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October 8, 2014

Killington takes first step to create world-class downhill mountain biking

Killington takes first step to create world-class downhill mountain biking

Consulting firm Gravity Logic say Killington could see 50,000 bikers annual, if the master plan is followed to completion.  “There is nowhere in the east that has the potential that Killington  has,” said Dave Kelly, co-founder of Gravity Logic, the consulting company Killington hired to design and build an improved mountain bike trail systems. “We have done many feasibility studies and we’re honest with folks, if they don’t have the right components we tell them not to bother… but Killington has all the right components in place.”

Over the past few months, Kelly and his team members Blane Taylor and John Cowan from Gravity Logic, in partnership with Killington Resort, have mapped out a detailed 5-year plan, a broad 5-10 year plan and a very broad 10-15 year plan.

The master plan includes not only trail design, but plans for marketing, instruction, and an improved rental bike fleet that caters to all levels.

Gravity Logic was founded upon the success of the Whistler Mountain Bike Park in Vancuver, British Columbia. In 2005, that park brought in more money than Whistler’s three golf courses combined! That was six years after downhill mountain bike trails were first established on Whistler Mountain and about the same year Gravity Logic was officially formed. It’s success continues to grow. Also impressive, a single event called “Crankworks” brings in $2 million per day to the community over a 10 day period for a total of 20 million dollars, according to Cowan.

Dave Kelly has been involved with the Whistler Mountain Bike Park since it first opened in 1999. He eventually bought Gravity Logic, then a division of Whistler Blackcomb, from the resort with co-founders  Rob Cocquyt and Tom Prochazka. Since then he has been offering trail development advice to resorts throughout North America and Europe.

Kelly, as well as most of the team members in the company, have worked in the ski industry for 20-25 years in various positions, so they know the common challenges and advantages that exist within the ski business model. “It works well,” Kelly noted.

This summer Gravity Logic is working with 12 different resorts across the country, Killington among them.

Paraphrasing a tagline from a TV commercial, Kelly says “We didn’t build them all, we just made them better,” which accurately illustrates Gravity Logic’s role at many resorts, like Killington, that have existing bike trails but haven’t been able to attract the crowds that Whistler has seen.

At a community meeting in June, Killington executives acknowledged the need for summer growth and their strong belief that mountain biking could deliver that. They chose to partner with Gravity Logic based on their proven track record of success. “These guys know what they’re doing and we’ve committed to a plan that we’re confident will bring results,” said Resort President Mike Solimano.

Despite being one of the first in the country to offer lift-serve downhill mountain biking (opening 23 years ago), Killington has not seen much growth, especially compared to other resorts in recent years. Kelly is not surprised.

“Typically bike parks at ski areas don’t offer the right product,” Kelly explained. “There is just too much vertical.” Before opening lower trails and retrofitting the Snowshed quad for bikes this summer, all downhill riders at Killington had to face a 1,700 foot vertical from the top of K1 to the base.

“That can take hours for some people and scare them away forever,” said Kelly. “Although they are working hard at developing more family friendly product, most of what they [currently] have is comparable to a ski mountain that offers only double black diamonds with no grooming so there are 10-foot moguls to contend with, too… it only caters to a very small percentage of riders.”

“Often ski resorts over-estimate the slope angle needed for biking,” John Cowan said. “It is much less than skiing.”

A typical bike trail runs between 5-12 percent while a ski trail runs anywhere from 10-90 percent, Kelly explained. (The percentage of slope angle should not be confused with slope degree. For example a 100 percent slope equals 45 degrees; a 12 percent slope equals about 6 degrees.)

Biking is growing exponentially across the country and worldwide, with the biggest growth coming from bike parks, but the masses will never be “extreme,” just like in skiing and riding, Cowan added.

The Killington Plan

Phase 1 of the master plan calls for the development of Snowshed as the main base area for biking. It will have ticketing, proper marketing (“with photos of a family riding together, for example, rather than big air” Kelly noted) and full services including guided rides. It will also be the main hub for Killington’s additional summer businesses such as zip lines, ropes courses and a mountain coaster.

Snowshed offers ideal terrain for progression, Kelly explained. The 500 vertical from the top of Snowshed is much  friendlier and less intimidating for beginner and intermediate riders, and it’s not as much of a commitment, so folks can ease into the sport, he said.

There will be about half a dozen trails at Snowshed, which will include green, blue and black runs — a diverse mix to encourage progression, but no double black, by design, Kelly explained. Short trails will connect the top of Snowshed to the bottom of K1 via blue and black runs (no green trails to K1, by design), he continued.

“Everyone knows how to ride a bike, which should make the sport accessible to everyone,” said Kelly. “However, there are many tips and tricks to learn with downhill mountain biking that most folks just don’t know, which is why it’s important to offer guided rides.”

