AlpineZone Challenge 2004 – Eric Friedman of Mad River Glen
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. Eric Friedman, Marketing Director of Mad River Glen in Waitsfield, Vermont, took the AlpineZone Ski Area Challenge and provided the following responses on 4/12/2004:
Joshua B: Do you read web forums like AlpineZone.com? If so, do you ever want to reply to posts about Mad River Glen or other ski areas?
Eric Friedman: No I really don’t follow them. The only one that I subscribe to is the Ski Vermont List which I also don’t really follow very much despite it being VERY COOL. I will look at references about Mad River Glen and I have sent a few (very few) clarifications on issues if I think people don’t understand the management perspective on a particular issue. I can’t recall doing so more than once or twice in the 9 years I have worked at Mad River Glen. That being said, Mad River Glen does have its own internal listserv which I monitor daily. I will occasionally post to it when I feel that I can add to our shareholders conversation.
Joshua B: In terms of skier comments you’ve seen, what do you agree with and what do you disagree with? Is there anything you’d like to say to skiers that would educate them and in turn make them more understanding of the challenges of a ski area operation?
Eric Friedman: Like I said I don’t really follow them so I can’t make generalizations about what I agree with or don’t agree with. I think that skiers are generally a passionate lot, especially here at MRG. I understand that they have strong feelings about skiing and their particular ski areas and that is something we in the business have to learn to deal with. The only thing I think people need to understand is that the ski industry is very competitive. Each area tries to carve out its own viable niche and this is a challenging prospect. Here at Mad River Glen we are very fortunate to have a well defined and viable niche. Sometimes mountain managers are forced to make economic decisions that skiers don’t like. I sometimes wish that skiers could understand what goes into internal decisions and that they are not made lightly. However, if I were a customer of some resort I probably wouldn’t care about their business needs. Tell me what its going to cost me and I’ll decicde whether to go or not. Your financial viability is your problem!
salida: Being a marketing director at one of the most honest mountains in the East in terms of snow conditions reporting, is it hard to compete with what some would consider “dishonest” ski areas?
Eric Friedman: Thanks for noting our hard-earned reputation for snow reporting honesty. It is something that we work very hard on and is something we take a great deal of pride in and take VERY seriously. I wouldn’t say that it is “hard to compete” with the less than honest areas because I think skiers are generally pretty smart folks. Our view at MRG is that we want to develop long-term relationships with our skiers. We believe that if we are honest with them about conditions that they will reward us with their loyalty. To date this strategy has been effective for us. While this might cost us lift ticket sales on a particular day we feel that we will more than recoup them by treating our skiers how we would like to be treated. It’s all about the “golden rule”. Another important thing to keep in mind is that both Andrew Snow (yes, that is his real name!), our main snow reporter and myself ski most every day and are obviously avid skiers. We even ski on our days off! When we call a ski area for conditions we want good information and would resent it if we were lied to. In this age of instant information and weather it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out if it is raining or not. Be up front, follow the golden rule and treat skiers like you would want to be treated. It’s not too hard!
Joshua B: Does Mad River Glen have a “sibling” mountain in the East? If yes, please explain what qualities the mountain shares with Mad River Glen.
Eric Friedman: Nothing formal, but. If I had to identify a few “kindred spirits” I would have to include:
Hickory – America’s other cooperatively owned ski area in North Creek, NY. Interestingly the trails there were cut by v Ken Quackenbush, 35 year GM and the architect of MRG’s trail system as well.
Wildcat, NH – Love the view and the classic New England twisty, turny trails that are reminiscent of MRG
Mt. Sutton, QU – Love the narrow trails and the glade skiing reminiscent of MRG.
Middlebury Snow Bowl & Cochran’s – Great family-friendly place with deep skiing history similar to MRG’s
Joshua B: Have any snowboarders joined the cooperative? If so, have they ever expressed their wishes for Mad River Glen to open up to snowboarding and how likely is it that will ever happen?
Eric Friedman: There are a few snowboards who own shares and they have not been terribly vocal about the issue. It really is a non-issue for the management and the shareholders. It only takes 3 trustees (out of 9) or a petition of 10% of the shareholders to bring it to a vote. This has never happened and there has never even been an initiative of any kind. In fact there was only one “straw poll” taken during the co-op’s first season and it has never come up again. I hope not to get into a discussion of the merits of the snowboard ban in this forum. I am the marketing director and have been given a job to do by the co-op. It is not my decision to make and have heard every argument on both sides. I hope you can understand my situation and can respect my reluctance to discuss the matter. To help folks understand the whole story you will find our often used press release that details the history and status of the ban:
Snowboards: Not at Mad River Glen
Despite the fact that snowboarders now account for 25-30% of all lift tickets sold in the Unites States, don’t bet that Mad River Glen will lift its ban on snowboards anytime soon. While the percentage of tickets purchased by snowboarders is steadily growing, many question how a ski area can exclude this growing market. Mad River Glen’s skier-owners (it is America’s only cooperatively owned mountain) believe there are enough skiing purists to carve out a viable market niche. Recent results confirmed the theory. “Since the co-op took over ownership of the mountain in 1995 we have shown steady growth across the board,” said Marketing Director, Eric Friedman. “We are fortunate that there is a growing number of skiers seeking the kind of experience that we offer. Sure, we might see a spike in revenues if we allowed snowboards, but money is not our overriding concern; protecting and preserving our unique ski experience is what our owners clearly want.”
