Podcast #14: Big Snow and Mountain Creek VP of Marketing & Sales Hugh Reynolds
Why I interviewed him: Modern New York City and its environs can be a frustrating place to live. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most grating is standing by while a tangle of ineptness swallows every large infrastructure or construction project. Simply building three new subway stations cost $4.5 billion and took a decade. Manhattan’s Essex Crossing mega-development is finally rising on land cleared for development 70 years ago. And across the river in New Jersey, the state still owed $110 million on the old Giants Stadium when they tore it down to build a new one right next door. When the wait-why-is-this-necessary-in-a-region-with-200-outdoor-ski-areas mottled snowshed rose off the turnpike sometime in the mid-aughts and then appeared to be abandoned before it was ever occupied, I figured its fate would be another chapter in the Big Book of Stupid Things Done In the Name of Flushing Money Down the Sewer. This had after all already been tried in Tokyo – another place where it is not exactly difficult to reach outdoor ski options – and it had reportedly cost as much to demolish as to build. When rumors ticked out last year that the New Jersey Snowdome would at long last be occupied, I was surprised and skeptical. But as I read more about it and I began to understand Snow Operating’s vision, my opinion evolved. Founder Joe Hession and his team have immediately established Big Snow American Dream – as the New Jersey Snow Dome is somewhat inelegantly known – as the nation’s premier learn-to-ski center. With its 365-day-a-year operating schedule, affordable all-gear-included ski packages, optimal conditions, and accessible-by-mass-transit location in the heart of the 20 million-person New York City metro area, the center has the potential to introduce more new skiers – and far more diverse skiers – to the sport than every backyard ropetow in the country combined. How Snow Operating transformed an abandoned hunk of aspirational scrap metal into one of the most visited and important ski areas in the country was a story I wanted to hear. Also, I’m a Mountain Creek season pass holder, and I had a lot of questions about the future of that place.
What we talked about:
Big Snow American Dream: attendance and reception; who’s using the facility, both skills- and diversity-wise; Big Snow as the gym of skiing and snowboarding; will the snow dome become a summer training center for pros?; why Snow Operating kept the Snow Dome’s price low and included everything from skis to snow pants to helmet to locker in one package; which outdoor ski areas they are partnering with to encourage folks to keep skiing after their indoor introduction; why Big Snow doesn’t have a season pass; hey, we admit it, the experience can’t compete with outdoor skiing, and that isn’t the point; whether they’ve spoken with Alterra or Vail about potential partnerships; why the snow dome is more amusement park than ski area; how Disney inspires them; why you should pre-purchase your tickets; why they limit the number of guests on the snow at any given time; why the place is attracting diverse customers even though they’re not doing that on purpose; the simplicity of the ski experience at the snow dome and why that’s important for beginners; why resorts are speaking to beginners all wrong; how Snow Operating got involved with revitalizing the snow dome and ultimately brought it on line; the history of the New York City Parks Department’s Winter Jam event and how that ties into Big Snow; what Snow Operating found when they cracked the doors open on a facility that had been set up a decade ago and never used; the chairlift hangs from the ceiling; their process for cycling snow through and keeping the surface fresh; how they may spruce the place up aesthetically; where and when we may see more Big Snow indoor ski center
Mountain Creek: Why Snow Operating bought Mountain Creek; what Intrawest did right and wrong in transforming the derelict Vernon Valley Great Gorge into Mountain Creek; the statement they’re making with aggressive snowmaking; the challenges of operating with almost no natural snow; despite all the shifting owners, the snowmaking and lift systems are in remarkably good shape because of staff continuity that goes back uninterrupted for as much as five decades; where they are investing in the mountain; why they finally paved the South parking lot driveway after it sat crumbling and potholed like some third-world mountain road for years and years; the kind of new lift they’re thinking about investing in and where that may go; everyone hates the cabriolet; everyone also hates walking to the mountain from the Vernon lot; Mountain Creek’s ghost trails and which ones may return and which one is done forever (and why); the mountain is no longer in bankruptcy; why they offer dirt-cheap season passes; why they haven’t explored partnerships with Indy Pass or anyone else; and whether they are looking to buy Jay Peak or any other mountains
Question I wish I’d asked: My habit is to way over-prepare for interviews to make sure we can fill an hour. In most cases, I end up with maybe a half dozen questions that I don’t get to, either because my guest inadvertently addressed them in a different way or we run out of time or I end up realizing that they weren’t worth asking. In this case, Snow Operating is doing so much so quickly, and there was so much to talk about, that I not only had to skip individual questions, but entire sections. I had a whole line of questioning about their Terrain Based Learning program and their Snow Cloud point-of-sale software, for example, and I really wanted to ask about some of the crowd-management changes they’ve put in place at Mountain Creek, as that is the number one qualitative issue with skiing there and they do appear to be addressing it. I also had a bunch of more mundane questions about Mountain Creek that would likely have been interesting only to passholders, about some recent changes to trail names and the long drama with the Soujourn Double and the new glade trail they added this year. The good news is that Snow Operating appears to be just getting started, so I have little doubt that I will have plenty of reason to feature Hugh or someone else on the team at some point in the future.
