The story of Ski Bromont, a day area in Quebec, Canada, is all about the numbers. The 2005/06 season was the year of sixes and thus belonged to the Devil—Mr. 666. The area purchased its sixth lift in six years, rebranded its website with devil horns, and found a half-dozen other ways to celebrate all things six.
Next season, logically, belongs to the number seven. The horns have been tossed aside in favor of Seventh Heaven, which might not be too far off for the families that score one of the 10,000 limited-edition family season passes for $777 ($700 U.S.). In addition, $7 million ($6.3 million U.S.) will be invested in the mountain, the area’s seventh lift will be installed and a seventh side opened.
Ski Bromont president Charles Desourdy loves these numerological celebrations. He couldn’t have been happier when the fourth year of the “new” Ski Bromont coincided with his age, 44. Desourdy, now 48, is the second generation of Desourdys to run the business, along with one brother and two sisters. His father founded the mountain, and the town, in 1964 and the business has stayed in the family since.
The number themes are fun, but the most astonishing numbers are the ones that have shaped Bromont’s massive expansion, both physically and economically, since 1998. In that year, Bromont started its journey from broke to boom by boosting its annual skier visits from 100,000 in 1998/99 to 600,000 in 2005/06.
A Bit About Bromont
Ski Bromont is located about an hour outside of Montreal, one of Canada’s biggest cities and an internationally recognized cultural hotspot. Bromont the town is a “city with a ski hill in it,” says Desourdy, meaning it has no central pedestrian-only village like nearby, Intrawest-owned Mont Tremblant. Rather, it’s surrounded by what is essentially a suburb of Montreal, in the tourist-friendly Eastern Townships region of Quebec. The ski area has 72 trails on four mountain faces; two faces on Mont Brome, one on Pic du Chevreuil, and one on Mont Soleil. There is night skiing on 46 of those trails. Their annual visits are split evenly between night and day, with 300,000 people during the dark hours and 300,000 for the day.
But back in 1997, Bromont was coming to the end of a series of bad seasons that had basically put it out of business. They had fewer than 20 trails, skier visits in the five-digit range, and declining attendance. It was a far fall from the glory-filled 1980s when the area hosted the Alpine World Cup and celebrated by investing in world-class facilities.
The family knew the business wasn’t a lost cause and refinancing with the bank allowed them to upgrade the resort’s infrastructure with new equipment. The trail system was expanded in 1999 to 29 trails and snowmaking and night skiing were expanded as well. A vision was decided upon and a mission chosen: offer customers the best service, the best snow and the best prices, and they will come in droves.
“Our vision was that you need to give top quality service from start to finish. Everything has to be perfect,” Desourdy says. “The food, the quality, the lifts, the snow, everything.” It was the beginning of a strategy that’s still in progress today.
The Plan In Action
The first part of the plan—the perfect snow part—is snowmaking and grooming, says Desourdy. The number-one priority was upping the snowmaking capacity so that Bromont could guarantee its visitors good snow all the time. “At Bromont, we have about two meters [six feet] of snow per year and we get between eight to 10 days of rain between December 15 and March 15,” he notes. “This year we had 14, one of the worst years ever.” Despite this, he adds, they still came in under budget, due in part to the fact that they could keep conditions consistent when Mother Nature was of no help. They had 600 HKD snow guns running last year and next year they’re adding more for a total of—you guessed it—777 HKDs.
“Our secret ingredient has been the thickness of snow we can make,” Desourdy confides, explaining that the magic amount is four to six feet of snow. At this depth, he says, the snow can absorb the rain without melting and turning into a highway of ice. It gives Bromont’s other pride and joy, the groomers, enough snow to work with so that they can make corduroy lines, not acres of ice chunks. Ski Bromont dedicated close to 88,000 hours to grooming last year with their eight-snowcat fleet. They start grooming at 11 a.m. and methodically groom the whole mountain during the day, opening and closing runs as they go. This works out to a freshly groomed trail approximately every half hour. Four groomers at a time attack each trail during the day for expedient results and at night, that number is cut down to two per trail when time is less of a factor. “People go crazy,” Desourdy says of skiers’ eagerness to get on the freshly groomed trails. “They’re not powder hunters, they’re corduroy hunters!” Together, this snowmaking and grooming strategy allows Bromont to claim guaranteed conditions to its visitors and season’s passholders.
Increasing the amount of season’s passholders is another key strategy for Bromont. The ski hill first offered specially-priced season’s passes in 2002: four people who purchased as a group could buy four night-and-weekday passes for C$400 ($360 U.S.), or $100 each. (It was the year of the fours: they added four new trails, a new quad chair, and gave the employees a raise of 44 cents per hour.) That year they went from 3,000 passholders, or members as Ski Bromont calls them, to 27,000. The influx of pre-season revenue allowed the mountain to add another chair and open more terrain. The process has been repeated each year since, and the mountain now has over 40,000 members and a heck of a lot more open terrain.
The pass pricing has two main benefits for the mountain: it gives them guaranteed income before the season even starts and it creates different guest traffic patterns throughout the day because passholders often come during off-hours, which relieves the mountain’s infrastructure during its heaviest time slots.
