The Colorado company is expanding beyond its seven high-end resorts in the West.
Afton Alps, one of the Twin Cities' most popular ski areas, is being sold to Vail Resorts Inc. as the Colorado skiing giant seeks to add "gateway" urban ski areas close to its customer base.
Vail Resorts said Thursday that it's snapping up Afton Alps as well as the Mount Brighton ski area outside Detroit, for a combined $20 million in cash.
The Midwest is a new frontier for Broomfield, Colo.-based Vail Resorts, which owns seven high-end resorts in the West, including the famous Vail Mountain. The acquisitions are the first step in a new growth strategy, said Vail Resorts CEO Robert Katz.
"We do a huge amount of business in Minneapolis and Minnesota," Katz said in an interview. "This was an incredible opportunity for our company to acquire literally one of the best ski areas in the whole Midwest. We think that these smaller resorts that are located near urban centers are where people learn to ski and ride."
"We intend to put money behind all that," Katz said.
Afton is the largest ski area near a major city in the Midwest, according to Vail Resorts, with 48 trails and 18 lifts over nearly 300 acres. Mount Brighton has 26 trails on 130 acres.
The company said Thursday that it plans to upgrade and enhance both ski areas, starting with better snowmaking. Katz said it plans to redesign and update terrain parks, update base facilities and improve dining options, beef up coaching and classes and integrate technology and social media programs.
One piece of technology, EpicMix, is an app that enables users to track their experience, such as how many vertical feet they skied in a day, and automatically uploads the information to Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Vail is offering Afton Alps and Mount Brighton customers 25 percent discounts on lift tickets at all of its resorts. It plans to roll out other ways to connect customers with the Vail family of properties.
Afton Alps called the sale a "wonderful opportunity" for customers and employees alike. "It's the end of an era here," said co-owner Amy Reents.
Reents said her father, Paul Augustine, co-founded Afton Alps in 1963 when it opened with a few tow ropes, a T-bar and 37 skiers the first day. The Augustine family has continued to own it, and Reents said she was busy Thursday telling employees about the sale.
"It's been an emotional process for our family," she said.
The parties expect the purchase of both urban ski areas to be complete by the end of the month.
Reents said the Augustine family will continue to work with the company and is confident that joining Vail Resorts will be a "wonderful opportunity" for customers and employees. Reents said she will move into a marketing position.
Most ski areas and resorts in Minnesota are privately owned by families or other groups, although some are government owned. The entrance of a major corporation into the local ski-hill business marks change.
Vail Resorts, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange, had sales of $1 billion in its 2012 fiscal year.
Laurie Valento, spokeswoman for the Twin Cities Independent Ski Areas Association, said Vail may be "big corporate" but the local industry benefits from more marketing dollars and increased efforts to promote skiing and snowboarding.
"If it's going to be good for the industry, they're in favor," Valento said.
Hal Yngve, president of the Midwest Sport/Ski Council, a Minnesota-based organization of ski clubs, cheered the sale.
"Who doesn't love Vail?" he said. "Getting bought out by such a reputable firm can only be good news.
"There's that gut reaction, 'Oh, we're losing something,' but we're gaining Vail," he added. "That's like the best ski area in the whole world practically."
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683