Industry Impact Award: Rob Katz, Ski Industry Disrupter
By: Heather B. Fried
NSAA’s Industry Impact Award recognizes those individuals or organizations whose contributions have had a significant and valuable impact to the ski industry. Join us in Nashville to honor Rob Katz and recipients from the last two years during NSAA's 2022 National Convention & Tradeshow.
As one of the most recognizable faces and forces in skiing, Rob Katz’s story is a familiar one: He traded a career in New York finance for a more balanced lifestyle in Colorado. There, his Wall Street background and love for skiing eventually had him stepping in to lead Vail Resorts, all before the age of 40. Over time, Katz became the face of a rapidly morphing company. Like any publicly-recognized leader in that position, he was both revered and scrutinized for decisions that supported his strategic vision.
Sure, Katz may be considered a polarizing figure. But even to those who stand at the South Pole, Katz’s influence in forever changing the landscape of the ski industry in undeniable.
“So much of the innovation that Rob drove at Vail Resorts was uncomfortable for many in the industry and ultimately resulted in innovation across the industry that has proven beneficial for all,” said Pat Campbell, Vail Resorts’ senior advisor to and former president of the Mountain Division, and next in line to chair NSAA’s board of directors. “Rob has been a transformational leader at Vail Resorts, which has in turn created broad impact in the ski industry.”
Bill Rock, executive vice president for Vail Resorts’ mountain operations and COO for the Rocky Mountain region, summarized that impact this way: “Rob’s leadership, vision and execution [formed] the premier ski company in the world by creating a network of exceptional resorts, introduc[ing] innovative pass products and, most importantly, creating a world-class leadership culture.”
An Architect’s Ascent
It was a confluence of several factors that led Katz to the point where he found himself raising a hand to helm Vail Resorts in 2006, 10 years after he joined the company’s board. Since graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 1988 with a bachelor’s in economics, he had fallen in stride with the breakneck pace of Wall Street. But the events of 9/11 reinforced his family’s desire for a lifestyle change, so they uprooted to Boulder, Colo. — not far from where the east coast skier got his first taste of the Rocky Mountains back in the early 90s during a perception-shifting ski trip to Vail Mountain.
At the time of his move in 2002, Katz was working for Apollo Global Management LLC, a private equity firm that had taken control of bankrupt Gillett Holdings Inc., which owned Vail Associates. Katz, who joined Vail’s board beginning in 1996, had been part of the team responsible for the organization’s original restructure that brought together Vail Mountain, Beaver Creek, Keystone and Breckenridge to form Vail Resorts. He also had a hand in taking the company public in 1997 with an IPO of $22 per share.
When Adam Aron, Vail Resorts’ chairman and CEO, stepped down in 2006, Katz was appointed lead in the search to find a replacement — a meta-mission that would eventually loop right back to Katz after his fellow board members tossed his name in the hat. The 39-year-old took the board up on that suggestion and their assurances to back his progressive plans.
Katz made quick work of shaking things up. Straight off, he announced that Vail Resorts’ HQ would be transplanted from Avon to a suburb of Denver with the intention of widening the talent pool and strengthening the company’s reputation. That move was just the beginning of a momentous evolution under Katz, whose direction has taken Vail Resorts from a handful of destination ski areas to a global leader in snowsports.
“Rob has been involved in the industry through his leadership of Vail Associates/Vail Resorts for 30 years,” said Chris Jarnot, whose tenure with Vail Resorts also spanned three decades and included roles from marketing assistant to executive vice president of the Mountain Division. “Over this time, and especially during the 15 years that he served as the company’s CEO, building the company from two resorts in 1992 to 40 in 2022, he has had as great an impact on the business of skiing and snowboarding in North America as anyone ever.”
From Jarnot’s perspective, not many outside of the company — or even outside of its Executive Committee, for that matter — really understand how involved Katz was in creating and implementing his vision or the time, commitment and energy he poured into overseeing the company’s every move, down to the last decision and communication.
“He has personally shaped the company and the industry, and he really deserves the credit himself,” Jarnot explained.
For Ryan Bennett, Vail Resorts’ recently appointed CMO, that level of involvement was especially useful when the team was stumped and in need of a fresh take.
“I was most inspired by Rob’s ability to pressure test the thinking by coming at a problem from a different perspective,” Bennett said. “We were working on a high-profile program, and many within the group had come to what seemed like a clear decision that we couldn’t proceed. When we discussed with Rob, he flipped the logic on its head and totally changed the way we were all thinking about the problem. We ultimately decided to pursue the initiative thanks to that change in our perspective.”
Situated in Broomfield, Colo., ever since the relocation, the company takes up most of the 10 floors in a LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building — a small blip on its sustainability track record. Katz was focused on green initiatives early into his tenure, but in 2017, Vail Resorts raised the stakes, setting out to achieve zero net emissions, zero waste to landfill and zero net operating impact on forests and habitats by the end of the next decade.
