2020-21 Northeast Ski Season in Review – Part 2

New owners, new managers, two ski areas come back from the dead, and Liftopia is still a mess

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Last week, I published the first part of a look back at the 2020-21 Northeast ski season, building off this season preview I wrote in October. Here’s part two:

6)    Can new owners reinvigorate these 3 mountains?

What I wrote

Saddleback is the sleeping giant of Northeast skiing, and its resurrection by Arctaris Impact Fund is the most important non-Covid story in East Coast skiing this year. Hobbled by antique chairlifts and overwhelmed former owners who invested millions into the mountain but never found a sustainable operating model, Saddleback has been closed since the end of the 2014-15 ski season. In December, it will emerge from the gutter of lost ski areas, a glorious slice of fall line cut into the top of New England and shimmering beneath a brand-new high-speed detachable quad.

Hermitage Club, once a public ski area known as Haystack situated down the road from sprawling Mount Snow, looked like the biggest bust since Google Glass after the State of Vermont shuttered the place in 2018 after just six seasons. As recently as March, its six-pack Barnstormer heated bubble sat on the auction block. Then, as the world stood still in the frantic early days of March Covid shutdowns, a group of 182 former members materialized with an $8 million-plus bid for the whole operation. …

Bousquet doesn’t have the heft of Saddleback or the cache of the glimmering Hermitage Club, but as an 88-year-old ski area seated in the heart of the Berkshires, it is arguably more important than either of them. … After huffing along on fumes for years, the place is getting an adrenaline shot in the form of new owners Mill Town, an investment fund that, like Arctaris, specializes in community development projects. Anyone who loves this place should feel very good about the fact that the Schaefer family – longtime stewards of Berkshire East and, more recently, Catamount – are coming on to help run the place.

What actually happened

Bousquet

After a banger of a summer spent gutting and upgrading the snowmaking plant, installing RFID gates, and tearing out two old chairlifts to make way for a used triple from Hermitage Club, Bousquet’s celebratory fireworks were rained out by the twin calamities of warm weather and a mis-engineered chair. The mountain didn’t open until Jan. 7, when it finally got (and then fortunately stayed) cold.

The chairlift was a bigger problem – there is no redundant lift to the summit, making a significant amount of the ski area’s best terrain inaccessible. The issue looked so intractable that, on Jan. 15, the ski area posted to its Facebook page that all Bousquet season passholders would have unlimited access to partner ski areas Catamount and Berkshire East until the lift was fixed. They could also request a refund. It looked like a catastrophe on top of a catastrophe, a compromised season following the foreshortened 2019-20 season and compounded by Covid overhauls.

And then they fixed it. It took another month, but Bousquet announced on its Facebook page on Feb. 14 that the new yellow chair would finally be ready to go the next day, just in time for February break. No surprise that it was the indefatigable Jon Schaefer orchestrating the impossible mid-winter salvage-job, as he details here:

“Jon is the master of leaning into problems and working through them,” said Bousquet General Manager Kevin McMillan. “It’s helpful to have him and his family as a resource.”

Other than the chairlift fiasco, things seemed to go fairly smoothly.

“It was, as you know a messy year on many levels, and not just because of COVID,” said McMillan. “The snowmaking investments were well received, conditions were great - the weather helped too! The underlying theme for Bousquet this past season was excitement that the mountain is reborn. The community was very generous, forgiving and excited for the future. Mill Town Capital is doing a lot of exciting projects in Pittsfield and the local support for them and for Bousquet has been remarkable.”

Pass sales, McMillan noted, doubled from historic levels, while day ticket sales hit all-time highs. More snowmaking investments are coming this summer, including 42 new SMI SCP guns, a migration to an all-electric system, a full replacement of the pipe network, and an automatic system for Main Street and the top of the mountain. The Blue Chair – the last center-pole Hall double operating in New England, according to New England Ski Industry News – will get a new haul rope. The ski area also demolished its historic lodge this spring to make way for a new, updated lodge, which should be ready for this coming ski season.

