AlpineZone Challenge 2004 – Matt Sawyer of Ski Butternut

The AlpineZone Ski Area Challenge was designed to provide a method for our forum members to get official answers to skiing-related questions directly from a ski area representative. Matt SawyerDirector of Marketing of Ski Butternut in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, took the AlpineZone Ski Area Challenge and provided the following responses on 6/16/2004:

ski jay: What prompted you to offer the very attractive season pass rate?

Matt Sawyer: Our guests and the industry in general had been telling us that skiing & snowboarding had become too expensive for some user-groups to participate on a regular basis. We reacted to what we heard our guests telling us.

We had been experiencing a decrease in skier visits for a few years so we presumed that it wasn’t just a passing fad. The downward spiral needed to be addressed. In general a lot of people started to move away from participating in skiing or snowboarding. Those we spoke to just didn’t go as often as they used to. The reasons they stated were primarily: lack of time and high cost of participation, specifically stating lift ticket and gear/clothing costs. Many seemed to be writing off the sports unless there was a big storm or an unquestionably strong winter that drew them back in. The value didn’t seem to be there. Not that they gave up the sports altogether, they just weren’t going as frequently and they certainly were not committed. In general the perception was that skiing was way too expensive for the common man.

We wanted to accomplish a few different things with our special $199 Unlimited Adult Season Pass price (Jr. passes (ages 7-13 years) are $159 and Kids 6 and under are $59.)

  • We wanted to see a marked increase in our core user group (season pass holders). These guests are committed to using our slopes a number of times (8-15+) each winter. This we knew would help via word of mouth advertising as this frequent user group occasionally brings others to the mountain.
  • We wanted to offset the loss in ticket revenue as a result of selling these cheap season passes by collecting additional revenue in other departments including: food service, ski & board shop, ski school, racing and other related revenue generating segments of our business.
  • We were founded as a “family ski area” and by making these special rates available we showed our commitment to our original vision of both families and beginners to less experienced skiers who need multiple days on snow to become hooked on the sport.

ski jay: Catamount seems to be your closest competition. Have you ever worked with them on a shared season pass arrangement?

Matt Sawyer: Catamount is certainly our closest competitor in terms of proximity. When we lowered our season pass prices six years ago we gave both our and their guests a windfall savings as Catamount felt the need to match our $199 season pass price offering. Mutual guests have had the opportunity to purchase passes for both areas for less than what a single area pass cost a few years ago. Not many guests that we know of did that. So my presumption is that there isn’t much of a demand for a shared season pass between our two areas. We have made arrangements for our season passholders to visit Catamount at a discounted rate.

As for offering a shared season pass I’m not sure I see much benefit for us. We certainly wouldn’t want to sell more passes for less revenue. Why haven’t we looked into it further? There would certainly be difficulties in splitting up the revenue appropriately. We believe (due to the industry standard car counts) that we ski a fair number more guests than Catamount despite their offering night skiing. Yet I can’t feel that their management would be willing to accept less than a 50- 50 split. So I can’t see their being any advantage for the ski areas to look into a shared season pass arrangement. Lastly if the guests were asked to pay a fair value for a shared pass I don’t think there would be many takers. A pass for both areas certainly would need to be priced close to $375. Guest shouldn’t expect to get both mountains for $199.

ski jay: Since Butternut has an awesome learning area, have you ever thought of just offering a “lower mountain” lift ticket ONLY geared towards beginners?

Matt Sawyer: The answer would be we already do in the form of our 1st Timers Learn to Ski or Learn to Snowboard package. Priced at just $55 one gets access to just our beginner learning terrain, a full day rental and a 1.5 hour group lesson to start them out in the right direction.

But if you are asking for a “lift ticket only” product for the lower mountain – no we do not offer that or feel that there is a large enough demand for that type of a product. It would require more diligent lift ticket checking and would also slow down ticket sales on busy days as you add another ticket option into the mix that needs explained to the guests.

