by Tyler Wenzel
Can you give us a bit of an overview of how you got involved in the skiing industry?
I grew up around the ski industry and skiing in Pennsylvania; my dad’s been in the business for 40 years now and was the manager of a small area near Penn State University called Tussey Mountain (and he was previously at Powder Mountain, UT, and Killington, VT). He was in and out of the business at that time, since he was doing some work for the high-tech industry; but he was still doing ski industry consulting. I grew up skiing Ski Sawmill and Ski Denton in PA, and he’d take my brother and me on several annual trips to Vermont (to Killington), or to the Catskills (to Belleayre, Plattekill, or Bobcat); so the North East Region in general.
I grew up hanging around snowcats and lift towers, and getting on skis from a pretty young age. Actually, during most of my high school career, I had planned on studying music--jazz performance--in college. But when my dad got a job as Mt. Ellen GM at Sugarbush in VT, I moved up there and kind of caught the ski industry bug, and decided to pursue the ski industry as my career. I went out to Colorado Mountain College in 2007 and studied ski area operations there, graduating in ‘09.
From there I headed back to Sugarbush, VT for a while where I worked in grooming, snowmaking, facilities, marketing, and guest services. Then I ended up heading back out here in 2013 to take over the IT department at Ski Cooper. The following year, I took over grooming as well, and then the following year I was handed the entire marketing department, and that kind of brings me to where I am now.
Why did you choose a job in the ski industry?
It’s really hard to put words to it; there’s something almost otherworldly that drew me into this business. I love skiing obviously, so it starts with a passion for the sport. But then, as I said, after we moved up to Sugarbush, I was just starting to watch the inner workings--the behind the scenes stuff that makes stuff work. There’s so much more to it than skiers typically realize. It’s a very dynamic industry. You’re doing something different every day, the machines are awesome, the snow is great. It’s cold, but I happen to like cold and snow, so that’s fine. What other industry can you work where you play and play while you work?
What part of your job makes you smile?
There are two that really stand out. From an operations standpoint as a cat operator, the sunrises and sunsets are incredible. We get to see the most amazing views on the mountain; you see the most incredible landscapes, sunsets, and sunrises.
The second thing--moving in a different direction--the smiles on our guest’s faces put a smile on my face. I see families coming up who have never, ever seen snow before, and they just have the time of their life. They’re having the time of their life because we’re here working hard. That definitely puts a smile on my face.
What has been the most interesting job you’ve had in the industry?
That’s a tough question, because it’s all so interesting! If I had to pick out one individual department that was the most interesting for me, I’d have to say snowmaking, because of how much of both science and art are involved in making snow safely and making snow well. The snow science, climatology, and the brute physical aspect of having to haul around snow guns and having to deal with 600, 800, even 1000 pounds of water pressure and 100 some-odd pounds of air pressure. Then you can take that to the next level to a management perspective if you’re dealing with a bigger resort like Sugarbush, or out here like a Steamboat or Vail, there’s so much planning that has to go into how, when, where and for how long you’re going to make snow so that you can get a mountain open for all ability levels and build a base. If we want to look at one aspect, snowmaking is it for me, which is kind of funny because we don’t have snowmaking here at Ski Cooper!
If we can take a look at the bigger picture, when you reach a senior management level or executive level and you start to look at it from more of a top down view, the whole thing takes on new life. As a departmental supervisor or manager, you’re focused on your product or your area of the operation. You’re certainly working closely with everyone else, but you’re focused on your area. As you ascend the ranks and take on more departments under your umbrella, you see it as more of a chess game where you’re moving pieces here and there. I think, being on the executive level, having that top down view is fascinating.
What job has been the most challenging?
I’ll be honest--for me and my personality, guest services was probably the most challenging. I’m always happy to interact with guests, I have an extraordinary open door policy here at Ski Cooper with guests since guest services falls under the marketing department that I run. I’m crazy enough to give out my phone number and email to our guests if they want to talk to me directly! But I’m so much of a hands-on operations kind of guy that I’d rather interact with a snowcat than with people most of the time [laughs]. That makes guest services a challenging aspect, but I work hard at it because taking care of our guests is the number one priority, so I make sure to hire the right people to be sitting at the desk to talk to them.
Who has the most underappreciated job at the mountain?