Saddleback

If you want to understand the raw joy animating Saddleback’s revival, start on the 6,600-member Friends of Saddleback Facebook page. While much of the social media platform has descended into a sewer of conspiracy theories and political grandstanding, this group is defined by one emotion: stoke.

There’s good reason for that. The mountain didn’t just break out of hibernation, it finally shook loose its 1950s funk. There’s a difference between Mad River Glen-style ski-area-as-a-museum funkiness and relying on a creaky and unreliable alpha lift that predates the moon landing. The new high-speed summit quad is glorious, a prominent investment that not only transforms the ski experience – eliminating what was often an hour-long trip to the summit, including liftlines – but signals to skiers that this place has a future.

General Manager Andy Shepard said that first-year season pass, day ticket, and overall visits exceeded his expectations. He declined to provide specifics, but noted that 2021-22 pass sales were trending upward, even after a price increase (last year’s pass was $699; next season’s began at $749 and is currently $849). Shepard pointed to customer experience research that he said confirmed the quality of the guest experience this past year.

“Our lowest scores were higher than the best-in-class service providers across all industries  - not just the ski industry, but all the consumer industries,” he said. “So we're very happy about that. People were essentially ecstatic with the experience that they had last year.”

Shepard said Arctaris is injecting another $9 million in capital projects this summer, including three new lifts: a Cupsuptic T-bar that will mirror the one Saddleback demolished last year, a portable ropetow roughly in line with the retired Sandy double, and a magic carpet near the base of the South Branch Quad. They will also beef up snowmaking capacity, add a solar farm, build additional parking, and begin construction on the long-awaited mid-mountain lodge in August, with hopes of opening it to skiers some time in 2022.

“The solar farm is a demonstration of our commitment to the environment,” said Shepard. “We want people to know that this is not just a talking point for us. We're serious about this. And if we can offer clean, renewable energy to power, we think that's a pretty powerful message to send, especially for a business.”

The fact that Saddleback emerged from hibernation at the same time the entire industry had to retrofit their operations for Covid gave it some advantages over other mountains – there were no old ways of doing things at a ski area that had been shut for five years.

“Our focus was on making sure that our ski area was the safest ski area in the country,” Shepard said. Saddleback updated its bathrooms with touchless flush toilets, sinks, and soap dispensers, and installed a new HVAC system in the lodge. Daily measurements recorded air quality indoors that was nearly as clean as the outdoors, according to Shepard.

“We had people that told us there was no place else they would have gone inside all last year, but they've come into our lodge,” he said.

That sense of security may have contributed to food and beverage sales that were “better than expected,” according to Shepard. The biggest challenge, he said, was one shared throughout the industry: a labor shortage.

“Most of our mountain operations team was reconstituted from previous years, so their efforts were flawless, but inside the lodge operation, we had a business model that projected 200 employees and we started the season with 120. “To add COVID on top of that was a challenge.”

Shepard, who as founder of the Maine Winter Sports Center helped resurrect the Big Rock and Black Mountain of Maine ski areas, knows how to orchestrate a comeback – and he knows what makes a place special.

“When I took this job over, one of the things that was clear to me was one of our biggest competitive advantages was the Saddleback family that everybody raves about,” he said. “And you know, of the tens of thousands of guests that came to Saddleback, we had three people who gave us a hard time about masks. And that just blows my mind. When you read about all the things that were happening around the country, all the challenges that businesses were facing, asking people to wear masks – We had three people that gave us a hard time.”

Hermitage Club

I asked Hermitage Club General Manager Bill Benneyan to assess the private mountain’s comeback season. Here’s what he told me:

Here's a challenge for you: Take a private ski area club that's fallen twice before, in a town economically dependent on its success and still reeling after the last abrupt closing and abandonment in 2018, including not just the ski resort for the well-heeled, but the golf course, airport, a half-dozen inns and a long list of individuals and vendors left on the short-end. 

