Sam von Trapp back in family business

Photo by Plenn Callahan. Sam von Trapp, who’s being groomed to take over the family business.

Sam von Trapp isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.

Dressed casually in a T-shirt, faded jeans, and work boots, he was digging ditches last week behind the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe when he took a break to admire the expansive view.

“You should come here in the morning when the mist settles over the mountains,” he says. “It’s amazing.”

Von Trapp, 35, is the son of Johannes von Trapp, president of Trapp Family Lodge for the last 38 years. Sam is poised to take over operations at the lodge when his father retires; there is no set timetable for that.

The Trapp family, the inspiration for the famed “Sound of Music,” opened Trapp Family Lodge in 1950 as a 27-room lodge. Today, the main lodge has 96 rooms and suites and the resort has 100 timeshare guesthouses and 14 fractional-ownership villas. It sits on 2,400 acres with three restaurants, a Nordic ski center, a maple sugaring operation and various recreational activities.

As heir to one of Stowe’s most venerable empires, Sam von Trapp is learning the family business from the ground up.

That’s exactly what he had in mind when he returned to Stowe in June after spending more than a decade working at ski resorts in Aspen, Colo., and Portillo, Chile.

A challenging road trip between Brazil and Chile in August 2006 inspired him to return to Stowe.

“I got so fed up, I said, ‘It’s time for me to move back home,’” von Trapp said.

He mulled his decision for a while before calling his parents to say he was coming home.

His father is ecstatic to have him back.

“It’s great,” Johannes von Trapp said. “He brings such enthusiasm. He’s very bright.”

Sam worked at the lodge after school, even before the original lodge burned down in December 1980, Johannes said. After the blaze, the lodge was rebuilt into what it is today.

“He can identify with the growth that occurred here,” Johannes said.

“Now that I’m here, it absolutely seems to be the right time,” Sam von Trapp said. “I actually should have come home a few years ago.”

His official title is vice president of special projects. So far, his work has included everything from sprucing up the resort’s hiking and skiing trails to hiring a room divisions director to redecorate some of the “tired-looking” rooms at the lodge .

“I like the flexibility of being able to bounce around between working in the office and swinging an ax or digging some dirt,” he said. “Fortunately, I have that flexibility in my role.”

He’s spent the past few months working on infrastructure projects, including a basic snowmaking system for the resort’s cross-country trail network.

High on von Trapp’s list of maintenance projects is replacing the old wooden bridge near the Derby Trail that was torn down this summer because it had badly deteriorated.

Von Trapp wants a new bridge in time for the annual Stowe Derby race in February.

“It’s an important tradition in Stowe,” von Trapp said. “I don’t want to see the course changed.”

A people person

Tall, with rugged good looks —People Magazine’s picked him as one of its “50 Most Eligible Bachelors” issue, and he appeared in the Sports Illustrated for Women “Sexiest Men in Sports” swimsuit issue — Sam von Trapp has a reputation for putting people instantly at ease.

In the lobby of Trapp Family Lodge, he greets guests by name, stopping to ask how they’re enjoying their stays.

As he walks around the grounds, guests call out, “Hi Sam!” as if he were an old friend.

Von Trapp was born in 1972 and was raised in Stowe before entering Eaglebrook School, a boarding school for boys in Deerfield, Mass., in sixth grade. He attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., and graduated from Dartmouth College with degrees in geography and economics.

“I’m finding it to be a great combination for working back here,” he said.

Von Trapp got his first job at the lodge — cleaning up the coffee bar at the Nordic Center — at age 8. He worked a number of jobs — bellman, dishwasher, front-desk person, phone line operator, food server, ski rental clerk, cattle driver — before leaving Stowe.

The wide variety of jobs he’s held helps him today in working with staff and guests, he said.

“Many of my jobs have been on the front line, so I can relate to people on the front line,” von Trapp said. “They tell me their ideas and I can take them to senior management and push for them a little more than the average employee.”

Nordic Center focus

At age 2, von Trapp stepped onto cross-country skis for the first time at the Nordic Ski Center. He learned to alpine ski at age 6 through the Stowe Friday afternoon sports program.

He’s spent a good part of his life since then on skis, teaching alpine skiing on some challenging terrain in the U.S. and South America.

He smiles when he talks about how his name has drawn instant recognition, even in South America, where people would glance at his passport and make references to the “Sound of Music” movie.

“It got me out of trouble a few times when my luggage was over the weight limit,” he said.

He worked 10 ski seasons as a ski instructor in Aspen, and 11 seasons teaching skiing in Portillo, Chile, where his high-energy, friendly style made him a popular instructor.

He plans to incorporate much of what he experienced at exclusive resorts, notably the focus on unpretentious luxury and natural settings at Aspen, into improvements at Trapps.

Between ski seasons, he traveled to Brazil to surf and study Portuguese.

In Stowe, he’s focusing on cross-country skiing and a plan to bring attention to the resort’s 100-kilometer Nordic Ski Center. He’s excited about the portable snowmaking system the resort will lease this winter to cover the trails near the lodge. The system will tap into the lodge’s existing water setup.

“The goal is to put down enough base so it (the snow) resists melting,” von Trapp said. “If we can cover 5 acres, it would give us 5 kilometers of skiing.”

The resort has toyed with snowmaking proposals for years, but exorbitant costs were a big obstacle.

Von Trapp said the new system is “roughly the cost of a new V-6 Toyota pickup.” The average price of a 2007 Toyota Tacoma pickup truck is about $23,000.

He’s also looking at ways to make cross-country skiing — a sport that attracts many middle-aged and older skiers — more attractive to a younger crowd. His ideas include bringing a masters-level event to the Nordic Ski Center and scheduling more fun events like wine tastings.

Looking forward

Although the Trapp Family Lodge doesn’t have the same financial backing and marketing power of larger, corporately owned resorts, its independence offers unique advantages, von Trapp said.

“It provides an opportunity to go in your own direction and follow your vision,” he said. “You can create your own sense of place, rather than following a corporate policy from far away.”

He points to how, in the late 1960s, his father was able to establish the country’s first Nordic ski center on the property.

Not having to answer to a corporation has also allowed the resort to maintain its high service standards, something von Trapp vows to continue when he takes the helm.

“My father does everything with a sense of Austrian perfection and still hits the bottom line,” von Trapp said.

He wants to capitalize on what he sees as the Stowe resort’s four major assets: physical location, heritage and history, integrity, and attentive employees, many of whom have worked there for decades.

As a nod to his famous ancestors, he’d like someday to establish a visitor center and family museum on the property, something that’s been on the lodge’s five-year plan — for about 25 years.

But, any new development plans will be balanced with conservation, he said.

“My father is trained as forester and has never thought of himself as a hotelier,” von Trapp said. “He’s more of a naturalist, a forester, a rancher.”

Longtime friend Mike Manley has known von Trapp since they attended boarding school together in the mid-1980s, and once worked with him as a ski instructor at Mt. Mansfield.

Von Trapp will add a new vibrancy to the lodge while maintaining its reputation for good service, Manley said.

“I think he’ll add a ton of enthusiasm from the ownership level and a passion for getting things right,” Manley said. “He’s focused on details.”

Johannes von Trapp doesn’t have a firm schedule on when his son will take over management of the lodge, but he does plan to pass the reins eventually.

“Hopefully, he’ll take over the biz and I can go skiing and surfing, like he’s been doing for past 10 years,” he said.

That’s fine with Sam von Trapp.

“I enjoy being the middle man between front-line employees and senior management in terms of advocating for people’s ideas,” he said. “It’s a role I’d be happy to play for a long time.”

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