One example of a common misconception is “only use your back brake” when going down hill. Kelly recently heard a parent give this advice to their kid, “It’s terrible advice, both brakes are needed,” he said. “This outlines the importance of being taught by properly trained coaches who will ensure guests have the best possible experience… it dramatically increases the likelihood of visitors returning and the likelihood of them recommending the experience to others.”

Kelly recommends that Killington Resort offer 2- hour guided rides that take riders on the natural progression of trails as they were designed. This way, folks will feel comfortable and learn proper techniques early, which will help them to best enjoy the experience, he said. The guided tours should be affordably price to encourage everyone to take part, as doing so has the best track record of developing repeat visitors, Kelly added.

Gravity Logic has also been working with Rich McCoy, retail director at Killington, and the bike team, which includes Jay “Rosie” Rosenbaum, Corey Tredtin and Will Conroy, advising them on what bikes and sizes to carry in the fleet. “Killington has a pretty good rental fleet and program already,” said Kelly, adding that it’s also important that a bike be the right fit for body type and varied rider styles (cautious to aggressive,  similar to skiing and riding.)

Projected success and growth:

“Our projections are incredibly reliable because we’ve done this before,” said Kelly. “If the resort follows the master plan and capital plan we have outlined, we’re confident they will see the same success as over two dozen other resorts that we have advised.”

So when Kelly says, “There is nowhere in the East that has the potential that Killington has,” his excitement is justified. Kelly bases that statement on analysis of the four major components Gravity Logic has identified for a successful downhill mountain biking location. Those components are: 1) Geography/natural terrain, 2) Infrastructure (lifts, lodges, parking, etc.), 3) Destination amenities (bars, restaurants and other activities nearby, “an apres scene that is not  a generic chain restaurant off the interstate, is very important,” he noted) and 4) enough beds nearby to host the growing crowds.

“Killington easily has 10-15 years of growth potential,” Kelly said confidently. “But meeting projections also requires community buy-in.”

Facilities need to be bike-friendly, he added. “It won’t work if signs start appearing that say ‘no bikes allowed’ or if folks across the region don’t recommend Killington to their guests.”

Gravity Logic works off a business model that typically sees about 35-40 percent of the total revenue in ticket sales — the rest comes from retail, rentals and programming such as guided tours and camps. Food and beverage and area lodging revenues also typically see significant growth throughout the region, Kelly explained.

Whether or not the residents of Killington vote to repeal the 1 percent option tax in March will be an indication of whether or not the community “buys in” to the resort’s plans for growth, Killington executives say. “If we have access to that capital, the plans will be able to progress faster,” Rob Megnin has said.

Kelly hopes that Killington will have the resources to “go full steam into plan as soon as snow melts… If that happens, the goal would be to have Snowshed build out by July 1, 2015,” he said.

Once Phase 1 is “financially successful,” Killington will begin Phase 2 of the master plan, which will develop trails at Ramshead.

“I’d estimate 2-3 years before dirt starts moving at Ramshead,” said Kelly, if all goes according to plan. “It definitely will not be next year, but it could be as soon as the following spring… that depends on a variety of factors.”

Phase 2 will connect the bottom of K1 with the bottom of Ramshead.

When the three lifts (Snowshed, K1 and Ramshead) are running at full capacity, Killington will be able to service over 100,000 bikers/year, Kelly said. But that won’t happen immediately. In five years, Kelly projects Killington will see 35,000 bikers annually, and in ten years 50,000 visitors should be easily achievable he predicts.

Moving forward

When the Gravity Logic team leaves this week, the project “will pretty much be put on hold until the spring, as the resort will shift its focus to winter,” Kelly said.

While there is no long-term written contract between Killington Resort and Gravity Logic, that’s no reason for concern. “That’s how we work,” said Kelly. “We never have long-term written contracts with resorts… There are really no other companies doing what we’re doing. Although, it’s possible that a resort could decide to do it on their own, once they see what we do they usually understand that they need our help — after all they brought us in because what they were doing before wasn’t working to create the growth they want.”

However, if Killington decides to significantly scale back the plan because they don’t have the initial investment to get started at full-steam, (which will obviously affect the overall success) Gravity Logic may choose to take a lesser roll in the development.

“Our reputation counts on resorts following through with full plan, we are only as successful as our last job,” explained Kelly. But he doubts that will be the case. “Ski resorts are usually very trustworthy. It’s a small community, really, and it’s never to their advantage to say they’re doing one thing and then not follow through.”

Only two clients out of about three dozen Gravity Logic has consulted, have “blatantly not followed their plan,” said Kelly. “They aren’t failing, but they continue to hovering at mediocrity.”

“With all the potential that Killington has, we hope that won’t be their fate,” he said. “We’re very excited to see this plan through to completion and we are confident in its success.”

By Polly Lynn

Photo by Chandler Burgess

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