What I got wrong: Toward the end of the interview, I indicated that Snow Operating had been listed as a “possible bidder for Jay Peak.” While that isn’t entirely wrong, it isn’t entirely correct either. I would have been better off to frame them as a “party of interest” in the Jay Peak sale. My source that Snow Operating had visited the resort was a Vermont Digger article from last September [emphasis and boldface mine]:
At that meeting, Elander also talked to the board about the sale progress, including visits by potential buyers, according to the meeting minutes.
“The first one is Ultara [sic], they possibly have the funds, second is FoSun (privately owned), third is Pacific Group, fourth is two different groups Snow Operating and a fund called Oz, fifth is AWH (privately owned),” the minutes stated. “He (Elander) stated Vale [sic] showed no interest in Jay Peak.”
An Alterra purchase of Jay would have the biggest immediate impact given the reach and popularity of the Ikon Pass, but as Snow Operating’s long-term vision comes into clearer view, a statement purchase of a Northeast crown jewel would be less surprising to me now than it would have been six months ago. And this may be the best possible outcome for locals (who would get an experienced resort operator), for Vermont (which does not need more consolidation with Vail and Alterra together owning five of their largest mountains), and for skiers (who would know this mountain is now on a sustainable path after years of the uncertainty of receivership). I don’t have any particular rooting interest here other than to see Jay end up with someone who cares deeply about skiing and skiers and would respect what the mountain is. Snow Operating would be exactly that sort of owner.
I also said that Mountain Creek didn’t run shuttle service from the Vernon lot to the base, but Hugh corrected me and pointed out that they do in fact run shuttles from the farthest-out lots. I actually haven’t parked in the Vernon lots in several years - bypassing them to go to South lot, two miles down the road - so either my memory wasn’t clear or they’ve updated the transportation.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview: The Snow Dome just opened and has become a thing way faster than I could have anticipated. Who, I thought, is going to trek out to Jersey to ski on the smallest vertical drop on the East Coast? About 2,000 people per day, as it turns out. I will admit that I completely misunderstood the purpose and potential of this place. That Snow Operating not only saw what it could become, but made it into that thing so fast, is encouraging and honestly a little inspiring. Also, I have noticed incremental but unmistakable change at Mountain Creek over the past year – everything from paving the long-neglected South parking lot driveway to aggressively ramping up snowmaking to stretching the season to an almost-unfathomable-for-New Jersey April 7 closing to opening in mid-November. While the Snow Dome has gotten all the expected media attention, Mountain Creek is everyone’s favorite punching bag, and I wanted to give the place a little props for the noticeable pivot toward helping it to realize its enormous potential.
