Afton Alps Makes Its “Epic” Transformation After Vail Resorts Acquisition

At the first signs of snow, do you cringe and shiver—or do you throw on your winter gear and head outdoors? When the folks at Afton Alps in Hastings think of snow, they’re enthusiastic. “We share a love and passion for teaching, skiing and winter,” Liz Evensen, Meadows Children’s Learning Center supervisor at Afton Alps, says.

This month, as Afton Alps kicks off it 2015-16 season (assuming that the snow conditions are good), they have much to be excited about, particularly since Colorado-based Vail Resorts, a publicly traded company that owns several prestigious resorts, purchased Afton Alps in 2012.

“Vail Resorts didn’t come in with a heavy hand. They learned our culture and took a very thoughtful approach. The integration has gone very well,” Joe Yasis, general manager at Afton Alps, says. “We’re going from a family business to a corporate-run entity, which of course is a huge change, but it’s been an awesome experience.”

Since the acquisition, Afton Alps, which celebrates its 52nd anniversary this season, has undergone a $10 million renovation. Changes have included new guest services, overhauled snowmaking operations to improve snow quality for an expanded ski season, a new terrain park and village designed by Snow Park Technologies (creator of the Winter X Games courses), ongoing chalet facility upgrades—and, this season, a newly remodeled ski and snowboard school.

“The biggest change you’re probably going to see on property this season is with the ski and ride school. The lower part of the Meadows chalet has been totally rebuilt into the Children’s Learning Center,” Yasis says. “The layout is awesome.”

Dance Parties & Conga Lines

The Afton Alps ski and ride school is considered a gateway for long-term involvement in skiing, according to Chris Setchell, ski and snowboard school director at Afton Alps. “We have one of the biggest schools in the Midwest. Because of our size, we can offer a diverse range of products to meet our customers’ needs,” he says.

Afton Alps is committed to staffing a highly trained team of instructors, with a high percentage of them either certified or pursuing certification—something that is encouraged and subsidized. “That depth of experience allows us to offer excellent programs for adults, teens and children,” Setchell says.

The ski and ride school is staffed with 285 adult and junior ski instructors, most of whom have been skiing or snowboarding for most of their lives. “I love to brag about our amazing team. We’re all there to share a passion of teaching,” Evensen says. They range in age from 16 to over 70 and come from a variety of backgrounds, from students to business professionals.

Classes are organized by age and ability, with a variety of programs to fit students’ needs. “We help [children] reach those small achievements [on the ski hill], so they can ultimately reach big achievements,” Evensen says.

The key to creating a fun and safe experience for students “starts with creating a culture that is specific to helping children have the best experiences possible, and training our staff that children have specific needs,” Evensen says. “As instructors, we need to find the child in each of us.”

For instance, a father-and-son team of instructors, Eduardo and Javier Valencia, leads their group into the chalet by doing a spirited conga line. And if ever a student needs a quick break while on the slopes, the class will break into a spontaneous dance party.

“That’s the joy that keeps us coming back year after year,” Evensen says. “It continues to fill your own passion.” It’s no wonder Evensen’s personal motto is “Finding Your Joy.”

Dancing is not only for the children. “Every day our staff meeting starts with a 30-second dance party, which began on the hills during kids’ classes,” Setchell says with a laugh. “It gets us all going and reminds us to make time to laugh and smile—it’s part of what we do.”

Something for Everyone

Whether you’ve skied all your life or you’ve never strapped on a pair of skis, you’re welcome at Afton Alps. “I believe we have the best ski school in the area; We can take you from that ‘never ever’ to gliding, turning and stopping on the hill within a few hours, and we’re going to get you on your way to enjoying in the sport,” Yasis says. “For those who have skied and haven’t tried Afton Alps, I think the biggest thing is our varied terrain [which includes the Alps, Meadows, Alpine and Highlands areas.] It’s difficult to get bored out here.”

If you’re an adult who once loved skiing but believes too much time has passed since you’ve been on the slopes, Setchell strongly encourages you to try it once more. “I recently spoke with a couple in their 50s who said they used to ski but gave it up. That’s deeply frustrating to me because so much has changed.”

From the equipment and gear to the upgraded facilities and new opportunities for adults to continue learning, there are many reasons to revisit the sport.

