Remember three and a half years ago, when Stowe Mountain Resort was the only New England mountain in the Vail Resorts portfolio?
Stowe’s management team is, in a way, running things as if that were still the case.
Now entering the third season of ski and ride operations under Vail’s ownership, vice president and general manager Bobby Murphy and Jeff Wise, senior manager for communications, said the Stowe team isn’t talking about subsequent Vermont Vail pickups like Okemo or Mount Snow, or recent acquisitions by the mothership in nearby states — Sunnapee, Wildcat, Attitash and Crotched Mountain resorts in New Hampshire and Hunter Mountain in New York.
They’re thinking about Stowe.
“Coop-etition is what we call it,” Murphy said. “We like to kind of have a little bit of a competition between our other resorts and, frankly, we want to be the best.”
Added Wise, “Vail encourages every single mountain resort brand to preserve what makes them unique and what differentiates them from the rest of the portfolio.”
To give an indication of how quickly ski resort consolidation is moving in America, take a look at the recently published book “Ski Inc. 2020,” an unexpected but necessary sequel to author Chris Diamond’s original book about changes in the ski industry.
The original was published in 2016, too late to write about Vail buying its first East Coast resort in Stowe, although it did include a prescient observation that Vail “will also certainly find a way to enter the Northeastern market, regardless of the weather vagaries and the challenges.”
Fast-forward a whole three years and “Ski Inc. 2020,” published in October, has an entire Eastern expansion to write about, as well as a new kid on the block, Alterra Mountain Co., a private company formed in 2017 that has started buying resorts around the country and offering a season’s pass that gets pass holders access to all of its mountains.
Sound familiar? Vail did the same thing with its Epic pass.
And even though it’s been on bookshelves for less than two months, “Ski Inc. 2020” already requires some updating — the book lists Sugarbush Resort in its chapter on successful “independents.”
Not anymore — Alterra announced in mid-November it was buying Sugarbush.
Murphy said the local team tends to tune out that noise and leave the mergers and acquisitions to the folks in Colorado.
“I don’t get caught up in how Sugarbush is going to affect our business,” Murphy said. “Our job is to concentrate on the best guest experience for the guests that come to Stowe.”
Wise said a major initiative this season is “improving our staff friendliness and staff helpfulness,” so that management to janitorial staff are all putting on a cheerful face when talking to customers. Wise said no specific incident led to prioritizing this, but said it was “driven by” guest data from surveys people fill out after they visit.
The platform they use churns out something called a “net promoter score,” which attempts to gauge four elements of a guest’s experience: their levels of happiness, excitement, safety and relaxation.
“Those four emotions are key drivers of their overall experience,” Wise said. “And, certainly, staff have the opportunity to have the greatest influence on those emotions.”
Driving the local economy
Murphy was with Vail well before Vail planted its flag in New England, but he and his family have become familiar faces in town. He’s regularly seen at select board meetings or skating at the town arena, and his kids are seen playing with other Stowe youth.
He’s also a familiar presence at the mountain, giving high-fives to people in the lift line, shoveling snow and catching some turns.
Wise has been with Stowe for more than 25 years, starting as a snowboard instructor. Friday, he talked with Murphy about some runs he took during midday with the crew, stressing the importance of everybody strapping in and playing at least part of the day.
But the resort itself remains something of an enigma when it comes to its relationship with the town and the rest of Lamoille County.
Consider how Smugglers’ Notch Resort owner Bill Stritzler touts his company’s contributions to the local economy and employment picture at meetings of the Lamoille Chamber of Commerce or the Lamoille Economic Development Corp.
The same goes for employers like Manufacturing Solutions Inc., Concept2, Copley Hospital and Northern Vermont University.
Surely, Stowe Mountain Resort is one of the county’s largest employers, and might even be the top one. But Murphy and Wise are not prepared to talk about their employment picture, at least not at a Friday meet-and-greet at the local newspaper when their talking points included a new sport shop and waffle house. (See story, p.1)
“We're not comfortable sharing the exact numbers, but I could say that we're always looking for more,” Murphy said. “We’re not fully staffed.”
When pressed to describe what role the resort plays in the overall regional economic picture, Murphy said it’s “an important component to the economic driver of this community and the region.”
Asking Stowe Mountain Resort people to paint a picture of their employment situation is akin to asking for the recipe for Coca-Cola. The numbers are internal.
But Murphy agreed that he and his crew ought to try, sometime, to tout their contributions to the local economy.
Certainly, the Vail corporation has been generous. There’s Epic Promise, which has donated $8.6 million to more than 250 nonprofits working on environmental and youth programs. Ten local nonprofits last year received a total of $35,000 from the fund.
And this week, Vail CEO Rob Katz and his wife announced they are making $2.8 million in grants available to support behavioral wellness programs around the country. Of that, $245,050 will go to the Vermont Community Foundation to support 11 community-based behavioral health projects and organizations across New Hampshire and Vermont, including Stowe.