Bill Benneyan, Mountain Creek President, 2003 SAMMY Winner
Where you were in your career when you won a SAMMY, and big moments since?
When I came to Mountain Creek as general manager in 1994, I had migrated from U.S. Skiing, then navigated through Burton during the halcyon years of Craig Kelly, Jeff Brushie, and Terje’s first teenage arrival on U.S. soil, and found myself in New York City producing mass-market events. It was a love thing. My wife, her job and our home were outside New York City. That’s when I discovered this closest ski resort to the City with a colorful history.
Ten years later, in 2003, I was serving as director of marketing and sales, ski school, ticketing, guest services, call center and self-appointed ombudsman and cultural curator for Mountain Creek. After a massive build-out of lifts, snowmaking and our first resort lodging (under Intrawest), we were riding the wave of terrain park growth and reveling in the energy of growth and animation of a suburban youth-dominated ski area.
We had just wrapped up a season courting influencers the old-school way, with weekly “New Music Sessions” live concerts outside the lodge on the slopes. I’m sure that I tested the full patience and tolerance of the entire operations team with all the unreasonable demands that come with producing concerts week-after-week, in addition to running a bustling day/night ski area.
When I got a call from David Rowan I couldn’t imagine why. Known for having something to say about everything, I was uncharacteristically at a loss for words when I learned that Mountain Creek’s general manager, Charles Blier, was my most vocal supporter—despite, or perhaps because of, the, let’s say, “energetic” exchanges we had on a regular basis. I’m pleased to say that as direct competitors across the New Jersey/Pennsylvania state line we remain good friends and frequent “measuring up” friends today.
Best Day/Worst Day/Most Memorable in the business?
Best Day: Scene: Near midnight on a clear, cold starry night in February 2004. The next morning, Mountain Creek will host the U.S. Grand Prix of Snowboarding. It was an audacious undertaking for a scrappy New Jersey mountain, requiring an extended all-resort effort, including the massive capital construction of the superpipe…and it was magnificent.
The actual event was secondary to the success of simply getting to this point. Standing under the lights in the empty venue, with the pipe shining wedding-cake perfect was a fully satisfying moment of realizing the vision that had been defined nearly a year earlier. A small band of co-conspirators stand close together and quietly look up at the hill for a long time, and then silently turn and walk away. There’s nothing more to say.
Cut to two years later: The Olympic Snowboard Team was named at Mountain Creek—but this night remains the best, for all the work the each and every employee put into being the best hosts possible.
Worst Day: (or “Most Memorable” or “Worst AND Most Memorable”) What ski operator doesn’t have a list? Resilience and optimism are part of the DNA. Fires, hurricanes, floods, lifts that won’t run when we need them most, marketing faux pas, too little snow, too much snow (it’s happened!), accidents…pick one. We’ve seen our share and the stories could fill a night at an empty après bar. Really? We want to go down this road?
Not to be self-centered or dramatic, but without a doubt, the worst day would be when I opened up my chest in a stupid snowmobile accident, checking the mountain in a pre-dawn tour. The occasion was preparation prior to our “Snoasis” concert (with just one half of the warring Gallagher brothers, of course). As one patroller said to me years later with no hyperbole, “I’ve seen your heart, man!”
I’ve never been prouder of, or more grateful for, our incredible patrollers for saving my life; and I’ve never been more thankful that the event went off without a hitch, without me! Proves two things, 1) I DO have a heart, and 2) there is value in excellent planning, preparation and assignment of roles and responsibilities.
More devastating (but fortunately also a happy ending) was our post-season employee cardboard derby race. It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Our crackerjack maintenance team built an astounding (and legal) cardboard sled—like an Elon Musk Space-X rocket. Watching them hurtle down the slope was jaw dropping, until it became terrifyingly clear they couldn’t stop, and without slowing down they ran straight into the side of the base building. The wait for extrication, and the long weeks of hospital recovery for three of our resort team were interminable.