Add 182 motivated and well-meaning former members who pony up and buy the asset out of bankruptcy, but like the dog who finally catches the bus, now have to figure out what to do with it in short order as a non-profit member-governed club.

Mix in the challenge of booting up the physical assets of lifts and snowmaking having sat idle for two years, creating a new business model from scratch, recruiting and hiring key management and staff, clearing overgrown trails and securing certificates of occupancy and permits all in a short four months prior to opening.

Coat liberally with a world-wide pandemic that casts the entire industry in doubt and certainly generates plenty of questions about launching a new business while barreling into the unknown. 

Spice up the mix with complicated flavoring of Vermont Ski Operations and Travel Restrictions that would seem to shutter the appeal of a social club. 

Oh yeah, and finish off the recipe with an arid dry dusting of labor market shortage and potential-Covid-exposure personnel outages. 

Now, bake at 32 degrees or less and hope it works.

Benneyan says they made it work, growing the club from 182 to 252 members, shedding non-core assets including several inns and a golf course, and re-igniting townhouse development near the lodge. The steady snowfalls for all of January and February helped. The next immediate focus will be significant upgrades to the snowmaking system as the club builds toward its target of 350 members, which it hopes to hit by the end of the 2021-22 ski season.

“Despite all the factors that made launching this project under some of the worst possible circumstances, it also led to distilling our focus down to the most important areas of focus and shedding some of the excesses and trappings that may have previously defined the Hermitage Club, before the subtle but important addition to the name the ‘Hermitage Members Club,’” said Benneyan. “In a season that has clearly signaled a return to the soul of skiing, a renewed joy of being outside on snow, and a revaluation of precious time spent with friends and family without distractions, we think this only accentuates the attributes of the club and will invite more regional skiers to consider the restorative benefits of kicking back in a place you can truly call your own, on your terms.”

7)    Will these resorts change under new General Managers?

What I wrote

While a new general manager does not generally change the atmosphere and attitude of a mountain in the same way that a new ownership group does, it’s worth noting that a number of high-profile Northeast mountains will have a new top leader this winter:

  • Brian Heon arrives at Sunday River after several years at Wildcat. Dana Bullen, who held the GM roll for many years, remains on as resort president.

  • Vail Resorts named new general managers at three of its Northeastern resorts: Vail Resorts hospitality veteran Josh Klevans takes over at Wildcat, former Mount Sunapee GM Tracy Bartels moves to Mount Snow, and Peter Disch – who previously ran Vail’s Wilmot Mountain in Wisconsin – replaces her at Sunapee.

  • John Hammondwho has spent nearly 30 years at Sugarbush, takes over for longtime president and CEO Win Smith.

What actually happened

Sunday River

To assess Heon’s first season at Sunday River, I asked someone who skis there pretty much every day: Lynne Zucchi, president of The Prime Time Ski Club, a group of age 50-plus skiers based at the mountain. Here’s what she told me:

From a club perspective Sunday River exceeded expectations...in a year without expectations.

They stayed open!

They were able to continue to provide a weekly series of group lessons the club had been doing for a few years. They changed up the grooming habits and left some trails untouched longer, which gave the diehards some diversity in a year without much natural snow or glades.

Yes it was really chaotic in the beginning. Yes our ski club suspended operations for the season. Yes there were grumblings about everything. But we were able to ski in a pandemic with minimal natural snow. Sunday River was able to provide that and for that we are thankful. No complaints. Not very exciting but that is the consensus.

I skied Sunday River for a week in December, and I was impressed with the Covid-era liftline management and the aggressive push to open terrain. Liftlines were quite long, even midweek, but that was true at every major resort this season (my experience that week is what drove my decision to spend most of the season exploring back-of-the-woods family-owned joints until the crowds cleared out in March).

The resort is continuing to evolve into a four-seasons destination, integrating the Sunday River Golf Club, which Boyne finally purchased last year (it opened in 2004).

