Taos Ski Valley is 20 miles and 2,300 feet above its namesake, the town of Taos, New Mexico. The town brims with cultural diversity and history. Spanish conquistadors arrived before Pilgrims staked their future at Plymouth Rock. Georgia O’Keefe painted here, and John Nichols, author of “Milagro Beanfield War,” still writes. It’s the final resting place of Kit Carson, the fur trapper and guide. Nearby, the Pueblo Indians created what’s believed to be the longest continuously inhabited community in North America, now at least 1,000 years old.
In its own way, this history is connected to the modern new hotel at the ski area, The Blake—operations of which provide a glimpse of the future of Taos Ski Valley and, just possibly, the future of skiing altogether.
The question, and the challenge, is whether that future can be fashioned in a way of economic, social, and environmental sustainability.
B Corp: Accountability
The organizing prism for addressing this challenge at Taos is a program called the B Corporation. If you’ve never heard of B Corp, as it’s more frequently called, you’re not alone. Now 10 years old, it still has relatively low public recognition. Yet, consider this: A February 2017 email blast informing followers that Taos Ski Valley had been certified by B Corp gained one of the strongest responses the resort has ever seen. The email included no call to action, but still, customers voted with their dollars. It seems they were happy that Taos, now owned by billionaire Louis Bacon, was committing to a triple bottom line.
B Corps’ triple bottom line is economic development, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility. The organization’s website describes itself as being to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee, or USDA Organic certification is to milk. More than 2,100 companies from 50 countries and more than 130 industries are “working toward one unifying goal: to redefine success in business,” says the B Corp website. Taos Ski Valley was the world’s first ski area to be certified.
The program arrived at Taos under the auspices of Dave Norden, chief executive since July 2016. He had previously been at Stowe and, in the ’90s, had worked for Hines, the real estate developer, in the Aspen area. “I feel like I have learned more in the past 18 months than the rest of my life,” he says.
Upon his arrival in Taos, Norden and his team set out to know their community. He heard from local residents and businesses that Taos couldn’t be just about skiing and finances. It had to be about something more. That echoed conversations with his son, a business and environmental science major in Michigan. “He wants to save the world, and he thinks business is one way to do it. That’s B Corp,” says Norden. “Business can be a force of good.”
B Corp is not a shrine of attainment. Rather, it’s a “very extensive process,” says Norden. “It assesses your social contributions, your economic contributions, your environmental efforts and initiatives. The measurement alone makes your organization start to understand where your strengths and where your weaknesses are.”
B Corp evaluation of Taos Ski Valley began in November 2016, and yielded certification in February 2017. Taos achieved a far from perfect score: The minimum is 80 for certification, and Taos scored 90, out of a possible 200. Every two years brings another assessment by the certification arm, B Lab.
The Triple Bottom Line
It’s not all about the environment. Social responsibility matters, too. For example, Taos Ski Valley has instituted a policy of giving each of the 120 full-time and permanent employees three paid days each year to contribute to local charitable causes. That’s a result of the B Corp evaluation.
The company itself donates to local charitable causes, too, using the Taos Community Foundation as the primary funnel. The foundation’s mission is to connect “people and opportunities, generating resources to build a more creative, caring, and thriving community.” In June 2017, Taos Ski Valley donated $250,000. Of that, $150,000 came from Louis Bacon’s Ski Valley Foundation. Another $100,000 came from an earmarked portion of each nightly stay at The Blake, along with direct contributions from resort employees and through community giveback days.
Another reflection of the B Corp commitment is Taos’ wage structure. The minimum wage in New Mexico is $7.50 an hour; Taos raised its minimum to $10. Managers at the company believe this caused Walmart and other nearby employers to nudge their minimums upward, too, a sentiment that others in the community share.
Forest and river restoration have also received time and money from the resort. Memories of forest fires linger, especially the 2011 Las Conchas fire that burned 150,000 acres. Taos Ski Valley is now “deeply engaged” with the Rio Grande Water Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and the U.S. Forest Service in a 600,000-acre, multi-million-dollar project to reduce the risk of similar fire searing the Taos area.
Taos has also retained its other environmental measuring sticks. It has met its goal of a 20 percent carbon reduction, as part of the National Ski Areas Association’s Climate Challenge. The 80-room Blake was certified under the LEED building program at the silver level, in part due to the 50 geothermal wells that tap the Earth’s constant 55-degree heat to reduce use of fossil fuels in heating and cooling the hotel. Taos Ski Valley also embraces Protect Our Winters, the climate-change advocacy group.
