Our final conference call of the inaugural SAM Summit Series gave each participant an opportunity to ask a question about anything related to what was covered during the season-long series. Advisers Jody Churich, Blaise Carrig, and John Rice provided insightful, candid answers to the queries. It was a terrific way to conclude a successful start to this burgeoning leadership development program.
Several people and partners contributed to the success of the Summit Series: Our esteemed panel of advisers, the engaged group of mentees, SAM’s own Sarah Borodaeff, facilitator Paul Thallner of High Peaks Group, Dr. Natalie Ooi of the Colorado State University graduate Ski Area Management Program, and, of course, MountainGuard, which provided the support needed to make it all happen.
OLIVIA ROWAN: Good Afternoon and welcome to the final call of the SAM Summit Series, my name is Olivia Rowan and I am the publisher of SAM Magazine. For this call, our facilitator extraordinaire, Paul Thallner, will invite each mentee to ask questions and then will facilitate the dialogue with the advisers.
Our mission for this program was pretty simple: we wanted to engage the next generation into dialogue with current leadership—our advisers—and ignite the process of sharing this knowledge that they have. We’ve learned in all of these conversations that the people you connect with and are inspired by throughout your career will help define the leaders you become. That’s what the Summit Series is about—connecting and engaging and sharing this information between the current guard and the up-and-coming future leaders.
I’d like to say some important “thank yous” to some of the folks who went on this adventure with us in the first season of the Summit Series. First, I want to thank our mentees. You all have joined us each call, completed the deep dive assignments provided by CSU, and Joe Forte of Blue Mountain, Pa., even submitted an article for the May issue of SAM. So thank you all for participating in the program.
I also want to thank our mentors, who have generously given their time for each call and shared their knowledge. We can’t thank you enough.
I would also like to thank Paul Thallner of High Peaks Group for facilitating these calls. I hope that some of you have read some of his leadership articles that he has written for both SAM and our sister publication, Adventure Park Insider, and check out his website for the other services he provides to companies.
Of course, we couldn’t have done this program without our own Sarah Borodaeff. Her passion and vision and organization for this program have made it the success it is. As a future leader herself, she knew exactly what would make this work. So, thank you to her for her good work.
Finally, our two partners, Colorado State University and MountainGuard. I want to thank Brian Rosser and MountainGuard for believing in this program and that we could pull it off. Finally, I’d like to thank Natalie Ooi of Colorado State University for her help with the deep dive after every call and making sure our mentees gained as much background on the topic as possible.
NATALIE OOI: Thanks, Olivia. I wanted to say to everyone who has been involved, thanks so much for being a part of this. Especially for those of you who did submit some of the assessments, they were great to review and really, really interesting, as well. We’ve been really happy to be part of this program because it ties in so closely to what we do in terms of preparing the next generation of ski industry leaders.
For those of you who aren’t as familiar with our program, it is a graduate-level program, and we work really closely with NSAA and ski area managers across the U.S. The aim is really to provide ski area managers like yourselves with the business acumen to help you become great future leaders of the industry. Most of this content is coming directly from ski area managers and leaders, which we then turn into presentations, video interviews, projects, and assignments, very similar to what you’ve already experienced in this series. All of this goes hand in hand with the experience that you’re getting at your home resort right now.
Similar to this series, too, we recognize how important networks are in the industry. It’s about who you know. A lot of what we do is work with individuals and connect them with the wide range of ski area managers who have been involved in our program so they can get further guidance and mentorship and increase their profile among current industry leaders.
The only other thing I would say is that our program is short, it’s affordable, and has been specifically designed for individuals like yourselves who are working full time for a ski area. For many of you, our program might be a logical next step. I will be sending out an email that provides more detail on our programs, so if you have questions or interest, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
OLIVIA: Thank you very much, Natalie. Now I will hand it off to Paul to kick off the conversation.
PAUL THALLNER: Thanks so much Olivia and welcome everybody. I’m really delighted to be with you today and to be facilitating this. I think this is going to be the easiest facilitation because the mentees are going to get the chance to ask the questions directly. My role is really to keep an eye on the time and pass the mic around.
Our first question is from Kyle Gornell from Steamboat, Colo.
Kyle Gornell, Steamboat Resort, Colo.: From a management perspective, is there ever a disconnect between the people making the decisions and the people implementing them? If so, how do you overcome this disconnect?
Jody Churich: Kyle, I think that’s a fantastic question because this happens very often, quite frankly. I think everyone needs to be super clear on identifying the problem that you’re solving for, first and foremost. It happens all the time and it’s a delicate balance of inclusiveness without getting into decision by committee. Ultimately, I think setting a clear strategy and expectations helps to eliminate some of the disconnect in getting clear alignment from the start, and that has to come from the top. As a leader, you have to set the stage and make it super clear what problem you’re actually solving for and that everyone is in agreement as to what problem you’re trying to solve. It makes it a lot easier to keep everyone connected when final decisions are made.
John Rice: I would agree, clarity is the key word. When people are making these decisions, I think that, at the top, it’s important that you define the role of the leadership team. The GM is setting the vision, the 30,000-foot level: who we are, where we’re going, the mission stuff. Everything kind of has to flow from there. Then, it’s the role of your senior team, with marketing overseeing all things relative to the brand, from advertising all the way down to events and uniform decisions. HR has all the cultural norms, training, code of conduct, policies. Accounting would be all the budget related items, business plan, capital plan, purchasing decisions. Profit centers would, of course, weigh in on department-relevant issues. Operations determines what’s open, what gets groomed, patrol. Sometimes there might be a decision made and people on the operational level might be saying, “Well, who made that decision?” And they might not understand that there is, in fact, a team discussing these things. Maintenance, same kind of things, we’re going prioritize these repairs or whatever needs our attention.
At that level, that senior team, there is robust dialogue that typically will happen behind closed doors when they meet. And what they need to do is hash it out. The GM needs to be the referee of that. Allow them to have robust dialogue. Maybe they disagree. Maybe there’s conflicting reasons why one decision might be made over another, so you work it out and before you leave the room you put what’s best for the resort ahead of your personal interests and then everyone walks out and everyone is all in.
