Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Written by Peter Oliver
Everybody, it seems, knew Rumble. Handsome, athletic, and engaging, he might emerge from his daytime domicile, a small hut at the Lincoln Peak base, to meet and greet, canine style, or to pose in selfies taken by incoming skiers. Rumble was a centerpiece in many a family photo.
So when the Bernese mountain dog, best friend of Sugarbush’s principal owner Win Smith, made a peaceful passage to Pet Heaven this spring, social media was flooded with Rumble remembrances. Photos were posted. Loving tributes were stacked one atop another. Heart and sad-face emojis were ubiquitous. At Lincoln Peak, Rumble’s empty home was anonymously festooned with a garland and paper hearts.
“I think about you in the daylight and when the stars shine bright,” wrote one heartbroken eight-year-old as a eulogy to Rumble. A confluence of personal love and loss mixed with the collective grief and sadness that are shared whenever a cherished member of the family is suddenly gone.
That Rumble touched so many people so intimately says a lot about a ski area that has cultivated its own, unique identity along with a streak of independence. A sense of loyalty and connectedness, kinship and belonging—a sense of soul—runs deep. Skiers who have become Sugarbush regulars over the years take their bond with the area personally, just as they took Rumble’s passing personally. This is their type of mountain, populated by their type of skiers, imbued with their type of atmosphere, and, by extension, run by their type of management. For longtime Sugarbushers, a sense of psychic ownership comes with a mountain where a strong independent streak breeds loyalty.
Independence, both as a business framework and a definition of character, is something Sugarbush shares with its Valley mate Mad River Glen. In a ski resort world that is increasingly becoming swept up in a corporatization trend, independently owned areas stand out.
Just a handful of noteworthy independents are still out there on the North American landscape, including Alta Ski Area in Utah, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming, and Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico. Indeed, Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, estimates that the number of major independent ski areas is only about a dozen. Sugarbush and Mad River are prominent among them.
If there is an analogy here, however imprecise, it is that independent resorts are like family-owned inns in a world of Hyatts and Radissons. Carrying that analogy right into the Mad River Valley, think of an elegant establishment like the Pitcher Inn in Warren making a go of it in a world of sleek, high-rise hotels.
This needs to be put into the context of the current state of the ski resort industry. Making big news in the world of skiing in the last year or so has been the explosive growth of multi-resort conglomerates. The biggest kid on that block is Vail Resorts, which recently added Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia and Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont to a star-packed, fourteen-resort portfolio that includes, of course, Vail itself as well as Park City Mountain Resort in Utah and Heavenly Valley Resort in California.
More recently, Vail has been given a run for its corporate money by the Aspen Skiing Company (Skico), which has gone on its own aggressive spending spree. In partnership with a private equity firm, Skico this spring bought Intrawest, whose major resorts included Steamboat Resort in Colorado, Tremblant in Quebec, and Stratton Mountain Resort in Vermont. That was quickly followed by the purchase of Mammoth Mountain as part of a four-resort California package. Powdr, owner of Killington Ski Resort, and Boyne Resorts, owner, prominently, of Big Sky in Montana and Sugarloaf and Sunday River in Maine, are other big players in the multi-resort game.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the trend toward consolidation. From a business perspective, it can make great sense to be part of a corporate behemoth. Size typically affords relatively easy access to large chunks of capital when improvements or new developments are in order, and bigger companies can typically negotiate better deals with suppliers. Want a new, high-speed lift or a spiffy new base lodge? Boom! The money is there, and construction begins. It’s not always so easy for the independents, who have less financial leverage. Vail Resorts is reportedly investing more than $100 million in company-wide improvements just this year.
Braced by the Economics 101 principle of economies of scale, conglomerate resorts can also offer skiers season passes at reduced rates; their exponentially expanded customer base assures a healthy revenue flow even if profit margins are smaller. This past winter, Vail Resorts reportedly sold 650,000 of its Epic Passes. At Stowe, locals were overjoyed when the Vail Resorts acquisition was followed immediately by a slash in season pass prices. Not only that, but season passes could be sweetened with various privileges and discounts at other resorts on the conglomerate menu.
