Everyone assumed that Vail Resorts, which runs the ski operation and owns several key properties, would lead the process. When it was clear they wouldn’t, "we got tired of waiting," says Rob Levine, general manager of the Antlers condo complex in Lionshead. Levine managed to talk 66 of his 70 owners into a $22 million expansion and renovation project that added a wing and a new entrance in 2002. Manifestly improved, the new Antlers proved to be the first snowball in what would become an avalanche—not just in Lionshead, but in Vail Village too. American skiing’s most fabulous five square miles was about to undergo a revolution.
It needed to. while the town of vail was in the deep freeze, the culture of American skiing had been steadily changing. New shaped-ski, or parabolic, technology and increased grooming of runs have made skiing easier for beginners and Baby Boomers with aging knees. (Vail grooms twice as much terrain today as it did a decade ago.) High-speed lifts, meanwhile, have made it possible to get a full day’s skiing in before lunchtime—leaving the rest of the day free for shopping, dining, and all-around pampering.
Even more important, the client base for the skiing industry has gotten older. And wealthier. Bob Lazier’s generation long ago graduated from sleeping in resort parking lots to enjoying a lifestyle buffet of international travel, golf vacations, and second homes. What they don’t have is time. "We have to get it right the moment they walk in the door," he says. "Twenty years ago, people would come for a week or two. Now we have guests who come for three or four days. If one day is ruined because of a screwup, that’s a third of their vacation."
With skiers’ standards higher than ever, mere comfort doesn’t cut it any more. So, on a quiet sunny weekend last January, Vail was abuzz with construction. People descending the Bear Tree run were confronted with a spectacle worthy of a two-year-old boy’s dreams: above Vail Lodge, the resort’s signature hotel, two massive cranes gyrated over a pit teeming with construction vehicles, as workers hurriedly raised girders and smoothed concrete. Slated for completion this ski season, the Vail’s Front Door complex will be the centerpiece of Vail Resorts’ nearly $500 million improvement plan, including a ski services center, a spa and fitness center, and the Vail Mountain Club (a kind of country club for skiers). There are also 13 adjacent "lodge chalet" town houses, each three stories high and ranging from 3,700 to 5,200 square feet. Tucked between the ski slopes and Gore Creek, "they’re a key component, from Vail Resorts’ point of view," says senior project manager Jarvie Worcester, "because we can sell them outright as private homes." Yes, indeed: all were sold before completion for an average of $12.5 million.
A mile away, a maze of metal framing bundled in plastic loomed over the center of Lionshead. When the wrapping comes off in early January 2008, Vail’s old Gondola Building, a notorious eyesore, will be replaced by a 500,000-square-foot Bavarian-style complex called the Arrabelle at Vail Square, which will include condo units, a ski club (with valet service and exclusive lounge access), restaurants, a ski shop and other stores, as well as a hotel and spa where the room rates start at an unprecedented $850 a night. Intended to serve as the beating heart of Lionshead, Arrabelle complex will have a great room with a window looking onto the mountain and an ice-skating rink in the courtyard. There is even talk of Vail Resorts ditching the tarnished "Lionshead" nomenclature in favor of the cleaner, if anodyne, "Vail Square."