AlpineZone Challenge 2006 – 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 5/16/2006:
Tin Woodsman: Eric: thanks for your time and candor with these questions in the past and I’m sure again this year. The basin through which the 19th/20th Holes thread is one of the real gems of MRG, and some of the finest skiing terrain the Northeast has to offer. To my knowledge, most of the basin still belongs to Betsy Pratt and was not part of the original sale. This property includes some of the only undeveloped flat land fronting Rt. 17. I’ve heard rumors of a plan to acquire this parcel and to pay for it (presumably with the aid of a bridge loan of some sort) by selling off a series of smaller parcels along Rt. 17 for the construction of cabins similar to those that exist near the base. As you can imagine, a number of questions derive from this potential scenario:
(a) Fully understanding the significant short term financial burden the Co-op is now undertaking to rebuild the Single, is the acquisition of Betsy’s holdings in that basin a concept that would be seriously considered if available at a reasonable price?
(b) If so, would the sale of real estate along Rt. 17, potentially replete with deed restrictions ensuring tasteful construction consistent with the cottages near MRG, be an avenue that the Co-op would consider to finance such a purchase? In short, can MRG stomach getting into the real-estate business, if only tangentially, if the ultimate goal is the permanent protection/control of a significant piece of its buffer and ski terrain?
(c) Assuming the answer to either of those questions above is “Yes” (to the extent that you can do so in a public forum), would it be inconceivable to install lift service in the bottom of the basin to take skiers up and over to the shoulder of Lower Antelope at around the 1940′ elevation? Or maybe run shuttles up to the Base or employ the use of a Mad Bus stop ala Slidebrook? Both options would provide the benefit of dramatically increasing the room to roam at MRG while remaining consistent with the guiding philosophy of limiting uphill capacity to preserve and enhance the skiing experience.
Eric Friedman: Greetings AlpineZoners:
Thanks once again for the opportunity to connect with the AlpineZone community and for coming up with another batch of interesting questions. I will do my best to answer them along with any follow-up questions that may come up afterwards. AZ’ers may also feel free to contact me individually if you like. My email adderss is email@example.com.
You are correct that the Mad River Corporation, which Betsy Pratt is the majority stockholder, (not to be confused with the Mad River Glen Cooperative) is the owner of the property you mention. The Co-op’s property line runs 50′ from the “skier’s right” of Antelope/Lower Antelope. Click here to view a great topographic map that shows the property lines. Please keep in mind that the Co-op does not own the ski terrain in question and does not sanction skiing there. That being said here are the answers to your multipart question;
A) The Co-op has the right of first refusal to purchase any land adjacent to the approximately 700 acres the Co-op already owns. There has always been a strong sentiment on the Co-op’s Board of Trustees, and among the shareholders at large, to develop a plan to purchase the land in question if and when it becomes available. The Co-op’s Board has a standing 20th Hole Committee tasked to best position the Co-op for that eventuality. Discussions have occurred between Ms Pratt and the 20th Hole Committee, and we can not comment any further. I hope that everyone can appreciate why would rather not comment or speculate further at this point in time and why I don’t feel comfortable answering parts b and c of your question.
smootharc: Is there a plan to build another structure to house the ski school? If yes, are there any site plan images available?
Eric Friedman: When you say “house the ski school” I assume you mean the Ski School Desk and the kids ski school area on the bottom floor of the Basebox. As most of you probably already are aware, space in the Basebox and in the MRG base area generally are at a premium. We simply do not have available space to build any new buildings. We do not currently have any plans to build another structure for any purpose in the base area. The Single project is our first priority, and then we have a multitude of potential projects that the Co-op could embark on. We have a capital plan in place that calls for us to spend approximately $2 million, this includes the Single, by 2010. The Ski Patrol/Ski School/Truck Garage building (to the left of the Single when looking up the mountain) is certainly due for an overhaul if not a complete rebuild. When/if this project happens there has been talk about expanding it and making that a Children’s Center that would house Ski School, the nursery and perhaps an area for the Race Team. We certainly do not have any drawings or images to see.
