Since April, the news about Vermont's Jay Peak has been heavily focused on the alleged indiscretions of its two former principals and the ensuing legal situation. What many headline-readers may not realize is that Jay has been operating daily—and business is strong.
Jay employs hundreds of people year-round, who work in the multiple facilities built with dollars raised through the recently maligned EB-5 Program. To find out what the day-to-day has been like since the SEC showed up in April, we asked Jay Peak general manager Steve Wright to fill us in.
How does Jay Peak separate the lawsuit from the resort in customer's minds?
I think the first thing to realize is that a relatively small index of guests have any meaningful understanding of what's happened—only those of them connected at a pretty significant level (or colloquial enough to read SAM). It's our job to make sure we create distinction between the court case involving ownership, and the service and experience delivery involving the staff. The two are exclusive and one in no way informs the other.
We've heard from some guests that there is concern relating to the financial viability of Jay Peak because of things they've read in the papers or heard from friends. We've done a pretty good job of creating outbound communications to our stakeholders, letting them know that our finances are solid and are likely to be, even more so, going forward, given our ability to focus solely on delivering great experiences. We are currently building out a microsite called Behind The Flake which will better compartmentalize our post-receivership story and how, at the end of the day, we are the same ski area that guests have grown so connected to over the years.
How have the Jay regulars (passholders in particular) reacted to the news, now that they've had time to digest it?
They've responded by purchasing passes. After we froze the pass rate and pushed the deadline back to give them time to digest the news, and see that the net result was no different than what they'd seen prior, sales have been flat to last year—almost to the dollar. We still expect to see something resembling sluggish as we near the last deadline, all of that attributable to last year's difficult winter. But those sorts of seasonal hangovers are to be expected. We budgeted to be off by 15 to 20 percent and as of right now, we've done much better than expected.
How has the staff handled it?
The staff has been pretty resilient, more so than I had even hoped. I think people pull together and connect during times of crisis, and that's what happened across the first several months post-receivership. I think everyone is now focused on the season coming up. Bearing that out, our service levels, and our ability to deliver great experiences, haven't been negatively impacted.
What kind of communications tools/actions have you used to keep staff informed since April?
We've taken several different approaches toward staff communications. My focus has been to separate from the suggestive/innuendo-based reporting and balance it with facts and reality. We've also been focused on giving employees the tools to do this separation themselves, and that connects to having a good grasp on the facts and the narrative in the first place. We are building the microsite to help tell the broader stories of life after the receivership to help strengthen the bond between employees, stakeholders and guests, and to make sure people understand that, behind everything, there's the Jay Peak that people all still feel very much a part of, and very connected to.
How challenging is it to keep staff focused on performing their duties and not be distracted by the news?
We expect the news to be distracting. It's impossible for it not to be. But the actual work itself, the day-to-day process of working to provide great experiences, is the very act that helps keep all of us focused. I think the more the external chatter increases, the more we bear down on those elements that are within our control. One of our common points of focus has been that what other people are saying, and other people's perceptions of what's happening, are really none of our business.
From an operations perspective, what adjustments from the status quo have been made?
From an operations perspective, nothing. From a staffing perspective, we've moved some long-term employees up into more prominent roles here at the resort, and added duties and assignments to certain job descriptions that make good sense from a service delivery perspective. But, operationally, there wasn't much broken—and we're not really into fixing that.
At the resort, what is the most positive byproduct of the situation?
It's brought the staff much closer together. It's forced us to retrench and really focus on things completely within our control, such as delivering great service, creating memorable experiences, and supporting great employees. It's given a clarity to our mission that either didn't exist or wasn't universally shared prior.
What is the most negative byproduct of the situation?
There's a certain measure of uncertainty that is tough to put a finger on, but hangs around a bit. Not having a long-term ownership strategy can be a little unnerving. But the staff has gotten very adept at understanding that very little is promised to any of us, in any aspect of our life. We've realized that rolling with the punches is like anything else; you get better at it the more you practice it.
On a typical day in the office, how much of your time is spent addressing issues that may arise from the situation, and how much is spent handling day-to-day operations?
It doesn't really break down that way. The reality that we're in receivership is sort of baked into everything I or my staff does. If anything, we have more flexibility now in how we run the business than we did prior. The management group, Leisure Hotel and Resorts, is experienced enough to let us make decisions that are based on an historical understanding of our business and that are in line with our budgets. That freedom and flexibility is important.
What are you as GM doing to provide the heavy dose of leadership that is surely needed?
Serving up as much empathy as I can muster. That's really all I can offer. Understanding the reality that all of our professional, and ultimately our personal, lives have been changed, and that's pretty heavy. Still, I try to offer up the perspective that we're all here, we're all still together, we're all still providing great experiences, and we have a pretty wonderful place right outside the building. When we all take a step back, the reality that this is far from the end of the world comes into focus, and it's a little easier to get the right perspective. Plus, things are always getting better. Always.