Podcast #32: Hermitage Club General Manager Bill Benneyan (+ a Mountain Creek Bonus)
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Recorded on: December 1, 2020
Why I interviewed him: So you’re profiling a mountain with a 50K buy-in and another 15 grand a year to keep playing in the sandbox? This from the same podcast/newsletter outfit that constantly bumps the virtues of the $229 Indy Pass and its motley coalition of back-of-the-woods, shack-at-the-bottom-of-a-40-year-old-double-chair family-run ski areas? The same Storm Skiing Journal that’s constantly complaining about the price of single-mountain season passes ticking percentage points above the cost of big-money-backed Epic and Ikon Passes? What gives, Bro? The thing about lift-served skiing is that it’s a big, complicated, wonderful kingdom, with room for almost infinite interpretations of how a ski area can exist, function, operate, and thrive. The private ski area is one of many possible versions of Haystack as a ski area, and, as it turns out due to a clause in a previous sales contract, the only possible skiing-based version, as Bill explains in the podcast. It’s this or watch the place disappear back into the mountain over the next 30 years. Besides, there is nothing to be bitter about here: the one percenters didn’t rope off Killington or Sugarbush. This is a 1,400-vertical-foot mountain that’s steps away from one of the largest ski areas in Vermont (Mount Snow), and within an hour of three other larger ones (Stratton, Bromley, Magic). There are budget ways to ski each or all of these, and the presence of a tony version of these southern Vermont mainstays does more to bolster the region’s overall ski cache and culture than anything. Besides, the mountain, with all its intermittent struggles and triumphs, survives against considerable odds, and that’s a story I wanted to hear.
I also wanted to talk about Mountain Creek. And you Mountain Creek haters are just going to have to find a way to deal with that.
What we talked about:
Hermitage Club: How a group of former members superheroed out of the clear blue sky to buy the ski area out of auction in spite of protests from irascible failed owner Jim Barnes; the status of Barnes’ legal challenges to the new ownership group; the importance of operating the new operation with integrity to win back the trust of a traumatized community; the endless tension between resorts and resort towns; the club’s roots and how Hermitage Club 1.0 went wrong; same name, new business – this is a total reset; dealing with Vermont’s Act 250; the immense package of assets that came with the ski area; what the new owners sold to refocus on skiing; why the club contracted the Schaefer family, owners of Berkshire East and Catamount, to help run the place; rebuilding the workforce after the ski area sat dormant for two years; ISO: Snowcat driver/sous chef; the ski area’s anticipated operating season; why Hermitage Club aka Haystack could never operate as a public ski area; private rentals are available; membership caps, both for this season and long term; opportunities for summer business; Benneyan’s reaction to Chris Diamond’s assertion in Ski Inc. 2020 (a must-read) that the Hermitage Club was unlikely to ever be viable as a private ski area; the zany, uneven history of Haystack ski area; ditching the lobster thermidor for a more reality-based experience; what it takes to become a member; whether former members of the bankrupt club were grandfathered into the new iteration; how to ski the club if you’re not a member; what would have happened had someone bought and removed the Barnstormer six-pack; the justification behind removing the Hayfever Triple (which is now Bousquet’s summit chair); the state of the remaining lift fleet; possible future lift additions; the impact of losing 41 snowguns to Mount Snow and the condition of the snowmaking system in general; future snowmaking improvements; the state of the trail network and how the crew prepped the whole thing to come back online for the 2020-21 ski season; long-term trail expansion opportunities; what the ski area wants to upgrade next; how the private club intends to honor the history of the public Haystack mountain; and the club’s relationship with neighboring Mount Snow.
