The lifts are spinning and hundreds of thousands of season pass holders, little ski racers, family ski packs and weekend warriors have been getting their passes scanned, forking over 15 bucks for cheeseburgers, and making the most of what in my opinion is the heart of the ski season – the holidays. Now through the end of March, we all know it’s game on.
But let’s take a peek behind that beige door at the end of the hall in the trailer-like building with the really bad, old carpet and the cubicles and ski posters from the 1980s. What happens in that room, with that giant adding machine on an old metal desk — what’s behind the business of snow?
Like the sign at Arapahoe Basin’s Black Mountain Lodge says, “Ski bums aren’t born, they’re made.” That sign always rang true for me, a southern boy who ran away to Colorado after high school way back in 1990. My fist Vail pass cost $180 bucks and we ruled the Beaver Creek sidecountry, most of which is now in bounds.
The soul of working in winter sports is something that is best felt, rather than explained, but I reached out to few industry folks to try and understand how the magic behind the curtain really happens.
Working in the snowsports industry can sometimes fell like that illustration of human evolution from the Simpsons, where Homer evolves from the bottom of the gene pool to the top of the food chain, and back down again. But that’s actually one of the cool things about working on the mountain, says SIA’s Kelly Blake — every job is super important, and it takes a team to pull it all off each day. From snow makers to lifties to upper management, we all have to be there for people to come and enjoy a day of skiing and riding. There’s a reason why we’re all in it, and that’s the soul of the sport.
“Most, if not all, ski areas are looking for new enthusiastic people to join their teams, not only for seasonal work, but year-round employees, and most resorts are hoping to find people to build upon their management staff. You may have read recently, that there are many, many ski area exec’s that are now in there late 50’s and 60’s, and there will soon by a new wave of key people in our snow industry,” said Eric Flynn, VP & COO of Snow Time Inc., the parent company that owns Liberty, Roundtop and Whitetail resorts in Pennsylvania. Flynn is currently putting in his last year as GM of Liberty Mountain Resort before moving on to focus on the three resort operations, large capital projects and employee development to help build strong managers in key resort positions.
“My advice for young folks who what a career in snowsports at the resort level is to look around for those resorts that have needs, and try to get in as an entry- or mid-level position somewhere, making sure to let HR and the management staff know that you have interest in a resort operations career,” said Flynn. “Look for ways to grow in responsibility. Make yourself noticeable by making useful and smart suggestions to improve resort operation and guest experience. Continue to look for growth opportunities. Every good resort manager is looking for energetic, happy young people who are really focused on what they do at the resort. Every season we keep our eyes open for these young people and they are the people we keep after the season, hoping to grow them in other areas at the resort.”
And yes, that’s how Flynn got his start. “My first job at a ski area was at Wilmont, Wisconsin, which was just acquired by Vail. I was 14 and a bus boy in food service. Loved to ski and wanted to work at the mountain, or hill really, and from there went to the rental shops and other duties. While going to college I worked as a snowmaker at a few other ski areas in southern Wisconsin, all the while, growing and loving this business more and more.” Flynn told me that by the time he was 25 he knew he was going to make a career in the resort business, he just enjoyed being at a ski resort so much, and personally I remember feeling the same way.
The National Ski Areas Association asked resorts to identify the factors that will have the biggest impact on business in the next five years. “By far the weather (typically consistent/predictable/cold weather, as well as climate change) and the economy” were the two most frequently cited factors. “Other challenges identified include demographics and the ability to attract Millennial participants, Boomers exiting snowsports, finding adequate staffing, access to capital to fund infrastructure improvements, increased costs, and competing activities/limited time for skiers.
Positive opportunities were cited in “technology with associated efficiencies and marketing opportunities, improved air and ground access, growing local populations, embracing more demographically diverse customers, attracting and converting newcomers to snowsports, pass partnerships, increased lodging options and other capital investments, and increased summer activities.”
Ski industry organizations together estimate that tens of thousands of jobs are generated through snowsports and the 463 resorts that ran lifts in the U.S. last year. And whether you are busing tables, parking cars, pouring resin, instructing, patrolling, climbing towers, or working in admin in some capacity, there are no unimportant jobs.
You probably know that more than a third of all goods in the industry are sold between Black Friday and December 31. Some of the top brands in the industry are potentially up for sale. Holiday bookings are as arbitrary as the Farmer’s Almanac and whether or not snow flies in November, or last Christmas. And the way resorts have learned to adapt and make money with less predictable snow is the subject of another article entirely.
But sometimes it’s shocking just how much goes into a season on snow. Snow Park Technologies co-owner and vice president Genevieve Gunnarson and husband/founder Chris “Gunny” Gunnarson have been providing competitive on-snow freestyle event course design and construction services for the last 20 years, and their vision led to a business relationship with ESPN for the Winter X Games.
Over the years other long-term relationships have developed, leading to SPT’s involvement in hundreds of special projects and world-class competitive events. To complement its on-snow design/build services, the company developed and implemented a program for the winter sports resort industry, encompassing terrain park design/build services, risk management and marketing. More recently, additional services in the areas of action sport event management and media production/content services were added to the company’s portfolio.
“From the beginning of our careers, Gunny and I were both determined to work in the snow industry. Gunny has been involved in the snowsports world since the early 1990s when aspirations of a professional snowboard career led to him working as a snowboard patroller at Snow Summit, which made him the de facto park guy,” Genevieve told me. “From there he went on the become the Director of Snowboarding at Snow Summit, and at the same time, the X Games approached him about designing and building the first Winter X Games courses in 1997.”
In addition to SPT, from 2002 to 2011 Gunny was also the Vice President of Youth Market Development at Booth Creek Ski Holdings – the holding company that, at the time, owned and operated among seven total resorts, Northstar, Sierra-at-Tahoe and Bear Mountain. In 2009 Gunny became the snowboard sport organizer for Winter X Games and today SPT plays an expanded role with all X Games events with respect to athlete services, hospitality and assists with general development of aspects of both winter and summer events. In addition to the projects and services that SPT is known for, Gunny also serves in various capacities around the industry in the overall development of snowsports and action sports on a regional and global level.
Said Genevieve: “I started in ski school and eventually worked my way into various sales and marketing positions for Bear Mountain, Snow Summit, Sierra at Tahoe and Northstar. I started in customer service, marketing departments such as guest services, but eventually was able to focus on specific marketing disciplines like public relations, advertising, events, branding, content creation, direct marketing, social marketing, etc. Where my career has stemmed from an academic approach and background, Gunny’s has come through his passion and enthusiasm for bringing the experience to life.”
“We believe that everyone in our industry must continue to evolve and work together to find new and creative ways to connect to participants,” she told me. “As barriers to entry increase, it’s all of our responsibilities to introduce new participants and continue to motivate past and current participants to engage in winter sports. We got into this business because we love snowsports. And our aim is to work with our industry colleagues to collectively and continuously revitalize the experience as far and wide as possible.”