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May 2016

More Than Just Looks

Landscaping has long been a low priority for winter resorts, but summer operations are giving many a new perspective.

Written by Adam Portz | 0 comment

The natural landscape of most ski areas is a tremendous asset—offering amazing views, vast amounts of open space, cascading streams, and verdant forest. Since most guests live in a more urban environment, a trip to the mountains is about much more than recreational pursuits. The restorative nature of the mountain experience is universal, and should be at the forefront of our thinking relative to creating the year-round experience at our resorts.

John Muir said it best: “Keep close to Nature’s heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

Much of this magic occurs on the mountain, but the design and detail of the base area contributes, too. Done right, a human-scale environment provides guests a place to socialize, relax, and enjoy life before and after skiing, or at any time in other seasons.

While winter’s blanket of white snow provides much of the season’s landscape, in the summertime a base area can seem like a barren dust bowl, lacking natural elements and character. With a strong focus on summer recreation and adventure parks, managers and operators need to pay attention to the summer condition of the resort and base area environment.

A great outdoor space is fundamental to providing a memorable guest experience, even if it doesn’t directly contribute to the bottom line. Successful outdoor spaces encourage guests to linger, and a memorable day is more likely to trigger the desire to return. Who in our business isn’t focused on increasing length of stay and repeat visitation?
The physical environment of the resort should reflect your brand and identity from the moment the guest arrives. That takes more than “shrubbing it up” or adding a couple flowerbeds here and there. More and more, guests want authenticity, preservation of the natural environment, and places to enjoy sun, shade, views, and socialize.

To gain a better understanding of this environment across the seasons, let’s break down the components that contribute to a successful outdoor experience.

The Arrival Experience

A guest’s experience begins at the moment of arrival. Your resort entry creates the first impression. These impressions set the tone for the day. Think: welcome. Think: life will be better here. Think: WOW! A well-executed sense of arrival establishes a place as a destination.

In most cases, the landscape is the palette to work with. Use it to capture an impressive view or craft a gateway to signal arrival. Announce the resort with an entry sign that embodies the resort’s brand and environment (think colors and materials, such as stone, wood, metal, and colors), as well as seasonal plantings and accent lighting. These all contribute to the experience.

A successful sense of arrival extends beyond the first intersection to where the guest gets out of the car. Don’t parade guests through a pothole-filled gravel parking lot to arrive at your resort. Establish a circulation route that defines the resort’s entry/arrival, and relegates the parking lot to a service role.

Once the car is parked, the pedestrian environment becomes paramount to the guest experience.

Places to Walk

From the parking lot to the snowfront and beyond, walkways are the connective tissue of the resort. They provide clear direction on where people should go and will make a journey out of the experience. It’s not necessary to provide the streets, alleys, and halls of Venice, but a network of circulation with a variety of scales and streetscape elements will enrich the guest experience throughout the base area.

The design and detailing of walkways must accommodate winter guests who are wearing ski boots and carrying gear and also translate into a pleasant summer experience. In the summer, guests are doing different things and can’t glide on snow to get there, so you must show them the way. Use walkways to guide them to the chairlift for a scenic ride, or to the adventure course, the BBQ on the terrace, or other base area activities and facilities.

Material selection for walkways is important not only for the aesthetics (patterning, color, and texture), but for slip resistance (think: walking in ski boots) and maintenance. Asphalt can be hot in the summertime, and broom finished concrete can be slippery in the winter. Exposed aggregate concrete and concrete pavers are both good choices. Find the right material for seasonal needs and maintenance considerations.

Last but not least: give guests somewhere to walk beyond the base area. In survey after survey, trails rank as a top amenity sought by both resort guests and homeowners. Have an accessible trail network that offers an easy half-mile to three-mile jaunt. Weave the path through forest and open space, and integrate the route with signage. The path should take them to a destination, such as a wildlife boardwalk or a natural feature.

Places to Socialize

Together with pathways, plazas form the foundation of the pedestrian experience. Plazas and terraces act as gathering areas for social interaction, whether enjoying food and drinks or participating in an event. Operationally, these spaces can be multi-functional and vary in size, serving all seasons and a variety of resort needs.

Plazas themselves need focal points, along with well-designed edges, for people to engage and feel comfortable—it’s part of human nature. Sculpture or a monument serves as a focal point of the plaza to engage guests and emphasize socialization in all seasons. A water feature or splash pad that operates in the summer will nearly disappear in the winter. continued

The scale of the plaza space and its focus/orientation are critical to satisfying the needs for human comfort. Sun, views, scale, and the condition of the perimeter edge all impact how the space is perceived and enjoyed. Equally important for families today is having shady areas available as a respite from the sun. The snowfront, or beach, typically offers a vast open view toward the mountain, and that may drive the design of the space to comfort guests. In contrast, a plaza surrounded by buildings, as in a village setting, will typically focus inward, with varying environmental conditions that affect the social dynamics of the space.

