AlpineZone Challenge 2005 – JJ Toland 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. JJ Toland, Communications Manager of Sugarbush Resort in Warren, Vermont, took the AlpineZone Ski Area Challenge and provided the following responses on 9/9/2005:

Tin Woodsman:  I’ve seen plans to replace the Valley House Double with a high speed quad and extending the base terminal downhill to where the rental shop has been. Clearly the goal is to increase the out of base lift capacity so that the Super Bravo and Gate House quads aren’t overwhelmed as they usually are on busy weekend/holiday mornings. But this plan concerns me for two reasons. First, the current intersection with the Valley House traverse and the top terminal of the VH lift is a disaster. The traverse gets scraped down to bare ice by 10:30AM and I see multiple collisions and near misses every day I’m there. Aren’t you concerned that a quad would exacerbate this problem? Second, the trails in that pod are already quite heavily used, especially Spring Fling and Snowball/Racers Edge. Why would you want to double lift capacity for a pod with two crowded snowmaking trails, and four expert/upper intermediate natural trails that can’t handle many more skiers as it is? Throw in the fact that half of Spring Fling is often closed and you really are setting yourselves up for a diminution of the skiing experience. Lift lines are, by and large, not a big problem at SB. Why go for the sexy marketing coup at the expense of the skiing experience?

JJ Toland: Hey Alpine Zone fans-Before we get to the questions, just wanted to apologize for the exorbitant delay. We’ve been busy up here trying to finalize the sale of the ‘Bush to Wal-Mart. Ownership left it up to me whether to go with a “Super Wal-Mart” or just a plain ol’ run-of-the-mill version. Alas, my inability to make up my mind (I think because I’m a Target fan at heart) caused the big W to rescind their offer. In the wake of my ineptitude, we’ve decided to build the Clay Brook residences instead.

Well, maybe the first part’s a stretch, but Clay Brook is well underway (scheduled to open for the 06-07 season) and my belated responses are more the result of summer vacation and the onslaught of work brought on by the base area construction. Anyway, enough with the excuses. I really do appreciate the chance to answer your questions and feel free to contact me directly at

Come on… “diminution?” Now I have to go looking for my dictionary. TinWoodsman-You are right about the top of the Valley House lift; on crowded days the intersection of the off-ramp and the VH Traverse can look like the LA freeway sans firearms. The plans you have seen, as they relate to chair lifts, are preliminary conceptual sketches designed using a 60-month timeline. They will change. Here are the definites: the Clay Brook project is well underway. Concrete is being poured on a weekly basis and the residences are scheduled to be open for the 2006-07 season. In subsequent construction seasons, we will be building a brand-new guest services lodge and razing and rebuilding an expanded Gate House lodge. I can guarantee you any and all future reconfiguration of the hill, including lifts, will be done to enhance the skier/rider experience. Hardy Merrill, who was GM at Ellen last year, was promoted to VP of Mountain Services some months ago and he is a huge advocate for optimizing the on-hill experience. Nothing will be done to detract from it.

thetrailboss:  I applaud you for the work that you did at Ellen last season. It seemed like the place had a lot of energy when I visited. I will confess to having a bias for that mountain, but I want to know if you have any other improvements slated at Ellen for this season? Will Hardy still be running that area? Will you be keeping the Mount Ellen Pass?

JJ Toland: As you probably know, the Mount Ellen pass is back and is just $489 until September 19th and you’re right about the energy. M.E. was a blast last year and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. As mentioned in the previous response, Hardy is now running the show for both hills so you can bet the verve he brought to M.E. last year will be felt throughout the Resort. He has hired Dan Torsell to take over at Ellen. Dan began his industry career at Powder Mountain, UT. He eventually made his way east, supervising lift operations and guest services at Killington and then becoming the General Manager in charge of all mountain operations at Tussey Mountain in Pennsylvania. He’s a solid guy who brings a ton of experience, from both the on and off-mountain worlds. Hardy has also hired Mike Wing to join his team as Snow Manager. Mike will be in charge of all grooming and snowmaking. He’s a 20-year Sugarloaf vet and expert groomer who brings an immense amount of expertise to the ‘Bush. Mike was also Superintendent of the Sugarloaf golf course, one of the most highly-rated public courses in New England.

andyzee:  During the 2003-2004 season I purchased the Escape Pass for Sugarbush. I purchased early, I believe it was in April and got a really good deal. I believe it came out to $512 for 12 days plus if you purchased early as I did you got 2 days added to this. This past season, the price of the Escape Pass increased significantly. It actually came out cheaper for me to purchase separate lift tickets at an off-site seller. Also, due to this price increase, I only visited Sugarbush twice this past season. Was this a mistake on the part of your marketing department? Are there any plans to come up with a better deal next season?

