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. Kevin Broderick, IT Manager of Bolton Valley Resort in Bolton Valley, Vermont, took the AlpineZone Ski Area Challenge and provided the following responses on 10/11/2006:
Tin_Woodsman: To what extent has new ownership been able to bring together the various pieces of the base area after it had been dispersed in the wake of the Deslauriers and Dwinell ownership groups?
Kevin Broderick: At this point, we have ownership of or lease interest in all of the key properties, and I can’t provide any more detail than that.
thetrailboss: Kevin, thanks for getting this to happen. I’m wondering if we can get some perspective on the Bolton/Jay College Pass Program. Burke used to have a similar program and I know it was popular. Have you considered extending this pass to include other resorts?
Kevin Broderick: We think that the Double Major Pass is a great value, and we’ve had a lot of positive feedback on that program. The combined terrain and timing options—particularly for Burlington-based students—provide enough flexibility to make the occasional class while still enjoying the 300-plus inches that each resort gets every year. At this point, it’s still a bit early in the program for us to provide a whole lot of perspective; we haven’t even reached the early-price cutoff for that product yet (it’s still only $229 for full-time students). I think you might need to ask this question again next year to get a better answer, because we just don’t know at this point.
loafer89: My son and I had the chance to ski your resort for the first time this past March and we experienced night skiing in Vermont for the first time as well. Having 10″ of powder fall while we where there was an unexpected bonus. How has skier traffic patterns/crowds changed with the installation of the Vista Quad? And why did you choose a fixed grip quad instead of a high speed quad?
Kevin Broderick: I’m glad you enjoyed your visit; we had some great conditions in March, and I know I enjoyed them. When we announced the plan for the Vista Quad, some people—particularly experts—were lukewarm about the idea of coming down to the base for each run. Over the past year, though, I think we’ve found that the downside (not being able to make laps on Spillway, Hard Luck, or other upper-mountain terrain) is more than offset by the convenience of being able to ride from directly behind the base lodge to the top of Vista Peak. Having a top-to-bottom lift on Vista has also made the terrain to skier’s left of the lift (Cobrass, Preacher, and various woods nearby) more accessible, and I think some of the traffic that might have done laps on the old Vista Double has shifted to that terrain. Quite frankly, though, we’re rarely crowded enough to do any in-depth study of traffic patterns.
With regard to the fixed-grip versus detachable debate, there were four primary factors that led us to choose a fixed-grip quad rather than a detachable: reliability, traffic levels, terrain availability, and money. Reliability is a big deal for ski lifts; nobody likes to have a lift break down, and we all know that Murphy will make sure it happens on a busy day if it’s going to happen at all. We have a staff of experienced and highly-trained lift mechanics who work a lot of hours so that we can minimize the chances of mechanical inconvenience. However, a detachable lift has a lot more moving parts than a fixed-grip lift, and we’d need to commit to a larger lift maintenance staff in order to provide the same level of reliability. Given the amount of traffic levels that we currently see and that we expect to see for the next few years, the increased maintenance commitment would not provide enough added value to our guests for it to make sense.
If we were to see higher traffic levels, we’d also need to consider terrain use; my highly unscientific observations suggest that the vast majority of the traffic coming off of the Vista Quad makes its way down Sherman’s Pass, either via Hard Luck Chute or by going around the corner on Sherman’s and then coming across the catwalk. This is exacerbated at night, as the choices from the top are Sherman’s and Spillway. Although the theoretical uphill capacity of a detachable is quite similar to a fixed-grip lift (which has been discussed here before, reality suggests that it’s easier to keep the line moving on a detachable; if we were to significantly increase the number of skiers getting off the top of the lift each hour on a crowded day, we’d also need to convince some of them not to head down Sherman’s.
Last but not least, there is the economic decision. Like most organizations, we have to prioritize our spending in a way that allows us to get the best return on investments such as a new lift. We think that the best way to do that is to maximize the impact of each dollar we spend on the guest experience. Given our general lack of lift lines, the dollars that we could have spent last year on installing a detachable and then spent each year on the increased operating costs were better spent elsewhere.
thetrailboss: I think that you have found a nice niche market (locals and those who can no longer afford to ski Sugarbush or Stowe). I see and hear a lot more about Bolton than ever before. Has bringing the resort “down home” made things work?
