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SAM Magazine—Aspen, Colo., May 4, 2023—Geoff Buchheister has a very big job ahead of him. Aspen Skiing Company named him chief executive officer of Aspen Snowmass on March 1, succeeding longtime CEO Mike Kaplan. While there are larger resort operators in North America, none combine the history, prestige, cachet, and environmental leadership that Aspen embodies. Geoff BuchheisterThe job comes with a lot of responsibility.

Buchheister's nearly 25-year background in the industry has prepared him for the challenge, though. Since 2019, he has been chief operating officer of Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, Canada. He began his career in 1999 at Park City Mountain Resort, Utah, where he spent 16 years in various leadership roles. He then joined Vail Resorts in 2014 when VR acquired PCMR, and was appointed to lead the company’s urban ski areas: Afton Alps, Minn., Mt. Brighton, Mich., and Wilmot, Wis. He was named general manager of Keystone, Colo., in 2017, before moving to Whistler Blackcomb in 2019. 

SAM caught up with Buchheister, winner of a 2019 SAMMY Award, to explore his path and plans for the future.

Who have been your mentors, influences?

Vern Greco hired me in 1999 as a finance analyst at Park City. I had just graduated from college in December. In three or four years, I was promoted to director of finance and ended up being at Park City in that role for more than a decade. During that time I started picking up all of the product sales and services and resort services. I had all the ticket office and sales functions. Then I added all the back office implementations for our technology. Somewhere along the way I added retail to the mix and did all the budgeting and financial stuff.

I came along at a time when Vern needed someone that had an analytical skillset and could dive in on systems and different things. So, I had access to Vern almost every day, and he was gracious enough to allow me to watch and learn along the way. He's still one of my mentors today.

When Vail bought Park City in 2014, Blaise Carrig (then head of Vail Resorts' mountain division) looked at me and said, "we just don't have that job, with all the stuff that you do." That's when they asked me to go lead the urban resorts, which were just Mt. Brighton and Afton Alps at the time. We added Wilmont during my tenure. 

Blaise was instrumental in helping me make the transition to Vail. I learned a ton from Blaise. He was the first person that came into Park City and met with us after we were bought by Vail. And he coached me as I was the first person that showed up at Wilmont when we bought the area. I got to learn how to land with a group of people that had just been part of an acquisition and how to give them trust and faith and hope that everything's going to be okay. In that way, Blaise was amazing. 

Chris Jarnot was another leader that empowered me to reach for my potential. Chris was an amazing mentor. Over those couple years when I was at the urban resorts, Chris was my leader. Pat Campbell (VR's mountain division head after Blaise) has been amazing for me, too. So I've had the opportunity to be around some of the best leaders in the industry.

When Vail asked you to move from Park City to the Midwest and lead the urban areas, you needed to kind of learn everything all over again. How did you make that transition?

At the beginning I was really worried about it. You go from Park City, which is one of the more well-known resorts and right there near the top of our company, to some of the smaller resorts in the Midwest. I thought, what kind of career move is this going to be? Well, I learned more during those years at the urban resorts than I ever could have hoped for.

I learned a lot about culture. I learned about connecting with people and helping them believe in what they're doing and embracing the spirit and the passion that exists at almost any mountain. That passion shows up at the lift line on a big powder day at Whistler, and at eight o'clock at night at a Midwest ski area with freezing rain and people out there with their families having the best time of their life. 

I got to see that our industry is about providing an opportunity for people to go be passionate about something. You can get it anywhere. You have to tend to it and care for it, but it's there. And as a leader, you can learn a lot from all of it. I just opened myself up to learning. 

What would be your message to someone who's looking at where you are now, and your path to get there, and thinking "am I making the right choice in my career?" 

The choice to go do something is one choice that you have. But how you show up when you get there is actually the real choice. If you show up, willing to learn and willing to be curious and kind of set aside any sort of ego and expectations that you may have, you can learn from the great people in our industry. That's when you can kind of unlock your potential. 

I remember driving around in snowcats with the team at Mount Brighton asking questions—What's this? What does this lever do? How does this work? Same thing with lift maintenance teams in the Midwest as we were building new lifts at Wilmont. As the leader, you have the opportunity to be there and see the great work happening and empower people to be part of it. It's a matter showing up and learning along the way. That served me really well.

Then you had three plus years at Whistler, the most-visited resort in North America. What would people there say about you?

