Winter 98-99 University of Denver Alumni Journal—pages 8-9

This Isn't Your Father's Ski Resort

By Bonnie Taher

It wasn't so long ago that the "Colorado ski experience" meant skiing, period.

In simpler times, the ski industry's founders, many of whom had served in the legendary 10th Mountain Division during World War II, relied on Colorado's annual 300-plus inches of dry, crystalline powder snow and 300-plus sunny days to draw hordes of visitors to their cozy, rustic resorts.

That was a fine strategy for the first 30 years or so. But by the mid-'70s, the ski business began to change, gradually at first and then with the momentum of an avalanche.

Just 10 years later, winter ski resorts had become a year-round industry, driven by market research, technology, demographics and fierce competition. Where once Colorado ski resorts vied against Stowe, Snowbird and Sun Valley for the vacationer’s dollar, they suddenly faced piracy on the high seas, as flotillas of cruise ships and destination resorts like Las Vegas and Disney World wooed their customers. Many Colorado ski resorts found themselves engaged in a battle for survival.

Survival of the Fittest

In plotting their survival strategies, a number of resorts enlisted the expertise of DU’s School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management (HRTM). Since the 10th Mountain Division’s ex-commandos first started grooming the slopes in 1946, the school has been cultivating professional managers for the hospitality industry. Over the years, just as the rope tow gave way to high-speed quad chairlifts, resort managers have evolved from sunburned ski bums into highly skilled financial, marketing, management and analytical specialists—who still love to ski.

Skiing made the DU-resort connection a natural. DU's prize-winning ski team, under famed coach Willy Schaeffler, attracted many talented skiers who wanted rewarding careers that could be combined with the sport they loved. Proximity to some of the world's finest skiing, plus DU's nationally recognized hospitality program—one of the oldest in the United States — offered an ideal career-training opportunity.

DU trustee Otto Tschudi is one such HRTM skier/grad. Tschudi completed the program in 1975, after a few time-outs to rack up five NCAA alpine skiing titles. Although he didn't remain in the hospitality industry (he's a partner in the San Francisco investment banking firm Montgomery Securities), Tschudi credits DU with providing "a balance between the physical and scholastic environments" that prepared him for the competitive rigors of big business.

In Tschudi's student days, "balance" meant athletics and academics. Today, the term also refers to the increasingly specialized aspects of this business, says Robert O'Halloran, associate professor and interim HRTM director. "As more ski resorts are being bought or run by real estate investment trusts, asset management and quantitative analysis are becoming more important. We prepare our students to become leaders on the financial side, as well as on the operations side."

Still, it's not the quantitative analysis that the visitor notices. It’s the operations side—the groomed slopes, the silky linens, the attentive service. Tom Piffarerio, a 1998 HRTM grad who served an internship at Vail’s Sonnenalp Resort, says, "I learned how to interact with people, how to exceed guests' expectations."

Guest relations represents just one side of the coin. Resorts also expect up-to-date business and technological know-how, and "DU did an excellent job of preparing me for that," Piffarerio says.

Technology Rules!
As most of Colorado's resort leaders acknowledge, technology has transformed the ski business. Keystone, for example, boasts a computerized snowmaking system that senses the air temperature at various levels and delivers precise mixtures of air and water to specific elevations.

Computer modeling and high-tech weather-prediction techniques let operators harness natural wind and snow patterns, nudging fresh snowfall where it's needed most. And slope grooming has become high art. "Today's snow cats are Swiss Army knives on tracks," marvels Jim Felton, director of communications at Breckenridge, a leading resort. "They have attachments that make powder, texturize and soften or layer the snow. There's even a snow cat on a winch that drags snow back up the slope after skiers have pushed it down."

Technology is at work behind the scenes, too. The humble lift ticket is no longer a tattered pasteboard slip dangling from a skier's parka. Now it's the gatekeeper for a comprehensive point-of-sale system that tracks, analyzes and responds to the visitor's every whim. "These systems tell us who's the [day] skier, who's staying here, what their expectations are and how we can meet them," says Tim Patterson, director of lodging, food and beverage at Keystone Resort. "We use the electronic information in many ways, from marketing to establishing operating standards and procedures." He credits DU's Peak MBA program, offered on site in Colorado's Summit County, with giving him the analytical tools to exploit the vast amount of data these systems generate.

