AlpineZone Challenge 2007 – Chris Nyberg of Killington

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. Chris Nyberg, President and General Manager of Killington Resort in Killington, Vermont, took the AlpineZone Ski Area Challenge and provided the following responses on 10/17/2007:

2knees: What is your vision for Killington’s “brand recognition” for the future? Killington has made its reputation on a long season, tons of snowmaking and maybe even its access road nightlife. With the reduction in season length and the reduced operating schedules for some mountain areas, it would be difficult to see Killington as different than other area in terms of season length and resort size. What would you like people to view your resort as now? What will differentiate you from the others?

Chris Nyberg: 2knees, the Killington brand position, what clearly differentiates Killington from the competition, has not changed since the company was sold. Killington has a strong brand based on the size of the resort, its diverse terrain, awesome snowmaking firepower, the variety of entertainment found both on and off the slopes, a multitude of dining and lodging options, and in general the high energy atmosphere found here as a result of the guests we host. The length of the season and the operating schedules for lodges are not drivers of our brand position or financial success. Over time the Killington brand position may change, as we repair, rebuild and replace infrastructure and become more efficient. For example, we are implementing programs that are more environmentally responsible and reduce the resorts’ CO2 emissions – soon we hope to be known for being an eco-friendly operator. Operating schedules for different portions of the mountain really do not change from recent years, reduction of services in some lodges are balanced with now providing full services daily in Snowshed, and lift ops do not change at all with the exception of Tuesdays and Wednesdays non-holiday (the 2 slowest days every week), at Pico and Skyeship Stage 1.

Greg: What will Killington’s mogul philosophy be this season, specifically on Outer Limits? Outer Limits was once touted as the “longest, steepest mogul trail in the East.” In recent years, this trail has been groomed right up the middle, in my opinion sucking the soul out of this once great run. These groomer passes were done on the section of the trail that received the most snowmaking. Therefore, the bumps that did form on far skier’s right were on inadequate cover. Do you plan to blow adequate side-to-side snow on Outer Limits and let it bump up more often than not this season? What will be your approach to grooming terrain around the rest of the resort?

Chris Nyberg: Greg, as you maybe know, I have been intimately involved in the grooming world since the 70′s, its been a huge part of my life and livelihood. My older daughter is a program manager for the US Snowboard Team and when she found out I would be heading up Killington and Pico, one of the first things she told me was don’t mess with the freestyle scene at Killington, “it is legendary.” Outer Limits is an awesome slope and needs to be maintained so that it shows off its attributes well in all conditions. That being said, we will get adequate snow on this slope and use our winch cats to move and place it where it will provide even and consistent depth. Occasionally, it will be necessary to winch this slope moving snow back up the slope to increase depth and to keep a quality experience. I believe Outer Limits should continue to be known as a legendary bump run and part of the brand position that 2knees: was talking about. For the rest of Killington and Pico in regards to grooming, I have been talking with long time locals and will be spending time with them on hill learning what they like and dislike. There are diverse needs for surface conditions at Killington and Pico that range from beginner and teaching terrain, groomed cruisers, quality bump runs and race and race training surfaces. We are fortunate to have a state of the art fleet (the largest east of the Rockies) and low turnover of our skilled groomer operators which really helps us in our “snow farming” activities. We are increasing the hours that we will groom this season, with a focus on renovating and winching. These activities will improve our surface quality. Bear in mind that winching in many cases involves moving tons of snow back up the slope, a nightly combat with what gravity, skiers and boarders have been pushing down all day. Don’t worry, we are not out to mow down the bumps, Killington has a heritage for great bump runs and great bump skiers and I appreciate their passion.

boston_e: One of the long time problems at Killington has been the lack of uninterrupted long runs. Many if not most of the trails at Killington have problems with merges and intersections. Many of these are not only dangerous, but also can often interrupt a great run. Are there any plans to evaluate and solve this issue through elimination of some of the crossovers or otherwise?

