AlpineZone Challenge 2009 – Win Smith of Sugarbush

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. Win Smith, President and Co-Owner of Sugarbush Resort in Warren, Vermont, took the AlpineZone Ski Area Challenge and provided the following responses on 10/16/2009:

RISkier: We have friends in Stowe and have skied there quite a bit but we’ve hit Sugarbush the last two years and really enjoy it. We’ll be back. We rode the Slidebrook Express for the first time last year. It was a bluebird day and it was a great ride. Easily the most interesting and entertaining chair lift I’ve ever been on. That said, I couldn’t help but think it was a real boondoggle. I believe it was installed by ASC prior to your arrival. I’d be interested to hear any thoughts you would be willing to share regarding practicality of the lift both economically and in terms of mountain operations. Again, I think your doing a great job with Sugarbush and I look forward to returning. Thanks.

(dropKickMurphy:) Any chance you’d consider running the Slidebrook for a couple of hours on weekdays? Having the Slidebrook open from 12:00 – 1:00; and from 3:00 – 4:00 would be very convenient for those that like to ski both mountains on the same day. To me, the ability to get to any area of Sugarbush without taking a bus is a significant plus. I enjoy different ski areas for the things that make them unique. When riding the Slidebrook Express, I know that it’s an experience that I can only get at Sugarbush.

Win Smith: Hind sight is a great thing. There is certainly a benefit to having the Slidebrook Express. On a nice sunny warm day it is a beautiful 11 minute ride. However, when it was installed a lot of use rights for the Sldebrook Basin were compromised, and we live with those permit conditions today. Also it is a maintenance nightmare. The lift spans two miles and some of the 40 towers are very challenging to access and are also exposed to weather elements that make this lift more prone to windholds and other problems. Because of the length of the lift and the access issues, we do not run the lift below 5 degrees Fahrenheit and may even raise that hurdle if the wind is blowing. For safety, we also do not run the lift if there is not a sufficient amount of snow on the roads into Slidebrook. By permit Slidebrook is also not allowed to run from April 15th until June 15th as the Black Bear come out of hibernation and can also not run from September 1st until Thanksgiving as the Bears prepare for hibernation. The reason I said it was a “maintenance nightmare” is the time it takes to get to certain towers. A maintenance issue that may take 15 minutes to fix on one of our other lifts, could take an hour or more on the Slide Brook chair because of the accessibility challenge. Slidebrook is more likely to have more maintenance needs especially after some severe weather. Last year a communication line was ripped out by the wind and it required up to get an excavator in and took days to repair.

As far as the hours of operation, it is scheduled to run weekends and Holiday weekdays when both areas are open. We discovered that it was being utilized about 6% of the run time, and that the demand was really weekends and holidays in decent weather, so that is why we operate it then. Running midweek for only a few hours really isn’t practical given the staffing that would be required. If we get more midweek business, we would certainly reconsider the hours of operation.

Personally, unless the weather is ideal, I prefer the shuttle ride between the two areas which runs every 30 minutes. I would not have installed this lift, but we own it, so we plan to use it when it makes sense.

shpride: The past two years I have hit up Sugarbush during late April. I have really enjoyed myself, and applaud you for keeping the mountain open so late. These were the first times skiing there, and the only reason I decided to head up the first year is because you were still open. I now plan on heading up there sometime this winter for a few days because I want to try out the rest of the mountain. Do you feel that keeping the mountain open late is working as a way to promote SB skiers like me? Do you plan on continuing this trend of staying open as late in the season as possible?

(deadheadskier: ) Will Mount Ellen receive consideration next season for being the spring skiing operations center? Without getting into specifics, do you feel that having these operations at Lincoln the past few seasons has had a significant financial benefit compared with Mt. Ellen?

Win Smith: Thanks for joining us in the Spring. We have remained open through the first weekend of May for the past three years, and I hope we can do the same this year. We were the “last lift Spinning” in the East last Spring as Bravo did not close until 5pm that first Sunday in May with our spring hours. (at least a bit of bragging rights) Unfortunately , after the first week of April, demand for skiing and riding begins to evaporate. This always amazes me since some to the best days can be in April. Nevertheless the competition from golf, baseball, lacrosse and soccer seems to capture many’s attention. In April, we tend to see mostly season pass holders and employees on the slopes – especially midweek. So yes, staying open late is a thank you to our passholders, a bit of a perk for employees and hopefully some marketing for the next season. And, lastly, I personally like to keep skiing through April. A good measurement of demand was the April before last. We were the only midweek Vermont area open during the local school vacation week in late April and we only had 500 skiers visit on the busiest day and only 100 purchased day tickets.

As far as Mt Ellen goes, we made the decision a couple of years ago to make the extra spring snow at Lincoln Peak rather than ME. Demand after March doesn’t justify keeping both areas open, and because of our new base area at Lincoln Peak and where the majority of our home owners are, Lincoln Peak is where the focus will be in the Spring. We will be renting out the Lincoln Limo for private parties in March at Mount Ellen as long as the conditions permit. While there a a number of ME fans who would like us to keep it as the late mountain, there are an equal, if not greater number, who like LP as the late mountain. I am in that later category.

mattlucas: Will the Valley House be running more than in the last few years passed? The VH is pretty much my favorite area for lift line free skiing on a crowded or cold weekend, when it isn’t running I am pretty bummed. Many people, not just in my family feel this way, Mall mega-laps are sweet. Actually, there could be a nice vertical challenge over there too.

