Sharing the Love
Tuesday, September 17, 2019
Written by John Bleh
Winter can be unpredictable. Conditions change from day to day, even hour to hour. But arrive at Sugarbush on any given morning and you’ll find a constant presence regardless of the weather: one or two people bundled in red jackets, ready to greet you—rain, snow, or shine—with a smiling face as you head into the lodge.
Depending on how often you visit, you may get to know these faces pretty well—or maybe not, since close to 100 volunteers make up the Sugarbush Ambassador Program. Sugarbush prides itself on providing excellent guest service—the resort was given a Best in Service in the East award in Ski magazine’s resort guide last year. Over the past couple of decades, much of that work has been done by the ambassadors. “What some don’t realize is the high bar this group sets for themselves,” noted Amber Broadaway, who currently oversees the program. “They set an example for the rest of the departments with their great sense of teamwork and camaraderie.”
The program has been around in various iterations for decades. Barbara King, the ambassador with the longest tenure, has been involved since the early 1990s. At that time, the program was run by Tim Harris, who now works at Green Mountain Valley School. “I think it was about forty or fifty people back then, and just like today, the focus was on customer service. However, a big part of the ambassador’s job was to provide guests with current information about the ski conditions,” said Tim.
But look earlier than that, and it starts to get a little fuzzy. What is certain is that the program is much older than anyone currently at Sugarbush thought, before we started digging into the history. According to Blaise Carrig—who began his ski industry career at Sugarbush in the 1970s as a ski patroller, worked his way up to president, and helped lead Vail Resorts until his retirement in 2018—the program actually began at neighboring Glen Ellen. “When Roy Cohen bought Glen Ellen in 1979, he liked a program they had where each morning one ski patroller and one ski instructor were stationed in front of the base lodge greeting guests and answering questions.” Roy put that practice into place at Sugarbush, and over time it evolved into a volunteer program drawing from the community. As Harry Hutchison, who ran the program from 2007 to 2016, described it, “The whole point is to have them be a bookend experience. They’re the first you see in the morning and the last you see when you leave.”
Ambassadors today are as unique as the ski trails they point people toward, but their love for Sugarbush binds them together. “I fell in love with this mountain and immediately knew I wanted to help share that passion with others,” said Anne Halvorson, who has a condo near the mountain and has been part of the program since 2007. And though participants in this volunteer program get various discounts and benefits at the resort (including a season pass, ski vouchers, and discounts on food and retail), it’s that yearning to share their love for Sugarbush that keeps them here. “This program is different from others,” current ambassador Bob Durkin told me. He first skied here in 1959, and though he lives closer to Stowe, he’s chosen to come to Sugarbush for the past decade because of how much he loves the program. “This is more engaging. You’re out on the front lines with guests, helping them and sharing your passion. Making somebody’s day is the best part. To see the tenseness of a family melt away as they step out of their car is incredible.”
You’ll see ambassadors doing plenty more than just greeting. Ever had a cup of hot cider handed to you at the end of the day? That’s all them. Have you been asked to provide feedback on your visit? That’s them too. They’ve been known to go above and beyond in a host of ways, including helping guide skiers who seem overmatched or lost on the hill down to the base even when they’re not on duty; picking up any trash they see around the resort; and pitching in with various events. Look around, and you’ll find them at the top of chairlifts, in front of the base lodges, and touring around the mountain, ready to help if you need it. For many, their favorite service to provide is the Meet the Mountain Tour, which started under Beth Urie, who ran the program from the mid-1990s until 2007. “Back then you’d take guests on every single chairlift,” reminisced Barbara. Today, tours are about two hours, with ambassadors focused on a couple of key chairlifts to give a quick layout of the trail system while providing lots of interesting tidbits about the mountain. “People joined the program because they liked to ski,” said Beth. “And so they appreciate the combination of being on mountain while providing frontline guest service.”
The other big reason they’ve stayed is because they love the community. “It’s sort of like joining a club,” said Paula Baldwin, a longtime Vermont resident who first came to Sugarbush because of its ski school programs. She spends most of her ambassador hours at Mt. Ellen. “It’s fun, there’s great teamwork, and everyone really enjoys being there.” That sentiment was expressed by every single ambassador I spoke with. “It’s a group that really looked like they were enjoying themselves,” Nancy Mercer told me, of her decision with her husband, John, to become ambassadors a decade ago. “We joined to meet people.” David Grimason, a Vermont resident who has been in the program for the past eight years, joined for a different reason: “The perks are so great at first,” he said. But he, too, has stayed with the program because of the people. “It’s the camaraderie of the group that is really enjoyable. And they keep you skiing, too!”
The group does a lot more than just work together. You’ll see them eating together in the cafeteria, and they often share meals at each other’s houses after they’re done at the mountain. They bolster their yearly orientation with a festive potluck, complete with homemade muffins, coffee cake, and fruit for breakfast, and chili, sandwiches, and salads for lunch. At the end of the orientation, they host a big bonfire party, which used to be at Harry’s house and has since moved to the home of Win Smith, Sugarbush’s president and majority owner. They throw a big party at the end of each season, aptly named “AmBash,” with a DJ, dancing, food, and games at one of the local restaurants. Each bash has a different theme, from Hawaiian surf to western to vintage ski to disco. But maybe the most impressive piece is their travel camaraderie. Harry, whose partner, Geri, is (conveniently) a travel agent, has helped arrange all sorts of trips, to destinations around the world. There’s the annual trip to the Mont Sutton ski area in Quebec, where the ambassadors rent out an entire inn for several days. Then there are the big trips, filled with ambassadors and their friends and family, to places including Kenya, Tanzania, and Japan.
The ambassador community is tightly knit, yet it’s always open to expanding its family. Many ambassadors are retired couples who either live nearby or have a second home here, but a growing number of new ambassadors are younger professionals with families. Take Jason Schnoor, who joined in 2012 in his mid-thirties. “My kids have grown to love this place, and they don’t really like going anywhere else. For me, it really fit in with my busy life of being a young professional.”
So if you ever feel lost or confused, or simply have a question, don’t hesitate to track down one of those red-jacketed ambassadors. They’re not just here to smile at you, they want to help. And if throughout your ski day you find yourself stopping on a trail to help another guest, if you enjoy guiding your friends or even strangers around the mountain, or if you’re just looking for a new community to join, you may want to consider the ambassador program. They’ll welcome you with open arms—and a new red jacket.
To learn how to join the program, contact Amber Broadaway at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-583-6382. For information on all opportunities at Sugarbush, contact email@example.com.