AlpineZone Challenge 2006 – Alex Kaufman of Sunday River

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. Alex Kaufman, Communications Manager of Sunday River Ski Resort in Newry, Maine, took the AlpineZone Ski Area Challenge and provided the following responses on 6/5/2006:

Razor: As a frequent River skier, I’d like to see much more done in the way of glades. It’s not bad now when they are open (which wasn’t often this past year), but I think the glade skiing could be greatly expanded without too much effort, just some strategic cutting and thinning here and there. New glades would provide opportunities for better skiers to get away from the masses. Look how much Jay Peak improved when it expanded the glades. How about it?

Alex Kaufman: Thanks Razor. There is an ongoing debate about glade cutting, and even more so, glade trail naming. Should beaten paths through the woods all be put on the map, or is it best to let the locals have a few stashes of their own? This is a debate that will continue I’m sure. I see valid points on both sides. That being said, Sunday River has more tree skiing and riding than what is on the map, as I and many locals can attest to. There are 8 marked glades plus OZ (which has more open glades) spread across nearly every peak. Jay Peak is blessed with natural snowfall, Sunday River has blessed itself with powerful and intelligent snowmaking. Thus we’ll have a stronger focus on terrain that we can reliably get open vs. cutting and naming new tree trails. From a marketing standpoint, if we cut (or named) a bunch of new tree trails and put them on the map, we’d actually have a harder time ever getting 100% open, which today’s net savvy skier and rider likes to see. Here’s the deal – if we get a big base and the woods are calling, I’d be happy to show you to a few of my favs as long as you can make the pow turn for the camera. As we all know about tree shots…..can’t tell ya on the net, gotta show ya in person.

Bob R: Is there any chance we could have the Baker upstairs Lodge not used as much for the Racing crowd? It gets difficult to find space upstairs as the day progresses. Steve needs our visits. Could there be a compromise? Also, is there any chance that we can get the changing stalls back? It appears that the space where the stalls used to be is not being used. The stalls could be simple and would mean a lot for day skiers and riders. We hope that you join one of our outings next year!

Alex Kaufman: Thanks Bob R. This is another of those ongoing debates with good points on both sides. Upstairs at Barker is one of the best places to see and prepare for a race anywhere in the East. You can see every gate of the course from that spot. Most racing venues afford seeing a gate or two. This “crowd” is also just that. A crowd that keeps the place busy. While racing is occurring on the adjacent slope and most events are run out of that base, I can say that it will likely remain a hub for that sort of activity. I have passed your feelings along (and noted that they are not singular) to the proper folks on this topic as there will be some tweaks to the Barker Mtn Lodge layout this summer.

The place where the stalls were became seating space due to a need for more seating in the lodge, which is also an item that many day skiers and riders have requested. One new option on that front is new seasonal lockers which will be available in South Ridge and Barker for the coming season for a modest fee. I hope to be able to catch up with the group as well. I plan to create a weekly time and place meeting for message board members who want a shot at photo of the day stardom. Thank Thaller1 for that one.

Greg: There was a rumor this season that the Sunday River message board may be closed. What are you plans for the forum next season? In the past, Sunday River has bragged about how important the feedback from the forum is for the resort. Do you still use that as a resource? Are there any issues or concerns in which you have relied on feedback from the board?

Alex Kaufman: Thanks Greg. Ahh the Sunday River message board. Never say never, but right now there’s no plan to close the message board. Ask me in January after a thaw freeze and I may have a different response. ;) Sometimes when it ra*ns real hard and then gets real cold, things can get testy. Since it’s on our website, when someone posts a highly negative post calling out our passion for snow, based on items we know to be false, we’re compelled to respond. 9 times out of 10 it comes from the single assumption that we should be able to groom no matter the weather. These guests want to see 100% corduroy every morning, but it’s just bad snow management to go and compress sopping wet snowpack before it freezes up. In those circumstances we have no choice but to wait for the front to pass, the temp to drop, then go out and groom as much as possible before the public hits the hill. Sometimes that’s half the mountain, sometimes that’s barely South Ridge. The grooming crew sits with their finger on the trigger for temperatures to cooperate. Snowmakers as well. It ra*ned 14 times last winter so this happened more than once.

