AlpineZone Challenge 2007 – 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 6/13/2007:

andyzee: Win, up until the 2003/2004 season Sugarbush offered the Escape Pass which gave skiers the opportunity to purchase a block of tickets to Sugarbush at a discount rate. I think this was a really good idea and gave people that normally wouldn’t buy a season pass to Sugarbush incentive to ski there more frequently than they normally might. Being that my wife and I ski 40+ a year, we do have a tendency of skiing where we find discounts. The Sugarcard does offer a discount, but not as much and doesn’t lock skiers into multiple days. Any thought to bringing back the Escape Pass or an equivalent? If not, any possibility of giving your fellow AZers a discount on passes? Maybe a discount for passholders of other mountains?

Win Smith: We did have some success with the Escape Pass, but found the Sugarcard to work better. That said we are going to look at this again. We used a similar concept at the Golf Club this summer, and it is quite successful. Our prices reflect the cost of delivering a superior product, and the value we offer our guests. If you and your wife both ski 40+ days a year, you should consider purchasing one of our pass products which provide frequent skiers and riders a highly competitive daily rate. One thing that all must realize is that it is very expensive to manage, maintain and improve a ski area. Deep discounting in my opinion may provide some short term market share improvement, but it will not lead to a better area or ski or ride experience over the longer term.

Tin Woodsman: Can you confirm that you will be building the guest Services Lodge this off-season? We haven’t heard much about it in a few months. Whether the answer be yes or no, can you share with us some of your plans for this facility? Will it include a cafeteria for its primary users? Will it have a retail component on the ground floor or residential up top?

Win Smith: Yes, we are not going forward with the new Guest Services Lodge this summer, so we will keep the Valley House Lodge and the Interim Village in place for one more season. We are using this summer to finish up all the punch list items at Clay Brook and the Gate House and also taking the time to program and design the new lodge well rather than rush into it. We have already done quite a bit of work, but still need to finalize a number of design details. As you probably know, we also have to be 100% certain that when we begin construction in May that it is ready for the season by the beginning of December. That does not allow for many if any change orders once started. We did it with the Gate House, so with the right planning, I am confident that we can also do it with the new Lodge. It will have at a minimum our Adventure Learning Center, Sugar, Mini and Micro Bear programs, Guest Services and Ticketing, Rental and Repair and some retail and a 1500 to 2000 square foot cafeteria to replace that in the Valley House. The design is focused primarily on achieving convenience for families with children. We want a easy drop off area, convenient “one stop shopping” and then convenient slope access for those in the Bear programs. The cafeteria will be accessible from the slope as well. We will be building some additional residential slope side units but they will be in separate buildings.

thetrailboss: Win, we got several questions regarding your lifts. There are many people interested in an update regarding plans for the Valley House Double, and some ask if you could open it more often next season. There also has been many questions regarding the fixed grip lifts and if you have plans for speeding them up, particularly Heaven’s Gate and Inverness. Comments? Thanks.

Win Smith: We have not yet decided on the replacement of the Valley House double other than it will likely be a few years in the future and it will not be a high speed quad. We also want it to off load a bit higher so it relieves the congestion at the intersection of Valley House Traverse and Snowball. There is an argument for leaving a lift base where the current Valley House bottom terminal is to keep flow out of the base area. The argument for bringing in lower is for easier from the base area. One can not speed up the fixed grips. They run at 500 feet per minute and any faster would make for unpleasant and unsafe loading and unloading. High speeds run around 1000 feet per minute, but they detach in the terminal and slow to a crawl and then attach again to the terminal for the ride in-between the loading and unloading terminals. While a fixed grip does take a few minutes longer, those extra moments actually help to keep our trails much more pleasant on busy days. The speed of a lift may also be adjusted down on a windy day in order to keep it moving safely. If we had all high speed quads, the trails would be more crowded and the ski and ride experience would not be as pleasant. I like having a couple of high speed quads to get people out of the base area but the balance of having fix grips elsewhere works well in my opinion.