I think that’s really important. The goal alignment needs to feed back to, “we made this decision because of X and we’re all going to support it,” and not have someone leaving the room thinking, “I don’t agree so I am going to be soft on that policy or decision.”
I’ll give you an example: when we opened the resort this [past] year, we went out and looked at the least amount of snow we’ve ever seen. We had all the right people standing on the snow looking at each other: snowmaking, grooming, operations. Marketing was there talking about early season expectations, accounting was there looking at how we do this with minimum staff, profit centers. We all looked each other in the eye and said, “Should we do this?” And the decision was, “Yes, let’s go. Let’s send it.”
And that kind of became our mantra, “Let’s send it.” And we talked and worked through all our stuff before we came down and said, “Yes, we’re going to open.” Some people’s eyes were wide open like, “Wow, we’ve never opened like this,” but we knew that there was weather in the forecast and snowmakers and groomers were confident that they could pull it off.
So, once the decision was made, nobody’s second-guessing it. And if someone does it’s important for leaders to pull that person aside and say, “Look, we talked through it and this is what’s best for the company to make this decision.” It’s having that clarity and having everyone buy-in to the decision and away we go.
Same thing with closing. We had a lot of pressure from guests to stay open, and accounting is telling us we’re going to lose money if we do that. So you have to balance between the finance side and the operations side, between what you can and cannot do. But once that decision is made, we’re all in, we make the decision and away we go. Not everyone may agree at first, but once it’s explained it’s important that everyone buys in.
Blaise Carrig: I find that the disconnect comes from people not understanding the “why” of the decision. So, you have to explain the why of the decision, particularly with hard or controversial decisions. If you don’t explain it, then they tend to come up with their own reasons. So, once the decision is made, put it out there and explain it to folks, then give them a chance to discuss it.
I’ve also found that the reason you’ve made the decision, your why, there may be something you’ve missed. And given time to understand and discuss, people can come back to you and help you not necessarily change the decision, but adjust the decision because there might be some factor in there that affects something you didn’t foresee. By explaining, “Here’s my decision and here’s why I made the decision,” and giving people a chance to give feedback on that, you bring yourself closer to alignment. People understand why you did it, which I think is critical, and it helps to break down that disconnect.
Paul: Thank you. Our next question is from Sarah Demmons of Pats Peak, N.H.
Sarah Demmons, Pats Peak, N.H.: My question is: How can we keep seasonal employees engaged and returning year after year?
John: Well, we consider re-recruitment as part of the overall recruitment strategy. It’s critical, when you look at housing and staffing issues right now, we’re all facing those issues across the country.
We value people that have a car, that know how to get to the resort, know how to wear the uniform, actually have a place to live or at least a couch to sleep on. Those people are important to us. They’re people we want to invite back, and we can’t just assume they’re going to show up. We know that they’re at risk for getting picked up by another company or being recruited to a higher-paying job.
For actual re-recruitment strategies, if there are folks we want back, we’ll take a little extra time with them during the final weeks of their employment and make sure their supervisors talk to them. First of all, to thank them for making it as far as they did, giving them feedback on their performance and letting them know that we really do want them to come back instead of just assuming they will.
At our end of season party, all of the leaders have to go. They may not want to, they’re tired and they don’t want to show up at the party, but I make them go and say thank you to every single employee that’s there and that they do want back and make sure that they get an honest look in the eye, handshake, and say, “Thanks for everything, we really hope to see you back next year.”
Another really critical one for us is we do an end of season “right people” review. Each supervisor makes a list of folks who they feel have high potential and maybe there is something bigger within the company, in that department or perhaps within another department. We’ll ask who they are, what are their skills, what do we need to do to offer them training or is it off-season training or opportunities.
We’ll go so far as to help them find a summer job. What we find with that is we can often place someone with another employer in town—they love having our employees—but the deal is they have to give them back in the fall. They have to promise to give them back to us.
Perhaps there are skills they can learn at their summer job. For example, in marketing, we had a couple snow reporters do a great job for us and we want to keep them engaged and in the basin. So there’s a local tv station and a PR firm we’re working with to get them jobs for the summer where they can improve their skills and then come back to us.
The last thing I will say is, over the summer there’s an opportunity to keep people connected by having social events like simple summer picnics, beach parties, whatever that might be, and making sure that they know they’re still in the family and still connected. Again, housing is one of our biggest issues right now. So it’s making sure that we stay connected with these folks that have already proven that they can do the job and made it through the season. We do want them back, so it’s really re-recruiting and romancing them back as opposed to just hoping they show up.
Blaise: I think creating a good employee experience overall, whether you’re talking about the seasonal people or the year-round people, I think it’s the same. That goes a long way toward getting retention and return.
We do an employee engagement survey every year. You get to see, from the employee perspective, what’s working and what’s not working, and we dive down into each specific department and try to get granular about what that particular experience is like in that department and for that leader. The value of that is not just taking the survey, but making sure that you take action on it and that the leaders of each area are making the adjustments and learning from those comments so that when employees do come back, they see improvement. And that along goes a long way because they know that their participation and their input is taken seriously.
I think the recognition point that John talked about is really key. Make sure employees know that they’re doing a valued job. Those things can happen formally through end of season parties and events, but also I think managers and supervisors who take time to stop at employee workspaces throughout the year and actually chat with employees as opposed to just floating through those places—making a personal connection goes a long way as well.
Jody: I would just add a little bit of a left turn here. With Woodward, we have a slightly different situation on employee recruiting. Culture and community are big parts of what entices and keeps people coming back—really focusing on the lifestyle sport aspect of why people come and work for us to begin with.
We round that out in a couple different ways. We have what we call a “My POWDR” app that keeps all of our employees, enterprise-wide, connected. We post stories, we post features on employees, and that seems to be working really well keeping employees engaged.