“Like many ski areas, the ‘mud season’ between winter and summer can be difficult to bring in visitors,” said Sunday River Director of Communications Karolyn Castaldo. “Golf (along with conferences in a non-Covid environment) help to bridge that gap, and by increasing visitation during these times, we're also able to keep more staff on with consistent work at the course, in our restaurants, and in our hotels.”

The resort has combined membership with Sugarloaf, creating a sort of golf equivalent to its New England Pass, where access to one course includes access to the other. The resort also offers lodging packages that pair a round of golf at Sunday River with a round at sister resort Sugarloaf or the popular Belgrade Lakes golf course. Castaldo says this has been the course’s busiest June in three years.

Heon, who joined me on the podcast in February, is young and is likely to be running Sunday River for a long time. He’s likely to oversee the resort’s ambitious 2030 plan, which calls for significant lift, lodge, and snowmaking upgrades over the next decade. The first major piece of this – the Merrill Hill development and trailpod – is ramping up this summer and will be a good indication of whether the 2030 plan is on track in spite of last year’s challenges with Covid.

Sugarbush

I wasn’t able to ski Sugarbush this winter, so I asked the man who knows the mountain as well as anyone: former owner, president, and chief operating officer Win Smith what he thought of Hammond’s first year. Here’s what he told me:

After 20 years, I skied 112 days at Sugarbush as a guest. I was very impressed with what John Hammond and his team accomplished in this very challenging year. Importantly, I felt safe every day with the protocols they put into place. I saw employees frequently reminding guests politely but firmly to wear a mask or wear it properly. I thought both the snowmaking and grooming were excellent and, despite one of the lowest snowfalls on record, the mountain skied well and lasted into May. A number of the new outdoor dining facilities like The Lunchbox and 802 Burritos were a smart addition, and I enjoyed the convenience of making a dining reservation and paying on the app while riding a chair up the slopes. While Covid guidelines did not allow for the fun camaraderie that goes along with skiing, the adventure part made for a good winter. In my opinion, John and his team did a first-class job and many other guests shared that opinion with me too.

Despite already having spent three decades at Sugarbush, Hammond, like Heon, is fairly young and likely has a long tenure ahead. For more insight into where he wants to focus his energies in the coming years, check out our podcast conversation from last November.

Wildcat, Mount Sunapee, Mount Snow

I’ll start by saying I had one of the most surreal ski days of my life at Mount Snow this season – an improbable two-foot April powder day that materialized from the ether after a warm and dry March:

That turned out to be my last day of the season. I wrote about it here. It was my only Vermont ski day in a year when Vermont enacted the nation’s strictest Covid quarantine protocols. Vail seemed happy with the season in spite of its numerous challenges.

“Overall, we are very proud of the season we had,” said Tracy Bartels, vice president and general manager at Mount Snow Resort. “There was a lot of uncertainty heading into the season due to the pandemic. Given the complexities we were facing, our employees did a tremendous job and our guests showed a lot of support and enthusiasm. We were fortunate to have great snow conditions starting at Christmas with continual refreshing by Mother Nature. We were truly all in it together this past winter, and we can all take pride in the season we had in spite of everything.”

Vail also confirmed that it’s spending $6.5 million to rebuild Mount Snow’s mountain ops building, which burned down two years ago. A bit north, Okemo’s major lift project – a new six-pack at Jackson-Gore and the relocation of the Quantum Four high-speed lift to replace the Green Ridge Triple – is on schedule. Vail CEO Rob Katz said in the company’s most recent earnings report that pass sales in the region are very strong.

Vail is still relatively new to the Northeast. There have been occasional challenges: Some summer operations at Attitash and Wildcat are currently suspended due to maintenance (scenic lift rides continue). But the company went from zero resorts in the region four years ago to 13 today, and it acquired most of those when it bought Peak Resorts less than a year before Covid shifted everyone’s attention from long-term development to immediate survival. I do expect some major upgrades – and an ironing out of maintenance issues – once Vail really settles into the region over the next few years.