Greg: Sugarbush was criticized for moving the spring venue from Mount Ellen to Lincoln Peak this season. While I understand the decision was made to take advantage of the expanding LP base area, there were many compelling arguments as to why Mount Ellen is a better spring venue from a skier’s perspective (higher elevation of F.I.S. vs. Stein’s, downloading option on the GMX, etc.). You obviously scored big this spring with an abundance of natural snow in April which kept South skiing well through the entire month. Will this “luck” impact whether this will be the approach next season? I think you’ve alluded to the possibility, but if LP had melted out sooner than anticipated, were you prepared to move operations back to Ellen this spring? Were you temped to reopen Ellen given all the snow this April?

Win Smith: We simply can not operated both areas early in the season and after March. Even with the tremendous spring snow, visits fall off dramatically after March. I have also looked at the history going back ten years, and we have always generated more skier visits when the Lincoln Peak side was open versus Mount Ellen. There is no question that ME is likely to hold natural snow longer because of it’s North face and slightly higher elevation. But with a sound snowmaking plan we can ensure a good Spring experience at LP as well.

We could have switched back to ME this Spring, if needed and can always keep that option available. We will mostly likely do the same next year and make Spring snow on Snowball, Spring Fling, Stein’s and Coffee run and hopefully last as long as this year.

mattlucas: Any chance for a day/season pass to use at the hotel pool and facilities? I would love to jump in the pool one day.

Win Smith: Unfortunately, no! The units are condominiums and therefore once sold not owned by Sugarbush. We just manage the property on behalf of the owners and rent their units for them. Clay Brook is a private property reserved for those who own at Clay Brook or those renting the rooms. There are some units available for purchase and that will get you the pool as well as underground parking, ski valet service and other amenities. Or you can stay overnight and have access to it.

You probably also know that we have an indoor pool at the Sugarbush Health and Racquet Club and that is open to all for a small daily fee.

Tin Woodsman: There were a lot of critical comments over at SkiMRV, and other Internet venues, regarding the crowding in both the Gate House cafeteria and especially the Castlerock Pub. While the former was partially alleviated by reopening the Valley house lodge, there was no solution for the latter until the weather warmed up in the last 4-6 weeks of the season. Can you address the solutions, if any, you and your team are considering to relieve the crowding problems? One would presume that, if the GSL is built, the cafeteria issues will go away. The bar issues seems a little more intractable to me. I can say from personal experience that while my friends and I, all in our early to mid 30s, used to always stick around for a few adult beverages in years past, we only did so twice this year, as the crowding was a huge turn-off. Have you given any thought to putting some sort of temporary enclosure over the south patio of the bar so that you could use it for the 70% of the season where it isn’t sunny and 30 degrees or more?

Win Smith: Yes, I do believe that next lodge will help a lot. This year we will once again open the Valley House cafeteria on weekends in the heart of the season and Holidays. In the latter part of the season after we made a management change in Timbers we saw a lot more activity there and I would expect that next year the lunch, après ski and dinner experiences would be vastly better under the leadership of Gerry Nooney. (His first night was June 12th). I had dinner that evening and was very pleased with both the quality of the cuisine and the service. We are looking at the possibility of expanding onto the patio as you suggested. It does look great right now, so I think the plaza is going to be a great summer venue. June 30th is the official kickoff to summer at Sugarbush with the Bravo lift running on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday for hiking, mountain biking and disc golf. The Zip Line will open then as well and Timbers will be open for breakfast and Dinner each day for lunch on the weekends and July 4th. Hogan’s at the golf course is open for lunch every day.

kbroderick: Both last year and this year, Sugarbush extended its season into May. Many resorts choose not to do this, largely due to a lack of customer interest (apparently the rabid skiers who are still finding places to make turns are not the norm). Without going into proprietary information, can you enlighten us as to your motivations in doing so? Is the marketing value alone worth it, or do you actually get enough paid tickets to offset the cost of the additional snowmaking and prolonged operations? Or is it just so you can get some more lift-served days in yourself? 😉