I know all resorts don’t have this opportunity necessarily, but as resorts are turning into year-round businesses, it’s key that we are able to now keep staff employed on a more consistent basis year-round. We have employees who are working at our resorts in the winter and then flexing over to our summer camps in the summer. Keeping people engaged in sport and in our business enterprise has been really beneficial.
It’s definitely challenging with the economy the way it is to keep staff, so keeping that culture and community together is really a key cornerstone and we have found that the company-wide app is really beneficial.
John: We do something similar with a Facebook page that is for employees only. It has a ton of stuff on it: all the events that are coming up, things they need to know, discounts at different restaurants, job opportunities either here or in town, you see things people post cars for sale, I need a ride to the bay area on Tuesday, etc. For them to feel connected with the culture and community piece that Jody is talking about is important so they feel a part of something, even if they’re not employed through the off season.
Then to Blaise’s point, we also do a [staff] climate survey, and I agree that you do need to get down to the detail and get back to your employees with, “We heard you, we heard what you said, here’s what we’re going to do differently.” You may not be able to take every suggestion, but you do show them that the survey wasn’t just an exercise. Show you are actually listening to your front-line employees. When they tell you something is a problem, you’re going to make some changes or take steps to try and improve the situation so they really do feel like they’re listened to and connected. Once they feel disconnected, then they’re free agents and they’re gone.
Paul: We’re going to move onto our next question from Nate Ellis of Boreal and Soda Springs in California.
Nate Ellis, Boreal/Soda Springs, Calif.: As we develop and have the potential to move into more senior roles within the industry, what advice can you provide to us that you would have liked to receive yourself?
Blaise: There are a lot of things that I learned along the way that I wish I had learned earlier.
One of the big ones for me was that it’s not about me and what I did and my own personal achievements, but really what I could accomplish with other people and what I accomplished with the group that I had working for me directly. But even beyond that, what I could do with my peers by breaking barriers between groups.
When I was ski patrol manager, I kind of obsessed with how I did just with my group. But a real breakthrough for me from a leadership standpoint was to realize that taking a larger view of the whole company is what would help the company most. How could the patrol help lift operators do their job better? How could the patrol help ski school do their job better? In those days, those things were not easy to do. Learning to manage with your peers as opposed to just managing your team was a good leadership challenge for me, and one that I found helped me grow as a leader and helped the company’s success by having that broader view.
Another one was to have a brand. I didn’t necessarily have a leadership brand when I started, and over time I formulated one. I think if I had formulated one earlier it might have helped me articulate what I wanted to get done. My brand was kind of simple: it was safety, service, and financial responsibility. I found that if I put that brand in front of the people that I was working with and was very upfront, what does that look like? How does that brand appear in the real world? What kinds of things make that brand come to life in the business? It really helped me accomplish the things I was trying to get accomplished.
Also, seeking critical feedback is something that I learned later in my career that I could have used earlier in my career. Going to other leaders and people that I worked for and asking for some critical feedback so that I could focus more on weaknesses and not always just be working toward my strengths. It helped me put balance toward my leadership persona and I wish I had done that earlier.
Jody: Looking back now, one of the key points of true leadership is understanding how to build the right team. You’re only as strong as your team, so looking back now I really feel like skill, aptitude, and attitude are just so crucial in being successful as a leader. I think that what I’ve learned is building a strong all-star team is so much more important than a team of all-stars, if you will. You have to have a really complimentary, diverse-in-thinking team that is really trustworthy of one another. For me that was huge.
Also, I think performance leadership development was not a big focus back when I was coming up in my career, and I am finding now how important that is to my leaders. With the platform and business portfolio that I’m managing I have a lot of young, really talented people leading our businesses, but giving them the right tools to be successful is crucial.
Another really big cornerstone looking back now is change management. It’s not something you saw very often in management and leadership, and I feel now that it’s really important to identify your yellow and red flags sooner rather than later. Those are the big pivotal moments when I look back now I wish I would have known sooner.
John: Well, I was fortunate early in my career to have someone tell me during a review that adaptability is the key to survival, and I said yeah, OK, so dinosaurs aren’t here anymore. He explained it to me in such a way that made so much sense. He said, “You’ve joined an industry where adaptability is a key attribute. You’re constantly faced with change—with weather changes, economic changes, the list goes on—and your adaptability will be the key to your success.” And so I share that every chance I get when I teach a class or am working with the managers here—they’re probably sick of hearing me say it here.
Another thing that was shared with me is that your personal measure of success with your company should be to contribute more than you cost to your company. You have some days where you are in a high-performance zone, when you’re getting stuff done and working stuff out. And then you have those other days where you’re sitting still and not really advancing the ball. You have to look at it on a daily basis and ask, “Did I contribute more today than I cost this company?” If you add up your wage and your benefits, you might be surprised how much it adds up to. And you think people might not notice, but believe me they really do. You know when you’re contributing and not just taking away.
The third and best one was when I was at a stagnant point in my career. I had been in mountain operations management for a while and I just was kind of stuck being the director of operations at two different resorts, and a guy said to me, “Well, operations managers are a dime a dozen. There are a lot of them in the industry and they’re all really, really good. You can just be another one of those. Or do you want to strive for more?” And I said, “I want to get higher, how do I get there?” And he said, “To be it is up to me.”
So, I started working on some self-improvement, realizing that no one was going to come up and tap me on the shoulder and be like, “Hey, you seem like a nice guy. Come over here and I am going to give you this job.” The self-improvement stuff that I did at the time was all cassettes, so I am dating myself here, but it was the Tony Robbins stuff and reading books and John Wooden and people that I really admired. What are their traits and how do they create success?
I really had to put the time in outside of work to improve my skill sets and my understanding of how things work. I’ve tried to share that with people, as well, that it really comes down to you and what you are willing to do. You can be a victim, or you can say that it’s up to me, I am going to go make this happen. That advice came at a great time for me, and once I turned that corner, opportunities were coming at me like I couldn’t believe. So, it was believing in myself and knowing that I really had to decide for myself to go after these things.
