AlpineZone Challenge 2006 – David Gwatkin of Burke Mountain

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. David Gwatkin, Director of Marketing and Sales at Burke Mountain Ski Area in East Burke, Vermont, took the AlpineZone Ski Area Challenge and provided the following responses on 10/19/2006:

thetrailboss: My compliments on the work that was done last season. The Sherburne Express is magnificent. Dashney Mile had consistent deep bases all season long. The Lodge work was great. Service was excellent at Burke this season. I am concerned about snowmaking last season. Could you tell us what work was done (besides the Dashney and Lower Mountain work)? It seemed that snowmaking last season was below par, especially considering that some trails including Little Dipper, parts of Open Slope, Ledges, and Middle Fox’s Folly saw little or no snowmaking done. During Christmas week, Binney Lane was grass which did not look too good. What happened? Was it the weather? Not enough staff? Cost? What improvements are going to be made for snowmaking this season? The grooming and other snowmaking was great.

David Gwatkin: Hey Everyone. Let me begin with a big “mea culpa”. Burke’s response to your questions has taken much too and long, and I own it. I’m sorry, my bad. Now, let’s rumble.

Dear “Thetrailboss”, every time I ask the guys who toil on the steep pitches in the frigid night about snowmaking, they tell me it’s an art (read: marketing/sales guys are too dim to get it). They’re probably right about that! Last year began what will be a prolonged overhaul of our snowmaking system. We installed 77 new tower guns, new piping, and some new pumps. We had delays getting the pump at the water source properly situated. But, if there were issues, it came down to two things. One, a new computerized system, that like anything new, took a little while to get accustomed to, and two, the weather puked. This year, another 40 guns, some piping and hydrants are being installed. More important than that, we’re extending our snowmaking plan on both ends – earlier and later in the season – with a planned start of November 18, weather permitting. The snowmakers are telling me they have a plan to have more coverage earlier in the season than we’ve had in the recent past.

from_the_nek: I have recently heard disturbing rumors that the replacement for the Willoughby Quad has been cut from the drawing board. I know that a lot of the skiers and riders that use the upper part of the mountain were scratching their collective heads when the Sherburne Quad was installed but we were all patient. I agree that the lift on the lower mountain is nice if you want to access the base lodge once in a while . However, even beginner skiers who are on the lower mountain improve enough over a year or two where they eventually want to access the intermediate/advanced terrain on the upper mountain. If they are used to riding the High Speed Quad at the base, hopping on the slow quad to the summit is a huge letdown and they will end up going elsewhere. In order for Burke to attract return clients and to be considered a top resort among day trippers, the mountain HAS to put in a high speed to the summit. From my experience, this is THE major knock against the mountain. I have actually heard people say they do not want to go to Burke because of the long lift ride to the summit. Although, I’ll be the first to admit that Burke doesn’t really need the extra capacity that a high speed provides, maybe having a high speed to the summit will actually bring people to the mountain and eventually make the extra capacity necessary. I don’t want to see the mountain go under again and I am desperately hoping that the new owners don’t base all of their future planning on last year’s horrible snow conditions. So here is the question… Is the high speed summit quad still going to happen this year? If not, why the delay? Thanks for any input.

David Gwatkin: Boy, “From the Kingdom”, you’re preaching to the choir. I’m with ya, brotha’. Here’s the deal. As you know, our parent company, the Ginn Company, has plans for development at Burke. We are still early in the planning and permitting stages. Act 250 and the like. The installation of a new lift simply can’t begin until development plans are complete, and approved in the permitting process. It’s possible a new high speed detachable would be installed for the 2008/09 season. We all know that all a high-speed lift does is move the crowd from the bottom to the top. One of the great joys of Burke skiing is that once you’re going downhill, typically, the whole darn slope is yours. That all changes with high-speeds. Having said that, from a marketing perspective, it kills me, because the broad market now “expects” high speed lifts. And you’re right, in my view, a segment of the ski/ride population will simply avoid Burke until we have high speed delivery bottom to top.

kingdom-tele: First, thanks Hannah for taking the time to read these. Has Burke considered offering VT residents discount ticket prices that are at least on par with Jay or will the weekend full day prices still remain so high? Would you consider 1/2 day tickets for morning as well as afternoon? How about implementing a “Mad Card” style option. Some folks don’t get over to Burke often enough to buy a pass or the 10 ticket option, but if a 3-pack were available, I would almost definitely buy. It’s been very successful at both Mad River and Wildcat.

