Podcast #117: Holiday Valley President and General Manager Dennis Eshbaugh
"Lift upgrade, snowmaking upgrade, building upgrade, repeat."
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Dennis Eshbaugh, President and General Manager of Holiday Valley, New York
February 13, 2023
About Holiday Valley
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: Win-Sum Ski Corp, which Holiday Valley’s website describes as “a closely held corporation owned by a small number of stockholders.”
Year founded: 1958
Pass affiliations: None
Located in: Ellicottville, New York
Closest neighboring ski areas: Holimont (3 minutes), Kissing Bridge (38 minutes), Cockaigne (45 minutes), Buffalo Ski Center (48 minutes), Swain (1 hour, 15 minutes), Peek’N Peak (1 hour, 15 minutes)
Base elevation: 1,500 feet
Summit elevation: 2,250 feet
Vertical drop: 750 feet
Skiable Acres: 290
Average annual snowfall: 180 inches
Trail count: 84 (4 glades, 1 expert, 21 advanced, 21 intermediate, 32 beginner, 5 terrain parks) – the official glade number is a massive undercount, as nearly all of the trees at Holiday Valley are well-spaced and skiable (the trailmap below notes that “woods are available to expert skiers and riders and are not open, closed, or marked”).
Lift count: 13 (4 high-speed quads, 7 fixed-grip quads, 2 surface lifts) – a high-speed six-pack will replace the Mardis Gras high-speed quad this sumer.
Uphill capacity: 23,850 people per hour
Why I interviewed him
Western New York is one of the most important ski markets in America. Orbiting a vast wilderness zone of hilly lake-effect are the cities of Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, and, farther out but still relevant to the market, Pittsburgh. That’s more than 20 million people, as Eshbaugh notes in our conversation. They all need somewhere to ski. They don’t have big mountains, but they do have options. In Western New York alone: Peek’n Peak, Cockaigne, Kissing Bridge, Buffalo Ski Club, Bristol, Hunt Hollow, Swain, Holiday Valley, Holimont, and a half-dozen-ish surface-lift outfits hyper-focused on beginners.
It’s one of the world’s great new-skier factories. Skiers learn here and voyage to the Great Out There. From these metro regions, skiers can get anywhere else quickly. At least four daily flights connect Cleveland and Denver – you can leave your house in the evening and catch first chair at Keystone or Copper the following morning. But sometimes local is good, especially when you start stacking kids in the backseat and your airplane bill ticks past four digits.
Set the GPS for Holiday Valley. In a region of ski areas, this is a ski resort. The terrain is varied and expansive. Downtown Ellicottville, a Rust Belt industrial refugee that has remade itself as one of the East’s great resort towns, is minutes away. The mountain is easy enough to get to (in the way that anything off-interstate is an easy-ish pain in the ass requiring some patience with two-lane state highways and their poke-along drivers). And lift tickets are affordable, topping out at $87 for an eight-hour session.
As a business, Holiday Valley is one of the most well-regarded independent ski areas in the country, on the level of Wachusett or Whitefish or Smugglers’ Notch. But it wasn’t the inevitable King of Western New York. When Eshbaugh showed up in 1975, the place was a backwater, with a handful of double chairs and T-bars and a couple dozen runs. It took decades to build the machine. But for at least the past 20 years, Holiday Valley has led all New York ski areas in annual visits, keeping company with New England monsters Mount Snow and Sunday River at around half a million skiers per season. That’s incredible. I wanted to learn how they did it, and how they keep doing it, even as the ski world evolves rapidly around them.
