Podcast #91: Snow Partners (Big Snow, Mountain Creek) CEO Joe Hession
“We are really focused on new Big Snows,” and a monster Mountain Creek lift project in the works
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June 15, 2022
About Mountain Creek
Located in: Vernon Township, New Jersey
Closest neighboring ski areas: National Winter Activity Center, New Jersey (6 minutes); Mount Peter, New York (24 minutes); Campgaw, New Jersey (51 minutes); Big Snow American Dream (50 minutes)
Pass affiliations: None
Base elevation: 440 feet
Summit elevation: 1,480 feet
Vertical drop: 1,040 feet
Skiable Acres: 167
Average annual snowfall: 65 inches
Trail count: 46
Lift count: 9 (1 Cabriolet, 2 high-speed quads, 2 fixed-grip quads, 1 triple, 1 double, 2 carpets – view Lift Blog’s inventory of Mountain Creek’s lift fleet)
About Big Snow American Dream
Located in: East Rutherford, New Jersey
Closest neighboring ski areas: Campgaw, New Jersey (35 minutes); National Winter Activity Center, New Jersey (45 minutes); Mountain Creek, New Jersey (50 minutes); Mount Peter, New York (50 minutes)
Pass affiliations: None
Vertical drop: 118 feet
Skiable Acres: 4
Average annual snowfall: 0 inches
Trail count: 4 (2 green, 1 blue, 1 black)
Lift count: 4 (1 quad, 1 poma, 2 carpets - view Lift Blog’s of inventory of Big Snow American Dream’s lift fleet)
Why I interviewed him
Twenty-five years ago, Vail Resorts was known as “Vail Associates.” The company owned just two mountains: Vail and Beaver Creek, which are essentially right next door to each other in Eagle County, Colorado. The resorts were, as they are today, big, snowy, and fun. But they were not great businesses. Bankruptcy threatened. And the ski media – Skiing, Powder – was mostly dismissive. This was the dawn of the freeskiing era, and the cool kids were running the Circuit of Radness: Snowbird, Squaw, Mammoth, Jackson Hole, Whistler, the Powder Highway. Vail was for suburban dads from Michigan. Beaver Creek was for suburban dads from New York. If you wanted the good stuff, keep moving until you got to Crested Butte or Telluride. Vail was just another big Colorado ski resort, that happened to own another big Colorado ski resort, and that was it.
Today, Vail is the largest ski company in history, with (soon to be) 41 resorts scattered across three continents. Its Epic Pass transformed and stabilized the industry. It is impossible to talk about modern lift-served North American skiing without talking about Vail Resorts.
There was nothing inevitable about this. Pete Seibert, Vail’s founder, did not enter skiing with some snowy notion of Manifest Destiny. He just wanted to open a great ski resort. It was 18 years from Vail Mountain’s 1962 opening to the opening of Beaver Creek in 1980. It was nearly two more decades until Vail bought Keystone and Breck in 1997. It was 11 more years until the Epic Pass debuted, and a few more before anyone started to pay attention to it.
What Snow Partners, led by Joe Hession, is doing right now has echoes of Vail 15 years ago. They are building something. Quietly. Steadily. Like trees growing in a forest. They rise slowly but suddenly they tower over everything.
I’m not suggesting that Snow Partners will be the next Vail. That they will buy Revelstoke and Jackson Hole and Alta and launch the Ultimo Pass to compete with Epic and Ikon. What Snow Partners is building is different. Additive. It will likely be the best thing to ever happen to Vail or Alterra. Snow Partners is not digital cameras, here to crush Kodak. They are, rather, skiing’s Ben Franklin, who believed every community in America should have access to books via a lending library. In Snow Partners’ version of the future, every large city in America has access to skiing via an indoor snowdome.
This will change everything. Everything. In profound ways that we can only now imagine. The engine of that change will be the tens of millions of potential new skiers that can wander into a Big Snow ski area, learn how to ski, and suddenly train their radar on the mountains. Texas has a population of around 29.5 million people. Florida has about 22 million. Georgia has around 11 million. Those 61.5 million people have zero in-state ski areas between them. They could soon have many. There are countless skiers living in these states now, of course, refugees from the North or people who grew up in ski families. But there are millions more who have never skied or even thought about it, but who would, given the option, at least try it as a novelty. And that novelty may become a hobby, and that hobby may become a lifestyle, and that lifestyle may become an obsession.