Andrew Lanoue, Jay Peak, Vt.: Early in the series we covered leadership vs. management. In our readings and discussions, it seemed leaders possessed more intangible qualities as visionaries that inspire, whereas managers are more process-oriented at motivating tangible tasks. Are these differences enough to prevent a good manager from being a good leader, or vice versa? As you moved up in the industry, did you see yourselves as one or the other?
John: Ok, well I would say the answers are yes and yes. Obviously, he got it via his first piece there, that inspirational leaders are the ones people want to follow. People say they don’t want to be managed, they want to be led. Or you’ve heard the quotes where leaders lead people and managers manage things, and that’s true.
But today, especially with the diversity in the workforce and the various generations entering leadership within the workforce, successful leaders have to have the character competence and balance that [Stephen] Covey talks about, that the gurus talk about.
If you look at the best leaders you’ve ever had, and you do an inventory of what their skill sets were, you write them down and say, “Here are the things I loved about my best boss and here’s the things I didn’t like so much.” Those things typically fall into two buckets: character and competence. The character pieces would be integrity, caring, trustworthiness, compassionate, believed in me, passionate leader, all those things.
And then, just as important, are the competencies: the business acumen, the experience, the best mechanic, the best whatever who understood things better than anyone else. It’s important that you have both of those, but the reality is: to move people, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
So, I think it’s really critical that people understand you can’t fake competence—you have to have the skills. You can talk a good game, but if you can’t deliver, people will peg you as someone who’s got a lot of talk but no delivery. You have to know the job, you’ve got to go to school and get the training, whether you get formal or on the job training, you have to have the skills.
But early in your career, I would say you have to be good at something, you need to stand out at something. There are many jacks-of-all-trades in our industry, and in a lot of industries. Let’s say you are in marketing and you have a lot of good knowledge of demographics, or you understand brand, PR, you’re really good at social media and creative content. So, you’ve got a certain skill that you can really show, and you can add value. But you can get pigeon-holed sometimes with that stuff, so you have to broaden your skills.
So, the best advice I can give you there is to go after your soft skills, find ways that you can add more value, contribute more than you cost. Then as you progress, it’s important that you keep your character skills high because it’s your reputation that’s going to carry you farther down the road.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had, for example, some incredible lift mechanics—they’re solid, I need them, I want them. But I can’t have them in leadership roles because they’re toxic. They’re not in leadership positions, so I’ve got to find ways to use their skills and keep them engaged and hopefully keep them in a good place, but also have them realize that they’re probably not going to lead.
I’ve also got people who may not have as strong a set of skills, but they’ve got the ability to move people toward a purpose or goal. And they have the ability to be trusted and have integrity so I don’t have to worry about them. I think both those skill sets are critical as a manager.
As you move through the industry, I think it’s important that you maintain continuous skill improvement. Make sure your competence is there and you continue to grow that, but also show character, because today nobody wants to work for someone who is going to scare people and make people not want to come to work. Character and competence, I think those are key.
Jody: I’m with John in supporting a lot of what he just said, especially in respect to the character component as a leader versus a manager.
I do believe that you have to be competent in the skills as a manager, and that’s such an important foundation as you roll into leadership. I think you can be a good manager and move into leadership. One of the plaques in my office that a member of my staff gave me is a quote from John Quincy Adams: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, then you are a leader.”
I believe there is a difference between management, which is very tactical and focused on managing day to day, whereas leadership is really looking at the big picture. You’re looking at the short-term, mid-term, and long-term. You’re looking at strategy, you’re looking at opportunities. That’s where I find the defining difference and it’s hard to shift gears.
I find myself torn at times, where I love being involved in the granular, in the weeds, and decision-making at the business level. But as a leader, you have to look up and think about the bigger picture, about where you want to go and the path that you want to carve for your company. It’s hard to move from one role to the other. I think you have to live in both worlds and be present in both worlds, but I don’t think effective leaders can be in the granular every day. You have to look up and look at your core business, your future, what I call blue ocean opportunities. You really have to be looking up more as a leader, as a visionary, in order to inspire your team to want to move to the next level.
Blaise: I think there are pitfalls if you try to overweight any of this. I think if someone is too focused on vision and doesn’t pay attention to some of the fundamentals and management of the business, then you’ve got a high risk of failure there. Maybe you’re inspirational, but the business is not performing the way it should, so the stakeholders in the business are going to call you on that.
I agree with Jody, you can’t get buried in the details, but you do have to have a sense of what the important metrics are that you need to manage on an ongoing basis, or something that you need to revisit on some sort of rotation to know that you’re in touch.
I think competency is important, but it doesn’t mean that you need to be the most competent person, and in fact, you can’t be the most competent person in every facet of the business. Knowing what you don’t know and being willing to be a constant learner as John talked about is the gate to that.
On the inspirational part, I think that comes through performance and how you conduct yourself on the character aspect. Some of the people who I think I’ve seen in our company as the most inspirational, they’re not necessarily out there like a Tony Robbins shouting out inspiration—it’s how they do their job, how they manage their people, how they talk. There are a lot of different ways to be inspirational and I think it’s how you conduct yourself, the integrity you have, and how you treat the people who work with you. The inspiration will come from that.
Brandon Swartz, Heavenly, Calif.: With the majority of my career experience in mountain operations, would it be advantageous to shift into a different realm to challenge myself, as well as gain different experience on my career journey?
Blaise: I came up through mountain ops, so I am a bit biased about this one. I don’t think there’s a need to shift. In fact, I’ve evolved my thinking to where I think a great leader and COO can come from any aspect of the operation.
I think, at least in our company, our business becomes so large it becomes harder for people to move from one discipline to another because those areas that you’re managing are so big, it’s hard for us to move people like that. I think what you need to do—whether you’re in HR, or marketing, or mountain ops—is develop a world view and engage with the other parts of the business, learn about those businesses, even through operational interaction.