What we talked about
The wild Western New York winter; what’s driving record business to Holiday Valley; the busiest ski area in New York State; learning from Sam Walton in the best possible way; competing with Colorado; the history and remaking of Ellicotville; from ski school instructor to resort president; staying at one employer for nearly five decades; who owns Holiday Valley and how committed they are to independence; a brief history of the ski area; setting season pass prices at $1,000 in the megapass era – “we have 10,000 buyers of these other pass programs as well”; the importance of night-skiing; the bygone days of skiing all-nighters; why Holiday Valley hasn’t joined the Epic, Ikon, or Indy Passes, and whether it ever would; thoughts on reciprocal coalitions and why the Ski Cooper partnership went away; a picture of Holiday Valley in the mid-1970s; the landmine of too much real-estate development; going deep on the new Mardi Gras Express six-pack; why they’re building the lift over two years; how and why Holiday Valley self-installs chairlifts (one of the few ski areas to do so); remembering 20-minute double-chair rides on Mardi Gras; the surprising potential destination of the Mardi Gras quad; long-term potential upgrades for Sunrise, Eagle, Cindy’s, and Chute; the next lift that Holiday Valley will likely upgrade to a detachable; why Holiday Valley upgraded the 20-year-old Yodeler fixed-grip quad to a detachable quad two years ago; how much more it costs to maintain a detachable lift than a fixed-grip lift, and whether Holiday Valley could one day get to an all-high-speed fleet; “you have to keep a balance between what your customer base wants and what your customer base can support”; Dave McCoy’s thumbprint on Mammoth Mountain; potential expansion opportunities; where the next all-new liftline could sit; potential glade expansion; remembering when insurance carriers were paranoid of glade-skiing and why they backed off that notion; and why Holiday Valley implemented RFID but didn’t install gates.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
Holiday Valley is one of the few large regional destination ski areas that continues to stand alone. No pass allegiance. No reciprocal deals. The pass is good here and only here.
And it works. Like Wolf Creek or Baker or Mount Rose or Smugglers’ Notch or Bretton Woods, Holiday Valley is proving that the one-mountain model isn’t dead just yet. Even with a headliner season pass that runs $1,049*, just $30 cheaper than the good-at-63-mountains Ikon Pass and a couple hundred dollars more than the equally expansive Epic Pass. Many of the mountain’s passholders do also purchase these passes, Eshbaugh told me, but they keep buying the Holiday Valley Pass too.
Why? My guess is the constant, conspicuous investment. A new high-speed quad to replace a 20-year-old fixed-grip quad in 2021. Holiday Valley’s first six-pack – to replace a 27-year-old high-speed quad – next season. And the place is pristine. Everything looks new, even if it isn’t. The lodges – and it feels like there are lodges everywhere – are expansive and attractive. Snowguns all over. I haven’t walked around the joint opening closet doors or anything, but I bet it I did, I’d find the towels sorted by color and shelves labelled accordingly.
In the era of sprawling and standardized, there is still a lot to like in this hyper-local approach to ski resort management. Eshbaugh is in no hurry to chase his peers over the horizon. He admits there may be vast treasure and security waiting there, but there may also be a bottomless void. Holiday Valley and its eclectic and somewhat secretive group of owners will wait and see. In the meantime, we may as well enjoy the place for what it is.
*Holiday Valley offered several more affordable pass options for the 2022-23 ski season, including a nights-only version for $504, a Sundays pass for $313, a pass good for 10 weekdays or evenings for $285, and a nine-use night pass for $213.
Questions I wish I’d asked
I’d wanted to get a bit into Holimont, and ask my usual stupid question about whether the two resorts had ever discussed some sort of lift or ski connection. From a pure engineering standpoint, it wouldn’t be an especially difficult project: the hill that rises from the far side of the Holiday Valley parking lot is the backside of Holimont. You would just need trails down from the top of Holimont’s Exhibition Express or Sunset double to the bottom of Holiday Valley’s Tannenbaum lift, then a return lift up the mountain to Holimont. Here’s a crappy concept sketch I put together:
Of course, there are problems with my elaborate plans, starting with the fact that I have no idea who owns the property that I just designated for new trails and chairlifts. The bigger issue, however, is that Holimont is a private ski club, and it’s closed to the public on weekends and holidays. That won’t change. But if you’re curious, you can roll up and buy a lift ticket midweek, which is pretty cool. The place is substantial, with 56 trails and eight lifts, including a high-speed quad:
A union of these two ski areas seems highly improbable. But it would create an enormous ski area, and it was fun to fantasize about for a few minutes.
Why you should ski Holiday Valley
Holiday Valley skis far larger than the trailmap would suggest. Rolling from Spruce Lake over to Snowpine can take all morning. There’s lots of little offshoots, quirks and nooks to explore. Glades everywhere. Lifts everywhere. Most runs are substantially shorter than the advertised 750 vertical feet, but they cling to the fall line, and there are a lot of them: 84 trails feels like an undercount.
