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Since then Gillett has simply become richer and richer as his business empire has become bigger and bigger. His 12 TV stations, which reach about 13% of the U.S. audience, make up the fourth-biggest television entity in the U.S., after the three major networks. A banker told The New York Times in 1988, "George is what Rupert Murdoch and Marvin Davis would like to be when they grow up." He's a master of business as it is practiced in the acquisitive '80s: For example, his 1987 purchase of six stations from Storer Communications for $1.3 billion was a joint venture with the takeover firm of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.; the deal was financed in part by the junk-bond experts at Drexel Burnham Lambert.
There's a sense that Gillett has only begun to build his empire. He is constantly reaching out to gather in a wider range of enterprises. Some critics refer to him as "a deal junkie," and there are plenty of skeptics (and xenophobes) around Vail who have no doubt that he plans to sell their mountain to the richest Japanese investor he can find the instant he thinks the price has peaked.
Gillett bought the whole spread for $130 million in 1985 and has since pumped in some $51.4 million, including the China Bowl project and improvements at Beaver Creek. His Colorado kingdom is probably worth $400 million now, and even though the ski business in general is nearly flat, Vail stands as a megaresort that almost certainly will become stronger, bigger and richer in the years ahead.
Nevertheless, Gillett says, "Vail is the last thing I will sell—ever. This is my family's home, and Vail will always be ours." His attachment to the mountains seems genuine, and his fascination with the details and trivia of the ski business seems boundless. He has a house at the foot of Vail Mountain and lives there with his wife, Rose, and four sons, ages 13 to 19. Although he can't ski anymore this winter because he had knee surgery in December, he usually gets his kicks on the slopes, stopping to commiserate with any and all lost, confused or fallen skiers he comes across, chatting them up, helping them off the mountain if they are hurt—and rarely identifying himself as the owner of the hill. "What I'm trying to instill in this place is an innate sense of hospitality," he explains. "We want our customers to love everything about their experience here—from their arrival at the airport in Denver to the smiles they see on the faces of our lift attendants."
Vail has never had the glitz-and-glamour flair that Aspen has always flaunted—and at one time this seemed a flaw. But in the Gillett era the place is earnestly dedicated to promoting a low-key, early-to-bed, relentlessly wholesome form of après-ski. Children are catered to with storytelling ski instructors, a costumed character on skis called Sport Goofy and ski-through amusement parks such as Fort Whippersnapper. Vail marketing these days is also geared to sell skiing as a low-risk, easy-living, even luxurious kind of pastime that is just right for the older folks—particularly the wealthy 50-to 70-year-old crowd.
Mike Shannon, 30, a whiz-kid former bank executive whom Gillett hired three years ago, is president of Vail Associates. He is a dead ringer for the 10-year-old Jay North playing Dennis the Menace, but he speaks with the metallic authority of the case-hardened M.B.A. that he is. "We want our skiers to be pleasure-oriented," he says. "What we are trying to implement is a program to take the intimidation out of skiing and introduce everyone to a greater comfort level."
This is a long way from the dashing, broken-legs-be-damned image that the sport once projected, but risk-free comfort is what the new wave of skiers seems to demand. Jerry Jones, 46, the man in charge of the Beaver Creek end of Vail Associates, has long been considered one of the best marketing brains in the ski business. For 14 years he was locked in fierce competition with Vail, first at Aspen's Snow-mass and then at another Colorado resort, Keystone. "In the baby-boom years of the 1960s and '70s, the ski industry used to make its clientele jump through all kinds of nasty hoops to go skiing," he says. "We'd make it hard for them to get room reservations, hard to get transportation, hard to buy lift tickets. But they didn't care. They wanted to ski in the worst way, and they'd go through anything to get on a hill. But no more. There are maybe eight million consistent skiers in the U.S. now, which means there are 235 million Americans who don't ski. In the past, we always turned our backs on that huge mass of people who didn't ski. We can't afford to ignore them anymore."
Vail is selling the masses harder than ever. Gillett makes sure the resort gets plenty of exposure on his TV stations. Beyond that, Vail has begun a campaign to beef up the farm system of skiing—the local low-mountain, low-rent areas that blossomed during the boom years and gave new skiers their first cheap thrills before sending them on to the big leagues. In the past 10 years the number of ski areas operating in the U.S. has declined from 1,000 to 650. Gillett thinks resorts like Vail can help stem the tide by subsidizing some of the badly wounded little guys. To that end, Vail last year leased Ski Broadmoor, a small, struggling area outside Colorado Springs. Gillett says, "What I want is to make a model out of Ski Broadmoor, to find out what Vail can do to give sustenance to the feeder system. There have to be ways to help: We could pool costs to get insurance cheaper, we could come up with generic marketing that would let several areas use the same ads by interchanging logos, we could lease our grooming equipment to a small area, we could send out our ski-school people to share Vail's expertise. There are so many possibilities, and it is such a critical challenge that I hope we can get more of the ski industry involved. We have to."
In the course of such monologues, Gillett becomes more and more enthusiastic. His chest expands, his eyes glisten, his hands fly about excitedly. This is his way. He goes on with rising passion: "We're not selling just skiing anymore, we're selling entertainment! We're selling an entire entertainment environment. And the most important thing in that environment is quality! And quality has to come first. If you're bottom line-driven and you compromise on quality, you have missed the point! If you worry about cost before you worry about quality, you've gone wrong. This may be what's wrong with a lot of American business, with the TV networks, with the automobile industry, with the ski industry! They don't demand quality!"
By now, he is fairly shouting. His eyes are fiery. He's an evangelist when he gets going on subjects that move him. And if Vail really has ascended to the rank of a national monument, having it in the hands of a man who stands up and yells for quality is perhaps not such a bad arrangement.