Many people don’t realize that Mad River actually did allow snowboards early in the history of snowboarding. Betsy Pratt, Mad River’s previous owner, was friendly to snowboards, but ran into safety issues on Mad River Glen’s main lift, a 1948 Single Chair. They were restricted from the Single and then, after a now legendary confrontation between Betsy and some local riders, she decided to ban snowboards completely. When the Co-op took over the mountain the shareholders voted on the issue with more than 75% voting to maintain the snowboarding ban. “We want to make clear that there is no animosity towards snowboarders. The ski industry is very competitive and our ownership believes that the snowboarding policy is the best course for Mad River Glen,” explains Friedman.
The reasons for the snowboarding ban vary depending on who you talk to. Some say it would ruin Mad River’s unique character. “Our Single Chair, the cooperative ownership, the natural snow skiing, the non-commercial atmosphere, and the skiers-only policy are what make Mad River Glen special. We don’t want to end up being like every other ski area,” said Mad River shareholder Mary Gallicano. Others believe that snowboarders would ruin the legendary moguls, while still others feel that they would scrape the natural snow off Mad River Glen’s sinewy trails. Whatever the reason, it is unlikely that there will be snowboarding at Mad River Glen any time soon. The only way the policy can change is if a two-thirds majority of the shareholders vote to change it. Alta and Deer Valley in Utah, and Taos in New Mexico are the only other areas in North America that do not allow snowboards.
RISkier: How did Mad River Glen come to be owned by a cooperative? Were there particular individuals or groups who were instrumental in its inception? Was Mad River Glen in a bad financial situation before the cooperative acquired ownership?
Eric Friedman: Below you will find a brief history of Mad River Glen. I feel that to understand how we got to where we are one has to understand that MRG began in a very different way and has remained unique. When the co-op took over the mountain it was in need of a great deal of “deferred maintenance”. The key to the areas success then and now is the fact that it carries no debt. Something mnay areas cannot say. Here’s a little background info about MRG’s history:
Mad River Glen’s History
Mad River Glen first cranked up its now famous Single Chair on December 11, 1948. Roland Palmedo, the founder and an original investor at Stowe, envisioned a ski area where sport not profit would be the overriding concern. Roland believed that ” …a ski area is not just a place of business, a mountain amusement park, as it were. Instead it is a winter community whose members, both skiers and area personnel, are dedicated to the enjoyment of the sport.” Mad River Glen developed over the years with this vision of community as its foundation.
In 1972 a group led by Truxton Pratt purchased Mad River Glen, and his wife Betsy Pratt took over controlling interest of the Mad River Corporation upon his death in 1975. She worked hard to maintain Roland’s vision and acted as Mad River Glen steward protecting it from the many changes in the ski industry. When Betsy decided to sell the ski area she sold it to the only people she felt she could trust, Mad River Glen’s loyal skiers.
On December 5, 1995 a new era began when the Mad River Glen Cooperative was formed. Mad River Glen is now the only cooperatively owned ski area in America. In an age when the ski industry is consolidating and becoming homogenized, Mad River Glen bucks the trend by remaining independent and preserving a ski experience that exists nowhere else. Shareholders in the Mad River Glen Cooperative have come together to fulfill their mission; “…to preserve and protect the forests and mountain ecosystem of General Stark Mountain in order to provide skiing and other recreational access and to maintain the unique character of the area for present and future generations.” The mountain is managed by the hired staff with direction and leadership provided by the Board of Trustees elected by the shareholders.
In April of 1998 the Mad River Glen Cooperative fulfilled its purchase agreement with the previous owner by selling its 1,667th share. Mad River Glen is now owned outright by its dedicated skiers. The fledgling Co-op enters the 50th Anniversary season riding high. Not only was the share sales goal met but three successful seasons under the Co-op allowed management to begin addressing capital needs. Mad River’s main double chair, “The Sunnyside Double,” was replaced over the summer. “This project proves that the Co-op format can work for Mad River. Not only are we surviving, we are moving forward,” said Marketing Director, Eric Friedman.