The board is also a place where folks can give immediate feedback on our snow report. During bad weather this feedback can be very mean spirited by a vocal minority. When the weather turns ugly our snow report will not have a headline of “It’s pouring and you won’t want to ski in the morning”, rather it will say “Snowmakers are ready to pounce to provide you with the best possible conditions this coming weekend.” Our message board gives a few people a place to sound off about that. Reporting in this fashion is a common practice like it or not, and an understandable one. Ski resorts can’t be expected to lead with a “don’t come – bad skiing” message, especially if their competition isn’t saying it. You guys know what the situation is (the passionate web savvy folks) but the casual skiers and riders who are contemplating the weekend are given the main reason it’ll be fun. Ever heard of a beachside resort telling guests ahead of time that it’s been gloomy? Or filling them up with reasons to cancel prior to their trip? We’re busting our hump no matter the weather to provide the best conditions possible, and that’s what we talk about. And we don’t ignore it when things turn temporarily sour, it just don’t become the headline. The headline remains what we’re doing to overcome. I trust that the Alpinezone audience will be able to appreciate my candor regarding snow reports, as it’s a situation we all watch unfold a few times every winter. It’s also a situation that I have to be frank about, since SR has a message board. Moving on…

Folks who go on the board and type that we’re not good at accepting criticism, should in my opinion, take a look at where they are posting and realize that we could actually be one of the best at it. The board is filled with great criticisms that help us and we often times ask for. To keep the board around we have to respond to or outright delete the occasional slander. As Moderators of Alpinezone likely know, when a post must be locked or deleted, it usually angers someone. It’s a fine line we try to walk, allow dissent but also keep our own web content as readable by a potential guest. We try, and 99.9% of our posters understand where we’re at.

I use information from the chat room(s) regularly. The ski “chatosphere” acts like my eyes and ears. Often times someone will have posted a link to a ski story that I have yet to see, or a photo from a competing resort or just feedback about a visit that spawns an idea. I was involved in the ski chatosphere before I began working in the industry and peruse what people are talking about regularly. We use feedback from the board. Sometimes I’ll quote a message board comment to make a point about a guest service issue or use the info as more of a straw poll.

thaller1: Where does the food come from for the lodges? Can it be changed? I’m ALWAYS looking for health alternatives and salad just doesn’t cut it after some hard runs. I’m not looking for miracles but maybe a station for rice, meat and vegetables that aren’t fried, preserved or loaded up with some sauce. This was a concern last year as well.

Alex Kaufman: Thanks Thaller1. Our main foodservice provider is Sysco, but not every bit of food comes from them. I guess it’s possible that we could switch foodservice providers, though it doesn’t seem to be the crux of your comments. While we don’t currently offer a rice bar, we do offer a full salad bar at South Ridge and premade salads at Barker. We also offer freshly made wraps, soups, tasty portabella mushroom sandwiches, yogurt, fruit, chili, and a number of other healthy options. We also offer guests the chance to dine at ski-up locations other than our lodges including the Shipyard Brew Haus at White Cap, Moonstruck at the Grand Summit, and Sliders at the Jordan Grand. All of these locations offer additional options that add substance to the common salad. We did offer veggie burgers for a time a few years back and sold nearly zero of them. I have passed along your idea for a stir fry station with the option of not frying the items to our foodservice folks. I think it’s a good one because it’s flexible.

thetrailboss: Alex, thanks for taking the challenge. I know that the May Day cancellation was a real disappointment for many. Will it be back next season? And regarding opening, when can we expect the resort to open for skiing and riding? Have you considered perhaps opening and closing at Jordan Bowl? That mountain gets the most snow and offers a great variety of terrain with one lift.

Alex Kaufman: Thanks Trailboss. We will continue to host a free day at the end of the season, though it may not be in the month of May. At this point I can’t say exactly what that day will be, as it will depend on snow and skier levels, rather than the calendar. One thing that is unlikely is a long span between closing day and free day.

To your other point… Here’s why Jordan hasn’t been employed in such a fashion: If we opened at Jordan Bowl we’d have no lodge and no skier services (rental, repair, lessons), plus we’d be farther away from all other overnight lodging. I think Sunday River’s ability to quickly expand terrain and spread out skiers is a strength in the early season. We start at Barker and get onto Spruce, North Peak and South Ridge in just a few more snowmaking days. That gives us two lodges and brings many condos onto the ski slopes by the Thanksgiving Holiday. We also get to have multiple terrain parks open quickly that way.

Our opening date is anybody’s guess at this point. When the weather says go, we’ll go. Here’s my PRiffic guess – as soon as we can open quality top to bottom and there’s a decent snowmaking window going forward, we’ll open. You’ve heard that one before I’m sure, but it’s still true. We’ll also have some of the best Thanksgiving conditions of any eastern resort, as usual.

