January 2023

Rules of Engagement

By focusing on relationship building, resorts and communities both win.

Written by April Darrow | 0 comment

jan23 rules of engagement 01

There are roles at ski areas that we all understand—titles like human resources coordinator, F&B manager, and patrol director are easy to wrap your head around. But what about the more nebulous role of “community engagement,” which more resorts have begun to prioritize in recent years? 

“Companies and communities have been focusing on minimizing environmental impacts and being economically sustainable so that they can continue to exist,” said Natalie Ooi, who leads the sustainability in the outdoor industry program at the University of Colorado. “However, historically, not as much attention has been given to the importance of building and maintaining strong community relationships, being respectful of local and diverse cultures, and engaging with stakeholders in meaningful ways.” 

Ooi, whose work focuses on community economic development and how resilient communities are built through outdoor recreation, spoke as moderator of a recent SAM Summit Series discussion between five resort leaders and the ten mentees, who talked about community engagement at their resorts. All agreed: It’s vital for the health of the industry to think about what meaningful community relationships look like—and to prioritize them. 

(Listen to this entire conversation between mentors and mentees on PodSAM.)

GAINING AN UNDERSTANDING

“Community engagement is now the highest priority of our organization,” said David Norden, CEO of Taos Ski Valley, N.M., and a Summit Series mentor. So much so that this fall, Taos hired its first-ever full-time community engagement officer. That follows in the footsteps of resorts like Colorado’s Aspen Skiing Company, which in 2015 created a director of community engagement position to put a face to issues at its four resorts. The officer deals with issues such as employee housing, development challenges, and transportation.

Norden learned the importance of working with the Taos community when he arrived six years ago. “I came from Stowe, which was a ski resort town—the ski business was intertwined with the community,” said Norden. “In Taos, the town is more separated, and we’ve got a really diverse culture. The Taos Pueblo Indigenous Nation has been living on the same property for a thousand years. It’s the longest continuously inhabited civilization in North America.”

Getting involved. Upon his arrival, Norden was asked to attend an annual meeting with the war chief of the Taos Pueblo. “I had no idea there was a war chief,” he said.

Looking back, he counts it among the “most influential” meetings he’s had, one that altered the way he conducts business. “It’s been pivotal to understand the culture of the Taos Pueblo, to understand their pro-approach to land and conservation and preservation, and to really open up a dialogue, so that as we go through different aspects of business decision making, we have good collaboration and good communication with the local stakeholder groups.” 

The groups have since met frequently, and earlier this year, they signed a first-ever memorandum of understanding with the ski area for “mutual respect and collaboration.” “So we continue to build on this,” said Norden. “It’s vitally important to everything we do. Now we have support from the Pueblo, we’ve got Pueblo kids skiing at the mountain, all sorts of programs and other goodwill have come of that initial meeting.”

And those meetings with the local community will continue through Norden’s “100 cups of tea” plan. “My goal is to have 100 cups of tea, that is, to have 100 meetings [with community stakeholders] over the course of the next 50 weeks, two meetings per week,” he said. “And the idea is—it’s more than a meeting, it’s a discussion. It’s getting to know each other, getting to have relationships.”  

A COMPLEX PROPOSITION

Running a ski area is a complex community equation. Climate change, affordable housing, overcrowding, lack of employees, cultural clashes, and conflicts between tourism and other industries or long-term residents and second-home owners all come into play—even more so since Covid.

“The reality is, these issues and challenges are such that no one individual or business or group can address and solve them on their own,” said Ooi. “What’s needed is cooperation, collaboration, and partnership between the public, private, and non-profit sectors to collectively tackle these challenges while creating a holistic vision for the future.” 

 Ooi cited a recent Eagle County, Colo., ballot measure for regional transportation as an example of much needed collaboration between the Town of Vail and its satellite communities to alleviate the strain of transportation and housing issues impacting the entire “regional ecosystem.” 

“Once you had [the Town of] Vail and you had the bedroom communities [in Eagle County], and they weren’t working together to solve ‘Vail’s problems,’” said Ooi. “Now, the region has started to recognize that the only way to meaningfully address these issues is to work together.”  

FORGING RELATIONSHIPS

Relationship building shouldn’t be just about meeting with folks when there’s a reason, added Ooi. “Building an informal relationship that goes beyond work can be hugely influential, especially when we talk about building trust,” she said.

When Tara Schoedinger assumed the role of GM at Crested Butte, Colo., in June 2021, she quickly realized the relationship with U.S. Forest Service partners was one of the most important—most of the mountain is on public land. “Our mountain ops leader has spent the last 30 years forging a strong relationship with our local Forest Service representatives. It makes everything go so smoothly,” she said. 

When last year, a local adaptive rider vented on social media about the resort’s “no e-bike” policy, the relationship paid off. “I was able to make a call to the Forest Service and change the policy that day, effective immediately,” said Schoedinger. “We were able to do that right before the adaptive mountain biking world championships, which made a huge impact for the individual that felt impacted by this.”             » continued

Active relationships. Sugarbush president and CEO John Hammond has worked with five different Forest Service permit administrators over 30 years, but only realized a few years ago how active that relationship must be.“I’ve found that I need to call our permit administrator at least once a month to check in and say ‘hi,’” said Hammond. “I think everyone wants to be included in what’s going on. When you’re not communicating, people tune out or they take it personally.”