Room at the Inn?
The industry's growing reliance on whiz-bang technology may have hastened a consolidation that would have happened anyway. "Larger companies can establish systems and synergies across bigger operations and function more efficiently," Patterson explains. Indeed, Vail Resorts Inc. (formerly Vail Associates) now owns and operates the Vail, Keystone and Breckenridge year-round resort and convention operations. Intrawest Corp., a Canadian developer, recently announced a $67 million capital improvement plan for Copper Mountain—including the state's first six-passenger chairlift.

Can small or medium-sized operations thrive among these mega-resorts? Absolutely, asserts Johannes Faessler, owner of the Sonnenalp, if they target their markets and provide exemplary service. For example, Faessler cultivates a European ambiance to appeal to a clientele that's increasingly international. "We have many guests from Mexico and Brazil, and Europe has grown tremendously as a market for us," he says. "Depending on the relative value of the currencies, it's often less expensive to travel to Vail than to visit a nearby resort in Europe."

But Craig Arseneau, a 1985 HRTM graduate who owns the Daily Grind Coffee House in Vail and Vail Mountain Coffee Roasters in nearby Minturn, notes that the move toward vertical integration makes it tougher for small businesses to compete. "It's the cruise-ship philosophy: They want every disposable dollar the guest has, so they're expanding their product lines from skiing into retail, hard and soft goods, and food and beverage." HRTM's emphasis on management fundamentals gave Arseneau a "realistic and reactive approach" to business that has enabled him to carve a niche in a business increasingly dominated by big-shouldered corporations.

With a Twist, Please
Even those born and bred in the hospitality industry, like third-generation hotelier Faessler, can gain essential business savvy from the HRTM program. As Faessler, a 1984 graduate, says, "The program gave me the management piece of the spectrum. It's a business degree with a twist."

That twist makes HRTM graduates highly employable anywhere in the hospitality industry—so employable that only about 10 to 15 percent remain in Colorado, O'Halloran estimates. For students who want to stay in the ski business, he says, "We stress infrastructure, lodging, food service and hospitality, as well as natural resource management and recreation planning. We also look at sustainable development, so a resort can make a profit and benefit the community."

The future looks bright for HRTM graduates ready to tackle the slopes in the new century. The "echo boom" generation—offspring of the baby boomers, whose parents got the snowball rolling in the first place—numbers 75 to 80 million potential new skiers!

Vertical integration? Quantitative analysis? Echo boom? No, this certainly isn't your father's ski resort.


Winter 98-99 Journal


Sidebar
One Father's Ski Resort

In the 1950s, when Mickey Blake (BA ‘65, MBA ‘79) was growing up at his father's New Mexico ski resort, skiing was a real adventure. Mickey's father, Ernie, opened Taos Ski Resort in what was then a remote, almost inaccessible valley. "Skiers were often marooned because we couldn't plow the road. That was OK with them; they just hauled uphill on the rope tow and skied another day."

The resort rented wooden skis, which had to be re-lacquered after every few rentals, and also sold equipment. "When Howard Head first marketed his metal ski, Dad agreed to sell them, but he didn't think they'd do well. After all, wood skis sold for a sixth of the $60 Heads," Blake recalls. Compare that to $600 for today's high-end, high-tech super skis that streamline the slopes for novices and experts alike.

Along with better skis came better trails. Until the mid-‘60s, Blake says, the snow cat was "just a little bulldozer with wide tracks" that leveled the moguls. It cost about $12,000. Modern groomers boast sticker prices upwards of $100,000.

As skiing grew too tame for the too-hip, snowboarding, snow bikes and even snow blades — mini-snowboards worn on each foot for a glide comparable to in-line skating — gradually entered the mainstream.

Apres ski, too, isn't what it used to be. The fireside songfests that passed for nightlife in the ‘50s gave way to Hard Rock Cafes and five-star restaurants. As for accommodations, the rustic lodge with its communal sleeping quarters has metamorphosed into lavish suites complete with personal Jacuzzis and heated towel bars.

But one thing time and technology can never change: the adventure of skiing itself. It's still a sport that offers a different challenge with every run down the slopes.


   
     

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