AlpineZone Challenge 2006 – Win Smith 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. Win Smith, President and Co-Owner of Sugarbush Resort in Warren, Vermont, took the AlpineZone Ski Area Challenge and provided the following responses on 5/4/2006:
abarbiero: Win, I just wanted to say “great job”. I have skied Mad River for many years(also a shareholder) and bought Mt Ellen passes this year for my wife and I. We had the good fortune of being at the Cliffs over thanksgiving weekend when YOU dropped the rope—I saw that you were on top of things. My question is about season long kids programs at Mt Ellen. Do you have them like they do at Mad River? If not it might be a great program to consider. Are there any other new programs at Ellen for this season?
Win Smith: It is nice to hear from a Mad River shareholder who is also a pass holder at Sugarbush. My own “dark secret” is that my first season pass the winter of 1970 was at Mad River, and my first run ever was down MRG’s Paradise, mostly on my butt. With respect to seasonal kids programs, John Egan is planning to have some next year at Mount Ellen. We do not have the facilities for Micro and Mini-Bear ages, but we will be offering some for older children. Details are being worked out now and will be available shortly on Sugarbush.com. We hired Dan Torsell to be the General Manager of Mount Ellen, and we are delighted that he will be continuing in his role. I know that he does have some thoughts, and we will be debriefing now that the season has ended. So, we will keep all posted on anything else. The ME pass has been a great success for us, and arguably is one of the best values in Vermont – especially for families when Kids ski free – so we are keen to keep improving our offerings there.
skibum1321: There has been some talk on SkiMRV about the elimination of the 6-day pass from the offerings this year. What is the reasoning behind the elimination of this pass (i.e. just not popular enough)? It seems like this will affect the condo owners the most, as I would believe that they were the ones that would tend to buy this pass. I also commend you on the College+1 pass – too bad I’m a year late. Do you see any other young adult pass-pricing anytime in the near future? Also, have you considered offering pass reciprocation with other mountains?
Win Smith: Of the several thousand pass holders, we had only 30 or so who bought an Adult-06 last year. This year we simplified our product offering and didn’t think there was enough demand for the Adult-06. Furthermore, in researching we found that many actually would have been better off buying the Adult-05 and using a Sugarcard for the relatively few Sundays they skied. Thanks for the comment about the College +1. We have many College students who hold season passes and recognize that most graduating students do not have huge disposable income the year after college, so this is an attempt to keep them skiing or riding at Sugarbush. The young adult segment is an important one to think about, and we are, but I am not going to tip my hand to the competition on this public forum. With respect to reciprocal programs, you probably know that we do have a “Ski the Valley” pass that allows lodging guests at participating Valley lodgings to ski either Sugarbush or Mad River. It is a good program that we are both pleased with. Sugarbush and Stowe once had a reciprocal program but my understanding is that Stowe opted out before we bought the Resort. The mechanics and revenue sharing of these are difficult. Like a failed joint venture one often tries to share the same bed but ends up having different dreams. We do have some non-exclusive programs with some smaller resorts South of Vermont and would be open to more and even some exclusive programs if there was the interest, and it made sense for both areas.
Tin Woodsman: I understand that you referenced the issue of glade maintenance in your discussion with SkiMRV.com members. It would seem to this observer that a policy similar to neighboring MRG would be wise. Under the direction of trained foresters, MRG has organized volunteer glade maintenance days to help ensure that generations to come can enjoy the bounty of tree skiing without fear of over-cutting as has occurred there on runs like Paradise and Lower Glade. Similarly at SB, there are areas like Paradise woods, Lower Moonshine, and skier’s left of Upper Jester than cry out for an organized, concerted effort of regeneration. In light of this, can you reiterate the mountain’s position with respect to official and unofficial glade maintenance? Are there any plans in the future to move towards this more holistic glade management policy for both classic glades and traditionally treed runs like Glade, Lower Moonshine, Lower Domino, Birch Run, Sleeper and Sunrise?