One of the great things about the Co-op is that many people and organizations are interested in helping us in many ways. A great example of this was when the architecture department of Norwich University had students develop potential master plans for MRG’s base area. While some of the ideas were certainly a bit “interesting” to say the least, one great byproduct of the work was an extremely detailed (utilizing gps technology) base area map. The Co-op has a Facilities Committee that has taken this map and is using it to aid the Co-op in any future changes to the base area. The Board ‘s plan is for any new base area construction, including a new ski school facility, to fit into an r overall plan rather than doing changes piecemeal. Stay tuned!
Greg: In general, what are your thoughts on SkiMRV.com? Do you feel forums like these are a good resource for feedback and have you ever seriously considered a suggestion that was posted on forums like SkiMRV or AlpineZone? In the 2004 challenge, you said, “No I really don’t follow them.” Has this changed at all since then? Do you feel other ski areas are missing out by not tapping into online resources like these? I look forward to your continued participation on SkiMRV and AlpineZone.
Eric Friedman: I think SkiMRV is very cool, and it offer skiers a great opportunity to discuss happenings on the mountain. I haven’t seen too many suggestions on the forum that we haven’t seen before. Trust me, our shareholders offer plenty of suggestions, many of which have been implemented over the years. They are both great ways to gauge how skiers are thinking; we utilize them in conjunction with our formal surveying of skiers and shareholders, our suggestion box, other online communities like the SkiVT Listserv and a multitude of other sources.
I must admit that I still don’t follow AZ and SkiMRV religiously. I’d say that I check them out every week or two or when someone says; have you seen the discussion about ______ on SkiMRV? One question I have regarding SkiMRV is if the forum is too focused. It seems that everyone on SkiMRV is quite familiar with the Mad River Valley while AZ’s forums are obviously much broader. As the marketing director I am every bit as concerned with the folks who don’t ski at MRG and/or Sugarbush. I think It is equally important to get a feel for what the overall AZ community discussing on the forums.
I don’t think that ski areas are missing out on anything as I think most of the ski industry folks (the smart ones anyway) are aware of resources like AZ. I know that when I meet my colleagues we will often discuss some of the threads on forums like AZ, SkiVT Listserv among others.
smootharc: Would MRG ever create some sort of “Adventure Skiing” program that gets folks exploring OB? Could be a good revenue generator for those who want to dip their toes in a “safer” way. Not some major program, but perhaps just another “menu” item on the ski school side of things. Maybe it could mirror Sugarbush’s adventure program.
Eric Friedman: Interesting idea, I’ll be sure to pass it along to Terry Barbour our Ski School Director. I assume you mean something along the lines of a season-long program. Not to sound crass or anything but, heck, we always like potential “revenue generators”. We do offer our Create Your Own Groups so that folks can develop a lesson or series of lessons that will focus on a particular topic, like skiing trees, powder (not so much this year), moguls, etc… So in a sense we already have it, but perhaps there is something more formal we could offer. Stay tuned!
Greg: What’s the status on the refurbished Single Chair? Why was the project delayed?
Eric Friedman: Great question, it is certainly the biggest topic of conversation these days. Here’s a little background and a look at where we stand The Single Chair has long been Mad River Glen’s icon and the embodiment of the mountain’s rugged, practical, and unique personality. Completed in 1948, “Old Faithful” has brought skiers to the top of General Stark Mountain for 57 years. It’s one of two single chairs left in North America with the other residing at Mt. Evak in Cordova, Alaska (the original chair from Sun Valley, built in 1936). The Single carries 420 skiers to the top of the hill per hour, and has a surprisingly fast (twelve minute)-ride time.
Most ski areas these days opt for high lift capacity to keep lift lines as short as possible. Of course the more people you get on the lift the more you have to put on the hill. Characteristically, Mad River takes a slightly different tack, preferring radically lower skier density over the occasional lift line. This ethos certainly doesn’t work for everyone, but if you prefer to have the trails and woods to yourself, and prefer a more natural, down-to-earth experience, then Mad River Glen is the place for you.
