Reed Hastings wants to turn around Powder Mountain, starting with a $100M investment

As new majority shareholder, Netflix co-founder promises to keep parts of the mountain public but wants more amenities and homeowners for ‘artisanal’ resort.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Reed Hastings, Blair Kohn, Kevin Mitchell and Anne Winston, at Powder Mountain ski resort, on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023.

Eden • As far as entrances go, Powder Mountain’s is far from grand. The Snow Sports Shop, a stodgy, two-story building that resembles a rectangle of corrugated cardboard with blue trim, has served for close to 50 years as the welcome mat for the largest ski area in the United States.

In its state of disrepair, the building at the foot of the Sundown base encapsulates the condition of the resort after nearly a decade of neglect — at least In Reed Hastings’ eyes. Which is why the Netflix co-founder is tearing it down.

Four months after Hastings bought a stake in Powder Mountain, he has infused the rustic ski area with $100 million — more than twice what it sold for in 2013. Vowing to keep the resort public “forever,” he said the money is being used to bring the basic infrastructure up to snuff. That includes erecting a new ski school building near Sundown Lodge and — perhaps most stunning of all to Powder regulars — the installation of the resort’s first snow-making system. Hastings’s investment also gives him a controlling interest in Powder and two seats on its six-person board of directors.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Housing at Powder Mountain Ski resort, on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023.

‘Deferred maintenance’ no longer

For context, in today’s dollars $100 million is only slightly less than Snowbasin Resort spent on its Olympic facelift in 1996, a project that included a combination of eight lifts, trams and gondolas and the construction of the opulent Earl’s Lodge. Still, Hasting doesn’t expect the money to last long. His hope, however, is that it will serve as a turning point for the ski area and give it “a second wind.”

“Deferred maintenance — people can call it that,” he said of what projects will be given priority, “but the broken-down nature of Powder is starting to change.”

The ski area was founded in 1972 by Alvin Cobabe, whose father began acquiring the land for sheep grazing during the turn of the century. In 2013, a group of four tech entrepreneurs called the Summit Group teamed with investor Greg Mauro to purchase the resort for $40 million. They had grand plans to transform it into a utopian community and permanent base for their Summit Series conferences.

The conferences blossomed into popular high-minded affairs that attract CEOs, celebrities and philanthropists to locations around the world. The ski area, meanwhile, languished.

“Everything got starved: the staff got starved, lift maintenance got starved, trails ...,” Hastings said. “And they were inching closer and closer to bankruptcy. So that’s the big problem. It’s just no money.”

Anne Winston, who has worked in Powder Mountain’s upper management for seven years, including currently as the chief development officer, said she has seen eight “iterations of governance” during her time on the mountain. Mauro and the Summit Group had a shared vision, she said, but often differed in their approaches toward realizing it and toward raising the capital for it. Winston said that resulted in a “decision paralysis.”

“It’s been seven years of lots of great people coming in saying, ‘I can do this better. Let’s fresh start, roll up sleeves, let’s do this. Let’s get really excited about it,’” Winston said. “And then, after a year of figuring out there hasn’t been a cohesive alignment on how to get things done, people get burned out and kind of move on.”

She said she believes this time will be different.

For starters, Hastings already has the capital. Forbes estimates Hastings, who stepped down as co-CEO of Netflix in January but remains its executive director, is worth $4.2 billion.

Moreover, Hastings can and is amenable to taking risks, even if it means pushing off profitability for a few years, Winston said. And while he doesn’t have any real estate development experience, Hastings has been a quick study, Winston, whose background is in real estate law, said. Plus, Powder has become Hastings’ second home for snowboarding. He and his wife Patty, who live in Santa Cruz, Calif., bought a lot near the summit eight years ago and finished building a wood-planked “tubular” home in 2021.

Aside from the money he can lavish on the ski area, though, Winston said the biggest differentiator is that Hastings can make decisions about the resort almost unilaterally.

“It’s absolutely critical to have, really, someone at the helm who can guide the company,” Winston said, “and be able to make decisions without having a partner that needs to agree.”

“Now there’s clearly me in charge,” Hastings acknowledged. “Succeed or fail.”

And Hastings has a clear vision of what he wants Powder to be.

“Uncrowded,” Hastings said. “That is the core brand value.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Snow Sport School Lodge, at the Powder Mountain Ski resort, on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023.

An ‘anti-pass’ resort

“Three acres per person” has long been the boast at Powder Mountain, which can also lay claim to being the largest ski area in the United States with 8,400 skiable acres. To maintain that claim, resort managers for years have capped day ticket and season pass sales, limiting both to 1,500 people in recent seasons.

The result has been short waits for lifts and infuriatingly long ones for season passes. In March, the resort’s website said the waitlist was 3,000 people deep, though a spokesperson at the time estimated it was probably at least twice that.

Under Hastings, getting onto the mountain probably won’t get any easier. He said Powder will continue to cap day tickets at 1,500 per day and season passes at an undisclosed amount.

Though residents of the nearby bergs of Eden, Liberty and Huntsville were offered a chance to jump the season-pass line last spring, that offer won’t stand going forward. Hastings said that promotion rewarded too many people who owned condos in but weren’t really a part of those towns. Instead, the resort plans to offer $19 night skiing from 4 - 9 p.m. daily. General manager Kevin Mitchell said he hopes locals will see that as a gesture of goodwill.