Kevin Broderick: One of the tasks that any organization faces is recognizing its strengths and its weaknesses. Over the past few years, we’ve developed an understanding of who our customers are and why the come here. Although that understanding isn’t perfect and we’ll always be trying to better understand why people choose whether or not to visit us, we do realize that we present a strong value proposition for day skiers as well as a great environment for families to enjoy the snow together. As we move forward, one of our goals is to improve upon our strengths first, so we can continue to provide the quality experience that our current guests expect as well as attract new guests; we don’t expect to radically shift our focus any time in the near future. So yes, we consider this to be a viable niche from which we can branch out further and seek to build new business.
loafer89: Could you describe the degree of difficulty and the challenge of the backcountry glades? While we did have a lot of snow on our visit, some of the gladed areas were still closed. We would like to revisit the mountain this winter. Does Bolton have any plans to more aggressively market its access to this prime backcountry skiing and touring terrain (i.e Bolton-Trapp and other trails)?
Kevin Broderick: Our backcountry skiing varies from low-angle, widely spaced glades up to and including barely-skiable lines that make experts think twice. Of course, it’s critical to know which is which before you head out; it’s a long way down to Waterbury if you choose to go in that direction. To put it another way, we have terrain where my mother (a solid but not aggressive skier) enjoyed herself, and we have terrain that I think the Meatheads should check out. With thousands of privately-owned acres abutting the Mount Mansfield State Forest, the options are pretty wide.
With that said, encouraging backcountry access is a double-edged sword. We’d love to have more skilled and knowledgeable backcountry enthusiasts taking advantage of all that we’ve got to offer, but not all of the skiers and riders who get excited by backcountry terrain are skilled and knowledgeable. Traveling beyond resort boundaries puts more responsibility on the individual skiers and riders in a group; if something goes wrong, their actions or lack of actions will be primarily responsible for the outcome. A lot of the skills needed are unrelated to skiing or riding, and many happen before you even hit the snow (route planning, packing the right gear, etc). Learning those skills and then putting them to good use is an incredibly rewarding experience; however, traveling into the backcountry without using those skills first is not a good idea.
We do offer guided backcountry tours through our Nordic center (email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information; advance reservations are required). For guests who would like to learn backcountry skills, our guided tours are a great way to start, and we could probably do a better job of letting guests know about them.
thetrailboss: In terms of promoting the resort, have you considered letting the world know of your abundant snowfall (ala Jay) or extending the season when others are cutting theirs? You get snow that almost rivals places like Jay (some seasons you are over 300″). Bolton is a great place and has stunning views and terrain options. Yet folks seem not to know that. Why do you think they are missing the turn?
Kevin Broderick: Actually, we average over 300″ a year, and we hit 324″ last year before we shut down the lifts and stopped counting (so that 324″ doesn’t count the 18-24″ that fell the following week, nor does it include the 3″ we got on May 22nd). A lot of folks probably would’ve been surprised to hear that some of us were still skiing selected tree shots on closing day, and the 360-degree views from the observation tower near the top of the Vista Quad are tough to beat.We are a smaller resort, and several of our neighbors are larger, better-known resorts. We also have a limited on-hill bed base compared to other resorts in the area, which impacts our marketing decisions as well as our potential guests’ decisions. However, we do have a lot to offer destination guests as well as local guests, and we are always trying to improve our ability to let potential guests know about the opportunities here. To that end, we are excited to work with Jeanne-Marie Gand, who recently joined us as Vice-President of Marketing, Sales, and Communications and who brings with her many years of experience in the ski industry.
Some of our more cynical employees would also suggest that the Vermont sign regulations which keep our roadsides free of clutter also keep the bottom of our access road a little too easy to miss. I’d just remind readers that if you’re coming from Waterbury, it’s the right immediately following Smilie Elementary School; from Richmond, it’s the left immediately following the I-89 overpass in Bolton.
thebigo: I was checking out some maps on skitown.com and I stumbled across the following statement: “Bolton Valley ski resort is the only full-service ski resort on private land in New England.” Is this true? If so what are the implications?
