Can Reed Hastings disrupt skiing?

Hastings embraces the notion that he can disrupt the ski industry the way he disrupted entertainment, although he admits he’s learning the ski business on the fly.

(Alex Goodlett | The New York Times) Reed Hastings, the billionaire co-founder and former chief executive of Netflix, at Powder Mountain in Eden, Utah, March 11, 2024. Hastings bought Powder Mountain and is turning half of it into a private club for wealthy homeowners who pay a hefty annual fee.

On a Monday morning in early March, Reed Hastings, the billionaire co-founder and former CEO of Netflix, clicked into the bindings on his snowboard and started off down one of the slopes at Powder Mountain, a ski area in Utah’s northeast corner. He quickly veered off the groomed trail into some well-spaced trees, and as he made turns over bumpy snow, you could hear his edges scratch against patches of ice.

“Not as good as I was hoping,” he said at the bottom. “But still not bad.”

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, Hastings, 63, seemed to be enjoying the perks that come with his new gig: ski area owner. “I used to snowboard about 10 times a year,” he said. “Now getting out is part of the job.”

In September, Hastings bought a controlling interest in Powder Mountain for an undisclosed sum, inheriting more than $100 million in debt.

Not long after, he announced that he was adopting a business model never before tried in the ski industry: He would make 2,000 acres of the mountain’s terrain private, accessible only to people who owned homes in an enclave atop the mountain and who paid a membership fee expected to run between $30,000 and $100,000 per year. The rest of the ski area would remain open to the public, underwritten by the private operation.

The move, he said, was a way to compete with the multimountain passes such as Ikon and Epic, without drawing the crowds that come with them. “All of the independent ski areas are looking for ways to survive,” he said. “Going boutique, higher end, private is probably where they need to go.”

Hastings embraces the notion that he can disrupt the ski industry the way he disrupted entertainment, although he admits he’s learning the ski business on the fly.

Will it work?

“We’ll have to wait and see,” said Rick Kahl, 71, longtime editor of Ski Area Management, a trade publication. “But I wouldn’t bet against the guy who started Netflix.”

(Alex Goodlett | The New York Times) The Village chairlift at Powder Mountain in Eden, Utah, March 11, 2024. Starting next year, the Village chairlift will be reserved for homeowners who also pay a hefty annual fee.

Rickety Chairlifts and Charm

With 8,464 acres of skiable terrain, Powder Mountain, which averages about 360 inches of snow each season, is one of the largest ski areas in the United States. All of that terrain is on private land; most ski areas either lease their land from the U.S. Forest Service or operate on a patchwork of public and private land. Powder has rickety chairlifts and aging day lodges that imbue the place with a certain air of nostalgia. Adding to the charm is that, upon descending some runs, getting back to the lift requires hopping on an old bus.

And because PowMow (as it’s affectionately referred to) is a bit off the beaten path and has very limited nearby lodging, there are never any crowds.

But the ski area — like many other independently owned resorts — has never been able to make money. Summit, an event-hosting group, bought it in 2013 and had huge plans to build a village with 500 homes, restaurants, bars and possibly even a neuroscience lab and high-altitude performance center. But it failed to sell many of the homesites, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for as little as a quarter-acre of land, and the ski area continued to lose money.

Hastings, fed up with crowds at heavily developed Park City, had built a home at Powder in 2021. When Summit decided it wanted out, he swooped in.

“I felt I had to do it to preserve the experience here,” he said.

Hastings, whose net worth is $5.98 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, immediately invested $100 million of his own money in the ski area, paying off a portion of the debt and purchasing four new chairlifts, which are set to be installed this summer.

He is also planning to build two day lodges with restaurants, private rentals and retail stores for the mountain’s private side, and a 40,000-square-foot lodge will serve as an afternoon and evening hub for members and feature a state-of-the-art spa.

Shortly after the announcement, Hastings pulled all existing lots on the mountain off the market. When he relists them, he said, the starting price will be $2 million. On Friday, he announced that he had also purchased 2,400 acres of terrain adjacent to the ski area’s existing boundary, which will also only be accessible to members.

His bet is that if he can sell all the homesites, membership fees for the private portion of the ski area will pay for overhead and improvements on both the public and private sections.

The Private Experience

Hastings isn’t the only ski area owner with the notion that privatization might be a means toward profitability.

In 2022, the owners of Homewood Mountain Resort in Homewood, California, announced plans to restrict season-pass and day-ticket sales to certain Homewood homeowners. After public outcry, that plan was scrapped, according to a spokesperson for the resort.

The new owners of Windham Mountain Club, in New York, announced in October that they would charge a membership fee starting at $175,000 that would give members access to special amenities and let them ski the slopes in the mornings before they open to the public.

The Yellowstone Club, founded in 1997 in Big Sky, Montana, is perhaps most similar to Hastings’s model. Club members have access to more than 2,700 acres of private ski and snowboard terrain, and if they also have a pass to Big Sky Resort, which shares a border with the club, they can ski directly onto Big Sky’s 5,800 acres of public slopes.