The Mad River Glen Cooperative continues to sell shares in an effort to broaden the base of support and to insure long-term viability for the area. Shares cost $1,750 each and are available on a 30-month installment plan. “This gives practically anyone with a job and a desire to help preserve Mad River Glen the chance to get involved. This is no country club,” says Friedman.
Mad River Glen – A Chronology
1947-48: Initial trails cut: Catamount, Lift Line, Fall Line, Canyon and Porcupine. November snows stop construction and the opening is postponed for a year.
1948-49: Trails improved, work tram, lift and Stark’s Nest built. Opening ceremonies were held on December 11, 1948.
1949-50: No Stop No Fall and Easter Parade traditions begin.
1951-52: Father and Son Race moves to MRG from Stowe and evolves into the Family Tournament
1952-53: Jack Murphy becomes General Manager, Ken Quackenbush starts his career at MRG. Chalet 10 (little house across from Amateur Ski Club house) is built.
1953-54: Hartford Ski Club builds house at MRG
1954-55: Practice Hill Rope Tow is installed. MRG hosts the NCAA Downhill Championship Race
1955-56: The Base Box’s first addition (the east end) is built.
1957-58: McCullough Turnpike (current Route 17), the road over the mountain is finally completed.
1958-59: New tower is added at the bottom of the Single Chair. Beaver trail is cut. T Bar goes in on the Practice Slope. Sugarbush Valley ski area opens.
1959-60: First Ski Shop is built over the brook.
1960-61: First Tucker Snow Cat is purchased. The second Base Box addition (currently Gen. Stark’s Pub) is completed. Trails were cut for proposed Sunnyside double chair.
1961-62: Sunnyside Double Chair opens. First Green & Gold Weekend. The infamous Parachute Race into Catamount Bowl.
1962-63: A new trail, Quacky, is added and named for Ken Quackenbush.
1963-64: Lower Antelope opens.
1964-65: Upper Antelope opens.
1965-66: The last season for the Bud Phillips Ski School
1966-67: Birdland Trails open. Rudi Maier Ski School opens. Touring trails open.
1967-68: Birdland Lift opens. 10th Annual Kandahar Race. Base Box’s third addition, the upstairs, is completed
1968-69: Birdcage Opens. Last season food and beverage are served at Stark’s Nest. Saturday night movies!
1969-70: National Slalom held at MRG. Four tracked vehicles used on mountain.
1970-71: Junior Nationals held at MRG. Vermont’s Act 250 development law is passed ending land sales on the mountain. Tennis courts built at Mad River Barn.
1971-72: T Bar dismantled and replaced by new Double Chair Lift. Mad River Junior Racing Program starts.
1982-83: Sunnyside Double Chair drive replaced.
1986-87: Snowboards first allowed at MRG.
1991-92: Snowboard ban begins at MRG.
1995-96: Mad River Glen Cooperative purchases mountain an December 5, 1995 and the mountain opens with ceremony at the Single Chair on December 7.
1997-98: The Ice Storm of 1998 hits Mad River Glen, causing a great deal of damage to the mid-mountain forest. Clean-up crews and volunteers have the mountain re-opened within a week or so.
1998-99: Mad River Glen celebrates 50th Anniversary with a re-creation of the original opening day. Just like the original opening the Governor, Miss Vermont (both 1948 and 1998) and George Neill were in attendance. 50th Anniversary Gala held in January 1996. Sunnyside Double Chair is replaced.
1990-2000: The Co-op sells the 1,667th share to pay off its mortgage. The mountain is now owned outright by the Co-op.
2000-01: Callie’s Corner Handle Tow Area is added and Stark’s Nest is renovated. Over 325 inches of snow allows skiing to continue until April 29, 2001, the area’s latest closing date on record.
Joshua B: What is the history behind the logo and the “Ski It If You Can” bumper sticker? What is the furthest location it has been spotted?
Eric Friedman: I recently wrote a story for our newsletter on the subject and will drop it in below. The sticker has been seen all over the world an our skiers love to take it to new places so they can snap a photo and add it to the collection in the bar. The one from the furthest location (and it probably won’t be beat for a while) came from one of our shareholders, Cady Coleman, who is an astronaut. She brought it up on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1996.
SKI IT IF YOU CAN
For 20 years, the name Mad River Glen has been synonymous with its “Ski It If You Can” slogan. In those two decades, the simple yet bold, red and white bumper sticker has become one of the most memorable logos in the world of skiing. In fact, a recent survey by the National Ski Areas Association revealed that the sticker was among the most recognizable icons in the ski industry. The survey further discovered that people who had never even been to the state of Vermont, the survey discovered, had seen the sticker and remembered its slogan!