Kevin Broderick: First, it depends on how you define “full-service ski resort.” We may be the only New England ski resort with both nordic and alpine facilities located entirely on private land, but I can’t confirm that at this time.
The advantage to being on private land is that the regulatory process for making business decisions is reduced, as is the cost of going through that process. In Vermont, this advantage is mitigated by Act 250, which helps us preserve some of the characteristics that make Vermont so attractive at the cost of increased inconvenience for developers and business managers.
Overall, being on private land may give us a few more opportunities when compared to a resort that’s limited by a public lease, but I don’t think the difference is particularly dramatic (particularly under Act 250).
thetrailboss: One criticism of former owners of Bolton is interstate access. There have been efforts in the past to add an exit off of Interstate 89 specifically for Bolton Valley. Has this regime put any effort or money into this proposal? Have you considered asking the Vermont Ski Areas Association to lobby on your behalf? And are there other efforts to get people to the mountain (busses from Burlington, etc.)?
Kevin Broderick: Although Bolton Valley may be the largest commercial entity between exits 10 and 11 on I-89, we would not be the only beneficiary of a new exit there. The stretch between 10 and 11 is one of the longest between exits and has a significant number of drowsy-driver incidents each year; an additional exit splitting the stretch in two would likely provide some increased driver safety. It would also shorten the commute for the growing number of local residents (in Bolton and surrounding towns) who work in Montpelier or Burlington.
We do think that a Bolton exit would be of significant benefit, and I’m sure that VSAA and the state are both aware of our view on the matter. With that said, it is unrealistic to expect progress on an exit in the near future. The State of Vermont already has more road maintenance projects than it can afford, and there is a major new-construction project (the Circ) stalled in the court system already.
Even without a Bolton exit, we are still the resort closest to Burlington; we are also the largest night-skiing operation in the state. We are working on projects to encourage more people to take advantage of the opportunity that provides, although we are currently focused on pricing specials (look for the return of a pay-one-price rental-lift-lesson package for Friday or Saturday nights this season) and evaluating our current programs (such as our fun and popular Corporate Race League) rather than offering transportation to and from Burlington.
Crystalmountainskier: Are there any plans for any more new lifts in the near future? Any other plans for future expansion of terrain or facilities? How about expanding the night skiing terrain?
Kevin Broderick: We have done some additional work this summer and fall to clean up the new terrain from last year’s expansion, and we’ve been hard at work recently to make sure all of our facilities are ready for the snow to fly.
We do have an exciting group function facility that opened last month; The Ponds at Bolton Valley can seat 300 people in the 4,500 square foot Great Room, between a river stone fireplace and a pond view that overlooks some of the nearby wilderness. We’ve already hosted several weddings and corporate conferences.
We’ve also re-purposed some of our existing terrain for the coming season and will offer a Burton Progression Park to complement the existing Chill Zone. If you’re not familiar with a progression park, the goal is to create a learning environment with appropriately-sized features and allow skiers and riders to progress to full-size elements as their skills improve.
As far as night skiing goes, we are the most extensive night-skiing operation in Vermont; we light up 24 trails and 3 lifts, including both the Chill Zone and the Burton Progression Park. We don’t have plans to add more night skiing for this year, but if enough of you take advantage of the existing night skiing opportunities during the 06-07 season, we’ll certainly consider adding more lit terrain for 07-08.
thetrailboss: What has been the biggest lesson that Bob Fries and his management team have learned about Bolton? What are the benefits and problems that you face being an independent resort? And what do you think you bring that previous regimes have not brought to the resort to make it successful? Is there anything that you would like AlpineZoners to know about the ski industry that they don’t know?
Kevin Broderick: Bob’s response:
Biggest lesson learned:
Slow and steady wins the race. We have been making steady progress the last 4 winters but it is never as quick as you’d like. Bolton Valley did well last winter compared with the Vermont ski industry in general. We do still have a ways to go though to get Bolton Valley to be the place we’d like it to be.
Benefits and problems being an independent ski area:
It is easier to make decisions, but probably harder to get financing for projects you’d like to do. Operating issues, though, are the same regardless of size or ownership.
What do you bring that previous regimes didn’t:
Hopefully many years of experience in the ski resort business.