Before skiing together, Hastings and I sat on brown leather sofas in his Powder Mountain Village home — a cylindrical-shaped modern house with a concrete kitchen island, an impressive looking espresso machine and panoramic views of the Wasatch Mountains and Ogden Valley — as he explained to me why the changes at the ski area were necessary.

“I’m investing a lot of money in Powder Mountain but my plan was never to subsidize it,” he said. “My passion is the charities that I work with, but I never saw this as a charitable endeavor.”

As he looked at the mountain’s finances, he said, “it became clear that we needed to do something significant.”

In the end, that something was leveraging the mountain’s available real estate. “We decided that we needed to lure people here by offering a private experience that they can’t get anyplace else,” he said.

If Hastings’ plan pans out, Harris Sondak, former mayor of Alta, Utah, and a professor at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business, said more ski areas might adopt a public/private model to increase revenue. “Running a ski area is expensive, and any new way to make money is often embraced,” he said.

In addition to taking part of the mountain private, Hastings is raising the price of a season pass to $1,399 from $1,259. A season pass for seniors 75 and older, which used to be free, will now cost $1,049. The number of season passes sold, which had been capped, will no longer be limited, although the number of day tickets will.

Much of the ski community, particularly locals, was upset by the changes. “I’m very concerned,” said Aaron Vexler, 48, who has owned a condominium at Powder Mountain since 2012. “They’re severely limiting the terrain, raising prices and also selling more passes. How do you sell more passes and keep the ski area uncrowded?” Others, feeling as if Hastings is only interested in making money, gave the new owner a nickname: “Greed” Hastings.

During our conversation, Hastings pointed out that three of the new lifts he is putting in will provide access to public terrain. As part of the announcement of the new private terrain, Hastings also said that more than 1,000 acres of terrain will be added to the public side of the ski area, opening in 2025. “All the new terrain will help spread people out and help keep the ski area uncrowded,” he said.

Checking Out the New Terrain

After my runs with Hastings, Kevin Mitchell, Powder Mountain’s general manager, and I hopped in a small snowcat to explore some of the new private terrain in an area known as Davenport, which is currently used for guided snowcat skiing.

After a 15-minute ride, we got out and put on our skis to descend a steep slope, making smeary turns on untouched snow through the trees. I was impressed. But when we got back into the snowcat and headed around the bend, I was astonished.

Above us I saw steep, craggy pitches — terrain so challenging that it has garnered attention from professional snowboarder Travis Rice, who has created a series of extreme snowboarding competitions known as Natural Selection. Mitchell said Rice was considering holding one of his events there. A lift is planned for the area, although for next season, members will ride a snowcat to the top.

Before venturing into Davenport, I had wondered if the existing slopes that were becoming private were appealing enough to entice well-heeled skiers and snowboarders to throw down on $2 million lots and high membership fees. With Davenport, the private offering is the total package.

“The overall experience for the private community will feel integrated but elevated,” said Alex Zhang, Powder’s chief creative officer. “The homeowners have access to premium conveniences — such as ski-in-ski-out housing, upscale lodges and private lifts — resulting in untracked powder that last for days.”

A few days later, we checked out the new public terrain. A large portion of it is known as “Don’t Mention It,” or DMI. It was named by backcountry skiers who found the descents there so good that they didn’t want anybody else to know about them. After a short hike beyond the ski area boundary, I was able to get a full view of the slopes and could see why they so coveted them.

Dozens of steep, long runs and chutes wind down the vast expanse, with huge boulders jutting out of the land like prehistoric monuments. A big open bowl makes up much of the new terrain, but extreme skiers and snowboarders will drool over the north-facing slopes, which trump the skiing in Davenport and, when they open, will probably be considered some of the best skiing in the country.

“There will be a lift back here and maybe two lifts,” Mitchell said. “We have a year’s worth of planning to do.”

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait that long. I dropped onto a slope and skied through well-spaced trees, descending the length of nearly seven football fields. It hadn’t snowed much in about eight days, but the run still held light powder that drifted over my boot tops. At the bottom, my legs were burning and I had a frozen grin on my face.

(Alex Goodlett | The New York Times) Patrons gather at the Powder Keg, inside the Timberline Lodge, at Powder Mountain in Eden, Utah, March 11, 2024. The Powder Keg is a local favorite and will remain open to the public.

Traditions Unchanged

One day after skiing, I grabbed a stool at the Powder Keg, a bar at the mountain that’s famous for its greasy burgers and its old-school ambience. I drank a beer and listened to a local woman strum her guitar and belt out folk tunes. None of that will change.

Although Timberline Lodge, which houses the Powder Keg, will get an upgrade, Hastings said he is intent on keeping many of Powder Mountain’s sacred spots and traditions unchanged. When finishing runs in the area known as Powder Country, for example, you’ll still get on a bus back to the lifts.

“You can’t just tear down a building, put up a new one, call it the same thing and expect people to feel the same way about it,” Hastings said.

Hastings said it’s that old-school vibe that makes Powder Mountain special. “We’re building a luxury experience on the private side of the mountain,” he said. “But many of the homeowners will still ski the public side and want to experience the parts of Powder Mountain that you won’t be able to get in the village.”

At the time of my visit, Hastings had college friends visiting.

“I sent them to the Powder Keg for lunch,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite places to eat.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.