Like any machine her age, the Single has gotten a little tired! In the Spring of 2005 skier-owners of Mad River Glen voted (81% voting in favor) to accept the Co-op’s Board recommendation of a $1.54 million historic restoration for the Single Chair. The historic restoration is slated for completion in advance of the 2007-08 ski season. The project was originally planned for this Summer, but because of the unique potential for a successful capital campaign it was decided to wait another year. See the answer to question #10 for details on the capital campaign.
The engineering is currently in the final stages. The Co-op will make its first payment to Dopplemyr-CTEC in about a month. Every moving part will be replaced except for the wire rope and the towers (which will be removed, sandblasted, repainted and installed on new concrete bases). New chairs will be built to the original specifications. A new regenerative electric drive will be installed with a diesel backup.
smootharc: I realize that parking is a problem. But sometimes the parking lot controllers stuff cars together so tight rear hatches cannot be safely opened, equipment is guaranteed to hit other cars, and some vehicles cannot even back out and leave. Any way to get a bit more breathing room?
Eric Friedman: No!
Only kidding!!!! I wish we had more of that problem, especially in years like this past one. Parking is MRG’s most limiting factor as we can only fit so many cars into the lot, and yes we do cram them in. It is vital that we maximize our revenues when the snow is good, cuz when it ain’t nobody is showing up. Edie Corse, our “Queen of the Parking Lot” (Next season marks 20 years for her at MRG and it looks as though she’ll be the focus of a piece in an upcoming Skiing Magazine) certainly knows how to pack them in! I’ll pass this suggestion to Edie’s boss, the mountain manager, and we’ll see if he has any ideas. One potential suggestion is to get to the mountain earlier so you don’t end up getting stuck in the middle or try parking in the small lot up on top of the Practice Slope. Only problem with that is if you have too many après ski cocktails you might miss the lift ride back up!
Something we have noted over the last few years is that we fit fewer cars in the lot now than we used to due to the increase in the size of the vehicles. Those SUV’s sure take up a lot more room. As an aside, we have noticed a similar increase in the size of ski boot bags that folks bring into the lodge. What used to be day packs are now more like hockey gear bags. This has defiantly exacerbated the crowding problems in the Basebox lodge.
kcyanks1: To follow-up on Greg’s question, I think the ski conditions form on the MRG website was a fantastic idea, and a great addition to an honest report. Unfortunately, it seems to be underutilized. Do you think that having a more open forum on MRG’s site (like what SkiMRV) would be beneficial? Are you not doing that because of the existence of sites such as SkiMRV, or do you believe that even without SkiMRV, giving people free reign on MRG-sponsored site wouldn’t be a good idea? Would you read a MRG-site forum more than you read third-party forums?
Eric Friedman: Glad you mentioned the Interactive Snow Report (ISR). As far as I know we are the only area that allows skiers to post there owns snow reports and critique the mountains. I too have been surprised by how little it is used, especially since it is certainly not hidden. There is a huge link directing folks to the forum from the top of the snow report page. My feeling is that it isn’t used too much because our snow reports are accurate and honest so there is really nothing for skiers to say.
When I came up with the idea for the ISR I definitely wanted to limit how it would be used. Hence the Sticky outlining its purpose:
Mad River Glen has long laid claim to “The Most Honest Snow Report in the Business,” and now we’re offering the ultimate way to back it up. MRG has created an “Interactive Snow Report” (affectionately known as the ISR) which allows skiers to respond to our snow reports each day. Each day when we have the final trail count and conditions from patrol, we’ll post the snow report in the Interactive Snow Report forum. Once that’s up, everybody can head to the forums and reply to the report with their reactions and opinions.
Not only that, but it’s easy! There are no hoops to jump through, you don’t have to login or register; you don’t even have to tell us your name. Just head to the forum, click on the day that you skied, read the report, click on “Post Reply” and you’re all set!