Win Smith: Mad River does many things well, and their trail maintenance effort is one great example. Sugarbush, however, is different from our neighborhood friends in some important ways. Most of our Lincoln Peak property is leased from the US Forest Service and falls under the management of our Special-Use Permit and the new Forest Management plan. This plan dictates that existing and new Woods/Glades areas are managed by an approved vegetation management plan according to USFS requirements. We are in the process of developing a plan with assistance from the USFS staff and plan to have it in place by this fall. For our private land – most of Slidebrook and Mount Ellen (below Upper FIS) our forest management plan is more consistent with the MRG model and basically embraces Forestry practice for the creation and maintenance of gladed areas below 2500′ versus the model that had been used in the past. For elevations above 2,500′ the process is more delicate. It is important to note that even on our private land we operate under significant environmental oversight from the State of Vermont, including but not limited to Act 250 and the Agency of Natural Resources. When we cut the additional wooded areas last year at Mount Ellen a lot more effort went into habitat assessment and permitting than the actual saw work. We do not, and I emphasize this, do not permit or condone any unauthorized cutting on either Forest Service or Private Land. Anyone who does this can be prosecuted, and more importantly they would damage everyone’s long-term goal of having more tree skiing. Our long-term goal is to possibly create a few more trails on both Mountains, but we would like to have significantly more tree skiing and riding within the 4,000 acres that encompass Sugarbush. We have a very good relationship with the USFS and the other environmental groups, so we plan to work closely with them so that their as well as our goals are met. We recognize the special environment and habitat that exists here, so our plan is to expand the terrain in a responsible fashion. As we are able to do this, we would certainly look to volunteers as does Mad River to assist our team with both cutting and revegetation.
PowderDeprived: I was curious about snowmaking at Sugarbush. Have you considered adding snowmaking to the bottom of Castlerock and possibly on Castlerock Runout? With “snow farming” techniques a few guns can go a long way, and with the difference of elevation and temperature being able to cover the lower areas could lead to the Castlerock area being much more consistent. Any other plans to increase snowmaking capacity? Are there plans for alternative snowmaking technologies, such as airless snow cannons like the one at the base of Mt Ellen or even cannons mounted on snowcats?
Win Smith: We probably will not add permanent snowmaking into Castlerock. This would require quite a bit of permitting work with the USFS and quite a bit of additional expense for limited use. However, we can pull snowmaking guns with hose extensions into this area and had actually planned to do that this year. But, we were always catching up on other priority trails because of the nature of the weather this winter, so that is why we pulled snow on sleds into the basin of Castle Rock to keep if open longer. While it did take some strong physical exercise on the part of several of our teammates, it actually worked pretty well. This year we invested in 230 new energy efficient nozzles and many or our guests experienced the superb quality of the snow that was created on Stein’s and Ripcord. I skied both on those days and could not have been more pleased. Not only did they make excellent snow but they did so using far less energy. They use about a third of the compressed air as the old ones. Having these new nozzles allowed us not to rent the auxiliary diesel compressors that had been leased in prior years and we saved burning 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel that would have otherwise been used this past winter. Diesel is also a pollutant, so we were pleased not to be burning it. (Speaking of diesel, we now use bio-diesel in all of out grooming machines) It is interesting to note that at Lincoln Peak for example we made 20% more snow than last winter at about the same cost despite significantly higher kw energy costs to us. Our three electric compressors at Lincoln Peak and our two at Mount Ellen were all that was needed to maximize the amount of water that could be pumped at any one time. We currently make snow on approximately 70% of our terrain and have no plans to significantly expand to other areas. Snow making on black diamond trails like Castle Rock, Twist, The Mall, Black Diamond, etc would not work well in our opinion and as you know there is nothing sweeter than skiing or riding these trails on the real stuff. We do cover almost all of our beginner and intermediate trails with snowmaking as well as wider black diamond trails like Stein’s, FIS, Ripcord, etc. I could see us making installing snowmaking over at ME on trails like Graduation and a few others. With respect to the “airless” guns we believe that they use more energy, cost more to purchase and produce a lower quality snow, so we do not plan to purchase more.
smootharc: A “Ski The Valley” Pass would, in my opinion, be the finest terrain & snow option available in New England. I realize all kinds of hurdles exist in doing something like this, but, hypothetically and in a perfect world, what would it take for Sugarbush and Mad River Glen to join forces (just for, say, a 7-day, “all everywhere/no blackout” pass) and offer a terrain bonanza from Lincoln Peak to Stark ? This would bring skiers who would never otherwise get a pass at either resort in “the Valley” from some “Out of Valley” competitors and thus, a win-win for both SB and MRG.
Win Smith: Interesting thought! I think I will speak with Jamie and Eric about this! Who knows maybe we can share the same bed with similar dreams? Let’s see if Jaime and Eric are reading this.