Mountain Creek: Why I’m an unapologetic Mountain Creek fan in spite of its obvious flaws; how the place “gets in your blood”; how to manage the hordes of terrible skiers that overwhelm the place on any given weekend; how true Creek skiers manage the crowds; why NYC is lucky to have a mountain of that size that close; the immense challenges of managing a large ski area with two base areas, marginal temperatures, enormous crowds, and little natural snow; why Mountain Creek may be the best ski area in the country to learn the business; the incredible and surreal transformation of the ski area from Vernon Valley-Great Gorge to Mountain Creek in the Intrawest post-acquisition maelstrom summer of 1998; the regulatory obstacles that were waiting like a brick wall to stop Intrawest’s 100-mile-an-hour machine; the grand and unrealized vision of Mountain Creek-as-quaint-ski-village and why that didn’t happen; how the great transformation changed the mountain’s character; how Intrawest decided what to replace and what to install instead; the true story behind the installation of the Cabriolet and its “flying buckets,” the most ridiculed ski lift in the Northeast; why Creek didn’t ultimately work out as an Intrawest property.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview: Because 10 months ago, Hermitage Club looked like it was about to be dismantled and sold off like a decommissioned warship. Vail had plucked more than three dozen snowguns off the ski area’s slopes and moved them over to Mount Snow. Boyne, among others, had bid on the Barnstormer high-speed six-pack and was ready to send in the helicopters to move it God knows where in its giant network. The place had sat fallow for two seasons, and if Hermitage Club lost that lift, it likely would have followed nearby Maple Valley into the abyss of lost ski areas. Then, miraculously, in the wild and silent early days of the pandemic, when all news was THAT news, a group of 181 mostly former owners announced that they had bought the ski area and all related assets at auction for a touch over $8 million. This despite a barrage of legal hijinks meant to overturn or delay the ruling by former owner and world-class knucklehead Jim Barnes. The new owners, a collection of mostly business professionals more capable with a Power Point deck than a Snowcat, made a couple of key early decisions that reset the club’s scope and made sure the snowguns would be pointed in the right direction: they shed extraneous assets to refocus on skiing, and they brought in a posse of ski industry badasses who could probably set up a snowskiing operation in the Florida Keys if you let them try it. That included, as consultants, the Schaefer family, who are the long-time operators of Berkshire East and Catamount ski areas in Massachusetts (Jon Schaefer has appeared twice on The Storm Skiing Podcast), and Benneyan, who for more than two decades learned how to pull a bear out of a rabbit-sized hat as one of the top guys at Mountain Creek, a snowskiing operation where it seems to never snow anymore. Compared to North Jersey, Southern Vermont is Little Cottonwood Canyon, and the team that’s in charge of the skiing is going to make sure the skiing is as good as the skiing can possibly be. I think they’re doing it right this time, and I wanted to hear about it from the guy in charge of making it all happen.
Why you should go there: Well you probably can’t, but let’s suspend our imaginations for a moment and pretend an initiation fee about equal to the average annual American income is not an obstacle: you should go there because skiing in Southern Vermont on a weekend can feel like trying to catch the last shuttle off Planet Earth before its molten core atomizes its population into spacedust. Skiing at Hermitage Club is probably not like that. It’s probably like skiing at Hunter on a windy day when it’s 37 degrees and raining. Only without the wind or the rain - just the almost complete absence of people. Or it’s probably like skiing at a place everybody forgot about, or a place from the past, but like a weird steampunk past where they’d invented shaped skis and six-passenger bubble chairs. Or it’s all of those things. It’s probably just amazing. And if you have kids and a bank balance that has a hard time finding a teeter-totter partner, then this is something you may want to think about, especially in this year when flying is bad and crowds are bad and crossing state lines is bad. But if you’re just a regular dude whose money has to be spent on, you know, food and that kind of bullshit, then make friends with a member, because members are allowed to bring guests (eventually). Or, you know, save up and make it happen. Good luck.
Here’s a cool video of The Witches pod that the previous iteration of the club commissioned:
In case you’re digging the Mountain Creek history bit:
For context on the Mountain Creek conversation, the Vernon Valley-Great Gorge trailmap in 1997, the year before Intrawest bought the place:
The transformation for the 1998 season was remarkable - perhaps the largest single-season overhaul of a ski area in the history of lift-served skiing. Only two of the chairlifts from the map above remain (the Vernon Triple, which stands today, and the Soujourn Double, which was replaced a few years back with another double; the tow ropes have all since been removed and replaced with a cluster of magic carpets adjacent to the Cabriolet):