“A lot of a lot of people come night skiing [including] a lot of the locals,” Mitchell said. “This will just be a way to really introduce them as Powder Mountain fans.”

Night-skiing tickets will also be capped.

The benefit of limiting access, as Hastings sees it, is twofold. It means a smaller chance of skiers or snowboarders colliding on the mountain. It also means stashes of fresh powder can be found days after a storm.

The move goes against the trend of multi-resort passes like Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass and Alterra Mountain Company’s Ikon Pass. Both offer low-cost access to the slopes but have come under fire for overcrowding resorts. Hastings said he wants Powder to swing in the other direction. Even though Powder will be included on the Indy Pass this year because of contract obligations, both Hastings and Winston indicated it would likely stand on its own going forward.

“We’re not on passes. We’re counter-positioned or anti-pass,” Hastings said, “because that’s the crowd path.”

At the same time, Hastings was quick to douse fears that he would turn Powder Mountain into a private resort similar to the newly opened Wasatch Peaks Ranch that sits just 30 miles to the south. He kept the door open, however, for privatizing some areas of the mountain that are not already lift-serviced.

“We’re committed to this mountain having public access forever,” he said. “And the lifts that we have that are public will stay public. We might someday add other ones — that’s part of that long-term plan. But we’re committed to this being a public resort, honoring that 50-year Cobabe legacy and [creating] access for the community.”

Whether locals will recognize the mountain they call PowMow in another five years is a different question.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Powder Mountain General Manager Kevin Mitchell, shows the spot for the new chairlift at Powder Mountain Ski resort, on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023.

Powder improvements focused on ‘progression’

This season, the beginner area near the Sundown lift and lodge will get a face-lift. Most noticeable might be the demolition of the Snow Sports Shop in favor of a Sprung tension fabric structure. In addition to the ski school, the new sports shop will house ski rentals and a retail shop.

“This one here will be a very big, symbolic move,” said Mitchell as he looked out over at the ski school building from the deck of the Sundown Lodge, which has the same corrugated cardboard facade. “When you come around the corner and you see Powder Mountain, the first thing you see is that building.”

While the disappearance of the old Snow Sports Shop will shock some longtime Powder visitors, it likely will rank just below the sight of snow guns shooting snow onto the slopes around the new conveyor lift in terms of surprises.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Reed Hastings, the recently retired CEO of Netflix talks about improvements that are planned for Powder Mountain ski resort, on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023.

An estimated 91% of ski areas in the U.S. have snow-making, but Powder Mountain has long resisted with the party line being that the resort gets so much natural snow that the human made stuff isn’t needed. Rumors also floated around that the resort did not have the water rights that would allow it to blow snow. Winston said neither of those things are true.

“We had basically never historically looked at doing snow-making because it’s expensive,” she said. “It takes a lot of capital in order to do it. And so it just was not something we had had the capital to look at doing before. So now things have shifted.”

The plan is to start small. Only about three guns will cover the regraded area around the new, as-yet-unnamed conveyor lift, which will replace the Tiger Tow. The water for them, Mitchell said, will come from existing wells and water rights they already held for development. Eventually, though, more snow-making may be added. Hasting said it’s a form of insurance for the resort.

“It’s always there if you need it,” he said, “which again makes it reliable when people plan their holidays.”

The next big step will be replacing the Timberline lift, one of the main access lines within the resort, with a fixed-grip quad chair. The lift has been in operation since 1971, according to LiftBlog.com. In Utah, only Nordic Valley’s Apollo lift is older and only by a year. The new one is expected to start turning in 2024-25.

Farther up the mountain, Powder will delve into a couple new enterprises.

For the more adventurous and skilled skiers and snowboarders, the resort will offer guided backcountry tours on 500 previously inaccessible acres. One of the ski area’s steepest sections of terrain, the area known as DMI, which stands for Don’t Mention It, has 3,000 feet of vertical drop and is outside the ski area’s boundary lines. The tours will be led by guides from Monument Ranch, a 20,000-acre members-only “rugged luxury adventure community” that is co-owned by Mauro and former Clearlink CEO Phil Hansen. Monument also runs Powder’s snowcat skiing tours and scenic snowmobile trips.

For those seeking for a less daring outing, construction has begun on a network of cross country skiing, snowshoeing, MoonBiking and snowmobiling trails. Most will be near Brim Trail, a popular mountain biking route in the summer, and will be based out of a new yurt called the Launch Pad.

Hastings’ master plan entails developing the mountain with enough activities, as well as restaurants, a hotel and other amenities, to sustain a growing community atop the mountain. That doesn’t mean he’s looking to turn it into the next Deer Valley Resort, which prides itself on high-touch service and refinement. Rather, he sees it becoming a more “artisanal” mountain, similar to a cross between Sundance Resort and Montana’s Big Sky Resort.

It’s having space to roam, a sense of solitude and independence, but also being able to slide into a gourmet coffee shop for a shot of cappuccino.

“The opportunity to make it into something fantastic is very rare. So it’s just a special opportunity, and we’re very fortunate to be able to do it,” Hastings said. “So it was, frankly, an easy yes, both on the initial purchase and then on the investment because we’re going to be able to put that into the lifts and into fixing up the mountain and really making it a very special place that maintains the uncrowded aspect.”

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