What we’ve seen at Vail over the past few years is that good leaders are coming out of every area, and we have programs to help people get exposure. So I think one thing to do is maybe go to the people you’re working for and ask if there are other opportunities or projects for you to get exposed to other parts of the business, or are there special projects that you could work on that helps you get there. We’ve had people come out of mountain operations to go on to be COOs. We’ve got a woman [Beth Howard] who came out of food service and became the COO of one of our largest resorts [Beaver Creek, Colo.].
I don’t think it’s necessarily where you are within the business, but how you’re working within your group, how you lead, and how you get exposure to other types of the business, how you develop, and how you participate in the business in a larger way.
Jody: I agree that it doesn’t matter which side of the business you come from. I, for one, am an example. I came up through the marketing channel and am now chief operation officer, so I am very operations focused. I think making yourself available to understanding and learning more aspects of business is crucial. And make sure that people in your organization know you want more instruction or education around some of the other areas of the business. A lot of us are opening up those doors and giving people opportunities to learn more about different areas of the business.
At POWDR we have leaders coming from all sides of the business, whether it’s HR or ops or marketing or even finance. I think your career journey is where you’re at in your mindset of where you want to go and how you get there. There are so many opportunities within the business to grow, so I think just being aware of what you want to do and where you want to go should set the tone more than where you’re housed, or where your work is rooted at the moment.
John: I agree. I would also add that if there is an opportunity and you feel like you’re one-dimensional in your career and you need more to what you can offer, you want to be available. Let’s say there are three people in front of you and you don’t see growth in your area, it certainly would behoove you to get as many transferrable skills as you can.
To help understand more about the business, there are all kinds of resources online, there are community colleges, there are books, there are specific ski area management programs to help you dive deeper into other aspects of how a ski area operates—because it really is 100 small businesses rolled into one, it’s not a single business unit.
When I talk with college kids, I tell them these are the subjects I wish I had paid more attention to in college. I would have learned more about marketing and sales. I would have spent more time in accounting or taken a business law class. I would have spent more time understanding how risk management affects it. Whether it’s environmental education, hospitality—there are opportunities to round out what you bring to the party, if you will.
The other thing I will throw out there is, there are always areas in the company—initiatives that nobody wants—that need a champion. This is a great opportunity if you’re at that stage in your career and you feel like you’ve really pushed all the buttons you can in one area and you want to show that you have more to offer. Move toward those things.
I’ll give you an example. Years and years ago, we had this initiative that we were going to go green. It was going to be this great thing, and then we looked around the table and everybody looked away like, “Don’t look at me, I don’t want to do that.” And one gal, who was in our PR and marketing, stood up and said, “This is really important to me, I would love to be our champion for this.” And we kind of looked around the room and asked if she is going to be able to influence utilities and is she going to be able to influence this and that. She said yes, and that she had the capacity to do it and had the passion for it.
So, she became the “green person” and that really took us to the next level, all the way up to where we won the Golden Eagle that year. It was a really proud moment for her. She knew that her work had a lot to do with receiving that award, and she was able to put that on her resume and then go out into the world and she became bigger and better in what she does.
So if there are things that no one wants to do—uncomfortable areas, things that have really fallen down—if you gravitate toward those and really show the skills that you have, it really does give you an opportunity to be recognized out of the group amongst all the other talented folks.
I would agree that you don’t really have to be in 10 different areas to grow in this industry. But the more you can do—if there’s job sharing opportunities to go ride in the snow cat one night, work in profit centers, jump in and learn how to be an instructor, teach a class. Those are things that are only going to benefit you down the road. Especially when it comes down to decisions you have to make that involve other departments, they are going to know that you’ve actually had experience there.
Kyle Gornell, Steamboat Springs, Colo.: With all of the changes the ski industry has seen over the years—detachable chairs, snowmaking, mountain biking, alpine coasters—what do you think will be the next big change to come to the industry?
Blaise: I think we’re in the midst of one of the biggest changes right now, and I don’t think we’ve seen it settle yet or what the after effects will be. I think the consolidation of resorts, not necessarily the business consolidation of resorts, but the creation of these affordable multi-resort pass products is obviously in full bloom right now. I think it’s a dramatic change that we’re going to have to deal with, and I’m not really sure that we’ve seen what that means yet or how we have to respond to that as it starts to take shape.
I think it’s doing a lot of good things in terms of making skiing more affordable and giving people multi-resort options. But that’s one big change that we’re in, and probably the biggest change we’ve seen in the past 5 or 10 years and I’m not sure we know how that’s turning out yet.
I think the other pieces are what’s going on in the world in terms of technology and social connections and personalization and how we use technology to personalize the experience. I think that the customer is the boss and that’s becoming more and more so. I think businesses are going to continue to have to develop a more personal connection to the customer. I think you’re going to see the business move away from mass marketing to individual marketing, very individual approaches. We’re going to see a point where the resorts and each customer have a one on one relationship where you are customizing each visit to your resort and setting these things up in advance for that.
So, I think personalization of the experience through technology, and then I think the next piece of it is compression of time. I think our business is still lagging in the processes around ski school, and ski rental, and ticket sales. We still have people going to ticket windows—nobody goes to the airport to buy an airplane ticket. And I think the ski school and rental processes are longer. Even though we’ve improved upon them, they’re not as fast as I think people want them to be given the competitive set outside of our industry. Those are going to be big changes that I think we’re going to see.
The other one I puzzle about is, as the passes become more and more affordable, I think the hard goods, the equipment buy, is still not in that realm yet. So I am waiting to see. We’ve seen people move to demo skis when they take their trip rather than carry their equipment. But I still think there might be more of a major shift in that area where people are moving away from owning their equipment, just given what I think is still a cost barrier for a lot of people. So, those are kind of the things that I look out and see at this point.
John: Well, I would agree with Blaise on the technology piece. I think we’re going to be taken over by artificial intelligence and robots!
I think from a technology perspective, what’s really important is that we see the speed of change. And I think the transactional piece—in fact, I wrote down Blaise’s quote, “Nobody goes to the airport to buy a plane ticket.” That’s so true.
