Podcast #37: Sunday River General Manager Brian Heon
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Brian Heon, General Manager of Sunday River, Maine
February 2, 2021
Why I interviewed him
Because if you’re listening to this podcast, you can probably never get enough Sunday River. It’s big. It’s amazing. It’s important. And we all need it even if we never go there. For the Northeast to have a ski industry, it needs big, highly functional, ever-evolving ski areas that will forever stoke the aspirational let’s-go-bigger instincts of the beginners being tugged sideways up town ropetows. Sunday River is pretty much where things top out in New England. It has peers, but it really doesn’t have betters, even if there’s a little more howl and rip at Sugarloaf or Stowe or Sugarbush. It has scale and variety and lifts everywhere and if aliens landed on our planet and for some reason chose rural Maine as their disembarkation point they would probably conclude that the mountain was a giant factory for snow manufacturing. Which I suppose it is. And has to be. What it lacks in natural snowfall, it makes up for with cold cold temps, and Sunday River blasts out the artificial snow as well as anyplace on the planet. Running it is a titanic effort, and I wanted to get the perspective of the guy who had just taken on one of the biggest jobs in Northeast skiing.
What we talked about
How a career in skiing began in the melting flatscapes of Florida; working at The Canyons under the American Skiing Company and Mount Snow under Peak Resorts; running the legend that is Wildcat; when the original general manager of your ski area shows up with a shoebox full of old photos and stories of the sweaty pre-OSHA past:
… when Vail buys your mountain; de-icing lifts after 13 years of swimming in Utah fluff; landing at Sunday River as Covid aftershocks were first reverberating across the landscape; life in Bethel; the scale and complexity of the resort’s operations as compared to Wildcat; how former GM and current President Dana Bullen’s role has evolved since Heon joined the mountain; Boyne Resorts’ company culture; an update on Sunday River 2030; RFID finally; Merrill Hill expansion plan and timeline; what’s next for lifts at Barker, Jordan, Aurora, North Peak, and South Ridge; potential new trails and glades on top of the existing footprint; snowmaking goals; some crowd-sourced snowmaking questions; why rusty pipes aren’t always bad pipes; what types of guns we may see at Sunday River in the future; ideas for improving the ski flow for the public around the race courses; a follow-up question about Boyne’s quest to eliminate boilerplate in New England; whale-mania; the fallout from the resort’s cyber-security hack earlier in the season and how they’re preparing for future incidents; preparing for Covid ops even as circumstances shifted constantly in the run-up to ski season; how that plan has evolved as ski season marched onward; whether the Sunday River-Killington first-to-open rivalry will return post-Covid; and Covid-era ops changes that may stick around indefinitely.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
Because Sunday River has a new general manager for the first time since 2006. Brian Heon arrives from rowdy Wildcat, the New Hampshire legend now stacked into Vail’s Epic portfolio, with a couple decades of experience and an eagerness for a challenge. He found one, stepping into, well, 2020, arriving in May to try and puzzle together a Covid-era operating plan for a resort he’d never operated. It’s one of the most challenging situations imaginable at one of the most complex and scrutinized ski areas in New England. With eight months at the helm and several weeks of Covid-era operations behind him, I thought now was a good time to check in and see how Sunday River was adapting to our Very Weird Times and how Heon was sinking into his new home.
Why you should go there
I don’t have a lot to add to what I said about Sunday River when I interviewed resort President and then-GM Dana Bullen last February. This is a spectacular mountain, and a must-ski for anyone who wants to truly experience and understand Northeast skiing.
This is the latest of many Storm Skiing Podcasts with Boyne Resorts, parent company of Sunday River. Click through below to listen to the others:
Lift Blog’s Sunday River lift database
A history of Sunday River trailmaps – the resort’s development throughout the 80s is astonishing
COVID-19 & Skiing Podcasts: Author and Industry Veteran Chris Diamond | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | NSAA CEO Kelly Pawlak| Berkshire East/Catamount Owner & Goggles for Docs founder Jon Schaefer | Shaggy’s Copper Country Skis Cofounder Jeff Thompson | Doppelmayr USA President Katharina Schmitz | Mt. Baldy GM Robby Ellingson| Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory | NSAA Director of Risk & Regulatory Affairs Dave Byrd | Schweitzer Mountain President and CEO Tom Chasse
The Storm Skiing 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 | Big Snow & Mountain Creek VP of Sales & Marketing Hugh Reynolds | Mad River Glen GM Matt Lillard| Indy Pass Founder Doug Fish | National Brotherhood of Skiers President Henri Rivers | Winter 4 Kids & National Winter Activity Center President & CEO Schone Malliet | Vail Veterans Program President & Founder Cheryl Jensen | Mountain Gazette Owner & Editor Mike Rogge | Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows President & CMO Ron Cohen | Aspiring Olympian Benjamin Alexander | Sugarloaf GM Karl Strand – Parts One & Two | Cannon GM John DeVivo | Fairbank Group Chairman Brian Fairbank | Jay Peak GM Steve Wright | Sugarbush President & GM John Hammond | Mount Snow GM Tracy Bartels | Saddleback CEO & GM Andy Shepard | Bousquet owners and management | Hermitage Club GM Bill Benneyan | Powder Magazine Editor-in-Chief Sierra Shafer | Gunstock GM Tom Day | Bolton Valley President Lindsay DesLauriers | Windham President Chip Seamans