Who was/is a memorable mentor?
I don’t think I’ve had a single mentor in the classic sense, but I’ve been very fortunate to have had many, many very smart and passionate people cross my path who’ve made an indelible impression on me, positive or negative, and always with a takeaway. That’s my way of avoiding a laundry list of names that would read like one big suck-up. Those of you who spent time with me in any role—you know who you are—I thank you. I am better because of you. Being in the room with smart, challenging people elevates me to be smarter. Probably the greatest single lesson has been to question everything, and the importance of working with people who can handle the ambiguity of new concepts and shape them into an executable plan.
Did you ever almost leave the industry, and why? Why did you stay?
Once. I was a huge fan of the Jack Black film “School of Rock.” Who wasn’t? Then in 2005, I saw the documentary about the real Dewey Finn, Paul Green and his ensemble-style Rock School in Philadelphia. Intoxicating! This thing is real!
Knowing it was her dream to edit a music magazine, I immediately recruited our new PR staffer into my scheme. “Hey, we’ve got to call this Paul Green and do a summer camp at Mountain Creek.” So, we dialed up and discovered that Paul Green’s Rock School was ready to expand.
Next thing you know, we’re hosting a number of best-of-the-best Rock School concerts and being blown away by the young talent. How COOL is this!? Young people doing extraordinary things—together. So cool that when they looked for an assistant to open a new school, the only right thing to do was to recommend my new PR assistant for the job—shout out to Jill Livik rockin’ the drum kit!
Invigorated by the combination of education, performance, and teamwork, this was something I really felt I could contribute to. I felt there was no better candidate than me to lead the franchise expansion, but alas, my college band five-chord chops didn’t cut it to be a legitimate music school exec, and yes, it actually mattered. Rest assured, I’ve managed to maintain all the key ingredients of education, performance, and team work in cultivating Mountain Creek.
If you could work in another industry doing something completely different, what would it be?
I think about that from time to time, on any rainy January weekend in particular, and usually come up short to find anything that feels as natural. Actor? Writer? Race car driver? Teacher? Architect? I always thought I’d be in education or the creative arts. I think I’ve found an outlet for all these as a leader in the resort environment. I get the satisfaction of a teacher, I get to exercise creativity every day, and I love to play designer and planner with GoogleEarth and a Sharpie.
When was the last time you actually purchased a lift ticket?
Sierra-at-Tahoe and Squaw Valley, spring of 2013, on a Tahoe junket with my then 11 year-old-son. Hello Andy Wirth! You were out of the office or I would have put the touch on you for sure. John [Rice], I just like Sierra so much I don’t mind the tariff. Keep it cool.
How many days do you go without washing your ski / snowboard socks?
Socks? You’re supposed to wear socks? The closer the snow, the more you go!
What’s the last thing you searched in Google?
Statue of Liberty tickets; Dog Crate Heater; Midland School, Calif.; Huffington Post + Bill Murray
Ben Folds and candy corn (thankfully only typically available in October…)
Where do you keep your SAMMY Award?
On the office bookshelf, next to the trusty Tivoli radio and holding up a well-read copy of Michael Eisner’s “Camp.”
Thoughts on the future?
It occurred to me this summer that of the dozen or so new management hires or promotions into key roles, nearly all of them are young men and women under 30 (some WELL under 30!).
I’m reminded of that old Mark Twain quote: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” Twain also said that all it takes to succeed is “ignorance and confidence.”
It seems only a few years ago I may have dropped a smart-ass remark about the ski industry being run by a bunch of slow-moving middle-aged white men, the implication being that us ignorant young ‘uns had all the answers. I’ve learned a lot. In that inevitable, ironic way, here we are 25 years later, I hope less ignorant and with some proven success.
Where some of us may have succeeded with confidence and passion, the new crop seems smarter, faster, and a great joy to teach, create, and share learning together with every day.