Courtesy of Okemo Mountain Resort
The Sunburst Six lift debuted at Okemo last season. A second bubble lift is planned, plus more.
Killington invests 6.5 million this year; Okemo adds new lifts
By Karen D. Lorentz
They are the top two ski resorts in Vermont, traditionally reaping about one-third of the state’s skier visits annually. They’re also tops in the East and consistently rank among the top 15 in the country.
Befitting that status, the resorts of Killington/Pico and Okemo continue to make improvements for the upcoming winter that focus on guest comfort and the skiing and riding experience. They do so through use of the latest technology and innovative programs that keep the resorts competitive, both within Vermont and nationally.
“The ongoing improvements at Killington and Okemo for lift and snowmaking upgrades, as well as significantly expanded summer activities, continue to strengthen their already formidable presence in the market and, when combined with all of the other resorts across the state, are a huge factor in keeping Vermont the number one ski state in the East,” commented Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association.
The 2014-15 winter saw Vermont post a record 4.6 million skier visits and Killington reported skier visits up 9 percent over the prior season, which was also above average. “We had a tremendous winter with snowmaking production to match, and, once again posted the longest season in the East,” Killington and Pico President and General Manager Mike Solimano said.
Okemo reported similar success. “Last winter was very good for Okemo. We saw increases in revenue across many departments, and our skier visit numbers were very strong at over 600,000, up 6 percent,” reports Bonnie MacPherson, Okemo’s public relations director.
Key to the resorts’ popularity is continued investments in mountain improvements. Known for reliable snow conditions and lift service, they continue to focus on snowmaking and lift upgrades among other changes and utilize the latest technology to create a superlative guest experience. In doing so, they contribute to the region’s economy through tourism dollars, various taxes, local spending, and employment.
Killington and Pico
In addition to the recent $3.5 million investment in summer offerings at Snowshed Adventure Center, which have doubled summer business to date over last year, Killington is investing over $3 million in a variety of winter upgrades.
Over $1 million in snowmaking infrastructure upgrades include: pipeline replacements at Killington and Pico; a redesign and relocation of the snowmaking infrastructure on Superstar; hydrant and water pump rebuilds; and new snowmaking hose.
The Superstar changes are significant for the potential to improve snowmaking coverage and snow depth at the lower-elevation base of the trail so that this popular end-of-the-season trail can extend the season as long as possible. Whales of snow — produced by snowguns — have traditionally kept the top half of this trail skiable into May and sometimes June, and now the capability on the lower half, as well as areas that see wear and tear, will enhance the resort’s ability to offer an even longer season, conditions permitting. “It goes to our commitment to the spring product and to stay open as long as we can,” Rob Megnin, resort director of marketing and sales, said of the Superstar upgrade.
About $600,000 will go into lift upgrades at Killington and Pico. A new Piston Bully Park Pro (terrain park) grooming machine, new ticket scanners, trail edgings and widenings, and various Snowshed and Killington (Access) Road pavings add another $600,000 in improvements.
In continued efforts to upgrade training facilities for the Killington Mountain School’s Trails Initiative and competitions programs, $600,000 is being spent for a permanent bag jump on lower Superstar and a new unload mid-station on the Snowdon Triple, which will greatly enhance the training venue. The latter will quicken access to the Highline Trail, which underwent major changes last year to facilitate both racing and moguls training for KMS.
Additionally, Ovations restaurant in the Grand Hotel is getting a $750,000 remodel for an updated and upscale look. Interior changes include new décor, upscale facades, relocation of the bar for a pub atmosphere, and a few more seats for dining, Megnin said.
The resort also made a significant 20-year purchase agreement with Namaste Solar that will hopefully stabilize the cost of energy, save money, and reduce the resort’s carbon footprint, noted Killington spokesman Michael Joseph.
Colorado-based Namaste has partnered with SunEdison, Inc. (NYSE: SUNE), the world’s largest renewable energy development company, which will build six 500-kilowatt solar arrays in Vermont that will supply Killington with 3 megawatts of power annually. SunEdison has developed a high purity silicon (used in solar arrays) which uses 90 percent less energy and enables the company to deliver renewable energy at a price competitive with conventional resources, according to its website.
“The 4,700 megawatt-hours of new solar generated electricity will cover all energy needs required to pump water to snowguns on ski trails at both Killington and Pico,” Joseph said, noting this contract is part of the resorts’ “commitment to sustainability and being the greenest resort in Vermont.”
Killington and Pico have seen $20 million in upgrades in the last three years, including the new Peak Lodge and summer investments, and a total of over $40 million in lifts, snowmaking, and infrastructure since being acquired by corporate parent Powdr Corp in May 2007.
Okemo Mountain Resort is upgrading the Jackson Gore Express Quad with new bubble-covered chairs. The renamed Quantum Four will make Okemo the first and only resort in North America to feature multiple bubble chairlifts.
“Last year’s installation of the Sunburst Six was a game changer for Okemo. It really had an effect on the way skiers and riders accessed the mountain, and it changed traffic patterns on trails as a result. Adding another bubble chair this year was just one of the most logical improvements we could make,” noted MacPherson.
“We are also trying to improve the level of convenience for our guests this year with the introduction of RFID lift access,” she said of the implementation of the new Real.Easy Card. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) makes it possible for skiers and riders with these cards to keep them safely tucked in a pocket while being scanned making getting on a lift easier and faster. Once the card is purchased at a ticket window, it can be reloaded online so skiers and riders can go directly to the lifts on subsequent visits.
Snowmaking is also being added to two trails at Jackson Gore, White Lightning and Rolling Thunder, which increases Okemo’s snowmaking coverage to 98 percent of its trails.
Okemo is building a new chairlift and trail below its South Face area. The Sunshine Quad, a new fixed-grip Leitner-Poma chairlift, will connect the Village Center of the new SouthFace Village at Okemo to the existing South Face Express Quad and will provide access to the new Suncatcher trail. The resort is managing mountain operations and trail maintenance for the new village, which is being built by developer SouthFace Village at Okemo Development Company LLC.
“We have always put the guest experience first. State-of-the-art lifts and snowmaking are the heart of the skiing experience, so this is one more example of maintaining that standard,” commented Okemo Mountain Resort President Tim Mueller of the lift and snowmaking changes.
Okemo is adding another new Prinoth 500 horsepower Beast to its grooming fleet and the Tomahawk terrain park is getting further upgrades.
Reciprocity and pass perks
Okemo and Killington teamed up several years ago to make the region more attractive to skiers and riders. Both resorts now offer passes that include free ski days at the other. This reciprocity does good things for the region, Megnin notes.