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March 2016

Trailblazer :: Claire Humber, Resort Planner

Third in a series on individuals who have had a significant impact on developing the North American mountain resort industry.

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SAM: What was the first project you worked on for SE Group?

Humber: Ironically, the very first thing I did was actually a project in Japan for a ski area that I don’t believe ever got built! Aside from that, when I first started, I was based out in Whistler and worked on a project called Mt. Mackenzie, which we now know as Revelstoke. My first project out East was at Hunter Mountain.

SAM: How has the resort industry evolved in its approach to planning during your career?

Humber: When I first started back in the early 1990s, a lot of the conversations were about expanding terrain and installing a new detachable lift to access new, usually upper-level terrain. That’s what everyone at the table was excited about—more trails and more lifts. Then NSAA’s Model for Growth encouraged operators to shift their focus toward getting beginners into the sport and growing/retaining core participants. Resorts now study who their guests are and what their guests need. There has also been a growing concern for “weather-proofing” winter operations, and an increased understanding that a sustainable business model needs to consider year-round operations.

Today there’s a greater focus on the value of a bigger-picture experience. Twenty-five years ago there wasn’t that much interest in things like guest service facilities, restaurant space, great rental shops and learning centers, and summer attractions. It’s not just about the skiing anymore. It’s a much broader mountain experience.

SAM: How has the planning industry evolved?

Humber: Out of necessity, the master planning process is much more comprehensive these days. This is in response to evolving market conditions and an increased focus on sustainable business models. The process begins a lot earlier than before. That’s because there’s a lot more attention paid to strategy, positioning, brand—and an understanding of who you are as a resort, what your market is, and what your place is in that market. This clarity is critical before you start talking about what goes where.

The other thing is the need to focus on strategy-related implementation. Having a master plan is great, but if you don’t have a strategy for getting things built and an understanding of how each component of that master plan can benefit the business enterprise, then you really just have a pretty picture. This is all part of the broadening of the planning process, which needed to adapt to the changes going on in the marketplace.

SAM: What’s your favorite part about living in Vermont?

Humber: My most recent favorite thing about living in Vermont is riding my bike to work. I live in Burlington and I can either drive to work in 10-15 minutes, or I can bike to work in 15-20 minutes. That involves biking along the lake, which is a fantastic way to begin and end the day. It’s one of those many things we all need to be thinking about, as far as getting out of our cars and reducing our footprint on the planet, and I love it.

SAM: What factors will affect resort planning in the future, even if they don’t now?

Humber: Operational efficiencies will continue to dominate the conversation. In today’s reality, resorts have to focus equally on increasing revenue and managing expenses. It’s getting more and more expensive to build and maintain the infrastructure needed to run a mountain resort, so more innovation and strategy is required to be successful.

We see more destinations broadening their boundaries to where they’re considering the resort and the adjacent community as one destination. This allows for a greater offering of multi-season activities, which in turn elevates the resort experience as well as the standard of living for residents.

Resorts will continue to do more to set themselves apart from their peers. Within the general marketplace, there is more emphasis on differentiation and providing a unique experience. It’s expected that you will have good lift access, good snow, and a variety of terrain. What do you offer beyond the expected? Different, unique, memorable. Those are the priorities people are basing their travel decisions on.

SAM: What’s the best work trip you’ve ever been on?

Humber: That’s a really tough one! I’m very lucky to be able to travel the world and experience all of these remarkable places as part of my job. I will say that one of my top 10 work days involved a fabulous ski tour at Big Sky. It was the middle of January, 30 degrees, blue skies, and completely still—a rare combination! There was a big group of 17 of us. We started with breakfast at the Yellowstone Club, then we skied into Spanish Peaks, all over Big Sky and Moonlight Basin, and eventually finished with dinner at Spanish Peaks. It was a day to remember.

I also think of the number of times I’ve had these great little ski tours with the GM or someone who knows the mountain I’m visiting really well. We usually don’t have a ton of time, so getting out with people like that to see the best the mountain has to offer is just a treat.

SAM: How can resorts be smarter about planning?

Humber: It’s important for resorts to pay attention to their ongoing operations by keeping good data on their market, their customers, and their business—and then actually using that data, analyzing it, and acting on what it tells you.

Be curious and get out and look at what others are doing. Don’t just limit your observations to within our industry, but venture out into other realms of the world of recreation. Ideas are waiting!

Program before plan—always begin planning with strategic thinking. The process begins long before you start drawing plans. A lot of analysis should come first, so that you have great clarity on your vision for the future and how that is relevant to your niche and differentiation in the marketplace. Also, consider how your plan manifests your brand. All of this informs what should actually go into your plan; that’s what I mean by program. Do the homework before you start to do the physical planning. Vision, market, site, operations—it’s all part of that bigger picture.

SAM: What’s your favorite kind of chocolate?

Humber: Oh, that’s easy: dark chocolate. Somewhere around 60 to 70 percent—not that I’m picky. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m very motivated by dark chocolate.