Costs & Benefits
There’s a cost, Norden admits, but he adds, “For us, it’s a cost of doing business—and a cost of doing business well.
“One of the greatest benefits of being a B Corp is to be in the company of other highly performing organizations,” he says. “These are companies that have strong philanthropic records, have strong public lands positions, have strong labor practices.” With its B Corp certification, Norden and other managers can consult with peers from Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation, and other B-certified businesses in periodic meetings, nicknamed the B Hive.
B Corp has also helped with recruiting staff. When Norden and his human resources office asked new hires, mostly Millennials, what drew them to Taos, a surprising number cited the triple bottom line. Many know of B Corps. “They mention that,” says Norden.
Skylar Kraatz, the resort’s public relations coordinator, believes that Millennials—of which she is one—see the world differently than older generations. Climate change, she says, is a “daily conversation.”
One study, by the eco-minded Shelton Group, found that 82 percent of Millennials are concerned about how climate change will influence their children’s quality of life. Oddly, perhaps, they are less inclined than their elders to take personal actions, such as reduce use of plastic water bottles or turn down the thermostat. Instead, they choose to support companies that have a larger perceived impact. They are skeptical of many large corporations, but put a lot of faith into ones they trust, according to a summary reported by a website called mgbplanet.
The oldest of the Millennials are now turning 35 to 37. They’re the future—and in some cases, current—guests of The Blake. The hotel is a step up for lodging at Taos Ski Valley, with valets and just enough pampering to provide comfort without pretension.
The defining feature of The Blake is its attention to place. This is not a generic-branded four- or five-star lodge plopped down in the Sangre de Cristo Range of New Mexico. At every hallway turn are the footprints of local history and culture: an original Georgia O’Keefe painting in the lobby, early skiing photos by Dick Durrance, pictures from the local Pueblos. If you leave The Blake without knowing something about the Taos Artist Society, it’s only because of a total lack of curiosity.
Steven Rose, the director of hospitality, says the challenge was to fit Southwestern culture inside a building with a Bavarian exterior. “This hotel could not exist anywhere but where it is. Not Denver, not Telluride. This is the anti-hotel,” he says.
Before The Blake opened, local Pueblo members were invited to review the art and other depictions. They insisted upon changes, and got them. A picture of Native Americans in the lobby misrepresented, for example; now, the image of those individuals lightly overlays the gray steel elevator doors. It’s part of The Blake’s broad but subtle recognition of the greater Taos community.
HR director and Taos native Dawn Boulware says sustainability is paramount for success. “If somebody thinks they cannot take care of the land, or not take care of the water, you won’t have a business for very long. The same thing is true for taking care of the staff,” she says.
As HR director, Boulware must think broadly about matters important to local residents and employees. During the protests over the Keystone pipeline, for example, the question arose whether pension funds for employees were invested in companies involved in the pipeline being laid across tribal lands in South Dakota—many employees were strongly opposed. An independent adviser found no offending investments.
Other investments are clearer. The 61-year-old Bacon has invested heavily in upgrades since he bought the resort from the Blake family in 2013. His pockets are deep: Forbes estimated the hedge-fund manager’s wealth in early February at $1.65 billion.
Bacon’s projects include the undergrounding of electrical cables and other utilities up the canyon of Hondo Creek. The children’s center is another key feature, as the resort makes a play for Millennials and their children. After skewing high in age demographics, Taos has been growing younger. “All of a sudden, we are seeing more families, younger people, a lot of ethnicity from the Dallas and Houston markets,” says Norden.
Bacon rarely gives interviews, but in a prepared statement for SAM he did confirm his support for B Corp, as it “reflects the core values of the ownership and management of Taos Ski Valley, and we’re honored to be recognized. TSV is committed to sustainability, transparency, and accountability, and to preserving our unique recreation opportunities for future generations to enjoy.”
Norden hopes other resorts follow suit. “We would love to have ski areas become B Corps. It’s the right thing for the industry, and the right thing for the globe,” he says.
Downsides to B Corps for a resort operator? “We haven’t found one,”
he says. “This has been a wonderful
ride. We believe the benefits have been enormous.”