Podcast #27: Jay Peak President and General Manager Steve Wright

  
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Who: Steve Wright, President and General Manager of Jay Peak, Vermont

Recorded on: October 19, 2020

Why I interviewed him: Because there it sits, towering off the top of America, an unlikely snow trap that is the spiritual center of Northeast skiing. It is the best ski area in the best ski state in New England. Rippling with glades, pounded with more snow than any ski area east of the Rockies, cold enough to keep that powder crisp for days after it falls, Jay Peak offers your best chance at your best day of skiing on any given day of the season. For skiers funneling north on I-91 from the East Coast megalopolis, the mountain can seem rooted to a horizon too distant to bother with. But that remoteness only adds to the mystique, and those who do bother find something special, exotic almost, a place 10 miles from the international frontier, with a bordertown’s energy and a mixing pot’s cosmopolitan sheen. The skiing can feel foreign too, more big-trees-and-deep-turns West than baked-concrete East. The whole thing adds up to a kind of zen experience for skiers who hit it right, when the storms are pounding through and the temps stay low and you’re locked up there at the snowy top of the country, the whole of Northeast skiing outside of your little zone suddenly feeling far off and irrelevant.

The Jay Peak Tram. Photo courtesy of Indy Pass.

What we talked about: Why Jay joined the Indy Pass; why the partnership may benefit other Northeastern mountains as much as, if not more than, Jay; how long the initial Indy Pass partnership deal is set for; season passholder benefits, from the Indy Pass buy-up to free Saddleback days; whether Jay passholders could see more reciprocal partnerships in the future; why the Jay-Burke pass has persisted even after common ownership dissolved; will Steve Wright help convince Burke to join the Indy Pass?; season pass guarantees – where Jay sits and why they decided to move ahead of so many other ski areas; why Jay refunded all passes purchased by Canadian skiers; don’t expect the U.S.-Canada border to crack open anytime soon; what you lose when you lose Canada; how pass sales are faring in the age of Covid; the 10 Years of Jay contest; Jay’s upside-down season – trying to attract more skiers while everyone else in Vermont is trying to thin their skier numbers; if you think Vermont ski areas aren’t going to monitor quarantine requirements, listen to what Wright has to say about it; what operations will look like at Jay this winter; Wright’s side hustle as a slopeside pizza chef; the squad of roving wellness ambassadors you may encounter at Jay this winter; the operating plan for the tram, and yes there are some surprises; whether skiers will be able to hike to the summit from the top of the Flyer Express Quad; told for the first time: the story behind Jay’s March shutdown; how Jay Nation reacted to the mountain’s decision to close, which came before that of any other large mountain in the Northeast; why Jay went full shutdown, rather than framing the closure as a “pause in operations,” as so many other ski areas did; how challenging it was to shut down the enthusiastic uphillers that just kept coming; the group of international employees who were stuck at Jay post-shutdown and how the mountain ultimately helped get them home; the day a motorcade of black Escalades pulled into the parking lot and how it was different from the motorcades of black Escalades that had been regulars at the mountain during the Quiros era; what happens when you suddenly find yourself in charge of Jay Peak; whether the court-appointed receiver ever considered shutting down the mountain; the challenges of operating without a permanent owner; the explosive growth at the base of Jay over the past 10 to 15 years and whether that was the right direction for the mountain; the state of Jay Peak’s sale; why Jay Peak will not be bulldozed into a giant parking lot; why the mountain is discussing its valuation with the town of Jay; Wright’s upgrade wish list, including chairlift improvements; whether the mountain would ever consider replacing the tram or planting a redundant lift to the top; and whether the West Bowl expansion could ever happen.

Crushing some Jay Peak pow. Photo courtesy of Indy Pass.

Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview: Because go check indyskipass.com, where you’ll see Jay Peak is now the headliner of the already strong Eastern lineup. Why Jay joined the Indy and why it chose to do so this close to the season was a story I thought we all needed to hear. I also just wanted an update on the giant bucket of bullshit Jay had been wading through for the past several years, including but not limited to the EB-5 scandal that put the mountain under the oversight of a court-appointed receiver, the ongoing quest to find a buyer, the mountain’s decision to challenge its assessment with the town of Jay, why Jay was one of the first large ski areas in the country to shut down in the spring to help stop the spread of Covid-19, how it’s planning to handle operations in the coming socially distant season, and what the ongoing closure of the Canadian border means for the ski area. I also just wanted to get a sense of Jay’s long-term ambitions for lift and snowmaking upgrades, as well as a possible West Bowl expansion.

Why you should go there: Because if you haven’t been and you haven’t been on a good day, then you probably don’t know how good skiing in the Northeast can be. And while the rest of Northern Vermont doesn’t sit too far behind Jay in its annual snow totals, none of them has the sheer breadth of its glade network. Jay has always been known for and defined by its tree skiing, long before other mountains began thinning trees between groomers and dropping them onto the trailmap in earnest. A good glade network is useless without plenty of snow, of course, and Jay has more powder more often than anyone else. Outside of the outstanding skiing, however, this socially distant, limited-capacity year is probably the best one you’ll ever find to visit Jay Peak. The Canadian border remains closed to non-essential travel, cutting off half the ski area’s business. Vermont quarantine restrictions will further limit traffic. If you’re not in any of the restricted zones and can make it to Jay in the winter of 2020-21, you may feel pretty lonely up there, nothing but you and your skis crushing 2,000-foot pow laps from open to close. Go get it.

Buy that pass at Jay: Wright clarified to me after the interview that the two free Saddleback days that come with the Jay Peak season pass are only included with Jay-Burke combo passes that are purchased through Jay Peak. If you buy through Burke, you won’t get the Saddleback days, since Burke has no agreement with that mountain.

Additional reading/videos:

  • Why, look at this, it’s a Q&A with Steve in Powder by none other than Mountain Gazette owner and editor and Storm Skiing Podcast sponsor Mike Rogge.

  • Vermont Digger has been a great source for coverage of the EB-5 scandal.

  • The first part of a three-part interview with Wright by Propeller Media Works. Find the other two parts here.


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