Have you heard much about the SNOWsat technology that’s been really popular at European Resorts?
SNOWsat is Pisten-Bully’s fleet management system. It does a variety of things. It has a satellite snow-depth portion to it so the operator can know where he is within a small margin of error exactly how much snow is under him. That aspect of the system is designed to save costs, primarily in snow-making and pushing snowmaking. If you can run around in a cat and find out exactly how much depth you have at any given spot, you can be very smart about where and how much snow you make. If you’re smart about where and how much snow you make, you don’t have to push a whole lot afterward. Everything related to snowmaking and grooming is extraordinarily expensive. If we can cut it back even 5%, that’s a huge boon to your bottom line at the end of the season.
From a management standpoint, it has things like GPS control so a grooming manager can watch how the operators are grooming the mountain, maybe provide some feedback on how to be more efficient in their patterns. Maybe there’s a little connector they drive over 30 times to get to some place, maybe the manager can say "if you go around this way you’ll actually be giving us production and not wasting those passes." There’s the GPS tracking aspect to it.
To the philosophical aspect of it, I think it’s great technology. I don’t personally use it or intend to use it in the near future. For a smaller mountain like ourselves without snowmaking it’s—I don’t want to make the blanket statement that it wouldn’t be valuable—but at this moment, I couldn’t justify purchasing the system. At a small mountain like this, we all know the terrain very well, how much snow we’ve gotten. I’ve only typically got two operators out at a given time, so I can train them on the patterns I want them to use, I don’t need to train them on GPS. I don’t think it’s a one size fits all solution for everybody, but I think it’s wonderful technology and I hope we see it implemented more. I think it’d be an incredible resource for some of the larger resorts from a management standpoint.
What niche or need do you see smaller resorts filling when they’re located so close to some of the bigger players like Ski Cooper is?
Sure, to add to what I said before, we smaller places provide a getaway from the big resorts. I’d say when you’re looking at the market we fill, it’s threefold. Its locals, absolutely. We host quite a few locals that love to come here. We’re right in their backyard; it’s a hop, skip, and a jump away from home. It feels like home to them, so we certainly serve locals.
Then we have our regional market of some of the folks I described earlier who normally ski at those bigger areas, because we’re surrounded by the biggest players in the Colorado Ski Industry. That second market is that regional market of people who maybe are Epic Pass or Rocky Mountain SuperPass Holders who love their home mountains, but get tired of the crowds or the hustle and bustle that makes it feel almost like you’re back in the city. For those folks, we provide the getaway experience where they’re actually in touch with the mountain. The snow quality is light years better because of the smaller traffic on the snow.
Our third market is a destination market. Most people would look at "little" Ski Cooper, with only 39 trails and surrounded by Vail Resorts... but we actually do a substantial amount of destination visits. The folks who are looking for us are primarily families. They do their research, they take a look at the price tag, the reviews, and they think about what kind of a ski experience they want their family to have. A lot of them are first timers; they don’t need the East Wall at A-Basin or the Back Bowls at Vail. They want an experience that’s affordable, and an experience that’s relaxed, and an experience that’s fun. That’s what a lot of the smaller ski areas are able to provide. We’re proud to be able to provide that. Our guests are generally incredibly happy with the experience that they have here.
I see the smaller areas filling the void the larger areas leave: an uncrowded, laid-back place where a family can go and afford to ski, rent, take a lesson, and have lunch, and not have to take out a small personal service loan to do so.
The Cooper season pass for 2016-2017 has reciprocity allowing several free ski days at a couple dozen other smaller mountains around the US. I love this strategy as a way for the "little guys" to join forces and offer an alternative to the multi-mountain mega resort pass products. Is it mostly for show or do you see a tangible positive impact on revenue and skier visit numbers?
That’s a great question! A lot of us did band together a few years ago and said, "hey, how can we make our season pass products compete with these multi-resort passes?" The reason that’s a problem is that it’s a question of volume. The big resort conglomerates that are able to offer their multi-resort passes are doing such a huge volume of sales and skier visits that they can justify selling that pass at an almost unrealistically low price, because of the volume that they do, and because when they sell those passes at a low price they bring people in and put them in beds, feed them, and there’s a lot of auxiliary income from those passes.