Finally, a corporate brand identity usually assures consistency and quality of service; when you book a room at a Hyatt or a Radisson, for example, you’ve got a good idea of what to expect. However, a slide toward the cookie-cutter homogeneity that corporate consolidation often implies is unlikely. Ski resorts are not hotels. Even if they fly the same corporate flag, Vail, Whistler, and Stowe are profoundly different mountains topographically and profoundly different resorts culturally, and each retains its own discrete and loyal following.
Indeed, it might seem that, in a business dominated by multi-resort giants, independents like Sugarbush and Mad River Glen don’t stand a competitive chance. And it won’t be easy. The season pass deals now offered by the corporate guys have put the squeeze on the independent guys to respond. One strategy Sugarbush took a few months ago to get into the multi-resort pass game was to link up with the Mountain Collective (see sidebar).
But the independents have a few of their own cards to play. For one, they can be much more nimble in responding to customer wishes and demands. “The nice thing about Sugarbush is that Win is there,” said Berry. “People know he is accessible. He’s an engaged owner.”
Say you want a change in the grill menu in the Gate House Lodge. Heck—the guy sitting next to you on the chairlift could very well be Smith, indulging in one of his more than 120 skiing days of the year. Or you might find Smith tucked into his tiny Gate House office—not much more than a closet with a desk and a chair—attending to paperwork before heading out on the mountain for another run. Tell him what you want, and a menu change might be in place the next day. No need for the request to filter through multiple tiers of corporate management, where, as in the old kids’ game of telephone, the message can become more muddled and incoherent with each exchange.
Someone with a fine-tuned perspective on the merits of independence is Pam Fletcher, former U.S. Ski Team member and a frequent Sugarbush visitor. The Fletcher family founded (in 1964) and still owns Nashoba Valley Ski Area in Westford, Massachusetts. Pam’s brother Al runs Nashoba on behalf of the family and is out on the mountain every day to make sure all is up to snuff. “It’s a personal touch on the hill,” said Pam. “As a privately owned company, you’re able to implement any change quicker and easier . . . and possibly with a little more charm.”
A more important card in the independents’ deck is the nebulous but primal concept of character. No ski area in America has been more successful in carving out its own character niche than Mad River Glen. Mad River, owned by a cooperative of ski area enthusiasts, is about as far from the world of corporatization as you can get and still function as a business. Nobody, big or small, out-characters Mad River.
At the core of that character is the adhesive ethos of community. “The part that hits home is family—the idea of the Mad River family, looking out for one another,” said Mad River regular Chuck Derrick. “The community aspect is as important as the skiing itself.”
Familial togetherness is something you’d expect at a place like pint-sized, family-run Cochran’s Ski Area in nearby Richmond. But it exists at Mad River, too, where many skiers, as members of the owning cooperative, pitch in like a family in the governance and maintenance of the place. Small-hill intimacy and internationally acclaimed big-mountain skiing are not mutually exclusive concepts. “It’s not just a family experience,” said Derrick. “It’s a killer skiing experience.”
A big part of Mad River’s character also derives from an atavistic connection to its origins almost seventy years ago. Mad River is an enduring anachronism and a living shrine to its founder, Roland Palmedo, who brought the area into existence in the late 1940s, not long after helping to found Stowe. (In fact, when Mad River replaced the original, aging single chairlift in 2007, it spent an extra $500,000 for a custom-built, historic restoration that was an exact replica of Palmedo’s original—“right down to the wooden slats,” according to marketing director Eric Friedman.) In 2012, Mad River became the first ski area to be added to the National Register of Historic Places.