Our major goal for the Interactive Snow Report is to give skiers a forum wherein they can comment on the accuracy of our snow reports. Along those lines we would not like the forum to become an open discussion of Mad River Glen.
We already have SkiMRV and AZ along with the SkiVT Listserv, oth of which are prominently linked from madriverglen.com. Also bear in mind that the Co-op also has a very active listserv of its own where shareholders can discuss any issue on the mountain. Frankly I think we offer plenty of opportunities for discussion about Mad River Glen. Plus we work very hard to be approachable and encourage skiers to contact us with any questions, comments or concerns that they may have directly.
smootharc: There’s a few nice price savings on passes for the shareholder, but no reductions on things like kids lessons/programs. That might be the tipping point for us, with three kids. From a dollars and cents standpoint I’m sure the shareholders have discussed this. What are the pros/cons of offering just a bit more in terms of price breaks for shareholders vs. selling (perhaps) more shares if you do? It could certainly be promoted as a shareholder amenity.
Eric Friedman: I am so glad that you asked this question. Whenever anyone asks me about purchasing a Co-op share one of the first things I say is that they should buy it because you want to protect and preserve the unique experience, not because of the discounts.
That being said we offer shareholders 15% discount on tickets and passes, a discount very much in line with other types of cooperatives. In fact Vermont Co-op law mandates that discounts be limited. The downside of offering too much in the way of discounts to our shareholders is that our shareholders are our best customers. If we discount too much to them we begin to slit our own throats. The ski industry is extremely competitive and as I mentioned earlier we have to make it on tickets and passes, we don’t have real estate and other revenue streams to back us up. Once again this is an oddity in the modern ski world and it is becoming increasingly difficult for areas like ours to remain viable.
Continued share sales to skiers dedicated to maintaining the experience is key to our long-term success. Our kids programs are basically full and we cannot take on too many more. They are full because we offer outstanding instruction, a terrific experience and a good value. This past season our kids programs cost $550 for full weekend programs, (we also offer 1 day/week programs) that’s 28 days which comes out to les than $20 a day. Not too bad a deal. Unfortunately skiing is a relatively expensive sport, but MRG works very hard to offer the best value that we can. Like I said earlier, most of our shareholders are most concerned about preserving and protecting, they understand that if we discount too much we risk our long-term viability.
Here is my shameless plug! If you truly appreciate the experience that Mad River Glen offer I strongly encourage you to consider purchasing a share. Didn’t you always want to own your own ski area? Click here to learn more about buying a share in the Mad River Glen Cooperative.
skibum1321: My question is regarding the trail work days led by Jay Appleton. Since these days have begun, how has the work of these groups affected the areas that are marked as regeneration zones? Have you begun to see Paradise, Glade, and all others begin to return to their former glory? Do you find that people generally respect the regeneration zones? In regards to the clearing of glades that they do, how are the glades holding up that they have cut and maintained? Do you see any changes to MRG’s forestry policies or to the scope of the work that these crews will be doing?
Eric Friedman: Another great question, I am going to defer to Jay Appleton on this one. Jay is a forester by trade and also serves as the President of the Co-op’s Board of Trustees. He has been heading up this tremendous volunteer effort for the past 10 years. He even maintains a website dedicated to the effort. Check it out at www.treeskier.com.Here’s how Jay answers your question;
There are two parallel efforts regarding forest regeneration: On-trail, and off-trail. On-trail regeneration involves cordoning off small areas with blue bamboo (aka boo) and line. This keeps skiers off these areas so young trees may grow, and also insures the annual mowing crew will not cut the “regeneration” down. “Regen zones” are placed where promising young trees are already present, and are laid out with the rhythm or flow of skiing in mind. Annually “volunteer” work crews reset or replace the boo and line on every regen zone. The effort was accepted by the skiing public with surprising ease. There has been some occasional grousing, but as the trees have grown and the placement of some regen zones were adjusted for better skiing flow, the curmudgeons have accepted this practice too. After eight years, some of the oldest regen zones have trees that are ten feet tall, and the boo and line has been removed from a few zones to see if the skiers continue to respect them (they do). Given public awareness of climate change, people readily make the connection that new trees need to be nurtured to replace the older ones, or the MRG experience will become one of open trail skiing rather than tree skiing. Also, trees hold the soil in place, thus keeping the problem of land slides in check. (Land slides in steep terrain are a common problem at all eastern ski areas, including MRG, and the resulting slide paths are full of rocks.) The trees on the lower half of the mountain (e.g. Lower Glade, Gazelle) grow at twice the rate of those on the upper mountain (e.g. Creamery), so the “return to their former glory” is a slow process, but from a biological standpoint, it is happening! For Mad River it is “preserve and protect” in tangible form as the saplings we ski by now will be the stately trees that future skiers will appreciate. Credit for this success must also be given to the MRG Ski Patrol. While the volunteers set up and maintain the regen zones each summer, it is the Patrol that tends them during the ski season, insuring the boo is standing and the rope in between are visible.