8)    Will Liftopia survive – and will ski areas use it if it does?

What I wrote

Once a bustling online snow bazaar peddling lift tickets, snow-tubing sessions, rentals, and more, Liftopia yardsaled hard in the Covid shutdown, abruptly ceasing payment to scores of its partners in March. Six months later, it’s still digging around for its skis. In June, Aspen, Alterra, Boyne, and A-Basin, claiming that Liftopia owed them a combined $3 million-plus, tried forcing the company into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Liftopia managed to have the petition dismissed, but the coalition is appealing the ruling. In August, Liftopia announced that it had signed a deal with a yet-to-be-named buyer, allowing the company to settle (in full, I’m told by someone with knowledge of the company’s operations) with its partners. As of late September however, repayment had yet to begin.

What actually happened

Let’s start with this: Liftopia’s implosion happening at the exact historical moment the ski industry moved en masse toward e-commerce is the biggest missed opportunity since Blockbuster decided the internet was just a fad. As I wrote in December:

No company was better positioned to help lift-served skiing adapt to the social-distancing age than Liftopia. It could have easily expanded and adapted its highly regarded technology to accommodate the almost universal shift to online-only sales for lift tickets, rental reservations, ski lessons, and even appointment times in the lodge. It had 15 years of brand recognition with customers and deep relationships within the ski industry.

But ski areas, uncertain about Liftopia’s future, have spent an offseason when they could have been building out their presence on a familiar platform scrambling for replacement tech solutions. In addition to the Liftopia-branded site, many ski areas used Liftopia’s Cloud Store platform to sell day tickets, season passes, rentals, and more. While it is unclear how many former partners shifted to another point-of-sale system this offseason, several have confirmed to The Storm Skiing Journal that they have done so.

Instead, Liftopia spent this ski season semi-dormant, its consumer site hobbling along with lift tickets to just a handful of ski areas. In December, a European outfit called Skitude bought the company and proceeded to reconfigure parts of it under the Catalate brand with former Liftopia CEO Evan Reece – the figurehead of the company’s implosion – in charge. Skitude Group CEO Bent Grøver then managed to piss off everyone with these regrettable comments in SAM:

“After having bought the assets and built up Catalate and the team, we have said that we would like to, as a gesture, find a way to repay the full amount to those who want to do business with us,” said Grøver. “If they don’t want to do business with us, it doesn’t make sense for us to repay something that was lost to bankruptcy. We bought the assets. We didn’t buy the company, its debts, or revenue.”

That landed like a Bill Buckner jersey at Fenway Park:

Liftopia, by the way, still owes Magic $27,000. Asked via email if he would take Catalate up on its offer to fully repay partners who worked with them, Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway gave me a succinct reply:

“Fuck no.”

Reece did not respond to a request for comment. The Liftopia serial isn’t over yet, but so far it’s poorly written and I kind of want my money back.

9)    Will a Jay Peak buyer emerge? Will Burke go up for sale?

What I wrote

When the lid blew off former Jay Peak and Burke owner Ariel Quiros’ EB-5 investment fraud a few years back, the resorts went to the care of court-appointed receiver Michael Goldberg. Instead of mothballing the ski areas until buyers emerged, Goldberg put general managers Steve Wright and Kevin Mack, respectively, in charge.

What actually happened

Jack squat. “Nothing to report on a Burke sale,” said Burke GM Kevin Mack. “Not much to report.  Touring lots of interested parties, grinding numbers, etc.,” said Jay Peak President and GM Steve Wright. Luckily both mountains seem stable in receivership, at least from an operating point of view. While a lot of skiers are likely rooting for Jay to land in Vail or Alterra’s stable, there are plenty of other options, including Mountain Creek and Big Snow operators Snow Operating or an independent buyer. Anyone would be lucky to have it.

10)    Will skiing continue to be a white out?

What I wrote

Following the national reckoning with systemic racism that followed the murder of George Floyd in May, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz put out a statement owning the lack of representation both at the company he has led for 14 years and on the slopes of his 37-resort empire. “I see this as a personal failing,” Katz said. Alterra’s Rusty Gregory followed with a statement of his own, as did several independent operators.