“I think the future of the ski business all across North America is those season passes,” says Desourdy, admitting that the strategy hinges on the nearby population density of Montreal for its success. The prices for the passes are set to capitalize on the number of days the average person will spend at Bromont, which Desourdy estimates is six or seven days a year. (Canadian Ski Council statistics indicate that Quebecers are the most frequent skiers in Canada, at an average of 6.4 days per season.) They’ll come enough times to pay off their pass and often no more or no less than that. “People consume what they buy,” he says. “If you sell the season pass at $800, on average, they’ll consume $800. If you sell it at $400, on average, they’ll consume $400.”
In pricing and structuring their packages to maximize low-traffic times—nights and weekend afternoons— Desourdy says he thinks they’ve created a new category, the late afternoon skier. Many of the people who take advantage of the after-3 p.m. discounts on the weekends are young families who leave by 7 p.m., he says. This strategy fills what might have been a dead time on the mountain, before the Friday and Saturday night skiing crowd kicks in. But it’s also a demographic the Canadian Ski Council has identified as crucial to the continued growth of the sport in their recent Canadian Model for Growth report. Those young families are building a future fan base for both the sport and ski areas. Again, Desourdy attributes the success of the late afternoon and night skiing to the guaranteed conditions of the mountain—people are happy to come later on, he says, if they know it’s going to be good when they get there.
Perfecting the product, the ski hill, has been top priority for Bromont since its rebirth in 1998. Bringing in the people to use the product was the next step. They’ve expanded their infrastructure to accommodate all those new people by adding new buildings for guests to relax and eat in and a new building for guest lockers. But the big investment into the resort’s services and guest amenities is still one year away, says Bromont public relations director Marie Elaine Dion. The money set aside for services and amenities has been pushed back one year to 2007/08 in favor of on-hill upgrades. “We really want to have the product as best as possible,” Dion explains. “Once that’s all settled, then we’re going to move onto lodging and other services.” Parking services have been improved for guests by adding parking lots, shuttle services and a new drop-off turnaround. Fee parking has been added to the main lodge’s lot, with free parking for early birds (before 9:30 a.m.) and passholders. Others park further away, but get a free shuttle service, which Desourdy says has gone over well.
Financing & Growth
Ski Bromont has invested C$33 million ($29.7 million U.S.) into the mountain in the past seven years. They’ve installed five lifts in the past five years and expanded the amount of trails five times over. So how has this family-run operation with shareholders been able to invest so much and move so quickly?
“First of all, we’re a very profitable business because of all those season passes,” Desourdy explains, “65 percent of our revenues [for tickets] are in by mid-December. When you sit with your banker and they see that 65 percent of your revenues are sold before you even know if it is going to snow or not, that’s a huge advantage.” In addition, the brutal revenue years of the ‘90s have turned into a business benefit, giving Ski Bromont an income tax break on those losses that they’re able to use today. Finally, the company currently invests 100 percent of its profits from the resort and from real estate back into the company.
The rapid expansion of Ski Bromont is due in part to their efforts at making their revenue work quickly and efficiently. The nine-member board of directors for the company has a mandate to make sure decisions are made at every meeting and to keep the door open to suggestions from all levels of staff. Everyone is expected to be on the same page and working toward the same goal. Wrong decisions aren’t punished and right ones are pushed through quickly. They work closely with the local tourism body to create attractive packages and draw attention to the region.
All of these strategies, directives and goals have Ski Bromont hopping from dawn ‘til dusk—and later. Ski Bromont’s popular Nuits Blanches (White Nights) run 10 times a year and allow skiers to stay on the slopes until 2 a.m. The resort’s growth is continuing at an astonishing pace; Desourdy plans to have a total of 10 lifts and 100 trails in place by the time their master plan is completed.
With terrain expansion, naturally comes real estate. The city of Bromont has been planned for 25,000 people and currently has only 6,000 residents, leaving lots of room for growth. Despite being founded by Charles Desourdy’s father, Bromont is its own municipality and runs as such. Ski Bromont, the company, owns 450 acres of land around the mountain, which they’ve slated for development. Between 50 and 100 slopeside units are to be built per year for the next four years on the land, to a total of about 2,000. Dion says that Ski Bromont works closely with the city to plan the real estate development, so that it grows in tandem with the rest of the town.
Their original vision, to offer the best quality to their customers, is well on its way. My interview with Desourdy coincides with the announcement that Ski Bromont won two of Quebec’s prestigious Les Mercuriades awards, which recognize success in Quebec-based business, in the Leisure and Culture category and the Small and Medium Business of the Year Award. Desourdy is still brimming with excitement when I call and it’s a genuine reflection of his enthusiasm for the industry. In fact, he says, his interest in the industry, rather than skiing itself, may be the secret to Ski Bromont’s success.
“I’m not an [avid] skier, I’ve never taken a ski trip—but I’m very interested in the ski business. Maybe that’s an advantage, not being a skier?” he asks rhetorically. “Because you don’t see the business the same, instead you think, ‘what should I do to interest myself in skiing?’ That’s why we groom so much—I hate to ski on icy conditions and so does my wife!”