The SAM Summit Series kicked off this past fall with 10 current industry leaders mentoring 10 next-generation leaders. The series continued the mentor-mentee dialogue SAM started three years ago to assist the development of the mountain resort industry’s future leadership.
When we hosted this particular conversation, regarding problem solving and strategic thinking, we had no idea how much the industry—and the world—would change come spring, and how strongly the insights shared by the three mentors last fall would resonate amid the COVID-19 crisis. The excerpts here were chosen because they relate to the current situation, and we’ve put them into that context.
The three mentors who took part in this discussion are Amy Ohran, president and GM, Boreal Mountain and Soda Springs, Calif.; David Perry, EVP, Alterra Mountain Co.; and Hiram Towle, GM, Mt. Ashland, Ore.
While addressing a previous crisis, Towle summed up the attitude that will allow the industry to survive this latest test: “We all rallied and found a way to get behind the problem, because that’s what we do in the ski business.”
Where Do We Start?
“There’s been a couple of pivotal times in my career when, through the strategic thinking process, we sometimes just jumped in too quickly with trying to answer the wrong question,” said Ohran. “We need to ask very clearly: What problem are we trying to solve? Sometimes I think we’re trying to solve the wrong one because we haven’t spent the time to figure out what the actual challenge is.”
With the current crisis, there are a lot of unknowns, including what the long-term repercussions are going to be for the industry, and how consumer expectations are going to change. Social distancing, sanitation, operational adjustments—as Ohran suggested, ski areas need to spend time deciding which problems and scenarios need to be addressed.
Both Ohran and Towle cautioned against jumping to conclusions when trying to solve the problem, and encouraged taking a step back to ask the right questions when identifying how to meet a challenge.
Don’t fear change. Ohran highlighted a capacity issue at Boreal’s Woodward Summer Camp that would have necessitated huge capital expenditures into additional lodging facilities. “We challenged ourselves to think more broadly … and shifted our thinking by looking at a value curve, understanding what we do really well and understanding what we don’t do as well,” she said. “We had an eye-opener that what we do really well is the action sports experience. The solution was to evolve the business model.”
As operators deep dive the challenges and start answering questions on what the “new normal” may be, thinking more broadly and potentially evolving the business model may be a direction to pursue.
Get the Team Involved
With any major shift—be it crisis-triggered or otherwise—all three mentors stressed the importance of having team members involved in the process and making sure everyone understands what is happening, and why.
“It has to be really clear to everyone that you can have the best strategic plan and financial plan, but if you don’t have the culture to see it through to succeed, then it’s not worth the paper it’s written on,” said Ohran. “If your [staff] understands—and they have been part of the process—that you have looked through a critical lens to see how this move impacts [the various parties involved], it’s good for your team to know that you’ve thought about it and you have a plan to address those changing needs.”
Transparency is king. Perry said he’s a big fan of “going deep into the organization”—well beyond the executive table—and sharing business goals, business challenges, strategies, and the company’s financial situation with staff. He shares “what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Give them the why,” he said.
“A lot of people talk about the three-legged stool in your business,” said Perry, which are guests, employees, and financial stakeholders. But Perry looks at it as a four-legged stool, the fourth being community. “If you’re taking care of your guests, you’re taking care of your employees, you’re conscious of taking care of the financial stakeholders and your community. If those four legs of the stool are understood deep into the organization, then the financial challenges are ones that people can understand, and the culture actually supports the financial challenges rather than opposing them.”
Set the right expectations. In the coming months, getting buy-in and understanding from the team will be key to enacting new policies and changes to services. We’re all going to have to experiment with solutions, too. Some will work and others won’t. If the team understands that and supports it, changes will be smoother, according to Towle.
“Start by setting expectations for your crew in the fact that there are going to be changes,” said Towle. “You want them to be a part of those changes. Involve them from the start to get that buy-in. If you don’t have buy-in, you’re going to have resistance through the entire process.”
Further, Towle said that staff members understand best how changes will impact them and their particular part of the operation. “Challenge them. Say that we know what the end goal is, and this is the point we want to get to. How do we get there?” That will ensure you have a shared commitment when marching toward those big changes.
Make plans, but be flexible. “We’re in a really fast-changing business environment right now, especially in our industry. I think that even though it’s fast changing, it’s essential that your teams take the time to build a multi-year plan,” said Perry. “Of course, you review those annually, with shifts and changes. But at least you have a roadmap of where you think you’re going to go.”
Perry alluded to thinking creatively and to looking back at what makes resorts—and winter sports—great in the first place. Ski areas are communities, big and small, where like-minded people work and recreate. This could be a key tenet of the message that leaders communicate to staff to help get further buy-in and re-instill a sense of pride.
It’s not going to be easy, but we’ll get through it. “Pain is the greatest teacher,” said Towle.
Right now, we’re all learning a lot.