Chris Nyberg: Boston_e, you got this dead on… I asked the same questions when I got here in May. Given that Killington has been around nearly 50 years what I notice has happened is a type of “run and merge creep.” Today I spent most of my day on Pico and was pleased to see that this mountain’s runs are basically well thought out and do not exhibit the same “creep” that Killington does. We will do a complete analysis of all the runs at Killington and as we replace lifts, some of which will be realigned, we will reduce merges whenever we can and create more continuous, flowing runs.

MrMagic: First off, thank you for taking the challenge. I have been a long time Killington skier and I really appreciate you taking time to answer the question. Killington has a massive amount of lifts. Many over the years have either become “antiqued”; while others have been falling into disrepair. What are your plans for upgrading/adding/removing lifts in the future?

Chris Nyberg: MrMagic, thank you for your long time support of Killington. You are correct, there are a number of older lifts at Killington. While all are well maintained and meet transport standards, some are now in the wrong place, some don’t provide enough capacity, and some are just in need of replacement. Continuous improvement of all our products is one of the objectives we have set for Killington and Pico. We have a lift replacement and realignment plan that includes trail changes and expansion. This plan was prepared by a respected ski industry planning company. With my team, we will spend time this winter verifying the recommendations and determining our future priorities. I would like to start making upgrades as soon as possible, but we may need to spend disproportionately on non-lift infrastructure for another year. As you know, there are a lot of facilities, utilities and snowmaking assets that need attention above lifts. If we were to change out a lift in the next couple of years, which one would you recommend if you were running the resort?

Tin Woodsman: Chris – Thanks for stepping into the firing line. POWDR has not articulated any long-term plan for on-mountain improvements, saying only that the resort will essentially “eat what it kills.” Given that Killington is generally recognized as being profitable, why shouldn’t loyal Killington skiers be skeptical about the short-term belt tightening and lack of an articulated plan for the future? What exactly are Killington skiers supposed to hang their hat on with respect to being optimistic about its future?

Chris Nyberg: Tin Woodsman, an interesting point you make, resorts within the POWDR organization have the luxury of high autonomy in most all we do. You may have noticed that over the past 10 years POWDR resorts do not talk much about what they will do; rather they talk about what they have been able to accomplish. That said, here is what folks can hang their hat on. Short term, rebuild, repair, replace and upgrade our existing infrastructure so we have reliable existing facilities, equipment and utilities. There has been nearly a decade of minimal capital improvement, to be clear, I do not blame past local management, they did the best they could with what was made available to them. With that said, I figure we have another year of heavy lifting in this realm. Long term, look for continuous improvement and refinement of all the on mountain products and attributes at Killington and Pico. As the village emerges at the base of Snowshed and Ramshead the critical mass will increase which will bring renewed excitement and energy to the entire resort and region. What some may call belt tightening, we call right sizing, a typical business activity necessary for us to become more efficient and bring the profitability of the organization to a level that will permit us to make the investments needed to rebuild our resorts and provide future growth.

pepperdawg: Are there any plans to move forward with the Killington-Pico interconnect?

Chris Nyberg: Pepperdawg, at this time we have no plan to move forward with the interconnect in the next 5 years. We continue to lease the land necessary for the interconnect project. We will focus on bringing both Killington and Pico back up to snuff before we consider the link. However, I do believe the interconnect terrain and lifts will be necessary to support business levels driven by the village once it is built out, especially during peak periods, and would provide additional high elevation beginner terrain.

MrMagic: The long awaited and talked about base village was a key aspect in the news when Killington was sold. What are the future plans for this village? Will the village consist of lodging or just retail/restaurants? Will there be a village lift like Tremblant or Whistler?

Chris Nyberg: MrMagic, The village is definitely in the works. Our partner, SP Land Company, is well along in the planning stage. The planning and approval process will take some time though. The village will be a mix of skier services, retail shops, restaurants, and lodging, similar to other mountain resorts in this regard. The design, look and feel of the village will be unmistakably Vermont.

