AlpineZone Challenge 2005 – Matt Sawyer of Ski Butternut

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. Matt Sawyer, Director of Marketing of Ski Butternut in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, took the AlpineZone Ski Area Challenge and provided the following responses on 7/20/2005:

bvibert: Are your season pass rates going to remain at the same low price?

Matt Sawyer: ANSWER: Yes & no. Our prices for season passes will be as follows and Winter 2005-06 Season Passes are on SALE now!

$199 Adult (ages 14-69 years)
$169 Jr. (ages 7-13 years)
$69 Kids (6 & under)
$99 Sr. (age 70+)
$800 Corporate ($800 buys 2 transferable passes)

These are all unlimited season passes valid every day of the season, including the valuable holiday weekends. There are no blackout dates on a Ski Butternut Season Pass.

Our Adult unlimited season pass price remains at $199, as does our $99 Sr. & $800 Corporate pass. We increased our Jr. & Kids passes a whopping $10. We’re proud to be able to keep these prices affordable despite huge increases in fuel costs for heating oil and diesel to fuel our snowmaking system, spiraling insurance costs and higher wage demands. We believe that guests still want and need an affordable option. We are striving to keep the value as high as possible. This is our seventh winter offering a $199 Adult Season Pass. Quantities are still limited. When we have sold our allotment there will be no more Ski Butternut Season Passes available for this winter. So anyone interested should order as soon as they can.

SPECIAL ALPINE ZONE OFFER I – Two free lift tickets to the first person who emails me what the overall increase in the consumer price index has been in each of the last 7 years.

SPECIAL ALPINE ZONE OFFER II – Two more free tickets to the first person who emails me with some gauge on the relative price of gasoline over each of the last 7 years. Email your answers accompanied by your sources for verification to:

ts01: What impact on skier traffic are you hoping to achieve by replacing the Granny’s Double Chair with a new quad? (Personally I’m hoping it will take a lot of beginners off of the Top Flight quad — both to ease the line there and to clear up the congestion on Pied Piper.) Did the new Highline Quad help relieve traffic at the Top Flight Quad? How do you think having three quads at a relatively small area will impact the terrain?

Matt Sawyer: Our plan was to replace an aging double chair with a quad to move some traffic off the Top Flight Quad, our busiest lift, toward nice wide beginner terrain on Cruiser. Your analysis is right on, in that, we anticipate most of that relief would come from beginners choosing to move there. This has the added benefits that it would alleviate some of the congestion on the Pied Piper, the beginner trail off the top, and result in fewer lift stops due to beginners who are not as comfortable getting on and off the chair. There is another key benefit to putting in a quad for a mountain like ours that handles a fair number of lessons. It becomes apparent to knowledgeable instructors that they can easily move their classes up the mountain quickly while maintaining better control. The students also have more direct access to their instructor on a quad, and if need be the rest of the class is close behind on the next chair not strung out. This certainly provides the instructor with better control of their charges. Something that is essential when teaching kids.

YES last years replacement of the Highline Double with a Quad certainly helped to relieve traffic on the Top Flight Quad. The biggest advantage I saw was, since they are fairly close and easily visible, people in one line often made plans to meet at the other lift after their run. Another advantage is that a quad better suits families and the needs and desires of our terrain park users. There is a tendency for the typical terrain park user (Lets loosely define this group as kids who ranges in age from young teen to mid 20’s) to hang together in groups or loose gangs (not gangs in a bad sense). This is how they enjoy the mountain feeding off each others energy and sessioning in the park before moving back down to the lift. Well a quad carrying four certainly allows their group sense-of-being, energy, and conversation to move more fluidly back up the mountain. They prefer to hang together and a quad lift, more than a double, better allows for that hangin’ to continue.

