Podcast #106: Boyne Resorts President and CEO Stephen Kircher
“It’s a Golden Age for North American skiing”
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Stephen Kircher, President and CEO of Boyne Resorts
November 9, 2022
About Boyne Resorts
Boyne Resorts owns 10 ski resorts, a scenic chairlift, and a bunch of hotels and golf courses that you can read about in my other newsletter, The Storm Golfing Journal. Here’s an overview of the stuff we’re covering here:
Why I interviewed him
Skiing, as a business, is ruthless. More failures than triumphs. More ghosts than living souls. Like humanity itself, I suppose. Enough corpses exist to create a knucklehead talking point for anyone doubting the long-term viability of, for example, Vail Resorts. They just point to the graveyard and say, “Well what about American Skiing Company? What about SKI? What about Intrawest?”
Well, Dumbass, what about Boyne? Founded 74 years ago on a Michigan hillside and now a 10-resort, continent-spanning titan, Boyne Resorts is the Ford Motor Company of skiing. Imagine old Everett Kircher, chomping a cigar and riding eight-foot-long skis down Hemlock, a good-old-boy of the Michigan backwoods, getting a load of Boyne Resorts 2022, with its arsenal of megalifts and Ikon Pass access tags all blippity-blinging on the social medias. It would shock him no less than Henry Ford stepping out of his 1903 workshop and stumbling upon a plugged-in F-150 Lightning with satellite radio and $100,000 pricetag.
Both of these companies started a long time ago as something very different and evolved into something very Right Now. This is what good companies do, and what almost no companies actually manage over time. See: Kodak, Blockbuster, K-Mart failing to envision digital film, streaming, ecommerce. Boyne Resorts is the longest-running multi-mountain ski company in North America, and possibly in the world. Why? They adapted. Part of their evolution, as Stephen and I discuss in this podcast, was persistence through the near-bankruptcy of key properties in past decades. Part of it was having the vision to build a scenic chairlift in, of all places, Gatlinburg, Tennessee in the 1950s. Part of it was relentless investment in snowmaking. Part of it was a pivot to showmanship and experience. And part of it was dumb luck and timing.
There’s no single reason why Boyne Resorts has survived and evolved for 74 years, and there’s no guarantee that anyone else could exactly replicate their model. But Boyne Mountain, the company’s namesake and original resort, is one of the last ski areas in the country to persist under its original ownership. There’s a lot we can learn from that fact, and from what Boyne Resorts did in the years since their original mountain’s founding to keep the thing from becoming another wintertime phantom.
What we talked about
Boyne’s system-wide commitment to the long season; Boyne Resorts’ many and varied 2022 lift projects; Sunday River’s massive growth potential and how the Jordan 8 will serve that; “people don’t understand the idea of rebalancing”; why the company is dropping an eight-pack at Boyne Mountain; what happened when a helicopter had to dump a Cypress lift tower, and whether that impacted the project’s timeline; why Boyne didn’t buy Sun Valley, Telluride, or Jackson Hole; Boyne Resorts’ decades-long expansion; why Boyne had to back out of half-ownership of Solitude; why Boyne purchased Shawnee Peak and what the potential is there for upgrading lifts and expanding terrain; whether Pleasant could ever join the Ikon Pass ; changing the name to Pleasant Mountain; whether Boyne will buy more ski areas; ski areas that the company passed on buying; EuroBoyne?; how Crystal Mountain exited Boyne’s portfolio – “It was a bummer that we lost it from the Boyne family”; preventing overcrowding; “there’s a collaborative approach within the Ikon”; whether Boyne bid on White Pass; how close Boyne came to closing Boyne Mountain in the 1990s, how the finances had deteriorated to that point, and how the company saved itself; how a Tennessee chairlift saved the whole company; why there aren’t more scenic chairlifts in America; dreaming up and building the Michigan Sky Bridge; the five things driving Boyne’s incredible investment spree and whether it’s sustainable; the importance of owning the resorts that you run and the land that you operate on; “I think it’s a Golden Age for North American skiing”; how European skiing leapt ahead of North America in on-hill infrastructure; how and why Boyne brought the first eight-pack chairlift to the United States; how Boyne’s 2030 plans are unfolding with a different strategy from 2020; “growth changes the flow of traffic”; why it’s taken longer to get 2030 plans for Cypress and Brighton than for Boyne’s other resorts; “we had a lot of old Riblets in our system”; the importance of creating a sense of place without the pitfalls of becoming “Intrawest 2.0”; why Boyne finally went wide with RFID; why liftline fast lanes have flopped at Boyne’s resorts in the past; and Boyne’s obsessive focus on snowmaking.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
Boyne is just absolutely rolling right now. In September, when The Highlands announced that it would retire three Riblet triples for a D-line six-pack in 2023, I itemized the big projects underway across Boyne' Resorts’ portfolio:
About five years ago, statement lifts started raining out of the Montana sky.