As anyone reading this knows, there’s a pretty direct line between those first turns and the neverending lines rolling on repeat in your snow-obsessed brain. But you have to link those first couple turns. That’s hard. Most people never get there. And that’s where Big Snow, with its beginner zone loaded with instructors and sculpted terrain features – a system known as Terrain Based Learning – is so interesting. It not only gives people access to snow. It gives people a way to learn to love it, absent the broiling frustration of ropetows and ice and $500 private instructors. It’s a place that creates skiers.
This – Big Snow, along with an industry-wide reorientation toward technology – is Hession’s vision. And it is impossible not to believe in his vision. Hession announces in this podcast that the company has secured funding to build multiple Big Snow ski areas within the foreseeable future. The combination of beginner-oriented slopes and simple, affordable packages has proven attractive even in New Jersey, where skiers have access to dozens of outdoor ski areas within a few hours’ drive. It makes money, and the business model is easily repeatable.
Mountain Creek, where Hession began working as a parking lot attendant in his teens, is, he says, a passion project. The company is not buying anymore outdoor ski areas. But when Big Snows start minting new skiers by the thousands, and perhaps the millions, they may end up driving the most profound change to outdoor ski areas in decades.
What we talked about
The nascent uphill scene at Mountain Creek; “most people don’t realize that this is what New Jersey looks like”; celebrating Big Snow’s re-opening; the three things everyone gets wrong about Big Snow; the night of the fire that closed the facility for seven months; how the fire started and what it damaged; three insurance companies walk into a bar…; why six weeks of work closed the facility for more than half a year; staying positive and mission-focused through multiple shutdowns at a historically troubled facility; New Jersey’s enormous diversity; skiing in Central Park?; “we’re creating a ski town culture in the Meadowlands in New Jersey”; everyone loves Big Snow; the story behind creating Big Snow’s beginner-focused business model; why most people don’t have fun skiing and snowboarding; the four kinds of fun; what makes skiing and snowboarding a lifestyle; what Hession got really wrong about lessons; the “haphazard” development of most ski areas; more Big Snows incoming; why Big Snow is a great business from a financial and expense point of view; looking to Top Golf for inspiration on scale and replicability; where we could see the next Big Snow; how many indoor ski domes could the United States handle?; what differentiates Big Snow from Alpine-X; whether future Big Snows will be standalone facilities or attached to larger malls; is American Dream Mall too big to fail?; finding salvation from school struggles as a parking lot attendant at Vernon Valley Great Gorge; Action Park; two future ski industry leaders working the rental shop; Intrawest kicks down the door and rearranges the world overnight; a “complicated” relationship with Mountain Creek; Intrawest’s rapid decline and the fate of Mountain Creek; leaving your dream job; ownership under Crystal Springs; how a three-week vacation will change your life; transforming Terrain Based Learning from a novelty to an empire; “I’ve been fascinated with how you go from working for a company to owning a company”; the far-flung but tightly bound ski industry and how Hession ended up running Big Snow; how much the Big Snow lease costs in a month; an Austin Powers moment; this is a technology company; an anti-kiosk position; the daily capacity of Mountain Creek; buying Mountain Creek; the art of operating a ski area; the biggest mistake most Mountain Creek operators have made; the bargain season pass as business cornerstone; “we were days away from Vail Resorts owning Mountain Creek today”; bankruptcy, Covid, and taking control of Mountain Creek and Big Snow in spite of it all; how much money Mountain Creek brings in in a year; “a lot of people don’t understand how hard it is to run a ski resort”; a monster chairlift project on the Vernon side of Mountain Creek; “a complicated relationship” with the oddest lift in the East ( the cabriolet) and what to do about it; “no one wants to take their skis on and off for a 1,000 feet of vertical”; which lift from Mountain Creek’s ancient past could make a comeback; bringing back the old Granite View and Route 80 trails; why expansion beyond the historic trail network is unlikely anytime soon; Creek’s huge natural snowmaking advantage; why no one at Mountain Creek “gives high-fives before the close of the season”; Hession is “absolutely” committed to stretching Creek’s season as long as possible; the biggest job of a ski resort in the summertime; the man who has blown snow at Mountain Creek for 52 years; whether Snow Operating would ever buy more outdoor ski resorts; “variation is evil”; the large ski resort that Hession tried to buy; “I don’t think anyone can run a massive network of resorts well”; an Applebee’s comparison; whether Mountain Creek or Big Snow could ever join a multi-mountain ski pass; why the M.A.X. Pass was a disaster for Mountain Creek; why Creek promotes the Epic and Ikon Passes on its social channels; changing your narrative; not a bullshit mission statement; why the next decade in the ski industry may be the wildest yet; and the Joe P. Hession Foundation.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
I’ll admit that it can be awfully hard to appreciate the potential of Big Snow from the point of view of the casual observer. For anyone living in the New York metro area, the place spent a decade and a half as a vacant laughingstock, a symbol of excess and arrogance, an absurdly expensive novelty that was built, it seemed, just to be torn down. As I wrote last year:
On Sept. 29, 2004, a coalition of developers broke ground on a project then known as Meadowlands Xanadu. Built atop a New Jersey swamp and hard by Interstate 95, the garish collection of boxes and ramps with their Romper Room palette could be seen from the upper floors of Manhattan skyscrapers, marooned in their vast asphalt parking lot, an entertainment complex with no one to entertain.
It sat empty for years. Crushed, in turn, by incompetence, cost overruns, the Great Recession, lawsuits, and funding issues, the building that would host America’s first indoor ski slope melted into an eternal limbo of ridicule and scorn.
I didn’t think it would ever open, and I didn’t understand the point if it did. This is the Northeast – we have no shortage of skiing. At four acres on 160-foot vertical drop, this would instantly become the smallest ski area in nine states. Wow. What’s the next item in your master development plan: an indoor beach in Hawaii?
But eventually Big Snow did open: 5,545 days after the center’s groundbreaking. And it was not what I thought it would be. As I wrote the month after it opened:
For its potential to pull huge numbers of never-evers into the addictive and thrilling gravitational pull of Planet Ski, Big Snow may end up being the most important ski area on the continent. It is cheap. It is always open. It sits hard against the fourth busiest interstate in the country and is embedded into a metro population of 20 million that has outsized influence on national and global trends. Over the coming decades, this ugly oversized refrigerator may introduce millions of people to the sport.
I wrote that on Jan. 13, 2020, two months before Covid would shutter the facility for 177 days. It had only been open 94 days when that happened. Then, 388 days after re-opening on Sept. 1, 2020, fire struck. It caused millions in damage and another 244-day closure. After endless negotiations with insurance companies, Big Snow American Dream finally re-opened last month.
So now what? Will this place finally stabilize? What about the disastrous financial state of the mall around it, which has, according to The Wall Street Journal, missed payments on its municipal bonds? Will we see more Big Snows? Will Snow Operating bid on Jay Peak? Will we ever get a real chairlift on Vernon at Mountain Creek? With Big Snow rebooted and live (take three), it was time to focus on the future of Snow Operating. And oh man, buckle up.
Questions I wish I’d asked
I could have stopped Joe at any time and asked a hundred follow-up questions on any of the dozens of points he made. But there would have been no point in that. He knew what I wanted to discuss, and the narrative is compelling enough on its own, without my input.
Why you should ski Mountain Creek and Big Snow
If you’re approaching Big Snow from the point of view of a seasoned skier, I want to stop you right there: this is not indoor Aspen. And it’s not pretending to be. Big Snow is skiing’s version of Six Flags. It’s an amusement park. All are welcome, all can participate. It’s affordable. It’s orderly. It’s easy. And it has the potential to become the greatest generator of new skiers since the invention of snow.
And that will especially be true if this thing scales in the way that Hession believes it will. Imagine this: you live in Houston. No one in your family skis and so you’ve never thought about skiing. You’ve never even seen snow. You can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to. It looks cold, uncomfortable, exotic as moonrocks, and about as accessible. You’re not a skier and you probably never will be.
