What do you envision for Ski Cooper ten years for now?
Ski Cooper is a unique animal in the ski industry. I’d say that I don’t envision the character of it to change, but there will be tangible capital improvements to the area. In the shorter term--within the next three years--we’re hoping install a new surface lift on the backside, which will allow us to cut five new trails to expand our advanced/expert terrain.
From there the kind of capital projects we see happening are like, for example, we just installed a yurt at the top of the mountain this year as a food service and warming area. What we’d love to be able to do down the road is turn that spot into a permanent small lodge and take the yurt to the bottom of the new surface lift. What I’m getting at is: I see the growth of Ski Cooper as being a very organic growth, as opposed to what I’d call the artificial growth that you see at a lot of the larger resorts, where a multi-resort holder comes in and drops $50 million, puts in a cookie cutter base area, throws in ten high speed quads, and says "look, it’s a great resort now!"
Ski Cooper’s growth will be organic; it will be a response to demand. We won’t do major expansions if we’re not seeing the skier demand. Right now, we are seeing the demand. Our skier visits have been rising steadily for the four years I’ve been here. We’ll be responding to real demand, and everything that will be done at Ski Cooper--as long as we’re here--will be done with a mind to keeping the unique, family friendly, laid-back, old school vibe that Ski Cooper is renowned for.
What about the industry as a whole ten years from now?
Yeah, it’s interesting to watch this industry as it grows and has its ups and downs. I think we will see a continued interest--a resurgent interest--in some of these smaller skier areas. What I’ve noticed now, having been at a small area here at Ski Cooper for the last four years, is that we have a huge, noticeably growing number of long time skiers from the major resorts. From Breck, Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone, Winter Park, whatever "insert major ski area here", who have started to, not necessarily stop skiing at those areas, but who are starting to spend some of their time here. They’re ready for a break.
When you come to Cooper it’s basically--except the week after Christmas--you ski straight onto the lift. There’s still fresh tracks a week after a storm here. I’ve noticed in the last few years a trend where a lot of the long time skiers of larger resorts are picking up on the fact that these smaller areas are less trafficked and a lot more laid back. And at the end of the day, we may not have all the fancy amenities that the large areas have, but we actually can provide a great skiing experience.
So to your question of the industry ten years in the future: certainly the major resorts aren’t going anywhere; they’re doing very well. If you look at Vail Resorts' track record, Peak Resorts is starting to do well, they’re going to do fine. But I do expect a resurgence in interest in these smaller areas where long time skiers are realizing they want to just relax and have fun.
And this is kind of a vague statement, but it’s a fact that that the ever changing and growing technology field will continue to have an impact on our industry. We’re already starting to see the application of things like RFID technology, 100% automation in snowmaking, satellite control in the snowcat part of the operations, and I think we will continue to see these technological advances in the industry for better or worse. For me, I’m kind of an old school guy. I’d rather hire someone and put food on their plate than buy a machine to do it. But when you’ve got stockholders to please, I understand why you do it. I certainly see technology continuing to impact how we operate these areas behind the scenes.
You can’t deny the fact—you know, I wasn’t going to mention generational theory because I hate generational theory... it’s a bunch of BS. I’ve sat through 30 lectures on it, and I still don’t buy it. What I do buy is that modern technology affects everybody of all ages in the current culture. I think all of these technological advances in the ski industry like the RFID technology... anything that makes the process faster for guests they will be happy with at this point in time, because with the advent of mobile technology, with the instantaneousness of everything we do now, guests do expect to be served quickly, whether it’s getting on a lift or in the cafeteria, we certainly have shorter attention spans than we used to.
That brings me also to seeing the value of programs like terrain based learning that Joe Hession has basically put together for our industry, where it adapts to the shorter attention spans of folks in the modern technological realm. What terrain based learning does is keep people interested and helps them learn quickly, or allows them to move quickly through a progression of learning that makes them feel busy the whole time. I think those things will continue to play a major role.
What new technologies do you think are most impacting ski area management now?
In terms of ski area management, right now the incredible advancements we’ve had in our ski industry-specific software. What I’m referring to there is, for example, RTP, Siriusware... there’s a handful of them out there. They’re software packages that have been developed specifically for the ski industry. They do point of sale, rental, food/beverage, etc. And they’re incredibly powerful databases.
What we have now with cloud technology available, and advancements in the software, is access to real time metrics that this industry has never had before. If you go back twenty, especially thirty years ago, the only way to really see how you did--other than anecdotally looking out your window--was to wait until the end of the day, week, or fiscal year and run all your calculations and say "this is where we’re at," "this is how we did." Right now in 2016 you can just open up your browser window and go to your dashboard and see instant to instant how many skier visits you have, what your food cost for the day is, what your wage to revenue ratios are in your ski school for the day, or whatever; those are just examples of things we can now see without having to ask accounting to take all the time to manually calculate these things.
We have so much data that we never had available to us before in such an instantaneous way, to the extent it can honestly be overwhelming. I think we do have to be cautious not to knee-jerk react sometimes to the instantaneous data in front of us. We still need to take the time to analyze it and look at it carefully. But with that level of data available to you, you can make minute, but critically important adjustments throughout the course of a day, a week, or a season. They can really allow you to right the ship if it’s started to list, or maybe you find you have a major problem in one department that you wouldn’t have noticed until month-end financials came out.
The big thing the ski industry has is this availability of data and metrics from day to day.
As a follow-up to that how do you feel making decisions off those metrics versus intuition has impacted for better or worse the skiing experience?
I think it’s certainly a combination of both. There are absolutely pros and cons to it. Our ability to make those changes on the fly based purely on data tend to allow us to perform better financially, and better financial performance is going to mean better investment in the resort, and better experience in terms of investment into the infrastructure. But I’m a firm believer that you can’t take the intuition aspect out of operating a ski area. You can’t take the human element out either.
That certainly plays into guest experience. If we become an industry that relies only, purely, 100% on the bottom line, we’ll lose our soul. I think some areas have already done that, to be perfectly honest. Of course I’m a firm believer in a good bottom line. I want to make as much money as we can, and re-invest it in the ski area. But this business is about so much more than making money. It’s about skiing, and for a lot of people that’s an almost spiritual thing.
I do believe that as an operator we need to retain the use of our intuition in the operation. Going out there, getting a feel for how the guests are feeling, what they’re liking and not liking... you can’t find everything in a set of numbers. As important as those metrics are you can’t find everything there. The numbers could look great, but you might have a mountain of upset people out there; so this year’s numbers look good, but next year’s aren’t going to be!
In my opinion, that needs to be a very careful balance: let’s take advantage of every little tidbit of data we can, but let’s be rational about how we use it, and remember that this is a service industry. We’re here to provide a skiing product and the surrounding facilities for our guests, and it’s our guests that matter.
There is absolutely still room for intuition in our industry. You need to look at things and see how to get people to keep coming back. I really don’t like hearing from people that they were at XYZ resort, and they didn’t have fun. I’m thinking, "how can we let that happen in our industry?" Our industry is about having a great time, about being connected to the mountain, to the snow, to the outdoors. It’s about sliding around on the snow, having a wonderful time, and for a lot of our clientele, it’s about doing it with your family.
I love being at a place where we still have that aspect. We certainly do still operate on intuition. With that said--just to back-up like I said earlier--I think we need to take full advantage of the data at our disposal. But you can’t make that your sole resource.