After rolling out four high-speed lifts in five years (the Powder Seeker six in 2016, Ramcharger 8 and the Shedhorn high-speed quad in 2018, and the Swift Current 6 in 2021), Big Sky recently unveiled a gargantuan base-to-summit lift network that will transform the mountain, (probably) eliminating Mountain Village liftlines and delivering skiers to the high alpine without the zigzagging adventure across the now-scattered lift network. Skiers will board a two-stage out-of-base gondola cresting near the base of Powder Seeker before transferring to a higher-capacity tram within the same building.
Impressive as the transformation of Big Sky has been, it represents a fraction of the megaprojects going on across Boyne’s 10-resort empire. Here’s a survey of what’s happening around Boyneworld this offseason alone:
As the centerpiece of their 450-acre West Mountain expansion, New England’s second-largest ski area is currently rebuilding and retrofitting the Swift Current high-speed quad from Big Sky. Installation is scheduled for next summer. I discussed this expansion and the rest of the mountain’s 2030 plan with GM Karl Strand two years ago:
Boyne’s third eight-pack is rising on Jordan Peak. It’s gonna be a bomber, an overbuilt look-ahead lift that will eventually serve an outpost called “Western Reserve,” which may double the 870-acre resort’s size. The mountain is also continuing work on the Merrill Hill expansion, a big piece of the mountain’s 2030 plan.
Last December, Boyne opened eight-pack number two at Loon Mountain, New Hampshire. The event was electric. Meanwhile, the quad that once served that side of the mountain sat in the rebuild barn, so it could replace and retire the Seven Brothers triple, work that has been ongoing all summer.
Pleasant Mountain (formerly Shawnee Peak)
Boyne bought Maine’s oldest ski area less than a year ago, so they’ve yet to announce any big-time lift projects. For now, the company did the impossible, winning social media for a day with their unanimously lauded decision to change the ski area’s name back to Pleasant Mountain, which it had carried from 1938 to 1988. While this doesn’t alter the ski experience in any way, it does show that Boyne is here to wow people. Just wait until they start talking lifts and expansion.
Eight-pack number four will be here, on Boyne’s shortest ski area, a 500-foot Michigan bump. The chair will replace a pair of ancient triples, dropping skiers atop one of the best pods of beginner skiing in the Midwest, a delightful jumble of long, looping greens threading through low-angle forest.
I mean what isn’t happening at Big Sky? This gondola-tram complex will instantly become one of the most iconic lift networks in North American skiing. I recapped the Montana flagship’s evolution from backwater to beefcake with mountain COO Taylor Middleton earlier this year:
Boyne’s snowiest mountain is also one of the few without a long-term 2030-type plan. This, Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher explained to me, is because the resort sits on Forest Service land, complicating the long-term planning process. No matter. The ski area recently began the permitting process for a D-Line (what else?) sixer to replace Crest Express, the ski area’s oldest high-speed quad.