Hammond also bikes with a pivotal local board member, a more informal way to connect. “It’s a great time to build trust and have a relationship when you’re enjoying the same thing and realizing there are common pieces,” he said. 

“At the end of the day, every bit of it is about the relationship,” said Tim Foster of Sun Peaks in British Columbia, which became its own municipality 13 years ago—requiring lots of official discussions. “The early morning coffee chat, the chairlift discussion, the mountain bike ride. They’re all important ways to forge relationships with different partners, so that when the conversations do happen that are a little more serious or require more tact, they go a bit easier.”  

DIGGING DEEPER

Foster recommends taking a moment to understand the history, where the relationship has come from, and who the players were in the past, “so you have a little bit of understanding of the context and can put yourself in their shoes.”

And don’t assume that the community has it all figured out, added Charles Skinner, owner of Midwest Family Ski Resorts, which operates Lutsen Mountains, Minn., Granite Peak, Wis., and Snowriver Mountain Resort, Mich. 

When Skinner started at Lutsen Mountains, the region was heavy on tourism but wasn’t unified in any way. “We had three separate tourism organizations. We didn’t have a chamber,” he said. “We got the community together to come up with a plan of where they wanted to go, and got like-minded people to come up with an economic and strategic plan and move towards forming one countywide chamber and one countywide visitors bureau.” 

Today, the community is tight knit and works together instead of competing.

Gather context. Skinner suggests all resorts first try to understand how their local economy works: which parts are tourism, which parts aren’t tourism, and what the population is doing. “Try to get a good grounding on what’s happened in the last 50 years, so you can think through what would be meaningful to this community to solve some of these problems looking at trends from the past.”

Meet people. “Just being available at the resort isn’t the same—it’s actively going out and meeting with the communities, your [Forest Service] permit administrator, things like that,” said Hammond. “Just have a chat, swap some ideas, and learn more about their business. Going to them, meeting in person, and having no agenda is a nice way to start a relationship, and it might lead to the next conversation.”

Schoedinger agreed: “Be curious about them and develop those relationships before you need them.” 

EARLY INVOLVEMENT

When it comes to stakeholder engagement, Ooi said it’s a best practice to try to involve the community early, rather than doing the work and presenting it for review. “Inviting them to the table allows folks to have influence in the final decisions being made,” she noted.

Risk and reward. Yes, there’s some risk in that. Taos recently took that risk when it offered an open forum to the community regarding Forest Service updates to its master development plan. “Rather than create a plan and put it in front of the community, we had an open forum and had the community bring ideas,” said Norden. “We were nervous about giving people a blank slate, but the beauty of the exercise was that we can say [the environmental assessment]was a community-led effort. It allowed us to say that we heard, and we listened.”

And that’s important, because often, people simply want to be heard, added Norden. “They want to know that their voice is heard, and that their ideas are in play. And it’s okay to reject those ideas if you can share the ‘why’ behind it.”

Sugarbush recently did something similar, Hammond said. When looking at changes to the resort-managed Clay Brook Hotel, the resort surveyed the entire community involved in that development, asking people to name the three things most important to them. 

“Being able to come back to that group and explain that we listened and value your opinion was important,” said Hammond. “We’ve found that most people want this. While it’s a corporate ownership [Sugarbush is owned by Alttera Mountain Company], a lot of us are invested in the community and trying to personalize it again. To get that feedback has been huge to try to break down some of the barriers of the corporate culture.” 

TWO-WAY STREET

The art of building relationships should be a two-way street, reminds Ooi. “Be thoughtful and think ahead as to what is something that you, as a resort, can offer these groups that you’re trying to partner with,” she said. “It should be something where both parties gain, and that would help them advance their cause. 

“If you go into these conversations with that kind of attitude, it sets up the foundation for fruitful long-term relationships that can blossom into something that’s pretty amazing.” 

 

SAMMY Guest Editor says…

When I began working at Snow Valley in 2003, I made it a priority to attend a local chamber of commerce meeting to introduce myself and get to know other business people. 

At that first meeting, the Running Springs, Calif., community members were surprised to see someone from Snow Valley there. It was clear that they wanted the largest employer in the area to be involved. Our situation was similar to what Charles Skinner described—at that time, the chamber members and Snow Valley did not have a cohesive plan to address the goals of the community. Fortunately, this has all changed.

After attending a few meetings, I remember using an analogy that Snow Valley was like an anchor store in a shopping mall. People came up to ski, but there were numerous ancillary opportunities to attract skiers and snowboarders to stop in town. This notion helped to reframe the relationship between Snow Valley, local businesses, and community leaders, from which we built “active relationships” like those described by John Hammond. 

Over time, this resulted in the creation of a comprehensive tourism marketing plan and hundreds of thousands of dollars in tourism grant funding to market the area. This was all made possible by the Snow Valley team making it a priority to create active relationships with our community members and community leaders.

Smaller ski areas like Snow Valley make a real impact on the local community and it is important to be engaged in local community groups and issues. Being involved in groups like the chamber has allowed me to meet local political leaders and to foster active relationships with those individuals without an agenda. Our ongoing engagement and involvement has proven to be immeasurably valuable when the ski area has faced challenges.

For us, community engagement, community involvement, and community relations aren’t new—it’s part of our core principles and a huge part of why Snow Valley proudly boasts such strong community support. 

Kevin Somes, Snow Valley, Calif., 2022 SAMMY 

Leadership Award honoree