Having three quads has a very positive impact on the guests’ experience. Quad chairlifts are easier to load, have more room and are more comfortable to ride. They provide a better family experience as more family members can ride together at one time. The uphill capacity is increased reducing or eliminating lift lines. The only negative effect is if the quad would put too many people on the mountain. For that to happen you need excessive crowds and your uphill capacity needs to exceed your terrains comfortable carrying capacity for the terrain the lift serves and the days given conditions. When the mountain is 75% to 100% open the uphill capacity of our three quads is in good balance. It can be an issue if you have a rocking day in the early season, and less than half of the mountain is open. Do you believe a guest would ever leave on one of those days to search out a mountain with less lift capacity. Even on one of those days I personally would rather have a mountain with too much uphill capacity than not enough. On any given day with or without crowds, the mountain with the better lift system provides a better experience! You get more runs, you wait less, and if you get there early on a powder day you enjoy more untracked runs, so you get a better bang for the buck. There is nothing more frustrating to a guest than feeling that they are waiting too long to just get on the lift.

As for the trails holding up under the added stress of one more quad. The new lift is being constructed on Cruiser, one of our wider trails. Cruiser and the other trails it serves have not been operating anywhere near their limits in terms of comfortable carrying capacity. The installation of the new quad on Cruiser should improve conditions on Pied Piper, through Times Square and on down through Nut Hatch as more beginners choose Cruiser as a place to practice and refine their skills.

Some may ask if snow conditions will deteriorate because of our three quads? We consistently have some of the best conditions because of our huge commitment to snowmaking, quality grooming, no night skiing and milder terrain. I don’t see any major negatives on the impact and those who want to will certainly enjoy Cruiser and the accompanying trails on the far left side of our mountain more with the addition of our third quad.

Greg:  Some Northeast mountains such as Jiminy Peak use standard grooming equipment to “seed” very evenly spaced mogul fields on intermediate terrain. Does Butternut have the capacity to do this and is it something you’ve considered? I think Downspout would be a great candidate. Butternut’s gentler terrain attracts many beginners/intermediates and the bumps that are allowed to form on Downspout tend to be erratically spaced as a result of the intermediate traffic. Offering a few well maintained seeded bump runs would provide some challenge for the more advanced skiers. You already offer plenty of terrain features (i.e. parks) but how about some bumps for those looking for a challenge that aren’t park rats? Are there any other runs that you would consider to be good mogul run candidates? Lucifer’s Leap or Whip, perhaps? Clearly marking such trails with “Bumps” or “Moguls” signs would discourage the beginners from attempting them.

Matt Sawyer: Great Question. It is something we have considered, discussed and deliberated for a long time. As for capacity I don’t know how much experience we have right now to developing the desired result (big round bumps) from our grooming fleet and staff. I don’t know if they could pull off the desired effect with what they have. I would like to see them try as I know a number of guests would be interested in having moguls as an option. Our management team has been looking at the pros and cons of adding bumps to our terrain mix. There is no question in my mind that the first steep section on Downspout is the right location on this mountain. I also think from a “learning to ski bumps” level we could add a very small bump field on Chute. This would provide a nice learning environment that would not be very intimidating. I wouldn’t add anymore than those two areas into our current terrain mix. Doing any more would be moving away from our target of family skiing and riding with an emphasis on quality snow and grooming that facilitates learning. Lucifer’s Leap and Whip are not the right trails at Ski Butternut for moguls as they are primary trails off our signature Top Flight quad lift and have too much of a regular following. But I do feel we would be well served to create bump fields on the first steep section of Downspout and to provide one other area with controlled bumps like chute or the skiers right side of Main Street to teach people how to ski or ride through moguls.

ts01: Your season pass is a pretty good deal but I’m on the fence about renewing next year. Even at the low pass rate, when you multiply by 4 the price gets up there. One factor that is likely to affect my decision is your discount program with other mountains. My family has learned to ski at Butternut and loves it there for day trips, but also is ready for bigger challenges. The deals that Catamount is offering (discounts at Gore, Whiteface and Sugarbush) are more tempting than Butternut’s deals (Bolton Valley and $10 off non-holiday weekends at Okemo). I don’t really count the 50% off deal at Jay Peak because I understand Jay offers that deal to passholders from any other mountain, not just Butternut. Are there any additional deals anticipated for next year? Anyway you can post this info on your web site sooner in the season than it went up last year?