37yawmag: Please tell the mountain crew they did a fantastic job with the conditions this year with what they had to work with, since Mother Nature decided to take a break from her job. I’ve heard that Sunday River is in the midst of a five-year plan to spruce up the looks of the base lodges/motels, signage, etc. I’m guessing that you are in about the third year of that program. When do you think money will be allocated specifically to “on” mountain activities, such as cutting new trails/glades, adding more terrain park features, increasing snow-making, etc.? Thanks and I hope to see you at one of the gatherings sometime or on the links.

Alex Kaufman: Thanks 37yawmag. One thing’s for sure, every year we allocate money to on-mountain projects. You are right in that we’re in the midst of focusing heavily on our base facilities etc. We spent many years growing at a rapid rate and we’ve reached a point where the largest benefits to our guests would be off slope. Having said that, I can say that specifically the terrain parks will be seeing increased attention this year. One of the key’s to that is that the park crew will be making their own snow, which will allow them to put it right where they want it. This will decrease cat time and increase creativity. There’s no plan as of now to cut more trails for the coming year, but more energy efficient snow guns will likely be in the mix, since they save energy and allow us to make more snow in more places. The best part about new trails and lifts etc is that as soon as we know we’re going to do it, we let the world know asap, so no need to worry about missing the scoop. I hope to make it to a gathering as well.

Thaller1′s question about cam shot’s never got asked so here goes: I’d love to have more cam shots of mtn regulars, but it’s harder than you’d think to get people to be willing to put on the ski model hat. Being a cam shot model can be tough. You have to ski right by the camera, on cue, making a smooth turn, kicking up snow and smiling. You also need bright clothing on grey days. On pow days it’s even harder, no sub par pics allowed on those days. :) The person taking the photo is usually only out for an hour or less so you gotta be in the right place at the right time. Note the answer to Bob R’s ? above.

HikeBikeSki: Alex – Thanks for participating. I know a lot of talk was created on the Sunday River Message Board and a bunch of the freeriding sites on the internet when all the snow was pushed down White Heat to create the “Superpark” for the Sunday River Heat Harvest after the trail had been closed on the season. I believe you said, “. . . This wouldn’t be happening if there wasn’t a desire to kick off a long term butt kicking trend. Get some buzz, then get down to business.” Do you care to elaborate on the “long term butt kicking” plans for the parks and pipes at Sunday River? What is the plan for parks next year? Specifically, what locations, elements, size, etc. As you know, many members of the Sunday River Community are concerned about the terrain parks. Also at the beginning of the year there was a plan to make a bump course with airs. Is that going to happen this coming year, and if so can it be on White Heat? I love when you put the seeded bumps there, because it’s too annoying to go to Tempest because the lift is so slow. Also will you keep the airs open to the public? Thanks.

Alex Kaufman: Thanks HikeBikeSki. We’re in the process of laying out the details of improvements to our pipes and parks. We’re aware of areas in which we need to improve and have taken input from many of our guests on how to better provide their desired park setup and scene. These are not all changes that will occur in one summer, but they will be significant. I don’t have the location, element style or sizes of specific elements in each of our parks at this time. I’ve got a good hand, but I’m not going to show it until the river card is dealt and I know exactly what we’ll be delivering. I hope to be able to show and talk about the cards we’re holding later in the summer. I am one of those members of the Sunday River community who is passionate about the terrain parks. We plan to not only offer more, but change what we offer so that it has more flavor and speaks more to park and pipe riders, of which I am one.

The bump course was built on 3D and the airs were open when snow conditions permitted. I can say for certain that the difficult winter impacted what we had planned to do on 3D last year. It’s tough to make a trail deeper when others need a resurface. White Heat was also allowed to bump up when snow conditions permitted. As I said, this wouldn’t be a proper time to divulge the nuts and bolts of next year’s terrain park offerings. I/we still have some work to do. As soon as I know for certain, you’ll know.

I do still stand by my original statement. Butt kick we will do.

Brettski: I’d like to take my family to Sunday River for a week (we went this last spring while staying at Loon and it was a very long drive). From what I’ve seen, it doesn’t seem that Sunday River accommodates or at least is competitive with regards to family prices because you charge everyone at the same rate. I haven’t seen any family packages. Currently, it’s almost cheaper to fly/stay/ski at Breckenridge. Are there any future plans to have family packages so we can afford to go? This may be a good share of the market that Sunday River could capture. Also, if Sunday River uses RCI for exchanges, will you ever open up to doing Interval International as well?

