On March 1, 2023

Okemo: Innovative vision, entrepreneurs lead to success

By Karen D. Lorentz

One of the nation’s most successful ski resorts since the 1990s, Okemo, like many mountains, had humble beginnings. The vision of its founders, the approaches to problem solving, and the hard work of its leaders, however, made a tremendous difference for the community-started ski area. 

Okemo’s progress was tortoise-like steady for its first 26 years but once it changed hands in 1982, it became Vermont’s fastest growing ski resort. A primary focus on the ski product along with teamwork, management, service and the development of more slopeside residences enabled the ski area to transition to a popular and profitable year-round resort, a rare phenomenon in the challenging ski business.

Community support

Skiing on Okemo began in the early 1900s with skiers “skinning up” to ski down or engaging in ski jumping contests on its lower flanks. Local Finns and Norwegians introduced townspeople to skiing and ski jumping and made skis for them. Athletic clubs sponsored ski meets and winter dances in the 1920s and 1930s and snow trains brought Appalachian Mountain Club skiers to the mountain the week of Feb. 19-26, 1921, providing one of the earliest President’s Day weeks for Okemo.

Vermont State Forester Perry Merrill, who had purchased 4,000 acres in 1935 for mountain recreation — and the “Best Ski Ground in New England” — found his plans stymied when some politicians opposed his “extravagant” use of state dollars for recreation during the Great Depression. 

But with Ludlow’s previously prosperous wool and woodworking mills dying by the 1950s, a group of local leaders were eager to attract new business to the town and pursued a ski area. They leased state land on the upper mountain, and the state constructed a ski shelter/restaurant building and parking lot below.

Okemo Mountain, Inc. was incorporated on January 11, 1955 with $300 from the sale of stock ($10 a share) to 27 incorporators. They bought private land on the lower mountain for ski operations and set up a board of directors to oversee ski area development. Former FIS racer Andrew Titcomb checked out the mountain, proclaimed it “FANTASTIC,” and drew up plans for the first lifts and trails. 

Enthusiasm ran high for the ski area due to its exposure, potential for long runs, snow-pocket location, and a town in its backyard. Titcomb noted it was “one of five ski areas in the country with an existing town at its base.” 

Whereas many areas were started with out-of-state investors, Okemo was unique because the directors chose only to sell stock to Vermonters, reasoning that it would be too expensive and time consuming to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The budget for two lifts, trails, warming huts, restrooms, and working capital was $125,000. Almost $100,000 worth of stock was raised in three months — most in small lots to people within a 30-mile radius of Ludlow. The corporation continued to issue stock as well as take out loans and reinvest profits to fund capital improvements. 

Because there were limits to the amounts that could be raised, however, buying and selling land for skier homes was put forth as a way to move the mountain forward by building a loyal base of families.

All ski home, path to success

The board formally adopted a policy of buying land to sell for second homes in 1960. The decision to establish an on-mountain bed base was part of a vision to create a year-round family resort. It made Okemo one of the first ski areas in the U.S. to promote trailside homes and the first in Vermont to begin a mountainside village with ski-on and ski-off access. 

From the first construction of five homes in 1961, first development and sale of lots in 1963, and the first hotel-styled ski lodge built in 1964 (on a commercial lot sold to its developers), Okemo continued to purchase and sell land to foster slopeside homes and condos. 

When Tim and Diane Mueller became new owners of Okemo in 1982, they were aware of the potential for building more ski-on/ski-off condominiums and homes because the Okemo 1982 Master Plan noted the possibility of $2 million in gross land sales from a 45-acre trailside property the area had purchased. 

Their first condo project on the main mountain began in 1983 with Kettle Brook and extended through the development of Solitude Village (condos, homes) starting in 1995 and the Village at Jackson Gore begun in 2003.

By 1996, Okemo had 1,012 units for a total of 6,900 beds on the mountain and by 2006 that number had risen close to 1,500 units (with 2006 construction of 221 units at Jackson Gore included) and a total of well over 10,000 beds on the mountain, a record not only in Vermont but the East as well, and eventually rising to over 15,000 beds. 

Real estate profits fueled mountain growth with new lifts and trails and increased snowmaking and programing. But it was not the only source of revenues as Okemo became very profitable from operations. Together, profits were continuously reinvested in the mountain for Vermont’s biggest snowball effect — a meteoric rise to number two in skier visits by 1996.

Moving up with Natur Teknik, ingenuity

The road to profitability and success had been paved in Okemo’s founding years with other pioneering moves as well. One was the 1963 adoption of the Natur Teknik, a way to teach parallel skiing from the start on the long skis of the day; it had some great results at Okemo with ski school business becoming a profit center. 