But as stated above we do have a very affordable 1st Timers Learn to Ski or Snowboard package that is priced at only $55. This option is very popular with our guests despite it’s limiting them to selected beginner terrain. You are correct that we do have great terrain for learning and a relatively easy or soft mountain in general. Good grooming and the lack of double black diamond terrain is both a strength and at times a curse. Many guests that start out with us in our $55 1st Timers package want and need more than the beginner’s area before the end of their 1st day. They want the challenge of longer slopes to further develop their turning and gliding skills. Possibly this is because of the strength of our ski school’s teaching staff that some of these people are comfortable skiing off the top of the mountain. They can upgrade their $55 package to an all mountain lift ticket for an additional $20. $75 is the price point for our all-mountain lift ticket lesson and rental package.

We do recognize that there is a certain clientele that wants the Lower Mountain lift ticket – the guests that I visualize matching up well with this concept (a cheaper beginner area only lift ticket) would be very young kids who are just learning and their parents who probably plan to teach them. As the parents won’t get the chance to ski much as they are trying to teach the kids. Since we already offer a $10 lift pass for kids 6 and under on weekends, and only $5 midweek I don’t feel that we are far off from delivering on that need. We made the decision to not offer this option as the guests kids are likely better served in most cases by being enrolled in our kids ski school offering. The kids will learn faster and will soon be off the beginner area and able to enjoy more of the mountain. We’ll keep an open mind to see if our guests demand proves there is a real need.

ski jay: If I could change one thing at Butternut regarding the lifts, I would upgrade/modify the Highline double to a triple or a quad to handle more of the Top Flight’s volume, as the Top Flight can get packed. Could a new lift be installed in the current location and be made to go further up the mountain and have a mid station where the current lift ends? Have you ever considered any of this?

Matt Sawyer: YES – We are currently installing a 3000 foot C-Tec quad in the same location as the existing Highline Double. The quad will be in operation for this coming winter. It will be just a little longer than the current lift. Although it will not reach any measurable distance further up the hill. The quad will access the same trails as the double.

We expect the Highline quad to offload a bit of volume from the Top Flight quad especially on busy holiday weekends. Another benefit, It will allow guests and Ski School students to avoid the faster skiers and congestion that currently descend Pied Piper. In my opinion the biggest advantage of the new quad is that it will allow more Ski School lessons to use this chair instead of the Top Flight quad. This alone will alleviate some of the congestion on Pied Piper with the added benefit that the Top Flight quad will run with fewer stops as a result of fewer students = less experienced users having difficulty loading or unloading.

The new lift will not go much further up the mountain. It would have needed to make a turn to go much further or a new lift line would have to be cut to accomplish this. First – We really don’t want or need it to go further up the mountain as the additional distance would create a cross trail or unloading zone that would likely merge directly onto the Pied Piper trail. One of the main reasons we’re putting the second quad in is to alleviate the pressure on the Pied Piper trail and the Top Flight Quad.

A mid station is not needed as the length of the lift will be only a tad longer. In general mid stations are viewed by many in the industry as somewhat problematic and something to avoid if at all possible. We’re happy to be moving forward with this substantial enhancement that will raise our uphill capacity to 12,075 skiers per hour. And surprisingly we have yet to increase our $199 Season Pass rates to help pay for the lift.

MrMagic: Is there any room to expand? If yes, where?

Matt Sawyer: Yes there is room to expand. We have looked at adding additional trails off the top of the Top Flight Quad and off the Overbrook Triple. Although the Overbrook Triple rarely seems to have the usage that would deem expansion there necessary. Possibly adding a new trail or two there would be just the stimulus for some of our guests to discover the quality terrain that is lurking on that side of the mountain. But it does make one wonder if an investment in new trails there would be money well spent.

I have hiked the terrain off the Top Flight quad and the Triple many times and either could add a few slightly more difficult pieces of terrain to our mix which I feel would be welcome. All things happen in good time. We don’t want to risk mortgaging the farm to build a few new trails. Instead our philosophy is to build from revenue to minimize our risk. So lets all look forward to a few more heavy snow winters.