While Vail has held several internal town halls to discuss the issue, so far nothing substantive has materialized that would begin fixing the overwhelming whiteness of skiing. They must find a way. The population of the United States is rapidly diversifying, and the ski industry must, as a long-term business imperative, evolve the sport’s image to appeal beyond its white base.

What actually happened

Vail has taken several deliberate steps to “build our roadmap for a multi-year journey to address the lack of diversity in the industry, with a current focus on fostering a more inclusive company culture.” In February, the company outlined its progress up to that point. Vail has:

  • Established “Be Inclusive” as a new core value (others are: serve others, do right, drive value, do good, be safe, have fun)

  • Launched an internal leadership development program to evaluate its internal culture, “celebrate diversity,” and build an understanding of “DEI terminology, cultural contexts and unconscious bias”

  • Released a pair of podcasts: one spotlighting six Vail employees’ experiences as under-represented individuals in a predominantly white industry, and another with National Brotherhood of Skiers President Henri Rivers

  • CEO Rob Katz has signed the CEO Action Pledge for Diversity & Inclusion and joined Colorado Inclusive Economy

These internal cultural initiatives are like the permitting process before you start putting up a building: essential but perhaps harder to appreciate. The most vital and tangible step Vail took was to expand its youth access programs to all 34 of its North American resorts. These programs – backed, it should be noted, by a $10 million grant from the Katz Amsterdam Charitable Trust, established by Vail CEO Katz and his wife Elana Amsterdam – provide free lift tickets, lessons, and gear rentals to youth. This is a crucial step to making under-represented populations feel welcome on the mountain – it’s hard to understand that skiing is something you’re allowed to do if you never have access to it.  

“We believe this work must start internally before we can lead externally with authenticity and value,” said Jamie Alvarez, director of Corporate Communications at Vail Resorts. “We also acknowledge that one company alone can’t change the industry as a whole.”

Alterra did not have anything to share at this time. The rest of the industry has yet to meaningfully or consistently engage with its diversity issue, though the National Ski Areas Association and several state coalitions are building momentum around it. This is going to be a slow, deliberate process.

11)    Bonus questions

What I wrote

Will Vermont continue to require 14-day quarantines for most out-of-state residents? Will any ski areas buckle financially under Covid capacity restrictions? Who will be acquired or join a multi-pass? Will Northeasterners forgoing traditional Western trips overwhelm their local ski areas? Will skiers flood the backcountry? And, perhaps most important, will it snow? How much and where? And when?

What actually happened

Vermont finally lifted the 14-day quarantine requirement for vaccinated individuals on April 9, just in time for the end of ski season. No individual ski areas are obviously close to shuttering, though the financial impact of Covid will reverberate over many years. The Ikon Pass added Schweitzer and the Indy Pass added Jay Peak, Vermont; Snow Ridge and West Mountain, New York; Antelope Butte, Wyoming; Pomerelle and Soldier Mountain, Idaho; Saddleback, Maine; Waterville Valley, New Hampshire; Powder Mountain and Eagle Point, Utah; Mount Ashland, Oregon; and Sundown, Iowa. Neither Epic Pass or Mountain Collective added new partners. Skier visit numbers are still coming in and are all over the place: overall, the NSAA said this was the fifth-best winter ever, with 59 million skier visits in the U.S. Skier visits hit new records in Utah and ticked down slightly from their five-year average in Colorado. Vermont expects skier days to be way down, and New York expects them to increase. Small and mid-sized ski areas did well, the aNSAA said. Weekday visitation soared. I don’t really follow the backcountry, but anecdotally it seemed busier than usual. And, at least in the Northeast, it snowed big in December, melted out within a week, then snowed steadily from about the second week of January through the end of February. I skied 40 days, which for a guy living in Brooklyn is pretty good. Then spring came and it was all over.