I spent some time running around with one of my boys in Seattle and said, “You got any money in your pocket?” And he said, “I don’t need it, I’ve got my phone.” And I’m thinking, well, how does that work? And he said he’s got Apple Pay and he’s got this and he’s got that. I followed him around the city and we spent a lot of money from his phone. I realized the ease of transactions is something that we’ve got to solve, because Amazon has made one-click buying so easy, and people are getting used to that and people have that expectation now. Obviously, they’ve got a lot of layers to their company in order to make that smooth and follow the protections needed with credit cards and all that. But easing that transaction, taking all the hassle out of purchasing and everything that goes with it is something that we’ve got to embrace as an industry because other industries are going to beat us to it if we don’t.
Another huge change we’re facing in terms of demographics—with the Boomers all retiring and the Millennials really not completely gravitating toward the sport like we thought—is that next generation, the Gen Z. How are we going to embrace them? They’re the next great hope, but it’s a very diverse generation.
I think our industry is still stuck. While we’ve seen a lot of improvement in terms of gender diversity and are starting to see a lot of women in leadership roles—which is great—I think we’re still pretty much white-dominated. But we also need to realize that if you go out and look at the lift line, it reflects the communities that are coming to our resorts, especially out here in the west. We’ve seen a 25 percent shift between white and non-white over the last five years here at Sierra, based on our research. That’s a significant change in terms of ethnic opportunity. Are we trying to sell them the sport in the way we came to it? I think we really need to do our homework there, and understand and do some digging there to find out how we can have a sport that is going to have longevity with this new incoming generation.
Jody: This is a really interesting question. If you look back as far as ‘96, we’ve been pretty flat as it relates to industry growth. Our numbers are flat except for a couple years in there, I think ’10-’11, and that was generally due to snow conditions. When I look back at where we found growth, it’s in snowboarding, which is very youth-centric, and really in intermediate-level skiing. The resorts that cater to families and intermediate level terrain is really where we’ve seen those growth bubbles.
I think John and Blaise pointed more in the direction that I am looking at, which is growth is going to be seen among the Millennials and the next generation. What those kids are looking for? I am like John, I have two Millennials and those kids don’t use cash. Everything is Apple Pay and I don’t think they’ve been to a bank in years—they take a picture with their phone. I think it’s really that mindset where we are going to start to see those industry changes. They’re very independent, very socially conscious, and I think those are the areas we should be focusing on that are going to be the drivers of what this industry is going to look like in the future. I think they’re looking for how to get away, how to do more of a backcountry experience and, to John’s point, that the diversity of our user is going to be quite different.
So, I think the next big thing is going to be looking at our consumer first and foremost and what is going to inspire them to want to get that outdoor experience and what that looks like. Going back to what Blaise said, I think this new pass initiative is trying to get users at an entry point that is more affordable. What’s troubling, when you look at the industry, participation levels are stagnated and declining, and we need to get people out more frequently. Really, it’s got to be the kids. We’ve got to look to youth.
John: I am just going to add one thing: Last week we were out doing a tour with the Forest Service. We went to Sugar Bowl, then we went to Boreal, and then we went into Woodward and everyone sat there with their mouths open and taking pictures and was like, “Oh My God. There’s the future right there.” There are all these kids jumping on trampolines and doing cartwheels at $54 a head, and they are having the time of their lives. Then we went in and Chris gave us a sort of overview of what’s happening with Woodward and the philosophies and bringing the outdoors in and the indoors out. I left thinking I need to bring my senior team over here and we just need to observe for a couple hours and see where the future is. I was really impressed, we really need to be thinking about diversity of activity, because it really doesn’t need to be done just all out on the snow. That’s the big “aha” I’ve had in the past seven days.
Jody: Thanks! To add onto that, at our flagship Camp Woodward in Pa., we have over 850 kids a week. If you want to see youth at its most cultural and creative moments, it’s an enormous community and culture and it’s rich with kids. Because it’s action sports and gymnastics-based, the two elements of different sports that come together, multiple sports that come together, it’s pretty magical. I agree with you, I think that’s the future. It’s many sports together, indoors, outdoors, and year-round.
Anya Whiticar, Lake Louise, AB.: How are the emerging ski hill conglomerates and super passes such as Mountain Collective, Ikon, and Epic, shaping the future of the industry? Are the smaller hills facing the choice of either joining the larger cooperatives or missing the boat as a result of this transition? Or, as a third option, are the effects of these multi-resort conglomerates being overstated?
Blaise: I don’t know if I can answer all of it, and I certainly can’t answer unbiased, but I think there’s a lot of positive in it for the consumer in that it’s taken the price of the season pass down and made it more affordable for the destination skier and the person who is going to ski a fair amount. I think what we’ve seen with the passes as well is that you’re creating customer loyalty and you’re creating a commitment.
So, from the business side of it, this year, for example, we had a lower than average snow year in several of our resort areas, and yet our visitation was not down like it would have been in prior years without the pass program. I think part of that is people are making the commitment to ski and they have the pass and I think they’re becoming more committed because of that.
When we created the Epic pass years ago, we had an internal call where we said, “We want to see every skier have a season pass.” When you think of what the season pass represents, “I’m a season passholder,” there’s a sense of pride and affiliation that comes with that and I think that it translates in a positive way for our businesses. We have 750,000 passholders now with our company, and obviously it’s really helped our company from a business standpoint.
You’re seeing other groups coming together, so there are more options for people, and we see that as a really good thing. The more pass options people have, it’s better for the whole industry. Again, I don’t think we’ve seen how this fully plays out yet.
In terms of the question, “Do smaller hills need to join up?” I don’t think a large pass affiliation is the right move for everybody, and I am hoping that the smaller resorts that are not affiliated will be OK. I don’t know how that is going to play out yet. I think that, often, their bigger challenges play out in terms of weather. A lot of them are at lower elevations and also the cost of capital is high. I think the pass issue is only one issue facing those resorts. I think it’s critical to the industry that they survive, but I am not sure what the full answer is.