For the smaller areas--especially the smaller areas like us--we don’t have any on-site lodging, and we do such a smaller volume of total business than those larger places, we can’t justify a competitively low season pass price. Now our season pass prices are very low, by the way, but if you look at it acre-for-acre, we can’t compete on the same level as they can. So we all kind of got together and said, "what can we do to offer a greater value to our passholders?"
That, at the end of the day, was our only goal: to give better value to our passholders. There certainly is marketing value to it, no doubt about it, but it honest-to-goodness was done so our passholders had a better value. We do get a little bit of ancillary income in terms of food and beverage, rentals, or whatever. But to the question of if there’s a real tangible return on it: a little bit, a little bit. But what we really wanted to be able to do was to provide our passholders with the opportunity to visit some other mountains and get a truly good value on their season pass.
It has worked out great. I don’t have a breakdown on how many visits we did, but we do a measurable number of visits from our partner areas. More than 1,000, but I’m not sure how much, but it’s certainly enough to justify continuing to offer this. Our passholders really do appreciate it. It’s hilarious... if one area or another drops off the partners list, I’ll have 15 emails asking me "where did whatever resort go?" And then I have to put the machine in motion to try to win them back! Our skiers really, really love that they can travel around a bit and visit some other areas.
Are there other forms of cooperation the public might not be highly aware of between smaller ski areas?
Not on a highly visible level, but we all certainly talk to each other. We--most of the smaller ski areas in CO--are also part of Colorado Ski Country USA (the CO trade organization for ski areas), that provides sort of a medium for all of us to get together for annual meetings and things like that. I would say we definitely work together on a lot of things. If I have a question about maybe how to implement some new program, I can just pick up the phone and call my counterpart down at Monarch, or something like that. And we certainly do cooperate from an operational standpoint, just in terms of providing ideas and feedback and talking back and forth.
I don’t know that there’s really any other noticeable skier-facing cooperation.
I am just coming out of college and looking to make a career in the guest services side of ski resorts in order to work my way up to ski resort management. In the case of someone like me or interested in ski area management would you say it's prudent to start at a larger resort and company such as Vail/Intrawest and work one's way down to a smaller resort? Would it be more prudent for someone interested to find a smaller ski resort that is willing to take a chance on a more inexperienced person instead?
That’s another really good question. Either track is viable. I think, what I would say is, that it would depend on your end goal. If your end goal is to end up in management at a smaller resort, then I think it’s a good idea to get some experience at a larger resort. The advantage of working at a larger resort--there are a handful of them--you certainly get to see the larger scale of the industry. You get to see large processes at work, business processes. You know, there’s so much more going on to keep a place like Killington operating day-to-day than a place like Plattekill. So if your goal is to end up in a management role at a smaller area, coming there with experience from a bigger area is a good thing.
But then, you have to be willing to come to the smaller area with an open mind, because smaller areas are often more crafty and clever at getting things done that might not look as polished on the outside coming from a bigger area. But keep an open mind to the methods that smaller areas use.
I will say, too, the other direction is also viable. If you start at a small area, the advantage you get is experience in lots of different facets of the business. You may go into it as a guest services rep at a small area, but there’s a pretty good chance, along the course of the season, you’re going to help out with who knows what! You might help park cars, rent skis, sell tickets, in food and beverage. So the advantage of getting started at a small ski area is you get to see the in-the-trenches workings of multiple departments, which makes you practically more useful, but might not have provided the kind of business learning that you can get from a larger area. I think there’s value in both, and it’s a matter of what your end goal is.
I’m personally very pleased to have both spent time at a large resort out east at Sugarbush, and a small resort here at Ski Cooper. I’d say personally that my experience at Sugarbush has helped me immensely here at Cooper, but also that if I went back to Sugarbush, I’d have a lot more to bring to the table, too. You gotta do both.
by Tyler Wenzel