David Gwatkin: Dear “Kingdom-tele”, sometimes you put a tooth under your pillow and you wake up with a nickel. In this case, you’ve got the Vermonter discount at Burke – $39 for adults, 7 days a week, all season (except during holiday periods). “You like apples? I just got her numba’. How do you like them apples?” Who can name that movie? Teens/seniors = $30. Children are at $27. Check out the press release on

Jonni: I know that this question has most likely been asked, but I will reiterate it again: What is the future for the Burke Mountain Poma? This lift is always the highlight for me of any trip to Burke. I make it a point to ride this thing at least once while I’m skiing just for the experience. As the original lift from 1955, it is not just historical, it is a relic. Also, could you share some historical pics for us here? Though it has been modified, have you considered applying for Historical Site Status with the state or federal government seeing that it has been probably one of the longest operating lifts in the state? Last, the towers are looking rough on that lift. Have you considered repainting the towers and cleaning it up? Thanks.

David Gwatkin: Dear Jonni, you know, just the other day I was thinking about putting out a “tongue in cheek” press release about how Burke’s Poma will be operating for the 51st straight year this season. Sure, other places have high speed six-packs, but their lifts are like GMC Yukons, while our Poma is a like a ’56 Thunderbird or a ’67 ‘Vette. Your choice, ride an elephant or ride a classic. Anyhow, the Poma will be providing yeoman’s service once again this season. I’ll have to work on the photos. I know we have them…somewhere. The National Geographic Society is doing a major “Geotourism” project in the Northeast Kingdom. and Burke submitted an application to be included as one of 40 historical sites in the NEK in the project. I believe Burke was selected. If we’re chosen, it will include much of the great history surrounding the mountain that pre-dates formal ski operations. The Willoughby Chair got a facelift this summer – a $50,000 paint job. Nice!

thetrailboss: Regarding lift configurations, it was rumored that there is now a plan to remove the Willoughby Quad, replace it with a shorter lift, and install another lift in the East Bowl that will reach the summit. This would be a major problem because this arrangement (a) curtails any early or late season skiing plans that may rely on getting people to the summit for skiing, and (b) would mean that skiers and riders would need to use three lifts to get from the base to the summit. In 1995 Sugarbush made a similar change, going from two to three lifts for base-to-summit access at Mt Ellen and many people complained until it was changed back to the original two-lift configuration. I hope that this is just a proposal and one that will not come to fruition. With regards to the lower mountain, there was some talk regarding replacement of the J-Bar or adding a lift to that area. Is this still in the plans? Where can we expect to see the old Hall Double resurface?

David Gwatkin: Dear “TheTrailboss”, you know more than I do. Or at least, you’re tapped into a rumor with which I’m not familiar. Really, the development plans will dictate lift configuration and those plans are far from complete. I wouldn’t spend too much time thinking about the rumors floating around Lyndonville. The bulk of it is nonsense in my experience. I’m hoping that someday soon the J-Bar will be replaced with a set of Carpets. It’s been discussed. I’ve seen no definitive plans to date. The Sherburne Double was purchased by someone who owns an amusement park. Not sure where. It will be reassembled at the park.

Jonni: At this point, other than the installation of a new HSQ to the summit, my only recommendation would be to possibly install a mid mountain lift. I’m thinking along the lines of having this begin from the mid-burke area and going half way up the mountain. You may ask the question: why, if we have the Poma? My reasoning would be to have it service the terrain park, as well as service the “Lower” trails (Lower Willoughby, Lower Foxes’, etc.). I would build use a second hand double chair to minimize cost and operation, as well as only run it on weekends and holidays. What do you think?

David Gwatkin: Good suggestion, “Jonni”. What I’m focusing on in what you’d said is the servicing of terrain parks. I’ve had some prelim conversations with folks around here about how we can service not only parks, but perhaps future permanent race courses, etc. Not for this year, but we’re looking forward to 07/08.

the_original_trailboss: What is the long-term “skier visit” target for the ski area portion of the Ginn real estate development? How private or exclusive do you think the ski area might become as the rest of the development grows? There was a recent Caledonian article on your meeting last night with Burke Town. Would it be possible to either post or send the images/maps of the proposals for this Challenge? How about setting up a website for locals and Burke enthusiasts to look at? Will MidBurke Lodge remain?