Summit at Snoqualmie
The motley agglomeration of what was once four separate ski areas is about to Rip Van Winkle its way into modernity. The ski area’s 2030 plan, announced in April, sketches out eight new or upgraded lifts, including a trio of triples at freewheeling Alpental. The first lift is going in as I type this – a fixed-grip carpet-loaded triple to replace the old Hidden Valley Riblet double. GM Guy Lawrence and I went through these updates in a podcast recorded two days prior to the announcement:
Boyne’s only Canadian ski area is upgrading its Sky summit double with a carpet-loaded quad.
One month later, Loon announced a 30-acre South Peak expansion that will finally connect the monster Escape Route parking lots with the ski area via a carpet-loaded quad next year:
Here’s the full story:
It had been more than two years since Kircher’s last stop on the podcast, and the big projects just keep dropping. There are plenty more on the way, too, but this seemed like a pretty good time to check in to see what was driving this investment binge.
What I got wrong
I referred to Sunday River’s upcoming Western Reserve expansion as the “Western Territories.”
In framing Boyne’s expansion story, I asked why the company started buying additional resorts “in the ‘90s.” The company began expanding in the ‘60s, of course, with the addition of The Highlands. What I had meant to ask was, why did the company begin expanding in earnest with the 1997 purchase of Crystal Mountain. Over the next decade, Boyne would add five more resorts, doubling its portfolio.
I said that Vail “bought” Andermatt-Sedrun in Switzerland. They only own a 55 percent stake in the ski area – the other 45 percent is under the control of local investors.
I said in passing that Deer Valley was not on the Ikon Pass. It is, of course, as a seven-day partner on the full pass. What I had meant to say was that the Ikon Pass is not Deer Valley’s season pass.
I said that Boyne had been a “laggard” in RFID. Kircher points out that the company had introduced the technology at Brighton and Crystal a number of years ago.
I stated that there was no snowmaking at Summit at Snoqualmie – Kircher points out that the resort uses “a small amount” on their tubing hill and terrain park.
The Gatlinburg Skylift is a pretty incredible complex. I stopped by in September:
As Kircher noted, SNL had its fun with the Sky Bridge (5:20):
Boyne Resorts on The Storm Skiing Podcast
Storm archives are well-stocked with Boyne Resorts interviews. This is Kircher’s third appearance on the podcast. Funny note: The Storm featured Kircher for podcast number 6, and 100 episodes later on number 106.
My interviews with the leaders of Big Sky and Summit at Snoqualmie both rank in the top 10 for total number of all-time Storm Skiing Podcast downloads (out of 117 podcasts):
Leaders of each of Boyne’s New England resorts have appeared on the podcast multiple times. The exception is Pleasant Mountain, which I’ll feature on an episode once their long-term plans come together.
I also interviewed the leaders of each of Boyne’s Michigan resorts:
That just leaves Brighton and Cypress. I’ll get to Brighton soon enough, and I’ll wrap Cypress in after I officially enter Canada in May.
Meet my new co-host, Rocky the cat
My cat wouldn’t shut up and is the third party in this podcast. His name is Rocky. He is 17. Or so. He looks like he’s about 700. He could be. I adopted him from a shelter in May 2006. Meaning he’s been in my life longer than either of my kids, by several years. A fact that astonishes me, really. All he does is meow meow meow all goddamn day. He wants to eat every five minutes. Meow meow meow. That’s the problem during this podcast – he is demanding his five-times-hourly feeding. Otherwise, he is a sweet animal. He comes when you call him, like a dog. He hates the outside and sheds like a yeti. He’s best buddies with my 5-year-old son and he looks like a miniature cow:
He’s moved all over New York City with me, though he would be just as happy living in a box truck in a Tampa strip mall. He can no longer run or jump, though he still manages the stairs quite well. He is not a smart animal, and that may have contributed to his longevity – he is not curious enough to get himself into trouble. He still manages to make quite a mess. A cat is the highest-maintenance animal I can manage, and just barely. But I quite like him, even if he chose an unusual hour, on this one day, to vary from his normal 22-hour-per-day sleep schedule and interject himself into our conversation.
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