Okemo promoted Natur Teknik by building a mobile Swiss ski chalet. Constructed with a specially carpeted roof section that could be unfurled and skied on, instructors used it to demonstrate Natur Teknik, thus bringing attention to the mountain and ski school. The chalet traveled to ski and travel shows in Boston, Hartford, and Albany; to the Eastern States Exposition; and to the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

The ski area became so popular in the 1960s that the oft-expanded base lodge/warming hut had to be replaced by a bigger facility. The $400,000 cost was prohibitive so the board sold land to a group of supporters who raised the funds to build the lodge (1968) and then leased it back to Okemo with an option to buy (done in 1979).

The 1970s proved challenging. The Vermont Flood of 1973 wreaked havoc on the mountain. The national oil crisis, gasoline shortages, weak economy, inflation, rising interest rates, and “no-snow seasons” hurt all ski areas in 1973, 1974, 1980, and 1981. More competition from the new Western “destination ski resorts” affected ski-week business, and Act 250 constraints and land-gains taxes hit about the same time.

But unlike many ski areas that succumbed to money problems during these trying years — many Vermont areas experienced bankruptcy and most changed ownership between 1970 and 1982 with some going out of business permanently — Okemo surmounted its challenges.

Flood damage was fixed, snowmaking (first installed in 1966) was expanded three times (1972, 1977, 1981), and a third chairlift  was installed (1971). In an ingenious move, General Manager Dave Rock obtained a source for gasoline and put in pumps so Okemo could “guarantee” skiers gas to get home. When he got calls from other ski areas, he sold gas to them, from Bromley and Magic all the way to Stowe. 

After enduring the winter of 1980 when the upper mountain could only be skied four days due to lack of natural snow, Okemo installed snowmaking to the top in 1981. Very few areas had this capability, but while giving the area a competitive edge, it also meant using funds needed to replace the aging Red Pomalift with a chairlift.

Okemo had grown to 175,000 skier visits in a good year, but with the devastating no-snow 1979-80 season and poor weather 1980-81, visits plummeted. Although they bounced back to 146,000 for 1982, their lender pulled Okemo’s line of credit, effectively curtailing replacement of the Red.

To remain a major family area in the industry, Okemo hired Sno-Engineering, a nationally renowned resort planner, to develop a new master plan in the late 1970s. It noted Okemo’s potential to become a “major destination resort” but also spelled out deficits and the need for $8 million in improvements. 

Stymied, the board of directors faced standing still and losing Okemo’s competitive edge or moving forward with a new owner with the means to make the necessary changes. To go from a shareholder-owned ski area to a private one was seen as a necessary sacrifice; a way to fulfill the mountain’s potential to be one of New England’s finest family resorts. 

Big dreams realized

Okemo was the longest most successful community-owned and supported Vermont area before it changed hands in 1982. The Muellers acquired the area having seen “a diamond-in-the-rough” and “the potential for Okemo to be a major New England destination resort.” 

With experience in building homes in Vermont as well as in operating and enlarging a beach resort in the Caribbean, they spruced up the area, promised a new lift for the 1983-84 season, and instilled in staff the importance of customer service. They placed a priority on great customer service in the early 1980s as a way to make a difference in guest experiences as they proceeded on a path of lift upgrades and mountain expansion. They put a priority on grooming and snowmaking — a snowmaking pond for water storage was built in 1990— and Okemo gained a reputation for having good, reliable conditions. 

The area increased its daycare options, expanded family and ski school programs, added more packages, and catered to youngsters with a halfpipe (the first in Vermont) and new terrain parks. When guests requested high speed detachable quads for Solitude Peak and South Face, Okemo obliged. 

Okemo became a true year-round destination resort with the addition of the Jackson Gore slopeside village. The Inn, outdoor pool, condos, Roundhouse (cafeteria that converts to an impressive banquet facility), Spring House  (aquatic, fitness facility), and Ice House (skating, summer tennis facility) along with the close-by Okemo golf course (winter Nordic skiing, snowshoeing) further enhanced its appeal and reputation.

Little wonder then that when looking to expand to the East, Vail Resorts made a surprise offer to purchase the area in 2018. While Covid delayed some plans, the new ownership carried on the innovative approach by offering Epic passes and continued the improvement focus by replacing the Jackson Gore bubble quad with a new six-seat detachable lift and  the Green triple with the bubble quad renaming the Evergreen lift. 

Vail Resorts’ vision of providing “epic experiences” is in line with that of the founders when they envisioned Okemo as a great family mountain. Ironically, the parent is once again a shareholder-owned company — albeit a larger one with 40 mountains worldwide.

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