Off-trail regeneration is part of woods line maintenance. To date we have stayed away from hanging rope in the woods to identify regen areas. It does not seem to make sense, and ups the ante on the Patrol to monitor them from a safety standpoint. So woods line maintenance comes down to selection of healthy young trees, and then defining the line with islands of brush to shield the selected trees from the skis of our skiers. A really clean, manicured line is unhealthy from a silvicultural (branch of forestry having to do with forest regeneration) standpoint. The trick is to maintain ski terrain in the woods without compromising the ability of the forest to regenerate itself. To date, success on this has been mixed, and we continue to learn. Some lines continue to widen, but others are stable, young trees are growing without skier damage, and they ski darn well. We have found that bigger is better for woods line islands. Small islands or individual saplings get trampled and beat up over time, especially with low snow years like the last one. It is the outer trees and brush that protect the inner ones.
Mad River occasionally hires a professional forester to assess the health of our forest (he skis too). He reports that Mad River’s mid-mountain forest is thin silviculturally from the Single Chair north across the area served by the Double. The forest is doing fine from the Single south. Weather events have been toppling the evergreen forest of the upper mountain, obstructing woods lines descending from the ridgeline. This appears disconcerting, but in reality this is the normal regenerative cycle of spruce-fir forests. These trees grow up all together, and fall down all together – known as an even-aged forest, with maturity at about 50 years. Our forester has no concerns about Mad River’s ridgeline forest because new trees are growing rapidly in large numbers where the forest canopy has been opened up.
Some ski areas have dabbled with on-trail regeneration (Upper FIS at Smuggs, the Big Burn at Snowmass, and tree planting at Sunday River), but woods lines and so-called adventure areas at many ski areas are devoid of regeneration, and there appears to be no attempt to allow new growth. This is a worrisome trend because the woods lines will become open trails unless careful management is implemented for new trees to grow. Examples of woods lines that are now official trails are Paradise at Mad River, and Robins Run at Smuggs. At Mad River we are trying to address regeneration and have seen some success, but it is clearly work in progress. In general the scope of work has increased and there is now coordination with the trail mowing crew. The annual mowing crew no longer mows wall-to-wall. They leave stuff along trail edges to halt the widening syndrome, and avoid promising new growth. Tree planting has also been done, with moderate success. The number of trail regen zones is stabilizing, and we are experimenting with unmowed on-trail regen zones without any boo and line to see if this less-obtrusive practice works. In general the emphasis or focus in woods skiing maintenance has shifted from cutting lines for skiing in the short term, to defining ski lines that promote regeneration in the long term. Skiing is the obvious motivation, but we must steward for forest for the long haul or a scraggly mess will be left for future skiers. This would be judged as very short-sighted as it takes 30 – 50 years for a tree to grow to maturity.