“Rob's bold vision for Vail Resorts’ Commitment to Zero by 2030 set an audacious goal on sustainability for our company as a leader in the industry,” Campbell pointed out.
The company is already 85% of the way there for emissions reduction as a result of the Plum Creek Wind project and other renewable energy programs, according to the latest EpicPromise Progress Report. Last fiscal year, the company reduced 483 tons of waste across all its properties after having reached 50% diversion the year before (all results relative to the number of ski areas owned at the time). Vail Resorts is also on track to meet its zero net impact target through various efforts, including the restoration of an acre of forest for every acre impacted by new or expanded operations.
Community support is another component to EpicPromise. Together with his wife, Elana Amsterdam, Katz personally established the Katz Amsterdam Foundation (KAF) and Charitable Trust, donating more than $180 million over the past five years. KAF works within its mountain communities to improve behavioral health systems, increase access to care, and reduce challenges people face to living healthy lives. Since 2020, KAF has donated nearly $5 million to partner organizations that focus on tele-behavioral health, substance use challenges and culture, behavioral health equity, racial justice and programs that connect kids to snowsports.
“Rob’s philanthropy is unmatched in the industry,” said Rock. “Rob and Elana contribute millions of dollars each year to mountain communities to support critical initiatives like mental health, child care and our employees. He partners with leading nonprofits to ensure that he is making a real impact and difference.”
Among all the milestones ushered in during the Katz era, however, the Epic Pass is probably the one that hovers most prominently in people’s minds. By the Epic Pass’ debut in 2008, Vail Resorts and other holding companies were no stranger to multi-mountain pass products priced all over the board (Vail Resorts’ original 1997–98 Keystone, Breckenridge, A-Basin offering was a bundled buddy pass sold at $750 for four people; the next year, the company abandoned the requirement to buy four together, and the Summit Pass cost $199 individually). But it was building on that concept of providing access to more mountains for less — a progression that started with the first Epic Pass at $579 for unlimited, unrestricted skiing and riding at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Heavenly — that revolutionized skiing as we know it today.
“(He) was the architect of the destination season pass — a groundbreaking product and the ultimate re-imagination of our industry,” said James O'Donnell, president of Vail Resorts’ Mountain Division.
Across the industry, many season passes that predated Epic were only sold locally or within the state, and some ski areas even required proof of residency for purchase, according to Blaise Carrig, former president of Vail Resorts’ Mountain Division. Others achieved the same end with prices that were so cost prohibitive, a season pass only made sense for those close enough to visit at least 15–20 days.
“First, it was transformational for the customer relationship,” said Carrig of Katz’s idea to unfence season passes both geographically and economically. “By unlocking the restrictions that formerly had season passes sold to the local resort market and selling to anyone anywhere, it created a dynamic of loyalty and inclusion to all skiers and drove more visitation.”
The new season pass format also provided the great benefit of a purchase pre-commitment from guests that paved the way for “a more reliable sense of income stability that has made the industry financially healthier and allowed for broader capital reinvestment,” Carrig continued. In other words, it’s financial weather-proofing, or as Lynanne Kunkel, chief human resources officer at Vail Resorts put it, “shared ownership of the risks and impact of climate change on the industry between company and guests.”
Shifting customers into season passes also changed the face of marketing, allowing for a direct line to guests, creating more impactful and cost-effective communication opportunities, yielding new levels of data on customer behavior and desires, and opening the door for new guest interactions, according to Carrig. It’s hard to think of an area of the business that modern day multi-mountain season pass programs don’t touch — technology, pricing and partnership strategies, guest loyalty, and the way people purchase and participate in snowsports. Though it’s not without its pain points, this system that trades commitment now for convenience and savings later reached a new level of success during the 2019–20 season when the share of visits from skiers and snowboarders with a season pass overtook daily/multi-day tickets for the first time (and again in 2020–21), according to data from NSAA’s Kottke End of Season and Demographic Report.
Notably, increasing the Epic Pass’ appeal went hand in hand with another of Katz’s high-profile visions for the company.
“This acquisition and integration strategy was core to continuing to add value to the Epic Pass to grow the business through added value for our customers,” said Tim April, the company’s CIO.
Each ski area in the Vail Resorts’ portfolio taps established participation patterns and plugs into a specific market need designed to drive value for guests and, mutually, sales for the Epic Pass. For instance, the so called urban ski areas of the Midwest — Wilmot, Afton Alps and Mt. Brighton — provide guests enough incentive to finally plan that big trip out West to experience what Katz did his first time skiing Vail Mountain. The foot in the door comes from regular skiing close to the major cities — Chicago, Minneapolis and Detroit, respectively — these passholders call home.