JJ Toland: Hey andyzee- This is going to be a boring answer, but here it goes. In 03-04, we were still on a midweek, weekend and holiday pricing structure. The Escape Pass was designed to give the holder anywhere from a 10-30% deal, depending on when they used their ticket. In 03-04, we switched to the industry standard of a seven-day-a-week price for lift tickets aside from holiday rates, which compressed the price breaks, but the SugarCard was offered as an alternative. The 12-pack was $660 last year which represented anywhere between a 10-15% savings compared to day rates, but the SugarCard was only $59 and it offered anywhere from a 10-28% savings. The appeal of the Escape Pass was one: the savings, and two: the fact that is was transferable and could be used by multiple people at once. If you are only going to ski a couple of times this season, I would recommend the SugarCard (direct-to-lift access just like a pass) or an Ellen pass (you have to ski 11 days to pay it off) with a free SugarCard option.

Greg:  Sugarbush is notorious for putting lifts on wind-hold when many would question the need. I experienced this myself last season on a Friday after an 18″ dump. It was a bit disappointing to only have access to North Lynx Peak and even a Guest Services rep commented to us that the decision by Mountain Ops to shut down most of the mountain was the wrong one. It seemed that opening Super Bravo could have been doable and that would have provided access to much more of the Lincoln Peak area. What is the specific criteria for these wind-hold decisions? If the wind dies down at noon or 1 pm do you consider opening additional lifts if only for a few hours, or are staff sent home in the morning?

JJ Toland: Windholds are one of the most frustrating things any skier/rider can experience, especially on a BIG day and ESPECIALLY when the wind cannot be felt in the base/mid-mountain areas. Windholds are not initiated by ownership or the marketing department for the sake of “saving” snow for a coming holiday or weekend. This is how it works. Lift Maintenance is ultimately responsible for making the call and they have sensors and personnel stationed all over the mountain. The two big/obvious factors that go into stopping a lift are the speed and direction of the wind. If at anywhere along a cable line the wind achieves enough velocity to blow a chair to a certain degree “off plum” (out of line) and it’s coming from the wrong direction, a hold will be called. There is no bullshit in making these calls; they are a straight-forward safety issue. A lot of consideration goes into making them because almost everybody working on the hill is there because they love to ski or ride and know the disappointment/anger that is going to be felt in the lift lines when a chair stops spinning. Particularly frustrating are wind eddies that can build and then swirl around particular towers. These tend to elicit the most conspiracy theories because eddies sometimes might not be felt at the top, bottom, or even in the middle because they rotate around just a few towers on a line. Ultimately the goal is to get everyone safely up the hill.

thetrailboss:  In response to ASC’s “All for One Promotion,” are you finding pressure to lower your season pass prices? Bretton Woods recently dropped their season pass rate from near $1200 to $499. In a market in which prices are falling, yours seem to be rising to higher levels and many are taking notice. Is this hurting business? While your Ellen pass is reasonably price, it is not accepted at Lincoln Peak. Have you considered special “Ellen Pass Days” at Lincoln Peak? Also, have you ever considered offering a shared season pass with Mad River Glen, or with Stowe again?

JJ Toland: ASC’s “All for One” is a strong offer. No question about it. Even with the dozen or so blackout dates, it is compelling. As to the state of the industry, prices run the gamut from $299 to $1,500 and some of our offerings do fall in the top third of that tier. But if you dig skiing and riding and want the kind of terrain Sugarbush offers, you have to do the math. Take our top-of-the-line adult All Mountain 7 pass. Right now it’s $1,029. Our average, not hardcore, skier is on the hill 25 days. That breaks down to just over $41/day for complete access to the ‘Bush. Make it out 35 days and now you’re paying below $30/day. Last year our season was 154 days so even if you fall into the “average” category, you only have to make it out 16% of the season. The Mount Ellen pass was specifically designed to give affordable access to big-mountain skiing and this year when you buy one, you get a free SugarCard so you will be able to access the whole Resort at a special rate. This year’s Ellen price was unchanged from the previous season.