Matt Sawyer: WOW. If you only feel our season pass is a pretty good deal at $199 for adults I would like to know what you think is a great deal. Most of our season pass holders ski eight to thirty five days a season. Skiing at only ten days your cost per day is under $20 and at a very easily achieved 20 days it cost you only $9.95 a day. Not to beat you up but I certainly feel it is a GREAT DEAL! When I got here in 1998 an adult season pass was $495. Few mountains offer what we do for such an affordable price within an easy drive of home. We understand that some guests will outgrow us. When they do they will likely need to pay more and drive farther. Our biggest assets are our mountain’s size in relation to our proximity and price.

I understand that you want to know what else comes with our season pass as early as possible. I personally don’t know what Catamount is offering at Gore, Whiteface or Sugarbush. Catamount season passes are more expensive than ours and we have by far nicer facilities. Most of our guests don’t visit the far reaches of upstate NY they are looking for the family experience that Okemo provides or an exciting destination like Jay Peak or Owls Head in Canada. Jay Peak has already signed on for this year with a great deal, and it is my understanding that it is not available to every season pass holder. I will continue to try to arrange deals with other mountains that benefit us both and offer a different experience so as to keep our season pass holders happy. If you’re saying that you want me to try to get the same deal to Sugarbush, Gore or Whiteface for Ski Butternut Season Pass holders, the least I can do is contact them and see if they are interested in talking over the merits. Most of the mountains that we arrange deals with don’t want to have any chance for their early season pass or frequency deals to be cheapened by a great deal as a holder of our inexpensive season pass. So they don’t officially make the offer to us till after their early pass offerings are sold.

For example Scott Clarkson, Marketing Dir. at Okemo told me he could directly measure a loss of sales on their value priced 8-Pack about three years back when Okemo offered Ski Butternut Season Pass holders a 50% off anytime deal. Some figured out that they could purchase our season pass and instead of the Okemo 8-Pack purchase their daily lift tickets as needed for 50% off. This was a better savings than the 8-pack offered. So the 50% off at Okemo was changed by Scott to a still generous $10 off deal. I know a lot of our guests take advantage of that deal and have moved their vacation or big mountain outing from skiing at Stratton to Okemo as it represents a nice savings to a place they have wanted to visit.

The reason that other mountains’ offers are slow to appear on our web site is that they want to get through their pre-season sales and marketing efforts (as alluded to above) without our offer eroding their position. Secondly I ask that each of the mountains mail me a letter correctly explaining their deal so that there are no mistakes or misunderstandings. I don’t want a guest to get to another mountain and not have their Ski Butternut Pass provide them with the added value they expected.

As soon as another mountain is willing to put their deal in writing to us, we’ll put it up on the web site to both motivate our guests to purchase our pass and to help solidify our position with the other mountains. As long as we drive meaningful business to them and act as their marketing arm they will continue to offer a deal to our season pass holders.

skijay: With all of the infrastructure upgrades (new lifts), you now can boast having 3 quads / 1 triple / 2 doubles. Can you offer some insight of any possible Butternut expansion plans? Is there a vision of adding some type of slope side accommodations such as hotel, homes or condos?

Matt Sawyer: There are no plans for slope side accommodations underway at this time. We are monitoring the interest from our guests so you will see this question on in-house surveys. There is nothing on the drawing board yet regarding lodging.

We do want to further increase our snowmaking power allowing for faster resurfacing and opening of new trails early in the season. The plan is to markedly increase our uphill pumping capacity and to increase the nozzle pressure at the top of the mountain. We’ll likely start this project next year if we have a good winter. Why do this when we already have great snow? Simply put people like to ski where the snow is. So we will continue to concentrate our efforts on providing the best conditions possible. The snowmaking expansion will also help prepare us for future trail expansion. The snowmaking enhancement is being done in anticipation of cutting more trails. After the snowmaking enhancements the addition of some new terrain would be our next priority as would the expansion of our Lower Lodge so we can offer more seating and additional amenities.

Greg:  I skied Butternut in April (great job on staying open later this season!) and had a blast popping in and out of the trees on skier’s right of Applejack. What’s going on there? Has that area been thinned out? Any chance you can thin out a bit more and position the snowguns to provide some overspray that could help build a base in these “glades”?