Greg: Win, thanks for participating. There certainly has been a buzz in the online skiing community regarding your participation on the SkiMRV.com forums. The open invitation to meet with SkiMRV members face-to-face last month to discuss your vision for Sugarbush, as well as to dispel myths and rumors took a lot of guts and should be commended. What did you personally get out of the meeting? Would you consider eventually doing it again? In general, what are your thoughts on online skiing communities like AlpineZone and SkiMRV? Do you feel they are a good resource for feedback and have you ever seriously considered a suggestion that was posted online? 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.
Win Smith: Communication is tough and perceptions are reality, so every business has to spend a great deal of time trying to communicate effectively and that means listening as well as speaking. I do think that forums like this are useful, but they represent only one segment of our guests. You asked if I even seriously considered a suggestion from a Forum, and the answer is yes. I believe that staying open during the School vacation week was one of Treeskier’s suggestions. We have to try to reach and to understand the needs of all of our customer segments. Personally, I have always found face-to-face sessions the most useful because you can look people in the eye, and they can do the same with you, and you can read body language as well as the verbal language to really get a sense for one’s feelings. We do encourage and do receive quite a few emails now, and I, Adam or Bob read all of them and try to respond in a day or two. Our fellow teammates are also a great source of feedback. Our Ambassadors, Ski& Ride professionals and others spend a lot of time with guests and are not shy about letting us know what they hear and think. I enjoyed this winter’s session at The Mushroom and will look forward to doing more of them next year. The most important thing I learned is the passion and interest that the participants have for Sugarbush. Everyone wants Sugarbush to succeed. While we may at times disagree about what that means, we share a common goal and that is great. I do believe that all questions deserve an honest answer and a good explanation, even if it is not the popular answer.
smootharc: The terrain pod above Inverness Quad at North was a possible expansion proposed in the past. Is this still a possibility? If not, why? Any other terrain expansions on the horizon?
Win Smith: Yes. This is actually one of John Egan’s personal priorities. As I mentioned in answering Question 4, we have identified a number of additional areas at both mountains and are in the process of completing studies with the USFS and others. It is really premature to say anything publicly until we have done more work and had further conversations with the various interested parties.
Sky521: I admit I’ve never been to Sugarbush but I remember reading the Ski Mag (or Skiing) in 2001 when you bought Sugarbush from ASC. I was excited for Sugarbush fans and about the new ownership. Over the years, snowmaking and lodge plans have come and gone and come again as topics. I guess my question is what have you come to learn over the past five years? How does this compare with what you knew before you were the owners? How have you “adjusted” your plans going forward?
Win Smith: In 2001, four of us became concerned about the future of Sugarbush under ASC. We loved the Valley, owned and lived here and made an unsolicited offer to buy the Resort. After six months of negotiation, we bought it just in time to operate the winter of 2001/2002. One of my partners, Joe Riemer, a long time friend and colleague developed Pancreatic Cancer and died before we opened that first winter. Riemergasse is named in his honor. He was an intermediate skier and that trail at Mount Ellen was his favorite. I miss his wisdom and friendship. Another partner, Tom McHugh, had helped to negotiate the deal and when that was completed and we had operated for one year, he moved on to other entrepreneurial pursuits. Tom and his family reside in The Valley and continue to be friends and great supporters of Sugarbush. Bob Ackland was the fourth original partner, and we would not have purchased Sugarbush had he not agreed to be one of the partners. Bob had been Sugarbush’s Financial Officer under ASC and was the General Manager of Mad River Glen. His knowledge of the ski business as well as of Sugarbush gave us great comfort to proceed with the purchase. Bob was originally the day-to-day President of the Resort, but when we began our long-term real estate master plan, we agreed that he should turn his focus entirely to that. For the past two years he has been 100% focused on the development of Lincoln Peak Village and has done as excellent job. I then stepped in as the day-to-day President of the Operating Resort as well as remaining the Chairman and CEO of Summit Ventures, the LLC that owns Sugarbush. Our third partner, Adam Greshin, invested in Summit after Joe’s death, and he is our EVP of Guest and Community Relations. These are titles, but in reality we are really a small partnership that will chip and in and do whatever is necessary to served our guests and help make Sugarbush successful You will either see Bob, Adam or I on the Mountain on most busy days.
