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Jul

30

The Rise of the Local Hill

It’s not bold to say that the mega passes and mega crowds of the big resorts are undermining the mountain experience. Here’s how the mid-tier areas can help remedy that.

 

 

story by Marc Peruzzi | photographs by Dane Cronin

In the Deep Winter issue of Mountain, I wrote that to address overcrowded runs, the degradation of the ski experience—particularly with its relationship to nature—and the lack of economic and racial diversity, the mountain destination industry had to reimagine itself. Part of that fix, I posited, had to involve a resurgence of the nation’s remaining small and midsize resorts that can offer the type of affordable and intimate experiences that the big box resorts have spurned in favor of volume. 

Sounds great, a reader responded, but how? In my idealism, I still hope that communities will see the benefit of reviving defunct ski areas as four season mountain parks complete with free skiing for kids. Call that the Howelsen Hill model after the famous “other mother” town hill in Steamboat Springs. I’ve been proselytizing about such mountain parks for two decades, though, and haven’t seen much progress. Which means it’s up to the free market.

That’s exactly what’s happening. Beyond the noise of yet another big box acquisition, local pushback to crowding, endless traffic gripes, and a general malaise with industrialized skiing, smaller areas have been quietly figuring out how best to preserve the experience—while making money. 

Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin is the most well-known example. It was only a few years ago that A-basin was part of the Epic Pass family. Because of its world-class terrain, consistent high elevation snow, and proximity to Interstate 70, though, A-basin quickly found itself loved to death by Front Rangers and destination skiers with Epic Passes. The parking, which had been a problem since the early aughts, grew untenable, as did the food and beverage and uphill capacity, neither of which could handle the volume play. But when A-basin dumped Epic, connected with Ikon, and began metering crowds during Covid (and onward) a funny thing happened. The resort won’t release details, but although skier visits went down dramatically—one industry source told me by half—A-basin, that same source told me, saw its best earnings ever last winter. There are similar tales from other mid-tier resorts like Monarch in Colorado (my pick for the best run mid-tier in the West for at least a decade), Mt. Rose in California, and Saddleback in Maine. Let them stand as proof of concept: By improving the guest experience and celebrating intimacy, the small and midsize mountains can rise up. Saddleback’s motto is “The world doesn’t need another ski area; it needs a different ski area.” 

The examples above are small resorts with relatively big skiing, though. To check out an example of a truly small ski area that’s also resurgent, I drove to Granby Ranch after our annual Mountain mag bike test in Steamboat. If you don’t know, Granby Ranch and Grand County, Colorado are a short drive from Winter Park, and the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. You might recall Granby Ranch by its old name SolVista. More likely, unless your kid competed in high school bike races at Granby Ranch as mine did, or you were a stalwart on the downhill mountain biking circuit in the 2000s, you’ve never heard of the place. 

That’s understandable. The mountain sports all of a thousand feet of vertical and four lifts. And until quite recently, the base area, skiing, and riding were let to lie fallow. But as with so many long neglected mountain resorts—I’ve consulted on the “envisioning” of many—the potential outweighs the challenges. Granby Ranch sits at 8,000 feet in one of the colder high mountain valleys in Colorado. Up top, the views take in the Continental Divide. Access from the Front Range only depends on a short jaunt on I-70. Alpine and nordic skiers, hikers, flyfishers, and cyclists migrate to Grand County year-round now. And a large community of second and primary homeowners already calls the place home.  

There’s no need to dwell on what Granby Ranch had become, the industry is rife with small mismanaged areas. But let’s just say the neglect wasn’t benign. Eventually, the bankers foreclosed. And then in September of 2020, a new management team called Ridgeline Executive Group took over operations. This past May, after what can only be described as a remarkable turnaround, the bank and Ridgeline recruited private ownership. While reporting this story after my visit, the team released a new strategic initiative. It’s called Granby Rising. 

Take it as a case study in how a small resort can apply the lessons of big resort customer service and mountain operations to a more intimate model. It’s easy to slam the big resorts, but they tend to get guest services and the product—snow and dirt—right. Last winter, Granby Ranch set to work improving signage, snowmaking, grooming, and the all important “time to snow” metric—getting skiers from their cars to the lift faster. The metric applies to ski school and rentals too. The existing staff, some of whom have worked at Granby Ranch for a decade or more— another upside to mid-tier mountains—were eager for the challenge after languishing for so long. 

The turnaround was immediately noticeable. Even with the challenges of Covid—which in fact may have helped introduce new skiers to Granby Ranch—all aspects of the business boomed. For a time, Granby Ranch outpaced nearby Winter Park, which, to be fair, scaled back ski school lessons during the pandemic. Credit Granby Ranch management, which pushed to get 50 percent of instructors certified with PSIA—a standard play with big resorts, but unusual with many smaller mountains.  “It’s not groundbreaking to focus on “time to snow” metrics, ski school, and the like,” says Granby Ranch General Manager Jace Wirth, “and we aren’t the only mid-tier resort to do so. But just by paying attention, we were able to improve. And the customers noticed. What I found really surprising this past winter was how many skiers we were seeing from around Colorado and around the country. Somehow they were finding this little place. Word of mouth matters.” (Full disclosure, Wirth is a former Mountain Media staffer and ski tester). 

