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Win's Word

Mid-Season Update

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dear Sugarbush Skiers and Riders,

As we approach the midpoint of our winter season, I want to provide you with an update on what has transpired so far and what we expect for the remainder of the season.

While we have had many great moments, last weekend was not one of them. I was away for several days at a long-planned family event, but I spoke to many members of my team several times during the weekend and viewed the scene from the app on my phone. Sunday night was probably the first time I did not look forward to returning to the Valley. Emails were coming in even before I even landed in Burlington.

The Porsche event scheduled for last weekend was planned with every good intention.  Last year it was held on the golf course. But the thaw we experienced made it challenging, so we decided to move it to Upper Crackerjack this year, where we have snowmaking and where the area could be totally isolated from non-participants. That worked well. However, it was a huge mistake on our part to close a third of the upper floor of the Mt. Ellen base lodge and to close down half of Straight Shot. Last Saturday, for a variety of reasons, turned out to be about the busiest day we have ever seen at Mt. Ellen, so this compounded the problem. Because I approved this event, it is I who is to blame, and I deeply apologize to everyone for the poor experience. You deserved better, and this will not happen again.

Over at Lincoln Peak, one of our major arteries to the mountain, the Bravo lift, was not open to the public until 1:42 PM on Saturday. With warmer temperatures, new snow and good conditions, people wanted to ski and the day was very busy. We timed the line at Valley House before Bravo opened and it was up to 45 minutes. Some people thought that it was even longer and that we did a lousy job of crowd control. While this might happen at some other resorts, this is not what our guests have come to expect at Sugarbush. And not what we want to provide. So again I have to apologize to everyone who was here last Saturday.

Although the event at Mt. Ellen was within our power to control, the lift issue was not. Let me explain.

On Wednesday, a battery charger at Bravo failed. That was an unusual event and has only happened twice in the past twenty years. A new one was ordered to be overnighted from Utah and scheduled to arrive Thursday at 3 PM. That day, our lift mechanics attempted to use two smaller battery chargers to get the lift going. It worked for awhile, but then we started to experience a problem in the software program that spaces the chairs. (There is an anti-collision program that prevents chairs from riding into each other.) The new battery was installed but the issue with the spacing continued. Representatives from Dopplemayr, the lift manufacturer, were here both Thursday and Friday and they worked with us to try to solve the problem. A former Dopplemayr electrician, whom we use as a consultant, then suggested that we begin switching out all the electrical components as well as the modem to source the problem. Our team worked until after midnight. By that time, some real progress had been made and we were down to missing just one reference number on the computer screen. Since the wind was blowing over 40 mph at that time, the team thought that this could be part of the problem. So after an exhausting two days, they went home for a few hours and returned again at 5 AM to continue the work. When the mountain opened, we indicated that Bravo was on a maintenance delay and opened Valley House at 8 AM as the early lift. All other lifts scheduled to run that day were opened on time at 9 AM. Finally, by late morning, our team succeeded in getting the program to calculate the last reference number on Bravo. They re-spaced the chairs and ran the lift for awhile to make certain all was OK. The lift opened at 1:42 PM and has been operating ever since.

It was most unfortunate timing for this problem to occur, but I do not believe there was anything that could have prevented it or anything anyone could have done to fix it faster.  However, our team has learned from this and will likely be able to diagnose a similar problem faster in the future. The Bravo lift runs not only in winter but also every day throughout the summer--from the last weekend in June through Labor Day and weekends through Columbus Day--and has proven to be a reliable “workhorse” for us.

Having done a post mortem on that day, it is clear that we should have done a much better job of communicating exactly what was happening and we will do this better in the future. Too many people told me that they were getting inadequate information about what was happening and that they felt our website and apps were not up to date. I should mention that we have discovered that there is a lag from the time we input a lift status into the app until it actually appears, and we are working with the vendor to improve this.

Many of you have also asked about other lifts issues we have had on North Lynx, Valley House, Heaven’s Gate and North Ridge. Over the past five years, our lifts in aggregate have experienced downtimes due to mechanical or electrical issues less than 1% of the time. All lifts, new and old, at all resorts will have mechanical and electrical issues and will experience downtime. That said, if you are here on the day when this happens, your perception will likely be that our lifts always have problems. Although it is true that we have had a few more problems than usual early in this season, they were caused by unrelated problems--from a sheave assembly on Valley House that needed replacement, to an auxiliary starter and ring gear failure on Northridge, to a failed bearing on the drive motor at Heaven’s Gate, and finally last Sunday to a mouse that got into the control panel on Heaven’s Gate and in the process of committing suicide blew out the fuses. In the case of Northridge and Heaven’s Gate, we had to order new motors, which meant that the lift was down for a couple of days. In the other cases, the problem could be fixed in a couple of hours or less.

When lifts are down for mechanical or electrical problems or due to windhold it is very frustrating to everyone, myself included. You, our guests, as well as our entire team here at Sugarbush want nothing other than for everyone to have a great experience.