Matt Sawyer: Now don’t give away all the little powder stashes as there aren’t many on this mountain to begin with. At least not until we get that next storm of the century. No we have not thinned it out. I believe the laurel in there has some nice openings that provide those with the correct skill group to poach some nice lines. Operative word here is POACH. For the record the mountain has no intentions to deliberately thin this area out anytime soon. Don’t want the masses to get in there and get hurt or screw it up for those who are fortunate to be in the know. Have fun and if you are looking for company give me a call the next time you visit so we can make some runs together.

skijay: Will you ever offer a half pipe in your terrain park?

Matt Sawyer: I’ve been told to – never say never! A good half pipe requires a big commitment on the part of snowmaking and mountain operations in regard to grooming. We won’t put one in if we can’t do it right. At this time we aren’t convinced that the high costs would be a worthwhile investment. I’m glad you asked this question as I do get the question a fair amount in the winter. I feel there is a need for a quality half pipe in this area. Our biggest concern is one of usage, since we don’t offer night skiing I don’t think that a primarily weekend oriented user base would make the investment, versus additional tickets sold work for us. Location is another issue, we have discussed some options and could likely figure out the right location but all the good options mean loosing something else.

Greg:  I love riding the Overbrook Triple but the climb off the lift to get to Uptown is a drag. Can anything be done to improve that? Perhaps a short connector trail below the lift house? My point is that it would be nice to have a quick way to get back over to the other side of the base area without having to either hike to Uptown or fly down Freewheeler or Downspout to carry momentum over to the lower lodge or the Top Flight Quad.

Matt Sawyer: There are no easy solutions to correct for the mild climb if you want to get back to Uptown. The ridge is pretty much a solid piece of rock so it can’t be graded differently. If there was an easy solution I believe we would have tackled it already. The idea of an additional run(s) is on the table and this is a section that the owner and I have reviewed both as a solution to this issue and in regard to adding additional terrain. But just look down the hill off the left of the Triple and you can see that a fall line trail would be much steeper than the Uptown trail there by prohibiting easy beginner access back to the other side. Yet as most of the guests who enjoy the Triple’s terrain are intermediate or advanced in skill level it would allow them the needed quick access back to the base area.

Beginner Powder Tip – Uptown is a great place to teach someone how to ski powder because of the short hike it’s one of the last places on the mountain to get tracked out.

skijay: Has Butternut thought of adding summer time activities such as an “adventure park” like Jiminy Peak? How about hiking or mountain biking? Any thoughts of adding a “water park” like Bousquet?

Matt Sawyer: We have had many discussions on the merits of these types of activities. At this time it is not the type of usage that the owner wants to have on his property. Too “Disney” on some of the ideas like adventure park and water park for his taste; besides the other areas already offer these venues. While hiking or mountain biking are not financially viable on there own. I doubt that they are even financially viable with a captive bed base that is craving some activities to fill up their day. So there are no plans to allocate our precious financial resources in these directions right now.

We are still courting concert promoters for single day shows and our summer wedding / banquet business is locking up most of the better Spring, Summer and Fall weekend dates. It’s only one weekend and it’s not extreme but we currently host The Berkshires Summer Arts Festival over the 3-day July 4th weekend each summer. So we’ll happily stay the course on these fronts for now.

Greg:  Was your free demo day last December successful? I enjoyed the opportunity to try out some new skis free of charge. Are you going to hold another one this season?

Matt Sawyer: Yes they have been a hit. Especially as the prices of ski equipment has increased. People want to get on the right product and the best way to do that is to test it first. Ideally it’s best to do your testing on the slopes and trails where you usually ski. So try before you buy! We have been holding these Free Demos for at least the last 3 years. Yes we plan to continue to offer these free demos provided we get the support from the reps. Look for another Free Demo date in late December of this year.

If someone can’t make the free demo dates, we do offer a daily pay to play demo program. We’ll even credit the first two days demo fees toward a ski purchase in our on mountain shop. We encourage other ski shops to tell people to visit Ski Butternut if they need to demo prior to closing the sale.


Matt Sawyer – Director of Marketing
Ski Butternut – “A True Family Mountain & Family Gem” SKI Magazine
380 State Road – Rte. 23
Great Barrington, MA 01230

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