Alex Kaufman: Thanks Brettski. I’ll start with your first comment regarding the fact that it was a very long drive, in case you went a different route. The quickest way from Loon would be to take the Kanc to 16 to 302 to 5 to Bethel. That should take around 90 minutes on clear roads. The main point of your question is a bit surprising because WE DO NOT charge everyone at the same rate unless they are all 13+. Ages 6-12 pay $14 less per day for a ski/stay package and children 5 & under always stay and ski for free. We also offer Children’s Festival Week, which is specifically geared towards children & families. For 07′ this week is Jan 7-11. During Children’s Festival Week kids get free lodging, free skiing, free equipment rentals, free lessons, free daycare, and more, plus there’s a lot of added fun thanks to Nickelodeon. I appreciate you bringing this up however, because it is a good indicator that we may not be communicating our pricing strongly enough.

We will be using a new online reservation service next season which we hope will make our pricing structure clearer. However a good rule of thumb is to look at our SKI FREE rates and subtract $14 for the kids. If we’re at $69, then we’d be at $55 for the kids, which would include lift ticket, Perfect Turn clinic and lodging. Our ski and stay’s are always very near the price of a lift ticket, but they include lodging and the Perfect Turn clinic as well, which sounds like a decent deal to me. Of course (800) 543-2SKI will always be happy to answer any additional lodging questions. You are correct in that RCI is our lodging exchange service. At this time Interval International is not in the pool, but I have raised the idea thanks to your question.
The following is from the 2005 ASC Annual Report:

“Extending across eight interconnected mountains, its facilities consist of approximately 660 acres of skiable terrain and an additional 7,000 acres of undeveloped terrain. We have development plans for a resort village at the Jordan Bowl Area (the most westerly peak), which eventually could include over 1,350 units and 1.1 million square feet of total development. Sunday River is a year-round resort offering hiking and various other summer amenities. We entered into an agreement with an unrelated third party for the construction, development, and operation of an 18-hole championship golf course […] We have development plans for a resort village at the Jordan Bowl Area (the most westerly peak), which eventually could include over 1,350 units and 1.1 million square feet of total development.”

ski_ne: Would you care to elaborate on the resort village in Jordan Bowl, the 7,000 acres of undeveloped terrain and the “various other summer amenities?”

Alex Kaufman: Thanks ski_ne. At this stage after some discussions with our development folks, I’m going to have to leave this one where the 2005 annual report left it. We have development plans for for a resort village at the Jordan Bowl Area, which could eventually include over 1,350 units and 1.1 million square feet of total development. The 7,000 acres is simply the land that we own. In regards to “various other summer amenities.” In the context above that simply relates to offerings like our spa services, wedding and conference options and other regional activities that our sales people can book with summer vacations, etc.

Sky521: Based on recent thread regarding the cost of gas, and the associated added cost to skiing, will (or does) Sunday River offer incentives to draw folks from the Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont markets? I have never been to Sunday River, but that’s about to change. However, I’d be more inclined to make it more than a couple of times if there were incentives. I am a passholder at Wachusett, which is a member of the Mountains of Distinction program. I get discounts from other mountains. Have you considered joining this program? Also, some other places (such as Ragged?) offer car-load deals. Cannon/Wildcat and others offer two-for-one days. Many other resorts offer discounts to season pass holders of other mountains during late season times. Would you consider any of these promotions in an effort to attract more skiers and riders? Thanks!

Alex Kaufman: Thanks Sky521. We do! While we’re not involved in the mountains of distinction program, we have a season pass I’m sure you’ve heard of called the All For One Pass, which allows for skiing and riding in VT, NH and Maine for the cost of just a few lift tickets. Some of the ticket deals we offered last winter included an other mountain passholder $39 special (almost all of February), 3 Kids Pay Their Age Days, and the Mobilski3 deal which saved $15 off a lift ticket. One other factor which is key to those in the longer drive markets is our ability to offer some of the best ski and stay rates in the business. Oftentimes they are within a few bucks of our actual ticket rate, which means you can ski and stay (on-mtn) for the price that other folks pay just to ski. We also spend a lot of time physically in market doing promotions with local restaurants, bars and clubs. Those are always a good ways to get hooked up with a 2 for 1 deal. If you’re not the type to check out our website every so often to stay up to date on these deals, but you’re interested in them, it’s a good idea to sign up for the Snowtalk Newsletter or Hot Deals Newsletter. They’re e-mailed out once a week with the latest info. The Newsletter covers the bases with a few laughs plus offers a contest where you can win two free tix. The Hot Deals is just nuts and bolts.

Thanks for all the great questions. I always look forward to The Challenge!

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