The bumper sticker was the brainchild of Gerald Muro, who developed it in 1984 as part of a plan to help Betsy Pratt, Mad River’s former owner, to refocus the ski area’s marketing efforts. “We wanted to create the first specialty ski area in the United States, if not the world,” explains Muro. Instead of trying to be all things to all skiers, they decided to target the above-average skier, who could take advantage of the mountain’s legendary and often intimidating terrain. “We wanted to target better skiers and skiers who wanted to ski better,” added Muro. Interestingly, this effort began as the ski industry’s move towards consolidation and homogenization was accelerating. Mad River Glen decided to choose a different course and defined the unique niche in the ski industry that it enjoys today.
The first thing that comes to people’s minds when they hear the slogan is the challenge of Mad River’s legendary terrain. The bumper sticker has become a badge of honor for skiers. “Sure, the Ski It If You Can bumper sticker has certainly scared away a percentage of potential skiers, but it is arguably the single most recognizable skiing image in the nation if not the world. It has become a integral part of what Mad River Glen is,” says Mad River Glen General Manager Jamey Wimble. “I just hope that novice and intermediate skiers don’t miss out on the unique ski experience that we offer because of the image created by the sticker over the years.”
The “Ski It If You Can” bumper sticker has been spotted all over the globe, a fact that certainly contributes to its fame. Skiers relaxing in General Stark’s Pub after a day of skiing will notice a collage of bumper sticker photos and a world map with pins marking many of these sticker sightings. The photos range from shots of a sticker on the canopy of a US Air Force F-16 to the tram at Jackson Hole. Other highlights include photos from the World Elephant Polo Championships in Nepal, the Great Wall of China, the Galapagos Islands, the gates of the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, the Tower of London, various South Pacific and Caribbean islands, bars in Vietnam and Kosovo, along with dozens from ski areas from New Zealand to New Jersey. “It really is a crazy phenomenon,” admits Mad River’s Marketing Director, Eric Friedman. “I receive photos constantly. When we decided to start displaying them in the bar, skiers’ interest was overwhelming. More and more skiers have been taking stickers with them on vacation and sending back pictures for the collection.”
Joshua B: What is Mad River Glen’s best quality? What is Mad River Glen especially proud of? What are some of Mad River Glen’s finest moments in history?
Eric Friedman: Best quality? Wow, there are so many, but I think the MRG ski experience can be distilled down to the following:
The most challenging and diverse terrain in New England
Amazing natural beauty
Natural snow skiing
Limited lift capacity resulting in low skier density on the trails.
A special camaraderie among the skiers and wonderful traditions
A Great family Area
I am most proud of the fact that when the co-op began not too many people in the industry gave us much of a chance. In 1995 we were flying in face of conventional wisdom in an industry that was consolidating and becoming increasingly corporate. We have proven the naysayers wrong and MRG is in the best financial position it has been in for decades. In fact our biggest growth areas for the mountain have been in the kids and teen market so the mountain’s future has a solid foundation. Interestingly many of our biggest critics from the ski industry in our formative years are no longer in the business.
For the finest moments check out the history chronology above.
Bumpsis: What is the current financial status of the operation? Does a bad snow season seriously jeopardize Mad River Glen’s ability to operate?
Eric Friedman: As I said above we are in as good a financial position as MRG has been in for many years. We have no debt, we have a long-term capital plan that necessitates a certain average net profit that will make us sustainable for the long haul. We have been meeting that requirement and have also been putting $75,000 away each year in the Single Chair Reserve Fund so that “when and if” we can do whatever we need to do without borrowing money. The big question for the co-op shareholders is coming to a consensus on what it is that they want.
A bad snow year does not seriously jeopardize our ability to operate. We need to make a certain amount of money on average. The good years and the bad years should cover themselves with proper management. Since the co-op has taken over we made money in 7 of 9 seasons. Sure we will get a real bad one at some point, but we also have some pretty darn good ones from time to time too. This is of course barring any drastic global warming.
Joshua B: How difficult has it been to maintain the Single chair? How old are the three doubles?
Eric Friedman: The single costs more to maintain than a modern lift. It is more labor intensive and it has twice as many chairs as a double, thus more grips, inspections, etc… Our operational staff has been around a long time and they consider it “their baby”. It truly is a labor of love for them. It has been retrofitted with modern emergency brakes and other safety issues and it is not “grand-fathered” in any way. It meets and exceeds all current VT Tramway regulations. The Sunnyside Double chair, our other main mountain lift, was re-built in 1998. The Birdland Chair was built in 1967 and the Practice Slope Double replaced the T-bar in 1971. The Callie’s Corner Handle Tow was installed in 2000.
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