Some small areas like to pretend that they’re mom-and-pop businesses, but running a mountain well involves too many moving parts for a Mayberry approach. Wirth grew up racing on Howelsen Hill (and riding broncs), but he cut his ski industry teeth developing a new resort outside of Beijing that will be heavily featured in the next Winter Games. Part of what he learned there was to focus on technology. Vail Resorts—the biggest operator in the world—was on the forefront of incorporating tech into its business and still leads the industry. But it took a massive investment to do it. Today, it’s possible for a small resort to buy equivalent software off the shelf or tap into an existing platform. The result is akin to what we’re seeing in independent specialty sports retail. Half the brick-and-mortar shops in the Grassroots Outdoors Alliance run e-commerce platforms, which let them make sales during the pandemic closures and now allow them to compete with the big online retailers. Something similar happened with small ski areas. Prebooking lift tickets, lessons, demos, and dinner suddenly became a prerequisite. Because it moved quickly to build those platforms, Granby was able to match the acceleration in demand. It might seem like a small advancement, but getting a sense for how many people are headed your way—indentifying their needs—makes the guest experience more pleasant.  

And that’s fundamentally what the mid-tiers are about—keeping things mellow and pleasant, but without demanding sacrifices from the guests other than vertical feet per run. Hell, 15 years ago it was hard to get a decent meal at a ski area outside of Deer Valley. Thanks to a captive audience, food was an easy profit center, so the quality tended to that Sysco gray of high school. But it doesn’t need to be that way. When A-basin modernized, the F&B wasn’t an afterthought. Now vacationers and locals alike head up for Farm-to-Table dinners and weekly Supper Clubs—in summer. 

One of the first moves Ridgeline made last fall was to hire a new executive chef. For seven years prior to joining the GR team, Executive Chef Liana Aghajanian worked under the tutelage of the late chef Evan Treadwell (of James Beard Foundation fame) at the nearby luxury nordic skiing center Devil’s Thumb Ranch. She’s bringing clean, locally sourced foods to the mountain. It’s been a hit. The team had to hire more waitstaff to keep up this summer. “I’ve worked in the small resort and boutique hotel business my entire career,” says Aghajanian. “I want to change the status quo of the small ski resort dining experience. So many ski resorts see food as a commodity. There’s a lack of passion behind it. And that’s a disconnect because we’re in the business of passion. With our food, we’re creating a destination not an accommodation.” This past June, Aghajanian won recognition for the turnaround she orchestrated when Colorado Ski Country USA awarded her their Double Diamond Award. This season, Aghajanian is cooking for 42 weddings. 

Which speaks to another way that the small operations are ditching the mom-and-pop mindset. In today’s job market it’s difficult to retain good people with year-round work. Beyond the added revenue that four season operations provide—it keeps a mountain’s best people on the payroll. That’s probably even more important for a mid-tier mountain. It’s easy to forgive a surly liftie if you just skied 3,500 feet of untracked snow. It’s harder when you’ve come to a mountain to escape the gorilla warfare and anxiety of the big mountains, which can pack in 20,000 of your best buddies a day. 

The importance of human-to-human interaction can’t be overstated. When Shelby and Scott Kiernan were looking for a place to ease their nine-year-old son Lucas back into ski lessons, the cost, stress, and crowding of the big areas was a turnoff, so they looked to Granby Ranch instead. Placed in a group lesson with just one other nine-year-old, the instructor made him want to ski a second day. “He loved the instructor,” says Shelby. “He was a young college-age guy. He made it fun. And for a kid that isn’t all that experienced on skis and tends to be cautious that made all the difference. But the cost is also important. We aren’t the type of family that can buy a season pass and ski midweek all winter to avoid the crowds. We figured we could ski Granby and still get to work on Monday.”  

Which brings us back to the premise that for skiing to sustain itself there has to be more than the mega-pass, mega-resort play. As I wrote in my Deep Winter “prognosticator” column, the folks that run our mountain recreation industry aren’t racist, in fact they’re desperate to increase diversity, but the costs and psychological barriers to entry of the current big resort playbook set up a form of systemic racism. The cheap season pass model favors those with the proximity and resources to ski 20-days plus. For new users, breaking into skiing and snowboarding and everything that comes with that lifestyle is harder. “There seem to be two models in the mountain destination business right now,” says Kent Sharp, the President and CEO of the 63-year-old ski area planning outfit SE Group. “The big company’s model is to discount the season pass product and make it up in volume. As that moves forward, the demands for evermore skiers will only increase. The other model goes like this: ‘I want to provide value for my customers. And that value doesn’t have to mean 5,000 vertical feet of skiing or a Whistler style bike park.”

For my part, my brother and I grew up skiing a few weekends and holidays a winter at a tiny hill in New Hampshire called Black Mountain—1,100 feet of vertical. Along with a gang of kids in torn snow pants and ski swap gear, we spent too many days trying to jump over a creek, but figured out how to turn as well. My parents had to save for the lift tickets, but they made it happen. In middle school, my folks signed me up for an after school ski bus that ran six weeks each winter. The destination? Mount Tom, Massachusetts, all 680 vertical feet of it. To my classmates and I, the place was enormous, especially at night under the lights. After the lessons, we all got to ski together. It was that kind freedom that made me a lifer. The size of a mountain doesn’t matter all that much. What matters is if it feels like home. My hope is that we have enough skiers savvy enough to recognise that—and do something about it—before we’re left with nothing but mega-resorts.  

 

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