(dbking:) Sorry to get off thread, but in responce to Mattlucas and VH… there used to be a vertical challenge on the Mall in the 80s. John Egan and his then girlfriend, Emily Hart, both skied it 32 times in a day. And they were really skiing it. Emily was a really hot skier/ snowcat operator that later moved to Squaw Valley. I don’t remember what happened to the comp. Back in the day, Sugarbush had alot of compititions like that, but that was the first one I recall that was about vertical numbers.

So, to get back on the thread, Hey Win, any interest in restarting March Madness? It used to be very popular for both locals and the tourists.

Win Smith: Like last season, the Valley House Lodge will be open on weekends and Holidays starting around the Christmas Holiday, and we will run the Valley House chair on those days. We are looking at having more fun events for March Madness, and you are correct that in the past there was a lot more happening. I want to resurrect this. I will have to speak with John about the vertical challeng on the Mall. Thanks for the reminder.

thetrailboss:  I ski Mount Ellen a lot and this season I noticed a big problem with the traffic pattern coming down into the North Ridge base area…the area formerly called “Times Square.”

I know that you want to have a green easy route to the lift, especially for those coming from Inverness, but honestly having Mainstream cutting across three busy cruiser runs (Northstar, Cruiser, Which Way) really makes things bad. Mainstream is a traverse and in my experience becomes an icy sluice way. What about closing the traverse, so that you ski Cruiser and Which Way down to North Star? I have seen some near misses on the traverse, and as I said, it becomes very icy very quickly and interrupts the natural urge for one to ski the fall line. Thanks.

Another question since this is still open. Regarding Mount Ellen, a lot of emphasis has been placed on attracting locals for weekend skiing or day visits. With an eye towards improving the quality of the experience, I am wondering if anything can be done about the lodge on race days. GMVS has their own private lodge by the Inverness Quad and that helps keep the GMVS racers and their junior racing programs in their own area. But when their guests come to race, which is pretty much every weekend, these folks clog the Mount Ellen Base Lodge, throw their stuff everywhere, take up lots of table space forcing other paying guests to sit on the floor, are rude to guests and staff, and really make the experience not very fun. Is there any way to ask them to go to the GMVS Lodge or to at least ask that they use a specific section of the lodge? Any way that GMVS can be asked to help police the situation? I understand that they can’t control their guests, but at least there should be some communication regarding what is proper lodge etiquette and to remind them to be considerate of other guests.

I understand that GMVS is a major stakeholder at Sugarbush and they are a big reason why Ellen is still in operation, but there are other guests who are paying to use the facilities. Thanks.

(deadheadskier: ) What do you see the base area of Mt. Ellen looking like ten years from now?

Win Smith: I do want to put some more signs and even snow fence to slow people down as they merge into Times Square . I am not sure about Mainstream because that does provide a nice easy traverse over to Slidebrook and to Crackerjack, but it is worth looking at when conditions are not great there.

GMVS is very understanding of this and they are extremely responsive to any request from this. We will definitely pass your along to them.

@deadheadskier: Ten years is a long time, and we have not done a Master Plan for ME, so I really would not want to speculate at this point, other than to say that ME has enormous potential and as our skier visits continue to grow, I would envision significant upgrades to the base area overtime while mantaining the “character” of the area which is distinct from LP. The base lodge has “good bones” and with some expansion and upgrades could be a keeper for some time.

mattlucas:  The ticket scanning process is still in my mind kind of in its infant stages. IR technology that is affordable may be around the corner, but until we get it fumbling with a ticket on a powder day while empty chairs get sent up is sometimes infuriating. Is the purpose more to gather user data or to prevent theft of services?

For more crowded lifts on busy weekends (think Bravo 12/27), do you think it would be possible or make sense to have one or two lifties organizing the corral into foursomes, and one or two people near the load zone to pop everybody’s ticket very quickly?

Having the scanners in front of corrals just seems to create a swarm of chaos rather than pushing everyone into the corrals in an organized way.

Furthermore, the scanners seem to take away from the lifties independence, and they have less incentive to be cheery and awesome ski bums/employees, and rather, cogs in a way that brings you out of VT/MRV perfection and puts you back in a more commercialized setting and mindset.

Also, if the data that you’re mining is very valuable, do you think that it would be possible to let the public look at some of it at the end of the day? Maybe each ticket could have a user login # and password printed on it so you could see your stats. This might not interest everyone, but it could be a relatively cheap way to provide an extra service. It’s extremely dorky, but also kind of cool to figure out price per run / average vert / fastest lap etc.

Thanks again for considering these questions.

Win Smith: We have purchased new scanners which should work a lot better (at least they have so far when tested) and this will allow us to also make a few corral changes.

