Vail Resorts Names New CEO: What This Means

If you thought Vail Resorts was a ski company, think again.  And the new CEO, Kristen Lynch is a strong indicator why.

It was a ski company, for a while. And then it evolved into a real estate company. That didn’t work out so well. But ever since current CEO Rob Katz came on board, it’s been something else. More on that in a minute…

Katz took over the CEO’s role in 2006. He was 33 at the time. A Wharton Business School grad and Wall Street private equity finance guy who had a passion for exploring the squishier side of leadership: emotional intelligence. While working for Apollo Global Management, Katz helped oversee the merger between Vail/Beaver Creek ski areas with Keystone and Breckenridge and helped take the newly-formed Vail Resorts public. At the time the company owned 5 resorts (Heavenly in Lake Tahoe was the fifth). In 2008, Vail Resorts launched the Epic Pass.

Now, 15 years after taking the helm and helping Vail Resorts acquire or operate a total of 37 resorts, Katz is stepping into a new role as the executive chairperson of the board. As such, he will remain fully active and engaged in Vail Resorts’ key strategic decisions and priorities. Taking over as CEO will be Kirsten Lynch. And stepping into Lynch’s role as chief marketing officer is Ryan Bennett, currently vice president of marketing, lift revenue.

Lynch joined Vail Resorts in 2011.  She was previously chief marketing officer (CMO) for a division of PepsiCo and prior to that at Kraft Foods and Ford Motor Company. At Vail Resorts, Lynch led the vision to drive revenue through a data-driven approach. She built the company’s analytics team, data science team, and a sophisticated best-in-class marketing approach.

And she has led the pass business for the past 10 years. The business has grown more than four times under her leadership, driven by new products, data and analytics, and acquisitions. Vail Resorts pass revenue grew from $135 million to $653 million under her tenure as CMO. She and her team uncovered insights about Guest Lifetime Value leading to a strong focus on the pass business as a subscription model for Vail Resorts.

And when you think about it, that’s what Vail Resorts really is: a data and marketing company that has the names and credit cards (many on autorenew) of more than 1.4 million Epic Pass-owning skiers and riders in the 2020/21 season (up from 850,000 the prior year). And while it can sell them passes for cheap (and cheaper — witness the 20 percent drop in pass prices for 2021/22) it is upping its market share and bolstering its data base.

Additionally, Lynch has been a key driver of many technological innovations like the EpicMix app

Now that’s not at all bad. To be successful, you have to please your customers. Lynch has been recognized for her transformative marketing work by Forbes CMO Next list and featured in AdAdge. Kirsten also sits on the Board of Directors for Stitch Fix (SFIX), a publicly-traded eComm fashion company that uses data-driven personalization.

And she is, of course,  a skier.  Lynch grew up in Chicago, first skiing at the age of six at now Vail Resorts-owned Wilmot Mountain. She  lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and two children. As Katz stated in a release: “In addition to having an incredible business acumen, Kirsten is one of the most passionate, driven leaders I have ever worked with. Her tremendous enthusiasm for the long-term vitality of our sport and a very high commitment to leadership development within our company will make her an outstanding leader of Vail Resorts. Kirsten will also be surrounded by an extremely strong and tenured executive team.”

Lynch’s appointment will make her the only female CEO among Travel & Leisure companies listed on the 2021 Fortune 1000 list and the highest ranking woman in the ski industry. Her appointment to Vail Resorts’ board will also create gender parity, with five female and five male board members.

““It is an honor to lead Vail Resorts as CEO and build upon Rob’s legacy of reimagining the mountain experience,” Lynch said in a release. “I am passionate about this Company, the leadership culture we have built and our 55,000 employees who make Vail Resorts the industry leader. Looking forward, I am excited about the incredible growth opportunities for Vail Resorts and committed to making our sport and our Company more diverse, inclusive and accessible. Together, we will grow our business, innovate and continue to work toward our mission of creating an Experience of a Lifetime for our guests and employees.”

Taking over her role, is Ryan Bennett. He joined Vail Resorts in 2018 as vice president of marketing analytics before he was promoted to his current role as vice president of marketing, lift revenue. In addition to leading the company’s season pass and lift ticket businesses, Bennett has driven numerous strategic revenue and guest experience projects. Prior to joining Vail Resorts, Bennett was with Boston Consulting Group for 11 years, including four years as a partner and managing director. Bennett has a PhD in Chemical Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A Florida native, Bennett now lives in Boulder, Colorado with his wife and three children.

Yes, it’s a marketing company.

Lisa Lynn

Editor of VT SKI + RIDE and Vermont Sports.