Jody: I go back and forth on the answer to this because, as Blaise said, it’s a tough one. It’s playing out while we’re watching it.
But if you go back to the question, “What problem are we solving for?” That is aging out Baby Boomers, climate change—we have all of these things facing our industry, and if super passes are what get people affordably into this sport and exploring, I think that solves for this problem. It gives people an opportunity to explore and experience the outdoors, not just at one resort, at multiple resorts. I bought a multi-resort pass for myself this year, just to try it. I have been in the ski industry forever and we always skied the mountain that I either worked at or ran. I can tell you, having the [multi-resort] experience this year was amazing. Checking out some bucket list resorts and really having the freedom to ski around was awesome.
So, I think that giving the opportunity for the masses of people to explore different experiences is key to falling back in love with the sport or picking the sport up, whatever your position is. At POWDR, our core brand-belief is that we’re founded on living by and doing the things we love with the people we love. Skiing and snowboarding are grounded in our soul and I think the more people we can share that with the better. Whatever the outcome is, it’s opening up new doors to our business.
John: I would agree that there’s a lot of good for the consumer. I was asked this question by a college class recently, and it was kind of a gotcha question. I said, “Well, you know guys, it’s not really an easy answer.” I think it’s great, it gives people a range of choices. I agree with Blaise, if you look at the price of day visitation, passes give you an opportunity and a feeling that you’re connected to a lot of different places, but you still have your home resort. But if you have the ability, if you want to take a road trip or hit one of those destinations, that’s within your scope now.
I think there was an interesting comment made by one of the senior executives of Alterra when that deal was first put together. He said this deal is going to be really great for you small, independent resorts. You’re going to have more opportunity right now to carve out your niche and give people an alternative, if you see it that way. If you see it as this competition is going to push you out, you’re going to have to look at that.
But if you look at where people are today, again, following my Millennials around, for instance, they used to be in my house and I could just use them to learn what’s cool and what’s not, and they could tell me what ads not to run. Now, I will go with them somewhere—a little one-off brewery, or the coffee shop down the street that’s got the hip story instead of the Starbucks. They’ll show me why they prefer to give their money to an independent. I think there is opportunity for all of us here.
At Sierra, we belong to a smaller group, the Powder Alliance. It does provide some benefit to us. It’s not huge, but it does give us a story to tell that there is value added to your pass if you buy here, if this is your home resort. So, I would agree that there are a lot of positives to that. We are somewhat in transition in learning where we go from here and where we’re going to end up, for sure. But I would say there’s opportunity on all sides here for the consumer and for the resorts.
Andrew Roy, Eldora, Colo.: What are some ways you market your resort to draw never-ever guests?
John: A group came in years ago to challenge us with ways to widen the portal. The portal of entry into our sport has gotten so narrow: you had to have the time, you had to have the money, the wherewithal, and the four-wheel drive.
What we’re seeing, at least out here in the west, we’re seeing huge amounts of people driving to snow for the first time and just coming to play in the snow. Make a snowman, throw a snowball, go sledding, which hopefully eventually turns into tubing. We call those experiences low-skill, high-thrill. So, there’s no skill needed, you’re not a spectator, you’re actually doing something, but you’re in somewhat of an uncontrolled slide down a track. Our goal is to then migrate you to a high-thrill, high-skill experience where you’re on the mountain and you’re controlling your turns.
So, there’s an opportunity to get people in the door with that first-time experience just playing in the snow. But also it’s a huge problem in the west with the ethnic diversity of folks we’re seeing on any weekend and especially three-day-weekends. They’re coming up in droves and coming into ski area parking lots and getting out with their plastic saucers. One way to look at them is, “Ugh, they’re taking up space, they need to go away.” Another way to look at it is they account for 60,000 tubing visits, so these are folks we can get into our industry in the future if we show them the way and widen that portal and look at pricing opportunities and identify what their needs are. They don’t have the equipment, they don’t have the clothes, so we need to focus on where those opportunities are.
We’ve been focusing on folks that have the wherewithal, they do have the time, and they want to step up in social class. We’ve gone to Silicon Valley, and particularly to the Intel and the Facebook and Google folks, and said, “Hey, come up and have a day on us.” We know they’re value-conscious, so we’ve taken a little bit of a walk on price in order to get them to come up and have that first experience off-peak. We cater to them, make sure they have a great experience, and then show them the way that they come into our sport and not have them feel that they can’t come in because they can’t speak the language or they’re not talented enough, or don’t have the clothes. It’s really breaking down those barriers and widening that portal to getting them in.
We subscribe to the idea that three times is the magic number. So, the incentives for the instructors are all based on making sure the first experience was great. And then we have a CRM reach back to the people saying, “Come on back, we’ll give you a discount on your next visit and then the third.” And if you can get to that third visit, there’s a good chance that they’re going to stay with the sport. So that’s kind of how we see it here.
Jody: John, I don’t know if you saw Planet Kids and Full Motion when you were over at Boreal/Soda Springs. Those are programs we started after I went over one day and was talking to my area manager and noticed little kids playing in the snow with buckets. I wondered why they didn’t have lift tickets on. Due to legalities and height minimums for tubing, to John’s point, there were so many barriers that parents actually couldn’t give us their money to pay for their children to enjoy our services.
So, we developed a program called Planet Kids. It’s a single portal to entry, we took out all of the barriers. You don’t have to pay extra for rentals, it’s a very seamless process. You grab a board and boots, and head out onto the terrain, which is similar to terrain-based teaching. It’s really low barriers and fun and playful, volcanos for kids to climb up and down and tube and little carousels and what not. This program, which started out as an acre footprint, is now a ginormous part. It’s actually a third of the revenue and income that comes from that resort.
The key here is really lowering your barriers. And the other key part, which we’re finding on the Woodward side, is that everyone is good enough to do our sports, but it’s the perception we’re putting out in our marketing that makes us appear difficult. We’re putting out these powder shots and really good, beautiful people skiing, and it’s hard to relate for everyone. I think it’s how we position the perception of the barriers we put out there.