As far as a customer looking at the data, if a person scanning the ticket isn’t being crushed, ask him/her how many runs you have had, and they can tell you. I will have to look at RTP to see if you idea of a login is possible. Thanks for the idea.

thetrailboss:  If early season skiing is to stay at Lincoln Peak for the time being, any thoughts about blowing snow on Heaven’s Gate Traverse so as to have two routes from Superbravo to Heaven’s Gate? Only having Downspout makes for very crowded and dangerous skiing at times.

And during early season skiing, there was a college or high school team that set up gates on Organgrinder. This made for a dangerous situation with such limited terrain open. In general the racing scene keeps to their areas, but I must say that having Spring Fling closed so often for races really restricts where folks can go. Any thoughts at to how to better share the terrain with racers?

Win Smith: We have at times dragged a hose into the traverse, but as you know it is a long traverse and tough to get it all covered. Good suggestion, and I will look into this further.

We are trying to keep as much racing as we can at ME before it opens. GMVS will be training there this year instead of going to Canada in early December.

mattlucas:  When will you announce the details of the improved SugarCard for this year?

Will SB participate in the Mobil fill up for lift tickets again this year? I had friends that would join me after the multitude of gallons in years past, but last year it wasn’t valid on weekends or not at all. Either way, that deal really opened their eyes (from Summit Colorado no less) at the quality of the snow and woods at Sugarbush Vermont.

Any deals like Jay has for passholders of other mountains?

Win Smith: The existing Sugar Card program expires at the end of this season. All existing card are valid until May 2010. Our new program called Sugar Direct is available now.

You pay $99 annually and get one free lift ticket. Then you get 20% off of weekend and holiday rates and 25% off weekday all-mountain rates, and you ski and ride free on the eleventh day. There are also some discounts such as a 10% discount at food at Timbers built into the card. It is a direct to lift ticket. Once you pick it up you go directly to the lift afterwards. Even if you have a current Sugar Card. It is worth getting this new Card this year. All the info in on the Web now. This product is geared to the person who plans to ski or ride between three and fifteen days a season. Our peak window rate this year is $82. The more days you use the card the lower the average rate per day goes. On the 11th day, the average drops to $63.

Yes, we will do something.

Tin Woodsman:  Can you elaborate on your ongoing discussions with the USFS with respect to the implementation of a holistic forestry mgmt plan on USFS land at Sugarbush? What would be the elements of such a plan, be it on USFS land or land owned by Summit Ventures? Why has Sugarbush failed to introduce changes to its snowmaking routines that would help minimize damage to trees (both in islands and on trail edges)? Is USFS input needed for such a decision?

Win Smith: We have an ongoing dialogue with the USFS about Forest Management since they are our landlords and we operate under a special use permit. The new Wooded areas are part of a new forest management plan. We did a few years of habitat studies and worked with the various areas of the USFS to agree where we could thin more new lines to make for more sanctioned tree skiing on their land. We are are working with them on where they would like to see reforesting areas and where they might like to see area marked and protected.

As far as snowmaking, no one wants to see any areas damaged. The best way for that not to happen is to have skilled and attentive snowmakers on the mountain who react when conditions change or when a break in the pipe occurs. Last year we had great continuity in the ranks of our snowmaking supervisors and this year we do as well. This has made a huge difference. As you know, winds and temperatures can change rapidly and it can take time for a team to get to every gun to makes changes. An experienced staff that knows our mountain is key to being able to anticipate and then more quickly.

Tin Woodsman:  The plans for Phase 2 of the LP base village has changed several times in the last few years. Will this year’s delay lead to any more adjustments in the plan before shovels hit the dirt next (hopefully) off-season?

In the wake of your Op-Ed in the Valley Reporter on the subject. to what extent is there dialogue with Sugarbush Village and/or the Town of Warren with respect to the optimal manner in which that entity is linked physically and otherwise (e.g. from a marketing and appearance perspective) to LP Village?

Win Smith: We are happy with Phase 2 plans and already have the construction drawings largely completed. We will make a go/no go decision sometime in April and it will depend on our outlook for the economy, the state of the real estate market and how our season is going after seeing the Christmas Holidays. I would love to proceed next spring, and the best way of helping it to spread the word that Sugarbush is the place to be this winter, and that there are no better mountain homes than at Clay Brook.

The Town and the Sugarbush Village residents have some good points and ideas, and we will incorporate some of them as we move forward on I-C. We and they want connectivity. The only issue is the timing , the details of the precise connectivity and who pays for what…

Tin Woodsman:  Can you provide us with more detail around the new tree skiing areas planned for LP this season? Where will they be? How badly have well-known stashes been impacted to construct them?

What are the feasible alternatives being discussed with the USFS with respect to increased usage of the Slide Brook basin? Would there be tours initiated from Mt. Ellen? More “official” runs from LP? Anything else?

Win Smith: With the exception of a small area in the middle, this is now USFS land, but i the use of the entire area is subject to the permit conditions that ASC was granted for the Slidebrook express. It is very sensitive Black Bear habitat. We are working with the USFS and other interested parties to get some more sanctioned bands which could include some entry from ME. This will take time.

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