I said in the podcast that Holiday Valley felt like a half dozen or so ski areas stitched together, and it does. Creekside and Sunrise feel like that town bump, with gentle wide-open meadows. Morningstar is big broadsides, park kids and a speedy lift. Yodeler and Chute are raw and steep, tight glades between groomed-out boomers. Eagle is restless and wild and underdeveloped. And Tannenbaum is a sort-of idyll, a rich glen dense with towering pines, a detachable lift line threading low and fast through the trees.
It’s just a very good ski area, with everything except a headline vertical drop. But the sprawling lift system makes fastlaps easy, and if the snow is deep, pretty much all the trees between the trails are skiable. The place is likely to wear you out before you wear it out, and then you can head down the street for a beer and a pillow.
On operating hours
I guessed on the podcast that Holiday Valley was open more hours per week than most other ski areas in the country. Their regular schedule is 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. That adds up to 89 hours per week. I’m not sure exactly where that ranks among U.S. American ski areas, but its in the upper five percentile.
On Mountains of Distinction
Eshbaugh mentions the Mountains of Distinction program. This is a discount program started by Jiminy Peak before the megapass craze. It currently includes Jiminy, Wachusett, Cranmore, Holiday Valley, Bromley, and Crystal Mountain, Michigan. Passholders at any of these ski areas generally get half off on weekdays and $15 off on weekends and holidays at any of the other resorts. The program was far larger at one time, but it’s lost many members – such as Seven Springs – to consolidation.
On the incredible migrating chairlift
I mentioned a chairlift at Hunt Hollow – a ski area that operates on the same public/private model as Holimont – that relocated one of Snowbird’s old chairs. The chair was Snowbird’s old Little Cloud double, which they removed in 2012 to make way for a high-speed quad. You can read more about it here (pages 13 to 14). Lift Blog documented the lift when it stood at Snowbird, and then again at Hunt Hollow.
On lost ski areas of Western New York
In the podcast intro, I mention a pair of onetime competitors to Holiday Valley that failed to evolve in the same way and went bust. One was Wing Hollow, a 750-footer just 20 minutes south of Holiday Valley that is now best known for a never-solved 1975 double-murder. Here’s the 1978 trailmap, showing two T-bars and a double chair - about the same setup that Holiday Valley had in that period.
I also mention Bluemont, which was just half an hour north of Holiday Valley and claimed an 800-foot-vertical drop, a double chair, a T-bar, and two ropetows. Here it is around 1980:
The land that Bluemont sat on is currently for sale for $5.95 million. I wrote about this in May:
Man I don’t know what happens to these places. Eight hundred vertical feet would make this the second-tallest ski area in Western New York, after Bristol, and poof. Just gone. NELSAP says that the last investors “never received enough capital to get their idea off the ground.” The chairlifts are apparently long gone. Who knows if you would even be able to build on the land if you owned it – everything is impossible these days, especially in New York. But here it is if you have the money and the gumption to try.
These were just the two largest of many lost ski areas in Western New York. You can poke around the lost New York ski areas page on the New England Lost Ski Areas project for more info.
On Holiday Valley’s evolution
Eshbaugh talks about the deliberate way they’ve built out Holiday Valley over the decades. The oldest trailmap I can find for the ski area is from 1969 – 11 years after the resort opened, and six years before Eshbaugh arrived. It shows what is currently the area from Mardi Gras over to Tannenbaum, including Yodeler and Chute:
The mountain added the first Cindy’s lift – a double chair – in 1978. Here’s the trailmap circa 1981 - Cindy’s is lift 3:
Morning Star – a triple – arrived in 1983. The Snowpine double came the following year. This circa 1988 trailmap shows both (Morning Star is lift 5; Snowpine lift 6), and also teases the Eagle quad, which was slated to open the following year (it did, but as a quad, rather than as the triple teased below):
The Sunrise quad rose in 1992. Here it is on a circa 1997 trailmap (lift 10):
The Spruce Lake quad arrived for the 2007-08 season (lift 11):
Which basically takes us to modern Holiday Valley, though the ski area continues to upgrade lifts regularly. Impressive as this growth has been, I don’t think they’re anywhere near finished.
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