on and off the hill and create a fantastic skiing destination area for the Midwest.

Yes Ticket Prices Will Increase

Now, of course, as a hill begins to reinvent itself through upgrades and changes, adjustments must be made to producing pricing. So will ticket prices at Big Snow increase... well yes, those increases in pricing will also reflect an added experience.

New lifts, snowmaking, updated lodges, and infrastructure all cost money, and resorts need a way to pay for that. The great thing about this region, however, is the ability to choose ski areas that fit your budget, terrain preferences, and vibe, given the number of resorts within the region.

Why More Snowmaking is Needed in "Big Snow Country"

Another topic that I want to address is the need for increased snowmaking. Given that this region sees annual snowfall of about 200" many think there is not a massive need for snowmaking, but in today's ski market, that isn't the case… and no, I'm not talking about global warming, but yes, that is also an essential factor.

A bigger factor is that snowmaking technology has become so embedded in Midwestern hills that it is expected everywhere you go. As a result, people expect resorts to have great coverage by Christmas and book their trips and holidays with the confidence that they will be able to ski as much terrain as possible.

Operating a destination resort relays heavily on snowmaking because you have to guarantee the best experience for the guest, and snowmaking does just that. It takes a lot of the guessing game out of the equation, and of course, mother nature will always throw you curveballs, but knowing all you need is a few solid nights to open your hill is critical to a healthy Midwest ski hill in today's market.

Comparing Big Snow Snowmaking to Granite Peak

To understand how inadequate snowmaking at Big Snow currently is, let's compare it to Granite Peak. From some digging around across the industry, I estimate that across both Indianhead and Blackjack, they have about 30 - 40 working fan guns, most of which are much older technology. These guns service about 400 acres of skiable terrain. About a gun for every 10 acres.

If we look at Granite Peak, they have over 160 modern fan guns (plus 120 stick guns which we won't count here) across just 200 acres of skiable terrain. So about a fan gun for every 1.25 acres. This doesn't even touch elements like pumping capacity, which is equally important.

And although GP gets about a third of the natural snow as Blackjack and Indianhead, you can start to see why Granite can guarantee the best conditions for those early and late holiday weekends. These weekends can financially make or break a season for a destination ski area.

Vibe/Culture is Equally Important as Upgrades

Technology and reinvesting is excellent, but there is something special about the UP that should be considered before any shovels hit the dirt, and that's its vibe, culture, and people. Anyone that has spent time in the UP knows it's really something unique… no, it's not Michigan, it's not Wisconsin, it's the UP.

That UP feeling and culture need to be present within the resort…. no debating this. Upgrading and updating is necessary for the region, but it must be done in a way that pays homage to the local community and that the ski hills retain that Yooper vibe.

So maybe all highspeed lifts aren't the answer here, and not grooming on pow days should be the norm, but it must retain its identity as a UP resort while continuing to grow and develop. And looking at their history, I am optimistic that the Skinner Family will do just that.

Wrapping Up & Final Thoughts

All said and done; in 10 to 15 years, I think we will look back and point to this acquisition as the turning point in reviving the UP. Of course, this is only the beginning, and there is lots and lots of work to do, but to say I'm excited about the UP's future would be an understatement.

The UP holds a special place for so many, and I couldn't think of anyone better to bring it back to its former glory than the Skinner family. I can't wait to see how the ski areas develop over the next several years!

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