Successful plaza design incorporates a variety of elements to create visual interest. These elements can include paving patterns, foreground elements that highlight topographic breaks or the patterns of a building, and/or contrasting colors. Seating areas, lighting, and planting also contribute to the human scale of plazas.

Getting Guests Around

More than just signage, wayfinding plays a key role in the guest experience. Wayfinding provides orientation and navigation cues through the built environment. Use a creative combination of signage and design ideas, such as site lighting, or using a building façade as the cue for arrival. These visual cues add animation to the resort environment, and provide the critical “know where you are” information to your guests.

Just as important, signage should support the resort brand by using consistent imagery, colors, fonts, and materials.

A successful signage system is organized around a hierarchy, starting with arrival and entry, to directing driver decisions, to pedestrians walking along the snowfront, to finding the closest restroom in the lodge. Add another level of interest by using interpretive and educational signs to tell a story about history, wildlife, natural systems, or people.

Planting and Natural Elements

Thoughtful planting design makes an impact on the overall guest experience in both winter and summer. The landscape of a base area does more than just create a pretty picture—plantings and natural stonework will establish areas of strong visual interest, enhance modest buildings, provide privacy and shade, and conceal service areas and utilities.

Make the landscape an attraction in its own right with a wildflower meadow walk, or a raised bed garden to furnish vegetables for the resort’s restaurant. Think of how the landscape could enhance the backdrop for wedding pictures, too.

Planting with a predominant native palette has several benefits: tolerance of the local climate, disease resistance, and compatibility with the mountain landscape of most ski areas. While some landscape professionals consider the native palette limiting, a properly arranged combination of plants, trees, and shrubs will express plenty of visual interest. Native plants also provide familiar sources of food and shelter for wildlife, contributing to the overall health of the ecosystem. Most importantly, the use of native plants and local materials reinforces the authentic character of a place.

The big challenge to planting design in the mountain resort setting is snow management. All planting design should be done in coordination with a snow removal plan to avoid damaging trees and shrubs. Snowplows, snow piles, and snow and ice falling from eaves all cause damage. In addition, deicing salts and chemicals, as well as excessive sanding, are not plant-friendly. When possible, use snowmelt to maintain walkways. This will benefit your planting design by eliminating plow or shovel piles on adjacent plantings.

Maintenance is a vital component of a successful landscape, and one for which many resorts are ill prepared. It takes more than a lawnmower and a bottle of Roundup to care for a designed landscape. Ideally, assign someone with horticultural training and knowledge, whether on-staff or subcontracted, to perform routine maintenance. This is particularly important during the first few years while plants are becoming established. Once they are, the need to stake and do additional watering eases, although all plantings need annual inspection and pruning.

While we’re on the subject of planting, let’s touch on grass. America loves green grass. We spend hours and hours making sure our own lawns look great, so why not do the same at our resort? Bristol Mountain, N.Y., has some of the best snowfront lawn I have seen. The team at Bristol prides itself on keeping the snowfront green and lush, and it shows.

Keys to a successful lawn:
• soil testing and amendments
• avoid excess compaction by designating circulation routes
• irrigation
• proper mowing practices and maintenance

Water Works

People inherently love water. Whether a simple bubbler fountain, a splash pad in the plaza, a mountain stream, or a snowmaking pond, humans love the sight, sound, and feel of water. All mountains have natural drainages that serve the hydrology of the landscape. In many cases, drainages have been buried to create additional useable space in the wintertime. But that may limit your opportunities to capitalize on this natural asset in other seasons.

And it’s something you can reverse. Steamboat Mountain Resort recently daylighted a snowfront stream, Burgess Creek, and created an amazing pedestrian gathering space. Now, kids play while parents sit back and enjoy.

Water has a profound effect on the senses. Use it to your advantage.

Light It Up

The nighttime experience at the resort can be lively with après ski, a post dinner walk with the family, or a nighttime wedding. Lighting plays a key role in this experience. In addition to having adequate illumination on major circulation routes, accent lighting will enhance the landscape and base area aesthetic. Uplights for buildings and trees, wall and step lights, railing lights, and cable lighting over a walkway all contribute to the experience. New LED technology has increased lighting capabilities for a more reasonable price.

Put it all together

Combine all these components for a successful base area environment that will enhance the guest experience. Turn your frame of reference toward connecting people with nature, because that is the underlying reason they have come to visit in the first place.

Keys to Success

As you embark upon developing a landscape strategy at your resort and begin to employ the components discussed here, consider the following keys to success:

> Know your brand and develop the character of your resort to support it.

> Know your audience and give them what they want!

> Identify key site features that are assets and opportunities for enhancing the guest experience—a view, a stream, a large boulder.

> Consider your summer operations.

> Engage design for creativity and make a plan!

> Embrace industry trends of environmentalism and artful natural systems, and integrate them with the guest experience.

> Never forget about first impressions and the WOW factor. Start that memorable experience the minute your guests pass through the entry.