Why you should go there:
Big Snow American Dream: Skiing scares you because it’s too far and expensive and complicated and involved and intimidating. A ski resort with its cluster of indeterminate buildings and rental shed hell and titanic parking lots and lift queues and holy-crap-I-could-buy-a-TV-for-that day ticket prices befuddle you. You think that skiing is too rich, too white, too bougie, too inherited. You’re a skier and you want to get your non-skiing friends to try it and you can’t figure out a way they can afford it without selling their car. You like novelty. You’re like me and you’ll ski anywhere. It’s summer and you haven’t skied since that one day at Killington in May and man you ended up just mainlining IPAs out of the back of your buddy’s pickup after three runs on Superstar and so was that even really skiing any more than this but who cares you just need to make some turns. You’re a tourist. It’s winter but it’s raining. You only have a couple hours to ski and hey it’s right there. You’re a park kid or a racer or some other class of competitor who needs to get your train on but it’s July and it’s a long way to Whistler or Oregon or Andorra or Chile. You’re ready to stop being cynical. Or hell maybe you just want to try it because it’s a thing now.
Mountain Creek: You live anywhere that is closer to north Jersey than the Catskills or the Poconos. You want a quick-fix option for when you can’t get farther north. You don't see skiing as a graduated activity, where after you fly to Colorado once you’re forever bronzed in a sort of ski-god metallic sheen that makes you too gilded to make turns in, uck, New Jersey. You know where and when to go (park in South lot, go as early as possible). You understand what it is and where it is and you can appreciate things for what they are. It isn’t perfect, and it can be chaotic and downright unruly, but Mountain Creek is my home hill because it’s an hour and 15 minutes from my apartment and has a $230 no-blackout season pass (that’s the early-early price and is no longer available for the 2020-21 season; see current prices here). It is bigger than you think it is. It has a legitimate 1,000-foot vertical drop. South Peak is a joyous ramble of ramps and features. The lift system is excellent because the place was at one time owned by Intrawest, who stripped that thing bare and in one summer stapled a web of high-speed lifts to the mountainside. I go there on weekend mornings and ski from when the lifts open at 8 a.m. (to season pass holders) until 11 or so, until it starts to get busy. I also run up there some evenings after work. These two- to four-hour intermittent sessions keep me tuned up between runs upstate and to New England and elsewhere. The place is big, well-maintained, fun, and, for me, necessary. It is also the most misunderstood mountain in the Northeast. If you haven’t been there in a while, reorient yourself around the reality of what it is and try it for a quick hit. Snow Operating is changing things, and you could do worse things than give them a chance to show you its potential.
- I wrote an extended essay on Mountain Creek a few months ago, when I had far fewer subscribers than I do now – please read if you’re interested in knowing why I dig this mountain that so many haters reflexively dismiss.
- This article, by the Colorado Sun’s revered ski reporter Jason Blevins, is the most well-researched account yet of Big Snow American Dream’s long-term potential to infuse more diversity into the sport.
- Here’s what claims to be an exhaustive list of all the current and defunct indoor snowdomes in the world.
- Here’s a trailmap of the pre-Intrawest Vernon Valley-Great Gorge, it’s tangle of antique lifts crisscrossing one another in a wild jumble up the mountainside:
- And here’s the 1998-99 version, the year that Intrawest came in, stripped the old lifts, and installed high-speed quads on South and Bear Peaks, the yeah-it’s-weird-but-it-works cabriolet up Vernon peak, and the Granite Peak Quad. This is more or less the lift configuration that exists today, though some of the tows and carpets have been removed or relocated:
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Previous podcasts: Killington & Pico GM Mike Solimano | Plattekill owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay | New England Lost Ski Areas Project Founder Jeremy Davis | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | Lift Blog Founder Peter Landsman | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Burke Mountain GM Kevin Mack | Liftopia CEO Evan Reece | Berkshire East & Catamount Owner & GM Jon Schaefer | Vermont Ski + Ride and Vermont Sports Co-Publisher & Editor Lisa Lynn | Sugarbush President & COO Win Smith| Loon President & GM Jay Scambio | Sunday River President & GM Dana Bullen |