While we have had several lift closures this year, we are confident that our lifts are in good shape and that we have very able lift mechanics to address issues when they arise.  Unfortunately, as I said, every lift at every resort whether new or old will have problems from time to time. The mountain weather is very tough on these machines. New lifts are not the panacea.

Someone emailed me and asked why there have been no new lifts installed at Sugarbush in the past twenty years. Well, there have been.  In the past twenty years, there have been five new lifts installed: Bravo, Gatehouse, Slide Brook, GMX, and Castlerock, as well as two conveyor lifts (Welcome Mat and First Timer).  Lifts are not automatically retired in 20 years and run well for decades if properly maintained. And that is what I am committed to doing. We will make all necessary repairs and upgrades and replace a lift if needed. Lifts are the first priority when we review capital expenditures.

Given the bad experience of last weekend, a couple of comments were passed along to me. “Win is no longer committed to Sugarbush and intends to sell it.”  And “He has put all his money into real estate development rather than the mountain.” Both are totally false. First and foremost, I and my family are totally committed to the Mad River Valley and Sugarbush and are here for the long haul. Secondly, since purchasing Sugarbush we have funded capital improvements of over $50 million in addition to funding early-year operating losses. $17.5  million of this came from EB-5 investors and the rest came from my family, Adam Greshin, and a few other friends.

These funds have been used to build three new base lodges at Lincoln Peak, replace the main snowmaking pipes for both LP and ME, purchase one or two new groomers each year to keep the fleet current, purchase new low-energy snowmaking equipment, repave the roads and expand parking at LP, install new carpet and paint Valley House Lodge and our Mt. Ellen lodge, install new GMX and Castlerock chairs and the two conveyor lifts, and much more. On the lifts, we have funded numerous improvements in addition to routine summer maintenance. I will not cut corners here. Lift maintenance and other on-mountain expenditures will always be top priority. For instance, last summer we replaced the communication line on Bravo, replaced the bearings in the top and bottom terminals and built a new electrical circuit board for North Lynx, in addition to making snowmaking infrastructure repairs and buying over 80 new snowmaking towers.

Real Estate development is funded separately and all net profits go to repay EB-5 investors for their contributions.

So much for the bad news. And I would just like to reiterate my commitment to making Sugarbush the place that runs well and has excellent guest service. Nothing is more important to me and my team than placing the interests of our guests first.

Now I would like to turn our attention to the positive. As you remember, we opened on Saturday, November 23rd with top-to-bottom skiing at Lincoln Peak for the second year in a row. With good snowmaking temperatures and the investment we have made in low-energy snowmaking equipment, we have been able to put out more water than ever before this early in the season. We plan each year to put out a defined number of gallons on each snowmaking trail to make them groomable and sustainable for the season. Then we rely on Mother Nature to provide the icing on the cake. Of course, if we experience loss of snow due to a thaw, we are prepared to make more but we hope that we are able to complete snowmaking by the end of January and let Mother Nature do the rest. While this does not always happen, February and March are historically the snowiest months and we have already seen this trend in the first few days of February this year. We also make extra snow on our spring routes--Stein’s, Upper Snowball, Spring Fling, Coffee Run--with the goal of skiing on those at least through mid-April and perhaps even into May. In a subsequent Win’s Word, I will go into much greater detail about snowmaking here at Sugarbush and share some interesting facts.

Let me now address one question that is often asked. “Why do you let the snow piles remain for several days after snowmaking?” The reason is to let the moisture drain out of them. This allows the snow to be groomed better. Grooming too early packs-in the moisture and makes for hard surfaces.

While we had very good early temperatures and some nice natural snow and opened Mt. Ellen the weekend before Christmas with 80 open trails, January turned out to be a very funky month with three thaws, significant rain and then quick freezes. Our snowmaking trails held up remarkably well. We were not forced to begin all over again but rather we were able to resurface the trails and let the groomers do the rest. Many of you have made a point to tell me how impressed you were with the snowmaking and grooming during the challenging days of January. Our team appreciates your comments. They take pride in their work. They work hard and are motivated when appreciated. I, too, think they have done an excellent job this season.

With the exception of last weekend, I believe that we have delivered a very good product in a challenging year, and we are all committed to making the second half of the season a great one for you. I realize that last weekend cost us a great deal of credibility that we now have to earn back and we will.

I will close with a snow report. We had 11 inches of light new snow at the summits over the course of Sunday and Monday nights and a foot or more is in the forecast for Thursday afternoon through Friday morning. And there is a potential for more on Tuesday. Remember the holiday storms of 2007. Seven years has passed so we might be due again.

As always, Lili, Rumble and I look forward to seeing you on the mountain.

Win

About Win Smith
President & Owner

So what would you expect a former Executive Vice President of Merrill Lynch to do when he retires? Lay low in the islands? Nope. He moves north and works seven days a week right here at Sugarbush. Check out what he's been thinking.

Learn More about Win Smith >

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