I guess there were not any big surprises. But the real surprise was how many little surprises we found, how much deferred maintenance was left behind, how much Sugarbush’s name recognition had deteriorated in the market and how much the available rental bed base had shrunk in The Mad River Valleyin the past decade.. We have injected more capital than we planned and rebuilding our market share has taken a couple of years longer than anticipated. But, we are now on track and pleased with the momentum. And, we realized that we had to both develop our own slope side residences to attract the destination visitor as well as to rebuild the base area lodges a bit sooner than planned. As you know, by next December we will have 61 new Claybrook condominium residences, and we will have built a new 23,000 square foot base lodge on the footprint of the Old Gate House Lodge. There will be more parking and the entire look and feel of the parking areas will be significantly improved. I guess the other surprise is how much I have come to despise the Weather Channel. Predicting weather days out is unreliable and the spin that they put on the winter weather is truly detrimental to our sport. But they are a given reality, so we have to work better with them and learn how to counter their spin in a credible way. Forums like this are a big help, because they “tell it like it is.” This winter many of the Vermont Mountains had excellent skiing well into April, but watching the weather channel one would have thought that winter ended in January only the West had snow. Anyone who skied or rode on the final weekend knew how much snow was still left on the upper mountain. The positive surprises were the loyalty of the Sugarbush Passholders and the quality of the many veteran teammates who remained on the Sugarbush team as well as the support we have received from the Mad River Valley community.
PowderDeprived: I have some questions about lifts. I saw the plan to replace the Valley House Chair with a New High Speed Quad, and the Village chair with a new triple. Does Sugarbush have a long term plan to replace or upgrade any of the many other aging lifts? In addition, is there a possibility that a magic carpet lift might be added at North to service novice terrain, and to replace the ancient Handle Tow? It might also be nice to either grade or have a surface lift from the top of Heavens Gate, up the hill to the top of Jester and Organgrinder. Finally, are there any long term plans for keeping the Slide Brook Express or a lift on that route when it becomes too old? It seems that you want to run it as little as possible. A lot of people are of the opinion that this chair will eventually be removed, and never rebuilt, or that it will be removed, combined with new parts to make a few new chairs to replace older ones. Has ridership been up?
Win Smith: One early artist rendering had a new high-speed quad. However, this slipped by me. We will put in a new lift in a couple of years that will start down closer to the base area. However, it will either be a fixed grip triple or quad. One of the real beauties of Sugarbush is that we do not over populate the trails on even the busiest weekends. If we had all high speed quads or six packs, we would get people up the Hill a few minutes faster, but we would create a far less pleasant experience on the Mountain. Lifts, if maintained properly, can be maintained for decades. We currently have 5 high speed quads (including Slidebrook), and we do not plan more. The surface lift at Mount Ellen is a possibility and a good idea. There will not be a surface lift at Heaven’s Gate. We would have to widen the trail to accomplish that, and I doubt that the USFS would approve it at that elevation. Grading is also problematical there, so I am afraid that we will have to continue crow walking a few steps up to Organgrinder and Jester. It does warm one up on a cold January! Slidebrook is only 11 years old and should run for years. We run it on Holidays and weekends unless the temperatures are not seemed safe or the wind does not allow it to run safely. We have fortunately never had an evacuation, but a full set of chairs could take quite a while to evacuate, and that is why we watch the temperatures carefully. We also have to have enough snow on the roads into Slidebrook to run snowmobiles and other lift evacuation equipment. This is a State requirement as well as our own policy. This year, we had very thin cover and that is why, in the spring, we were not able to run it more. The rider ship on most week days is very limited, and that is why we do not run it. As you know, we have shuttle buses that run between the two areas every one-half hour and take about 10 minutes. As our weekday skier visits increase, we would intend to run it more.
smootharc: Will the Sugarbush Health and Racquet Club get any kind of facelift/makeover once the other capital improvements are made at the base?
As an out of state second home person, I’d be more interested in joining if there was a MUCH more aggressive family membership program. It seems the place could use some more bodies
Win Smith: Yes, that is part of our master plan. It is a good facility but tired. We have just had an assessment of the entire building done, and we are deciding what and when to start making some of the needed improvements. Certain times of the year we do need more bodies and for some of the Holidays it is bulging at the seams. I would be interesting in hearing more from the questioner about what the additional family programs are that he/she would find appealing.
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