But, what if Big Snow sprouts out of the ground like a snowy rollercoaster? It’s close. It’s cheap. It could be fun. You and your buddies decide to check it out. Or you take someone there on a date. Or you take your kids there as a distraction. Your lift ticket is well under $100 and includes skis and boots and poles and bindings and a jacket and snowpants (but not, for some reason, gloves), and access to instructors in the Terrain Based Learning area, a series of humps and squiggly snow features that move rookies with the ground beneath them. You enter as a novice and you leave as a skier. You go back. Five or six more times. Then you’re Googling “best skiing USA” and buying an Epic Pass and booking flights for Denver.
And if that’s not you, how about this scenario that I face all the time: nonskiers tell me they want to try skiing. Can I take them? Given my background, this would not seem like an irrational request. But I’m not sure where to start. With lift tickets, rentals, and lessons, they’re looking at $150 to $200, plus a long car ride in either direction, just to try something that is cold and frustrating and unpredictable. I’m sure as hell not teaching them. My imagination proves unequal to the request. We don’t go skiing.
Big Snow changes that calculus. Solves it. Instantly. Even, as Joe suggests in our interview, in places where you wouldn’t expect it. Denver or Salt Lake City or Minneapolis or Boston. Places that already have plenty of skiing nearby. Why? Well, if you’re in Denver, a snowdome means you don’t have to deal with I-70 or $199 lift tickets or figuring out which of the 100 chairlifts in Summit County would best suite your first ski adventure. You just go to the snowdome.
The potential multiplying effect on new skiers is even more substantial when you consider the fact that these things never close. Hession points out that, after decades of refinement and tweaking, Mountain Creek is now finally able to consistently offer 100-day seasons. And given the local weather patterns, that’s actually amazing. But Big Snow – in New Jersey or elsewhere – will be open 365 days per year. That’s three and a half seasons of Mountain Creek, every single year. Multiply that by 10 or 20 or 30 Big Snows, and suddenly the U.S. has far more skiers than anyone ever could have imagined.
There exists in the Northeast a coterie of unimaginative blockheads who seem to measure their self-worth mostly by the mountains that they dislike. Hunter is a big target. So is Mount Snow. But perhaps no one takes more ridicule, however, than Mountain Creek, that swarming Jersey bump with the shaky financial history and almost total lack of natural snow. Everyone remembers Vernon Valley Great Gorge (as Mountain Creek was once known), and its adjacent summertime operation, the raucous and profoundly dysfunctional Action Park. Or they remember Intrawest leaving Creek at the altar. Or that one time they arrived at Creek at noon on Dec. 29 and couldn’t find a place to park and spent half the afternoon waiting in line to buy a bowl of tomato soup. Or whatever. Now, based on those long-ago notions, they toss insults about Creek in between their Facebook posts from the Jackson Hole tram line or downing vodka shots with their crew, who are called the Drinksmore Boyz or Powder Dogzz or the Legalizerz or some orther poorly spelled compound absurdity anchored in a profound misunderstanding of how impressed society is in general with the antics of men in their 20s.
Whatever. I am an unapologetic Mountain Creek fan. I’ve written why many times, but here’s a summary:
First, it is close. From my Brooklyn apartment, I can be booting up in an hour and 15 minutes on a weekend morning. It is a bargain. My no-blackout pass for the 2019-20 season was $230. It is deceptively large, stretching two miles from Vernon to Bear Peaks along New Jersey state highway 94. Its just over thousand-foot vertical drop means the runs feel substantial. It has night skiing, making it possible to start my day at my Midtown Manhattan desk job and finish it hooking forty-mile-an-hour turns down a frozen mountainside. The place is quite beautiful. Really. A panorama of rolling hills and farmland stretches northwest off the summit. The snowmaking system is excellent. They opened on November 16 this year and closed on April 7 last season, a by-any-measure horrible winter with too many thaws and wave after wave of base-destroying rain. And, if you know the time and place to go, Mountain Creek can be a hell of a lot of fun, thanks to the grown-up chutes-and-ladders terrain of South Peak, an endless tiered sequence of launchpads, rollers and rails (OK, I don’t ski rails), that will send you caroming down the mountain like an amped-up teenager (I am more than twice as old as any teenager).