Afton Alps offers programs which include an adult lesson pass ($199 for unlimited lessons in the 2015-16 season), 1- and 2-day adult camps (for example, how to telemark ski, racing camp for women, or how to use the terrain park), and a Women’s Academy Program.

“It’s about personalizing the experience [we are] elevating the experience for every guest, regardless of your age or ability,” Setchell says.

As young skiers and snowboarders grow up, Setchell says very few of them continue to take classes as teenagers. “By age 12 or 13, many of them stop participating in the lesson programs.” Therefore, in addition to its longstanding racing program, Afton Alps is introducing the All-Mountain team this season.

“The goal is to create a fun, dynamic program that sustains and builds on the teenagers’ passion and joy for skiing and will help them to become exceptional, versatile skiers,” he says. The teens will work on basic skill development, ski in the terrain park and in moguls, train in gates and even do a bit of NASTAR racing while working with some of best instructors at Afton Alps.

Girls Rock with Olympian Lindsey Vonn

Minnesota-born Lindsey Vonn, an alpine racing champion and representative for Vail Resorts, is the only American woman to capture downhill gold at the Olympics and win four World Cup overall titles. This past April, she visited Afton Alps for a private meet-and-greet with the 2014-15 season graduates of Ski Girls Rock, a three-day premium lesson program that she inspired and designed specifically for girls. It is open to girls ages 7 to teen, intermediate level and above, and is led by female instructors.

“The program became very successful, particularly in Colorado, and so far I’ve heard some really great things about how the girls are enjoying it here at Afton,” Vonn says. It was so successful last season that additional sessions have been added to Afton Alps’ calendar this year, with 2-day and 3-day camps.

“When I created the program, I realized there was nothing for only girls. It was always a mix of boys and girls, and I felt like some girls were being left out, and it’s just a hard dynamic,” Vonn says. In addition to improving skiing technique, she says “the goal is to allow girls to be in a positive environment where they feel relaxed and comfortable and free to be themselves. [I want them to] feel confident and build strong relationships with other young girls.”

Even though Vonn is known for being a fearless skier whose speed is unprecedented, she is quick to advise boys and girls of all ages to always stay within their comfort zone on the ski hill.

“Of course you want to try to get faster and faster, but you should only go as far as your comfort allows,” Vonn says. “So if you’re training, try to push the limits of what you think you can do. And then, after a while, you’ll realize that you can go faster than you thought. It’s a slow process. And of course, the most important thing is to always have fun!”

Vonn, who learned to ski at Buck Hill in Burnsville before moving to Colorado at age 11, encourages parents to introduce their children to the sport while they are young. “The skills that they learn at a young age are what bring them through their whole lives. I started skiing when I was 2 1/2 and I wish that I had had some of the programs that are available now at Afton Alps. I think skiers are more self-confident when they’re younger. As you get older, you begin to question your abilities. When you’re a kid, you’re just fearless and you go out and do it.”

Epic Experience in Minnesota

Since Afton Alps joined Vail Resorts, more skiers are visiting the local resort. This is due, in part, to the Epic Pass program—season passes that are valid at any of the Vail Resorts, from Park City in Utah to Vail and Beaver Creek in Colorado.

“We’re seeing people who wouldn’t normally ski here,” Yasis says. “The Epic Pass allows you to ski at Afton Alps, work on your technique, take lessons and get your ski legs going, so when you head out West you’re 100 percent prepared.”

Additionally, they offer EpicMix Racing, a social media app that uses RFID technology so that skiers and snowboarders can track their experiences online, or race against Lindsey Vonn’s race times to earn “medals” using the app.

“While I feel we had a great product before the acquisition, we’re continuing [former owners] Paul and Bob Augustine’s legacy, and we will continue to provide a great product under Vail Resorts,” Yasis says. “Things will continue to get better, both in terms of our guest services and our staff.”

New Children’s Learning Center

In the chalet

  • Enlarged ski school area and separated guest service area from the kids’ rest and dining areas.
  • Environment that caters to children.
  • Increased security measures, including a student/parent ID system.

On the hill

  • All guests age 6 and under are assigned a trained “lift buddy” (a trained adult or teen age 16+) to safely ride the chair lifts.
  • Child-friendly terrain features (e.g., suitable-sized moguls and a wave train that is scaled to the needs of children.)

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