I believe everybody in the country is conscious of increasing prices throughout goods and services and we try to be sensitive to our customers’ concerns. Last year our total skier days saw a double-digit increase and pass sales have been strong this year. As to a shared pass with MRG, I haven’t seen anything in the works, but there is a shared ticket. It’s the “Ski the Valley” ticket. (It also gives you access to Ole’s.)

Strat:  Snowflake, the trail once serviced by the old T-Bar at North, to the south of Sunny D (at the termination of Lower FIS) has gone unused for years. It seems like with North’s complete and total lack of beginner terrain, a cheap T-Bar could be purchased by Sugarbush and installed down there to make North a little more accommodating to beginners. North has seen a lot of improvements, but that would really make it more of a complete mountain. Does this plan seem semi-realistic?

JJ Toland: Strat, that is a good idea and semi-realistic, but consideration of a T over at Ellen (or any type of new surface lift) is a few seasons out. You will be able to access Snowflake just as you have in years past. As to a “total lack of beginner terrain,” a little absolutist/dramatic, no? “Total lack” to me means zero beginner terrain, but if you’ve been to Ellen, you know there are a number of greenies to be had including the aforementioned Snowflake, Walt’s, Straightshot, Graduation, Sugar Run, Northstar, Northway, and Mainstream.

Lostone: Are you ever going to do anything with the lights on Easy Rider? I’ve seen them, but wasn’t aware why they were ever put up, until I read the EIS.

JJ Toland: Lostone, you are a truly dedicated ‘Bush fan reading an EIS from 1998. When that statement was written, ASC was considering nightly skiing and riding and I believe they did install a light or two. The application for night skiing was denied and the light(s) was/were left on the vine, so to speak. Any illuminating fixtures were removed when we started construction back in June. We did rent lights last season for a nighttime jib series, but have no plans currently to do so again.

Strat:  Was hiking up there today, Castlerock to be specific, and noticed one of those wind speed gauges/wind direction indicators on the last tower on the Castlerock lift, realize I’ve seen them elsewhere on the mountain. What are these instruments for? Why are those there if no one can see the data? Is it possible that that information could make it to so we could see windspeed/possible temps at summit as well as base, like MRG does?

JJ Toland: The wind speed gauges and directional indicators are on the towers to do just that: gauge the speed of the wind and indicate its direction. Our operations crews monitor the readouts and use the data to determine when a chair may have to be shutdown due to high/erratic winds. We are in the process of revamping our IT systems and integrating data from these gauges is being considered in the functionality of the new website. I agree with you; having that type of real-time information would really help people to decide whether or not to head up the hill. We will be launching the new site this fall so you’ll know soon. Having that kind of info gets my vote.

Tin Woodsman:  With regards to facilities, any plans to expand Allyn’s Lodge? That place gets crowded, especially on colder days. Not only can you not find a seat on those days, the line for food becomes intolerably long. You really should do something more with that fantastic building. Also, any chance for a warming hut at the confluence of Gate House, North Lynx, and SBX? Again, it’s about keeping people out of the base area during the day and maximizing the use of Gate House for beginners who are the key to your future.

JJ Toland: You’re right; Allyn’s Lodge is a phenomenal place to grab a bite to eat or just hangout, but right now there are no plans to expand it. However, there will be a Waffle House up there this season so I would suspect that the line for food in Allyn’s would decrease. No immediate plans for warming hut at the top of Gate House right now.

Tin Woodsman: Has anyone considered cutting a traverse from the top of Middle Earth down to the base of the North Lynx triple? Such a trail would have multiple benefits for SB. First, it would help overcome the current single point of failure which exists in accessing the North Lynx and Slide Brook chairs. If Gate House goes down, there’s no way to get ‘theah from heah.’ While a traverse from Castlerock wouldn’t be optimal, it would at least be the start of a solution there. Furthermore, when one wants to go from the Castlerock/Heaven’s Gate trail pods to North Lynx or back to Mt Ellen, they must go through the already-crowded base area and queue for the Gate House lift with the beginners who would probably appreciate shorter lift lines.

JJ Toland: Yeah, getting ‘theah from heah’ when Gate House goes down is just a wee bit of challenge/pain in the arse, but I don’t think a traverse from Middle Earth to Lynx base would work. I’ve only been in the woods to skier’s left of Middle Earth a couple of times, but it seems the topography of that section of the mountain wouldn’t support a traverse; the fall line sucks everything into that gully that eventually runs out to Castlerock Connection. Plus, the south/east face of North Lynx Peak spills you into the Orchard and back down toward the gully. Bounce me back at if I’m thinking of the wrong route. Always looking for suggestions to put on the table.

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