Can I have two please? Lift operators and parking crew. I say lift operators, because there’s just a kind of a sentiment you’ll hear in the industry... people are always making fun of lifties: ‘oh the stupid lifties did this’ or ‘he’s just a lifty, he’s probably dumb’ or whatever. You know what? The lift operators have more personal responsibility for the fun and safety of the guests than anyone else on the mountain. They interact with guests more than anyone else. There’s a lot of responsibility on the folks operating the lifts, and generally speaking they’re pretty darn good at it.
As far as the parking crew, that’s another one. You’ve got a handful of folks in your parking lot who spend the whole day out in the cold in an ugly green or orange vest waving their hands at people. I go out sometimes to help in the parking lot, and if there’s one place a guest will be rude it will be in the parking lot. There seems to be an attitude of 'I’m going to park where I want, don’t tell me where to go, there’s an open spot over there and that’s where I want to go.'
At the end of the day, at all the larger ski areas I’ve seen, there’s a very careful parking plan in place to make sure we can maximize the number of cars in the lot, and we are trying to get the guests as close to our facilities as possible. Unfortunately, the folks who take the brunt of that [guest attitude] are the poor guys out there waving their hands. They get yelled at, they get ignored. But here again, a good parking crew can make or break a guest's visit as well. They’re the first people a guest will see upon arriving to the mountain, and that first impression is important.
What qualifications are useful for becoming a groomer operator?
A lot of common sense goes a long way. You can imagine where it goes if you don’t have much of that! A certain level of mechanical aptitude is really helpful. I’m not saying you need to be a mechanic--sometimes it’s dangerous when you put a mechanic in a machine--but you should have, or be willing to learn, the basic functions and operations of electrical, hydraulic, and diesel systems. When you’re out on the hill and something goes wrong you need to be able to intelligently explain the symptoms that are going on. When you have an operator that calls the shop in the middle of the night and says “Something's broken”, that doesn’t help a lot. So some level of mechanical aptitude to give the machine a good pre-ops check and take good care of it is one qualification.
Prior machine experience also helps, but a lot of folks really do come in to grooming as their first machine operating experience. That’s not a bad thing, but you have to be trainable. You have to be able to listen and learn, to follow instructions, and to follow other machines around the hill. At most ski areas it is a team effort. Most ski areas have fleet grooming operations, so you’re working with one, two, three, ten other cats on the same trail. You’ve gotta be able to communicate well and work well with a team.
I think just to sum it up: some mechanical aptitude, trainability. And then, the actual ability to operate the machine is something we find out as we go. I can tell you from experience not everybody is a naturally good machine operator, and some people find out it’s not for them, but if you haven’t operated before that’s something you find out along the way.
Is there any specific training courses for that or is it more of learn on the job type thing?
More or less on the job training. There are a handful of colleges that have ski operations courses, and some have grooming operations classes. Generally, it’s people enrolled in the degree program that take the classes. But Colorado Mountain College has one, Selkirk in Canada has grooming classes, and I think some others, too. They’re usually attached to the degree program, though, so you’d have to ask if they were willing to take students not in the degree program. In most cases, it’s an on the job training situation.
For example, my training regimen here is: If you have no experience, I’ll bring you in for employee orientation, then a departmental specific orientation where we discuss machine safety, pre-op inspections, and I have a pretty detailed handbook I’ve written, which is pretty much like a grooming course condensed into a 30 page manual that describes the equipment, the techniques for dealing with different types of snow conditions, and different types of terrain. So I ask all new operators and returning operators to read it and sign off that they read it, and ask me questions about it.
Then we have a careful program where a brand new operator has to ride along with a supervisor or manager for at least two shifts so that he can observe, watch, see what’s going on, ask good questions. And then he has to spend one night operating, with a supervisor in the passenger seat watching, observing, and providing feedback. Then, typically anywhere between a week to a month of following an experienced operator around the mountain to learn the mountain to learn the patterns and to really get a feel for the machine. That would be kind of how the first year would work out for a rookie here, and I imagine other ski areas have a similar progression.
When it comes to scheduling the grooming operations is it scheduled so that more experienced groomers cover a certain route and the more novice operators a different route or is every night just completely different?
Certainly when the managers are putting together the grooming plan for the night we absolutely take into account the skill level of the operators that are scheduled. At a bigger place--if I was managing grooming at a larger mountain--yeah, the rookie operators would be spending most of their time on easier terrain to groom while they learn the ropes. You don’t want to take a green rookie and let him slide all the way down a 35 degree pitch. It’d be funny, but not a great idea!