David Gwatkin: Dear “The Original Trailboss” (TD), there is no “long-term skier visit target” as it relates to development to my knowledge. Having said that, our goal will not be to chase Killington for total visits. The goal will focus on the experience. I suspect we will, if necessary, adhere to a max # of skiers on any given day in order to maintain the experience, just like those saw horses used to put at the entrance to parking lots to limit #’s. With our #’s right now, we’re a long way away from that day. Plus, there are already meetings taking place discussing base lodge capacity. Our issue is not up or downhill capacity, but throughput in the lodges. The Sherburne Lodge in particular has to be addressed. I don’t know what ultimately happens to Mid-Burke. I doubt very seriously is stays where it is right now in the long term. What with it’s history, it’s my hope that if it has to go, that it can be salvaged and moved to place where it can continue to be appreciated by the “old schoolers”.

from_the_NEK: I have a question about plans to increase business during non-snow months; I know the mountain works closely with Kingdom Trails. The trail system currently has several trails on the mountain in the vicinity of East Bowl as well as several others lower on the mountain. Is there any plan to enhance the experience of the Kingdom Trail experience by offering lift served downhill mountain biking from the summit? This would likely require a detachable quad. It appears from the picture of the meeting in Burke that was in the newspaper the other day that some lift rearrangement/replacement is still in the plans.

David Gwatkin: How would you like a mt bike terrain park under the Sherburne Express as part of Kingdom Trails, “From the NEK”? Let me know. It’s something we’re talking about. Under that scenario, we’d run the Express on Saturdays during the summer and fall. We’re looking at building a disc golf course, and hosting weekly leagues and a tourney. Chime in. Who’d play? I don’t want to build it and have no one show up for their tee time. More events in the summer fall as well. Octoberfest was a smash hit this year. We’ll fire that one up again next year. Looking at the VT Symphony, Bluegrass festival, 5K, 10K and Burke hillclimb road races, etc.

thetrailboss: One more question: about alternative activities at Burke. One of the criticisms at Burke is that there is no “nightlife” or anything. I had a few ideas that might help. First, how about taking Stowe’s approach and offering night skiing? Now with an HSQ on the Lower Mountain and a renovated base lodge, and 100 percent snowmaking down there, why not place lights on the lower mountain runs and offer night skiing? Nobody else does it and the nearest major competitor is Bretton Woods with one whopping trail. Offer three or four and you’ve got them beat. Maybe set up some bumps on one side of Bunker Hill. With that new terrain park on the Lower Mountain, it would be a hit. Plus, by only having lights on the lower mountain, you reduce light pollution. Also, do you plan on offering snowtubing anytime soon? The J-bar is perfect for that.

David Gwatkin: “Trailboss”, economics are tough on lights. It’s got to work financially. Lights work well at a place like Wachusett MT. Near a metropolitan area with 4.2 mil people and a high per capita income. The NEK is sparsely populated and has a meager per cap. That’s the financial reality. We will be offering sledding this year, with lights and supervision on Carter Country. We’ll have movie nights and a game room for kids. Also, our FR night live entertainment has the Tamarack Grill with standing room only. So much so that we’re introducing Blues/Jazz Night on Thursdays and adding live entertainment to Saturdays. The Tamarack Grill, folks, in case you haven’t checked it out yet, is the hottest restaurant in the NEK.

skifastinvt: As a former employee of the Northern Star days, the Ginn purchase/improvements are somewhat bittersweet. Prior to the bankruptcy, the master plan was pretty much complete and permitted. At that point, the next step was the addition of a small/expandable (45 room to start) slopeside hotel (upslope from the Burkeside condo units). This property was to feature an indoor/outdoor pool to support the condo owners and to serve as bed base to support the proposed timeshare project for the unfinished lots at Bearpath and Powderhorn. My question to Hannah, are there any immediate plans for a hotel/inn with an indoor pool (with facilities available to condo owners)? Good luck!

David Gwatkin: I’m with you, “SkifastinVT”. You can just imagine how not having a hotel/motel at Burke hinders my ability to sell groups. Very difficult. I don’t know of any plans right now for a hotel/motel like you’ve described. I could use a good whirlpool right now. This has been quite an exercise!

One thing I’d like to add. We’re introducing “Fresh Tracks” this year. Starting at 8AM on weekends and holidays, we’ll have top to bottom lift coverage. “Yeah, baby!” Name that movie. Fresh Tracks is complimentary for season passholders. $10 extra for non-passholders. For folks staying in one of condominiums we now manage, we’ll have complimentary vouchers for Fresh Tracks available. Ski School is offering Fresh Tracks Premium, which for $20, you go out with a high end instructor, and as your guide, they show you their secret powder stashes and little known lines through the glades. It’s for hard cores who like to have insider information first.

Thanks everyone. I appreciate your interest in Burke. Again, sorry for the delay, but hey there’s a lot more detailed information here than I would have had a few months ago. We’ll see you at Burke this year.


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