In the early years of the industry, this was the blueprint for almost every ski area in the country: from the 1930s into the ’60s, ski areas weren’t just independently owned, they were independently conceived as the dreams-come-true of founding visionaries. That’s as true of many resorts now under the corporate umbrella as it is of independents like Sugarbush and Mad River, even if the original vision of the founders may have changed over the years with changes in ownership. Scroll the credits, west to east: Mammoth Mountain—Dave McCoy. Squaw Valley—Alex Cushing. Jackson Hole—Paul McCollister. Taos Ski Valley—Ernie and Rhoda Blake. Sun Valley—Averell Harriman. Alta—Alf Engen. Vail—Pete Seibert. Killington—Preston Leete Smith. The list goes on.
And the list includes Sugarbush, the brainchild of Damon and Sara Gadd and Jack Murphy in 1958. During the course of its history, after various sales, the resort went through its own incarnations as a corporate entity, most notably in the late 1990s, as a part of the American Skiing Company, the Les Otten–owned conglomerate of resorts in New England, Colorado, and California. So when Sugarbush was bought in 2001 by a partnership led by Win Smith, in some ways it represented a full-circle return to its roots. No more absentee ownership or chip off the big corporate block; this was like the good old days, with the owner on board on a daily basis, invested not just financially but also emotionally in the resort’s success.
Like a mother raising kids, Nashoba’s Pam Fletcher has watched over the years as skiers have come through the mountain’s ski school and moved on in the world of skiing. She talks of an almost spiritual connection that comes from transmitting a love for the sport to generation after generation of skiing fledglings. The lifeblood of Nashoba is the Fletchers’ evangelical enthusiasm for skiing that touches all who ski there.
So when Fletcher visits Sugarbush and skis with Smith, she feels a kindred bond to the fervor with which he takes to the sport. “He loves to ski and he loves to ski fast,” said the onetime Olympic downhiller. Put another way, Smith skis as often as he does not just as a means of supervising the smooth running of the business but also because he’s crazy about skiing. And that passion, re-stoked on an almost daily basis, inevitably percolates throughout the Sugarbush organization, to be shared by everyone from the ticket checker to people in the highest tiers of management. You’re not likely to find that kind of top-down contact high at a corporate conglomerate.
In a time of sweeping corporatization, independently owned ski areas might seem like orphaned waifs in the company of giants. Challenges certainly abound, especially in the cutthroat arena of season pass and day ticket pricing; it is not unlike the local hardware store trying to battle Home Depot on the price front.
But no one is clamoring for either Sugarbush or Mad River to jump aboard the corporate train. There’s no risk of getting sucked into the maw of corporate consolidation anytime soon. Character, community, family, personal connection—independently owned areas can dish out such soft-focus stuff in spades. And sometimes it might be delivered in the warm breath and nuzzling greeting of a friend named Rumble.
Win, Lili, and family celebrating the holidays at Lincoln Peak.
Mad River Glen's general manager, Matt Lillard, enjoys some fresh powder there.
SUGARBUSH JOINS THE MOUNTAIN COLLECTIVE
The Mountain Collective is an international alliance of independently owned ski destinations collaborating to offer one pass giving access to every resort in the program. The pass covers two days of skiing or riding at each participating resort, plus a 50 percent discount off their day ticket price after that. (Early purchasers receive a third day at one “designated” resort.) Pass pricing begins as low as $399 for adults and $1 for kids twelve and under, depending on time of purchase (Sugarbush Premium Passholders enjoy an automatic 50 percent discount off their day ticket price at the Mountain Collective resorts.)
Participating resorts include Alta, Aspen Snowmass, Banff Sunshine, Coronet Peak/The Remarkables, Jackson Hole, Lake Louise, Mammoth Mountain, Revelstoke, Snowbasin, Snowbird, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, Sugarbush, Sun Valley, Taos, Telluride, Thredbo Alpine Village. Mountain Collective global affiliates Chamonix (in France), Valle Nevado (in Chile), and Hakuba Valley (in Japan) offer two days of skiing or riding, but do not include the 50 percent discount off day tickets.
Sugarbush Premium Passholders enjoy an automatic 50 percent discount off their day ticket price at all Mountain Collective resorts.
Passes are available at www.mountaincollective.com.