Another big one for us on the Woodward side is content. We now are producing multiple web series and getting our brands out there and telling our stories to the masses. It helps people become aware that you can be good enough to go. I am a big believer of getting your brand out there through content.
Blaise: You know we’ve done some similar things to what John and Jody have done. Maybe not as expansive as Planet Kids, that sounds really cool.
I think summer is a gateway to winter. In summer, we’re seeing people discover being in the mountains through the development of our Epic Discovery program. We’re seeing a lot of people, and they’re not winter people, coming back to the mountains for summer. It’s a whole new user and we’re hearing often from them, “Oh wow, I bet I should come back in the winter. I bet it’s fun.” We’re making connections with these people and encouraging them to come back in the winter and trying to make sure they’re getting in the right programs when they do come back. I’m not sure we’ve got that fully evolved yet, but we’re seeing really good traction with that.
A lot of our focus is around kids in a lot of our resort areas and we’ve taken what used to be traditionally fifth grade programs to introduce kids to skiing and extended it to all elementary school grades. So, we’ve made the universe bigger in school programs and we’re seeing good traction in that as well.
The last thing that we’re doing is not so much marketing yet, it’s research. We’re doing a lot of research, particularly on women and different ethnic and cultural groups and their barriers to participation. I think John pointed it out: we are predominantly a white, male sport. And to some degree, the experience has morphed into being very biased that way. We’re learning a lot about what women may be looking for in the experience that may be different from what we have.
The same thing goes for other ethnic and cultural groups that are not participating in the sport yet and I think that’s something that’s evolving. We have some answers and some very interesting ideas that have come out of that, but I am not sure that we have fully developed the programs to answer those things.
Joe Forte, Blue Mountain, Pa.: I was curious about what successful partnerships your mountain has made with the local community and/or different government agencies, such as school districts, parks and rec departments, YMCAs, park service, or fish and game commission. Have you been able to create relationships that have mutually benefited both parties?
John: It’s critical to your success to be part of your community. At Sierra, we narrow down everything we give to two categories: education and youth recreation, and that’s worked really well for us. But it also means we have to say no to a lot of people, but we tell them that we really want to support those two categories.
We do a program called the “Straight A” program where any kid in the school district who gets straight A’s gets a season pass, and we’ve found that’s been a great motivator for the students, as well as the teachers, as well as the parents. We’ve seen whole families sign up after the kids got their pass. So the relationship we’ve earned with the school district is really important to us and we’ve made many friends as a result of the education award and it’s paid huge dividends.
When it comes to the recreation award, we sponsor every team that any employee has a kid on. Whether it’s little league, cheerleading, soccer, you name it, we try to sponsor those teams. And make sure our banner is hanging on the fence and make sure that people know that we care that youth get off the couch and participate and learn sports, and obviously that may lead into them wanting to come up to the resort as well.
Law enforcement, wildlife, anything that you can think of that’s good in your community to support, you should. Your question was about schools and park and rec, and I would say those are really important relationships. You can do in-kind stuff—it’s not all money. You can give tickets to their fundraiser or give first-time lessons to kids. So, yes, I’m a big believer in that support.
Blaise: We do, as well. I think everyone is. I don’t think I really have a lot to add. You have to be a part of the community. I think it goes beyond charitable giving, too. It’s participation and engaging with these agencies and with your school districts and really being a participant.
Our GMs and COOs, we kind of laugh, in a way. A large part of their job is really political, making the relationships and making sure they’re healthy and listening to our stakeholders and also making sure we’re communicating back with them. It’s important for your business, but it’s also the right thing to do. For us, our resorts are the big economic driver in their communities and it’s important for us to be aware of that in terms of our participation and our persona in the community.
Jody: I’ll just wrap it up with a couple I am pretty passionate about. We are now, with the Woodward program, doing a community garden, so we’re sourcing our food locally. It helps the community, it creates a lot of goodwill, and its healthier for the kids as well. So, we’re feeding kids at our largest camp this year locally sourced food, and we’re working with the community to grow that garden. So I think, in the end, having our kids be conscious of the environment is huge. That’s thing one.
Thing two at POWDR is we’ve joined Camber Outdoors. The mission there is to achieve equality for women in the outdoors from the backcountry to the boardroom. So I think those two programs are really powerful. I am also proud of what Boreal is doing with the High Fives Foundation. They do a “Feel Good Friday” where every Friday part of the proceeds goes toward that foundation. Those are kind of the three pivotal ones. And at Woodward we do scholarships for kids who are underprivileged, so we give them the opportunity to come to camp.
John: Blaise, you triggered something. One thing we had done in the past—I hadn’t made it mandatory but, in the past, it had been—if you’re in a leadership role here, you have to be involved in the community somehow. Whether you volunteer one day or full time for some cause that you believe in, or whether you coach little league or are in men’s club or are part of the various organizations in town, really get into the community and participate and get people to know who we are. Coaching, what they learn coaching with parents, and politics and bad umpires, all those things that happen, teaches them a ton of skills that they can bring back to the resort and realize that they’re doing the same thing, it’s just a different age group. I agree that getting our people into the community is really key for themselves as well.
Blaise: One of the surprising things to us, early on in our employee engagement survey, was that community involvement and being a community citizen was one of the highest points on a list from all of our employees. So, we went from there and created a lot of different volunteer days and volunteer opportunities and created a lot of different programs and different groups and saw that effort get a great response in subsequent employee engagement surveys. Our employees were really proud of that part of our company.
That wraps up the first year of the Summit Series, but it’s really just beginning. The landscape of mountain leadership is continuing to change, and in an effort to open the avenues of shared knowledge, SAM is gearing up to launch year two of the Summit Series. This program is designed to connect the next generation of mountain resort industry leaders with the leaders of today. Want to get involved or know a future leader who should be? Visit saminfo.com/summitseries for more information.
Need to catch up on the inaugural year before year two launches? Visit saminfo.com/summitseries for full transcripts of the calls between the mentees and mentors, or check out the PodSAM podcast channel to listen in on the conversations.