“What stands out the most in terms of Rob’s impact on the industry is that under his leadership, the company completely changed the business of skiing and snowboarding in North America by acquiring 38 resorts for a total of 40,” Jarnot said. “This alone would have completely changed the business, but he also leveraged their resorts together under a single season pass and lift ticket, dramatically changing the value equation for skiers and snowboarders forever.”
Indeed, Katz was not known for being risk averse, and Campbell noted that he wasn’t afraid to “disrupt longtime industry norms to drive transformation and growth,” she said, naming the Epic Pass, data-driven marketing strategies, capital allocation and building a multinational strategic network through acquisitions as just a few examples. “He also invested deeply in developing the next generation of talent in our company, and reset industry norms around gender equity and female leadership.”
A Leaders’ Leader
Season passes and acquisitions are perhaps the most visible of Katz’s strategic moves over the years, but for those paying attention, he’s been no less vocal about building a strong leadership culture across the enterprise. The aspiration to get employees at all echelons thinking of Vail Resorts not just as a skiing, hospitality or tourism company, but as “the greatest leadership company in the world,” according to April, likely contributed to it consistently being named to Forbes’ list of America’s Best Employers.
“Rob has absolute commitment to his own development and the development of others,” said Rock. “When we measure Rob’s impact on the industry, he will be known for building Vail Resorts into a global company and the introduction of the EpicPass. But it was leadership and the development of leaders that fueled those successes. In sports they talk about a ‘coach’s tree’ to show the influence that a coach has had on the sport, and it’s the same for Rob. His commitment and approach has created a tree of leaders that will drive the industry for years to come, both inside and out of Vail Resorts.”
Vail Resorts offers a full curriculum of internal leadership development courses, including the Insights Discovery platform, which puts people in touch with their working styles and how they fit together within the team; sessions that cover the tenets of Vail Resorts’ core values; and others that foster an environment of open feedback, emotional intelligence and agility, thinking on your feet and being comfortable living in the gray. These learning opportunities are held regularly throughout the year so that employees can take them at their own pace. The company’s Providing Opportunity for Women through Diversity, Equality and Respect (POWDER) and Women in Leadership programs promote growth opportunities for women, something for which Katz and Vail Resorts has increasingly been recognized — women now lead nine of its 40 ski resorts (four of the five in Colorado) and represent over 20% of the executive team and half of its board of directors.
“He made a long-term commitment to women in leadership and personally sponsored the career growth and leadership impact of so many amazing women in a male-dominated industry, including his CEO successor,” explained Kunkel.
Last year, Katz passed the torch to Kirsten Lynch, former CMO with whom he’s worked closely since 2011. Lynch joined Katz on Vail Resorts’ board of directors where he now serves as executive chairperson and remains involved in strategic decisions.
“Rob is a leader,” added Rock. “He demonstrated his commitment to diversity early on promoting extremely capable women to the highest leadership positions. Rob was quick to point out and own the industry shortcomings in the wake of the George Floyd murder and has taken action with Vail Resorts and personally to help make our sport more welcoming to diverse guests.”
Part of owning those inadequacies involved a look inward, and to Kunkel, one of the most inspiring moments was when Katz declared, “We are part of the problem.”
“For me, this was a demonstration of every aspect of the leadership culture he created,” she said. “Being vulnerable to publicly expose and own his personal leadership shortcomings and accountability for the lack of progress on racial diversity, equity and inclusion in our company and in the industry; making a bold, declarative commitment to change; then embracing a learning mindset for himself and on behalf of every person in the company to introspectively unpack what is at the root of our lack of progress and face it head-on with visible and continuous action. This was a unique stance among many CEOs who were issuing letters and statements at the time, and for me summed up who he is as a leader.”
Clearly, part of what made Katz so influential and inspiring had to do with a commitment to leadership that started with himself and those around him he personally mentored, and trickled down throughout the company.
“Early on, Rob had more confidence in me than I may have had in myself,” admitted Carrig. “He helped me to challenge myself to be a better leader and a better person. Through our working relationship, Rob and I became great friends who still enjoy each other’s company. He has a great sense of humor and often would say that although our business is serious, we don't always have to be.”
Likewise, Jarnot thinks of Katz as a leader who “always demanded that we not take ourselves too seriously, and that we have fun in our work,” he said. “We even made Have Fun one of the company’s stated values.”
O'Donnell, too, has enjoyed Katz’s sense of humor as “one of the best I’ve ever come across,” and even called his ability to “find the right level and tone of humor for any topic, no matter how serious the subject matter,” powerful. As proof that he’s still taking Katz’s lead on prioritizing humor, O'Donnell brought up another of his former CEO’s lesser-known traits he always admired: “[It was] inspirational to see a true Deadhead at the helm of all of this,” O'Donnell joked.
Katz’s esteemed colleagues were full of examples like these for how he truly lived Vail Resorts’ core values — have fun, serve others, be inclusive, do right, drive value, be safe, do good — holding himself to the same standard that was expected companywide, as impactful leaders do.