PowderDeprived: Eric: since Mad River is an independent ski area and is of its self the most unique ski area in the business, have you considered an open appeal for cash donations to help preserve the resort? I think that would be reasonable. With projects like the Single Chair, land purchases such as the land on which the 19th and 20th hole are located, I really think many skiers would be willing to make donations to ease the financial burden on the resort. I really view Mad River as more of an organization than a typical ski corporation or a business and I think many in the ski community would be willing to donate cash to MRG for large capital projects and environmental (glade) restoration projects without eating from the operating budget, or raising ticket prices. Can you comment?
Eric Friedman: Funny you ask! We are currently in the midst of developing a campaign just as you suggest. Here is a little background from our recent Echo Newsletter about our upcoming capital campaign for the historic restoration of the Single Chair;
During the past ski season, a committee of shareholders and staff have been hard at work planning a charitable giving campaign. Last fall the Co-op hired a fundraising consultant to assess the potential of such a campaign. She reported that there is strong potential, but cautioned that tax deductibility was requisite for great success. Legal counsel determined that the Co-op does not qualify as a 501(c)3 charitable organization. Thus the Co-op needed a partner organization to accept donations restricted to the Single Chair.
The Co-op has been working with two charitable organizations: The Stark Mountain Foundation (www.starkmountain.org), and the Preservation Trust of Vermont (www.ptvermont.org). The campaign planning committee found that to secure the charitable component, the Co-op would have to grant a covenant on the rebuilt Single that would insure the lift would remain for the next fifty years. This is common practice in the historic preservation field. A fifty-year covenant allows individual donations for the Single to be tax-deductible, and it opens the door for contirbutions from other charitable organizations nationwide, which includes The Stark Mountain Foundation.
You may recall that the question on the 2005 ballot asking the shareholders to authorize reconstruction of the Single was represented as a “fifty-year fix.” Knowing that 81% voted in favor, the Board of Trustees authorized the campaign committee to investigate such a covenant.
For reasons of scale and administration, the covenant, if enacted, will be held by the Preservation Trust of Vermont. It will guarantee the Single will stay in place at Mad River, while at the same time giving the Co-op the freedom it requires to run the lift in a safe and economical manner. The covenant will also allow modifications to the Single in order to comply with future State of Vermont tramway regulations, or insurance requirements. This means the new Single Chair will be a working ski lift, not a museum piece.
The Board of Trustees will formally consider and vote on whether to grant this covenant at a Special Meeting on June 17. The capital campaign for the Single Chair will be rolled out in earnest this Fall.
The Co-op also has a tremendous relationship with the Stark Mountain Foundation (SMF) which is dedicated to helping the Co-op achieve its mission of protection and preservation. SMF has been a valuable partner to the Co-op for the past few years. They granted us the funding for our on-mountain nature center, supporting our forestry management plan as well as our Naturalist Programs.
In regard to the recent discussion on SkiMRV about a joint MRG-Sugarbush pass.
I just wanted to mention that the joint pass idea is highly unlikely for many reasons. The scale of the two areas alone makes it a difficult proposition at best. That’s before we even talk about other key issues like MRG’s snowboard ban, revenue sharing issues and getting the Co-op shareholders to agree to it. Bottom line, don’t hold your breath!
That being said MRG and Sugarbush are committed to working in tandem to promote the Mad River Valley as New England’s premier destination for skiers. No other area can provide the kind of terrain that MRG and Sugarbush offer collectively. All in a gorgeous, unspoiled setting. The ski areas have worked together for many years now promoting the Ski the Valley ticket product. It is marketed to encourage skiers to make extended stays and midweek visits to the Mad River Valley. The program has been successful and I foresee that this relationship will continue for years to come.
MRG and Sugarbush also work together in many other ways. We promote ourselves jointly at consumer ski shows, we offer reciprocal skiing privileges for our staffs, and we jointly sponsor local events like the Warren 4th of July. This past season the areas worked together to host the Life-Link Randonnee Rally Backcountry Race which, despite some pretty crappy weather, was a huge success.
The bottom line is that the ski areas do work closely together, and while I know it’s Vermont and all, this whole “in bed together with similar dreams” thing is a little disturbing. Yikes!!! I have a vision (or did it really happen?)
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