I think they'd say that they appreciated that I was in the operation with them, that my attitude as the leader was that I was one member of the team, not the leader of the team. That there's nothing that I would ask someone to do that I wasn't willing to do myself alongside them. 

What I've found as a leader is there's so many great people in this industry, and oftentimes they want to be heard, be inspired, and to have fun, because this is a fun industry.

Oftentimes, we have to be resilient and drive through challenges, and it can be difficult. But we all came because the mountains provide something for us. My goal is to just help people have that be part of them day in and day out, and feel inspired when they come to work and hopefully feel inspired by the connection I've created with them.

You are going from a public company where you answered to shareholders to a privately-held company where you answer to the Crown family. How will that be different?

I'll follow a similar approach to what I've always done, which is I'll try to create a connection, a foundation of trust that's based on getting to know people. I'll listen every day, and I'll try and learn every day. Because ultimately, the Aspen team was unbelievable. Mike Kaplan's led them for the last 17 years and has been part of it for even longer. I have the opportunity to join a great group of people. 

My hope is that I get to learn from them and build a foundation of trust. I'll do the same with the Crown family. I'll just try to be a thoughtful leader and ask curious questions so that I can get up to speed, and at the same time be there for the great team at Aspen. From all accounts it's just an incredible group of leaders in our industry. I'm just excited to be on the team with him.

Will Mike Kaplan be a mentor, like Blaise was at Vail Resorts?

He's going to be in the community and he'll be in an adviser capacity for a bit, but I haven't been too concerned about what that relationship is. Mike's the type of guy that will help because he cares about Aspen, he cares about the people and the community.

You know, I still reach out to Vern when I've got a problem, or Chris when I've got a problem. Everywhere I've gone, I've had the opportunity to work on an effort that was built up by some of the iconic people in our industry.

I look forward to learning and really understanding how I want to show up. But the main theme is, I want to empower and inspire people. I don't have a list of things that I'm going to change. I'm showing up with a list of things I want to learn. And then I can determine how best to be the leader on the team and what they need from me.

Were there things you learned in Whistler that translate to Aspen?

I'll share this and I think this is important. Whistler Blackcomb operates on the traditional unceded territories—there's never been a transaction or a title change in the land—of the Squamish Nation and the Lil'wat Nation. Unlike a lot of places I've worked, Whistler operates on land that has three different landlords. You have the province of British Columbia and the two independent nations. They view this land as their traditional territory, and they operate as such. I've had the opportunity to learn in a different way about all who came before us, the people who used these mountains and created the culture before all of us that came along in the ski business and in the mountain towns that came in there, whether it was through mining or recreation.

A lot of our mountain towns were inhabited by people before us. At Whistler, I had the opportunity to create relationships with those nations and their chiefs and councils. What an opportunity to learn about their culture and about how we can be more inclusive and how we can open our hearts up to what it is we're actually doing in these mountains. It made more conscious about what it all really means. That had a huge impact on who I am as a leader. The biggest thing is acknowledging them and taking an approach where you're willing to listen and learn.

That's maybe the biggest takeaway of my time at Whistler. I have a new respect for the mountains, for the culture and the history of a place. The opportunity to honor that in every community is different, but there's a story there. In order to honor that, you need to learn it, and you need to spend some time with it. If we all respect the mountains in that way, then our futures going to be really bright.

Our shift might be toward sustainability and climate change and the important things that are ahead of us around preserving these experiences in our mountains. But man, it's a huge learning for me and something that'll be with me the rest of my life.

The community of Aspen was built by a group of people that found this passion in culture in the mountains. They created something special, and we need to celebrate that. I want to learn from them. I certainly don't want to show up and tell 'em what I think we need to do. While I spent a ton of time in Aspen as a kid—growing up in Winter Park, I was over in Aspen a lot—the most important thing is learning before you decide what needs to be done. And obviously Mike and the Crowns have put together a master plan, and there's a path and a direction forward. They've always been very out front, they tend to their assets and their resort. I owe it to the people of that community to learn before I come in with an agenda.

This industry's allowed me to grow and develop. I was with Powder Corp for 15 years. That was an amazing experience and helped me grow into who I was at the time. Then I spent a little over eight years with Vail Resorts, and that's been an amazing experience in development. Now I get to start this new journey with the Aspen Ski Co., and I'm incredibly excited. I love it when we open for the season, because I just wake up and put my ski pants on and go to work. I'm looking forward to that.