MrMagic: There was a tornado that came though your area a while back maybe 6 or 7 years a go, how much damage did it do? Is there still evidence of such an event present? Does the effect of this tornado hurt your operations today?

Matt Sawyer: The Tornado did a lot of damage to the resorts beauty by destroying and uprooting a number of mature trees. It hurt the appearance and destroyed some of the magical qualities that allowed a lot of our guests to feel like they had escaped to a protected and remote space.

Destroying the number of trees that it did was probably the most damaging impact to the area. Trying to regenerate that older forest growth and its magical, calming, silencing quality will take years. We have planted hundreds of trees to try to restore the trail edges on areas that were impacted.

As for facilities, it certainly hit the lifts hard as trees fell onto and across lift and electrical lines. but those damages are issues that the areas management knew how to deal with. We were able to clear debris, cut down the trees that were leaning on the lift lines/towers, replace damaged chairs and in general dig out. It was nice to see that a number of other ski areas came to our aid by sending men with chainsaws to help with the clearing. We were able to take out a loan to help cover the cost to repair chairlifts and clean up. This enabled us to get everything back in working order. It was a huge effort but the area was able to open that winter. It was costly (what ski area is insured against tornado damage?) and unfortunately there is still a mortgage over the areas head as a result of dealing with those repair issues.

Some people are accustomed to seeing ski areas make major improvements every year. Ski Butternut has had to move slowly, cautiously because we’re still paying for the damage caused by the tornado. Fortunately no one who worked here was killed and the Upper Lodge some how escaped damage (not a window was broken in that award winning building).

At this point if you’re in an airplane you can still see the path the tornado carved across the mountain. The forest has started to regenerate though and some areas are blending in. I do believe that the tornado cost us both in skier visits and more importantly with a change in guests lasting impressions about the areas natural beauty. Some people view the area differently as their memories of the magic it had in their youth faded as a result of the tornado. Now we are focused on healing the scar with yearly plantings of trees and hope that no other ski area will suffer natures wrath in the form of a tornado.

jimme: Respectfully, Butternut is not known for it’s having very difficult terrain for experienced skiers. However, I think I’ve noticed some areas where some “very difficult” trails or glades could be made. The first several hundred feet under the Overbrook Chair lift looks like it would make a great Double-Black Diamond run. A “snow bridge” could be used over the brook. Would adding a trail(s) in this area ever be a consideration?

Matt Sawyer: I personally don’t think you will see a trail in that particular area. Yes there is a short and steep pitch there but not sustained for long enough to make the effort of constructing a trail there worthwhile. Also it is still one of the prettiest areas on the mountain. Thinning the trees there might be considered a crime by some guests.

I do feel that at some point in our future you will see additional black diamond terrain opened and yes possibly even some glades. Glades could be tough to keep open though as we aren’t always blessed with bountiful natural snowstorms. I’m not convinced that glade skiing at Butternut would ever have the attraction that it does farther north or out west. We average around 100” a year of natural snow. We do get a fair amount of drift from snowmaking so if we can position a glade on the prevailing downwind side of a trail I think we could enjoy the appeal of skiing or boarding in the trees much more often. I feel you may see a glad alongside Lucifer’s Leap and or Downspout in the future. But that is just my wish.

jimme: To the left of the map off the Top Flight Quad chair there is a wooded area. Might this be considered for use as trails, or gladed skiing?

Matt Sawyer: It certainly has been looked at and at some point in the future you may find a trail there. See above.

Joshua B: What has lead to Butternut being such a successful and often crowded ski area?

Matt Sawyer: Loaded question. Successful yes! Please tell me – What successful mid-sized ski area isn’t considered crowded at times especially on prime holidays or on the weekend after a 6+ inch snowfall?