Win Smith: This is a great question. One does not make money before Christmas week or after March. In fact 40 days account for nearly 75% of our revenues. Late in the season we try to operate with as much full time salaried staff as possible. We stay open primarily to show our season pass holders value and as you say for “marketing” for the next season. While I and many of my colleagues will ski to the end, my personal pleasure doesn’t affect our decision. (Oh, maybe a little!) This is a difficult business to run profitably, so we have to make certain trade-off decisions which may not always please all of our skiers and riders but will be in the best interest of a successful resort.

Opening early and making snow in marginal conditions and then having to begin all over again after a thaw is far more costly than staying open late. Even though we were the first to open in 2006, our goal is not to be first but to rather open by Thanksgiving with a good quality product if it is sensible given the temperatures at the time. However, we will do everything possible to ensure that we have as much terrain open as it possible for the Christmas Holidays.

mattlucas: Any new plans for trails or snowmaking? It sounds a little silly, but I always though that something off the back would be nice in the afternoon when the sun sets at 11:30. I’m sure the forest service would be difficult, but is it even worth skiing the backside?

Win Smith: With respect to snowmaking we do not have any plans to expand what we currently have. We now cover approximately 70% of our terrain and where we do not have snowmaking we would not want it -e.g.. Castlerock, The Mall, Twist, etc. We will, however, continue to upgrade the system. The low energy nozzles we purchased two years ago have saved energy and made a better quality snow. Each summer we also do maintenance on the system to ensure that it will function well the next season. Last season our snowmaking team under the leadership of Hardy Merrill and Mike Wing did a great job, and I was very proud of the product they produced in the challenging days of December and January. I would match our snowmaking last winter with anyone.

We have a master plan on file with the Forest Service. I do not envision many more cut trails at Lincoln Peak, but I would someday like to see a trail that connects Birch with Casterock and one that connects Middle Earth with North Lynx area. At Mount Ellen there is an area between Inverness and Mad River Glen that could be expanded. However, our big focus at both areas and Slidebrook is to expand the amount of sanctioned tree skiing. This requires the proper habitat studies and careful work with the Forest Service and Act 250. We have done a lot already, but it takes time. I am quite hopeful that we will be successful with this effort.

Terrain expansion “off the back side” does not present any viable options. The west side of Lincoln Peak is part of the Green Mountain National Forest categorized as remote backcountry and ski area development is not compatible with the Forest Plan. The west side of Mt Ellen is the property of a private owner. I have heard of people skiing in there and saying that it is quite nice, but it is off-piste and not sanctioned by us.

MikeTrainor: We have seen a lot of action at the Lincoln peak base. What plans if any do you have for Mt. Ellen? If not, what other plans do you have for development?

Win Smith: Mount Ellen holds a tremendous opportunity for us. We need to first finish Lincoln Peak and then turn our sites to Mount Ellen, so I would not see anything major there for a couple of years. If we found the right partner interested in working with us, we might be able to proceed more quickly. There is probably at least two years of site analysis and permitting before anything could even be started. At Lincoln Peak we already have a permit for the Guest Service lodge and next phase of residential units. We basically need to present the final designs to begin.

thetrailboss: Win, it is obvious that you have really stepped up your presence at the ‘bush and it is working. It seems that you have personalized a resort that has not been personalized since maybe the Gadds ran it back in the day. Are you finding that your efforts have been paying off? Do you think that other resorts could benefit by having a more “hands-on” President?

Win Smith: I think that CEOs in any business need to “manage by walking around” and lead by example. That is really the only way to stay in touch with both your clients and your teammates. In addition to that it is fun. I find that the people who come to Sugarbush for the most part are interesting and nice people, so it is also nice to meet new guests as well as to seeing our returning fans as well. What a chore it is to try to ski as many days as possible!

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