RIDEr: The Killington vouchers have been eliminated for the 2007-08 season for ski councils in the Northeast. Can you let us know the reasoning behind it? Are there intentions to re-add this feature in the future?

Chris Nyberg: RIDEr, Correct, we have discontinued the ski club/council bulk ticket program. This decision is one of many we have made to lift products, pricing, and how the resort will be operated this season, all with a mindset to be more efficient and more profitable so we can reinvest in the resorts. That said, we believe ski clubs/councils present a valuable link to skiers in their home communities and provide an opportunity for diverse people to come together, bond, and enjoy the mountains through the shared experience of sliding down a snow covered hill. We believe in groups and we continue to offer significant discounts for 20 or more people visiting on the same day. The group ticket program may not be as convenient as the bulk program, but it remains the best value on lift tickets for clubs and councils. We will not bring back the bulk program in the future.

Rogman: In the last few years Killington has closed or curtailed usage to miles of terrain: the Northeast Passage and the top of Rams Head are no longer lift serviced, and South Ridge, Pico, and lower Skyeship are all seeing significantly less operation. In short, Killington has become a much smaller area. Clearly the skiing experience at Killington has suffered as a result of these changes. How do you explain to a skeptical public that continuing to move in this direction is the right strategic choice? Do you foresee a point when this shrinking trend will reverse? Under what circumstances would you consider operating an under-utilized lift, merely to improve the overall Killington experience for your guests?

Chris Nyberg: Rogman, the reductions that you have been seeing are indicative of the struggle that Killington and Pico have faced from declining visits, coupled with minimal spending on resort improvements. One of the basic problems at Killington can be looked at like this. We have a church that was built for Easter Sunday. The changes made years ago to the Northeast Passage and the top of Ramshead lift have reasonable explanations (black bear habit protection and wind/rime ice mitigation). The reduction in the operating schedules in recent years of some facilities can be related back to the Easter Sunday analogy. Take a look at other resorts that have less midweek, non-holiday business levels than Killington and assess what they are offering in comparison. It should be clear that every resort has taken steps to reduce operational costs while keeping as much terrain available as their infrastructure allows. Our challenge is we have 7 lodges and 5 base areas.

This brings up a point that we feel is very important, as we rebuild our base facilities and lift infrastructure, much of which is very dated and expensive to maintain, we can reduce the number of lifts, with state of the art lift technology, and increase our uphill capacity. This will allow us to have lower operating costs while servicing the terrain that we will be improving. At the same time we can adjust our base area locations so they better serve our Piste products. We feel that right sizing of our operations this year will take us where we need to be from a guest service and experience prospective, and actually improve the midweek experience by increasing the activity and energy at Snowshed Lodge and the renovated Long Trail Pub. There may be some tweaking operationally, but the heavy work is done. All these improvements I have mentioned to infrastructure will take substantial amounts of money and we feel that going forward our plan will bring us the earnings that can fund these improvements. Your “shrinking trend” opinion regarding Killington becoming “a much smaller area” is not shared. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the slowest days of the week, every week, that’s why we are making changes to operations on those days. Those savings will help us improve our bottom line. As the bottom line improves we will make resort improvements that will both lower our future operating costs and deliver an even better on mountain experience. That’s how we’ll grow.

mister moose: Other than the stated expectation of being less crowded, what are the top 5 positive changes most likely to be noticed and appreciated this year at Killington?

Chris Nyberg: Improved focus on snow surfaces

More sense of order and control in parking lots and lift mazes

More energy and activity weekdays at Snowshed

An overall improvement to the attention of little details

Fresher, repaired, upgraded buildings and facilities (including bathrooms)

Access from Superstar and Ovation around the K1 Lodge (the waterslide is gone!)

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