I don’t have a whole lot to add to that. It’s my home mountain. After spending my first seven ski seasons tooling around Midwest bumps, the glory of having a thousand-footer that near to me will never fade. The place isn’t perfect, of course, and no one is trying to tell that story, including me, as you can see in the full write-up below, but when I only have two or three hours to ski, Creek is an amazing gift that I will never take for granted:
Here are a few articles laying out bits of Hession’s history with Mountain Creek:
New VP has worked at Creek since his teens – Advertiser-News South, Feb. 22, 2012
Mountain Creek Enters Ski Season With New Majority Owner Snow Operating – Northjersey.com, Nov. 23, 2018
I’ve written quite a bit about Big Snow and Mountain Creek over the years. Here are a couple of the feature stories:
This is the fourth podcast I’ve hosted that was at least in part focused on Mountain Creek:
Big Snow and Mountain Creek Vice President of Marketing & Sales Hugh Reynolds – March 3, 2020
Hermitage Club General Manager Bill Benneyan, who was also a former president, COO, and general manager of Mountain Creek – Dec. 4, 2020
Crystal Mountain, Washington President and CEO Frank DeBerry, who was also a former president, COO, and general manager of Mountain Creek – Oct. 22, 2021
Here are podcasts I’ve recorded with other industry folks that Hession mentions during our interview:
Vail Resorts Rocky Mountain Region Chief Operating Officer and Mountain Division Executive Vice President Bill Rock – June 14, 2022
Mountain High and Dodge Ridge President and CEO Karl Kapuscinski - June 10, 2022
Alpine-X CEO John Emery – Aug. 4, 2021
Fairbank Group Chairman Brian Fairbank – Oct. 16, 2020
Killington and Pico President and General Manager Mike Solimano – Oct. 13, 2019
Here’s the trailer for HBO’s Class Action Park, the 2020 documentary profiling the old water park on the Mountain Creek (then Vernon Valley-Great Gorge) grounds:
Hession mentioned a retired chairlift and retired trails that he’d like to bring back to Mountain Creek:
What Hession referred to as “the Galactic Chair” is Lift 9 on the trailmap below, which is from 1989. This would load at the junction of present-day Upper Horizon and Red Fox, and terminate on the landing where the Sojourn Double and Granite Peak Quad currently come together (see current trailmap above). This would give novice skiers a route to lap gentle Osprey and Red Fox, rather than forcing them all onto Lower Horizon all the way back to the Cabriolet. I don’t need to tell any regular Creek skiers how significant this could be in taking pressure off the lower mountain at Vernon/North. Lower Horizon is fairly steep and narrow for a green run, and this could be a compelling alternative, especially if these skiers then had the option of downloading the Cabriolet.
Hession also talked about bringing back a pair of intermediate runs. One is Granite View, which is trails 34 (Cop Out), 35 (Fritz’s Folly) and 33 (Rim Run) on Granite Peak below. The trail closed around 2005 or ’06, and bringing it back would restore a welcome alternative for lapping Granite Peak.
The second trail that Hession referenced was Route 80 (trail 24 on the Vernon side, running beneath lift 8), which cuts through what is now condos and has been closed for decades. I didn’t even realize it was still there. Talks with the condo association have yielded progress, Hession tells me, and we could see the trail return, providing another connection between Granite and Vernon.
Creek skiers are also still obsessed with Pipeline, the double-black visible looker’s right of the Granite lift on this 2015 trailmap:
I did not ask Hession about this run because I’d asked Hugh Reynolds about it on the podcast two years ago, and he made it clear that Pipeline was retired and would be as long as he and Hession ran the place.
Here are links to a few more items we mentioned in the podcast:
The 2019 Vermont Digger article that lists Snow Operating as an interested party in the Jay Peak sale.
We talked a bit about the M.A.X. Pass, a short-lived multi-mountain pass that immediately preceded (and was dissolved by), the Ikon Pass. Here’s a list of partner resorts on that pass. Skiers received five days at each, and could add the pass onto a season pass at any partner ski area. This was missing heavies like Jackson Hole, Aspen, and Taos, but it did include some ballers like Big Sky and Killington. Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, which includes Fernie and Kicking Horse and is now aligned with the Epic Pass, was a member, as were a few ski areas that have since eschewed any megapass membership: Whiteface, Gore, Belleayre, Wachusett, Alyeska, Mountain High, Lee Canyon, and Whitewater. Odd as that seems, I’m sure we’ll look back at some of today’s megapass coalitions with shock and longing.
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