By crowded do you mean that a guest may have to endure a ten minute lift line over holidays? Lets remember it is that valued holiday guest visits that make it possible for midweek non-holiday guests to enjoying good conditions the rest of the winter. Most weekends I feel very comfortable on the slopes. As for using the crowded label lets leave that judgment call to the individual patrons.

Now that we have beaten the semantics horse into submission let me try to answer your question regarding our success – I believe our success is because Ski Butternut is giving the guest a lot for their money.

In the beginning Channing Murdock and his wife Jane created and then lived their dream. As most anyone who dreams big Channing was directly involved in every aspect of the business. He was an industry leader and a perfectionist. He paid attention to the details, from grooming and snowmaking to clean bathrooms and hiring a friendly staff. He created an area that carried a “family friendly” label. His principles earned us an enviable reputation that spans three generations leaving a legacy of a very strong and loyal following. Whether our guests are taking advantage of our affordable season pass offering, our $15 lift ticket specials (non-holiday Mon. & Tuesdays) or just joining us for a long weekend with the kids, the key answer is that Ski Butternut is making quality skiing and riding affordable.

It doesn’t hurt that we have close by all the conveniences that the town of Great Barrington and the surrounding Berkshires can offer: bountiful lodging, great restaurants and numerous other cultural attractions. In my opinion Ski Butternut & Great Barrington and the surrounding towns have as much if not more than notably great ski towns like Stowe, Vt. And to our advantage we have easier access.

I personally think a lot of it has to do with our commitment to offering quality snow and great grooming. We groom the entire mountain every night. We offer a nice terrain park with a large variety of features. We have a highly trained Ski School staff that teaches kids through adults and makes it fun. The school plants the seeds for many return visits. All in all I think it boils down to Ski Butternut offering a great value for the money. When you find a place that delivers a real value people choose to come back. That’s just what we do. And I think we do it better than any other area around us.

Greg: Applejack is one of my favorite Butternut trails. Why is Upper Applejack typically one of the last runs to get snow made on it? It usually doesn’t open until well into January.

Matt Sawyer: Applejack is also one of my favorite trails and that of our president Jef Murdock. We try to balance our offering of green, blue, and black trails early in the season. We open those trails that have the strongest appeal first and despite our personal attraction to Applejack it doesn’t attract as many people as some of the other trails we choose to open earlier. But that is not the only reason. There are other issues and one is that we can usually open two or even three other narrower trails with the same amount of snow that it would take to open Applejack. As an example we might make the decision to open Dipsy Twist and West Way instead of Applejack. So early in the season we, as many areas do, look all-to-closely at trying to boost our percent of terrain open number. Many guests make their decision on where to go based upon trail counts or percentage of terrain open. These are the only numbers that are being reported by the newspapers and radio stations. There is no real way for the reporting services to provide a relative quality index. So we too generally fall prey to the numbers strategy early season. We are always focused upon opening terrain as quickly as possible but with a constant eye on quality. You should never find us adopting the “go thin to win” philosophy so we can post a few more trails open albeit with thinner bases. We don’t want guest to destroy their skis or snowboards because we pulled back snowmaking on a particular trail leaving only 8-10 inches of snow (barely covering the top of the grass) so we can move on to barely open another trail.

Long run we have plans to increase our pumping and snowmaking capacity again. As those enhancements are made to our snowmaking system we will be able to open Applejack earlier, all things being equal.

Matt Sawyer – Director of Marketing

Ski Butternut – “A True Family Mountain & Family Gem ” Ski Magazine
380 State Road – Rte. 23
Great Barrington, MA 01230

Get $15 Lift Tickets every Mon. & Tue. (excluding holiday periods) and every day starting Mar. 14 through the end of our winter 2005 season.

Winter 2004-05 Season Passes are on sale now!
Supplies are limited so order now!
Special Pre-Season Pricing:
$199 Adult (ages 14-69 years)
$159 Jr (ages 7-13 years)
$59 Kids (6 & under)
$99 Sr. (age 70+)
$800 Corporate ($800 buys 2 transferable passes)

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