On March 8, 2023

A look back at Killington’s vision, tenacity and pioneering leadership

By Karen D. Lorentz

Sixty-four years ago on President’s Week, the Killington Ski Area was discovered by skiers, and they’ve flocked to the area ever since, making it the leader in Vermont and the East in skier visits.

That four Pomalifts were running on Killington Mountain that first season was testament to the vision and tenacity of its founder Preston Leete Smith. 

Eager to get into the ski business, Smith had visited Vermont Commissioner of Forests and Parks Perry Merrill in 1954 and was advised to check out Killington Mountain. 

Duly impressed, Smith returned to see Merrill, who said the state would lease the mountain to him and build an access road, parking lot, and ski shelter (as it had at Mt. Mansfield and Okemo).

With the support of his partners — Sue Smith, Mary and Joe Sargent and Wally Morrison — the Sherburne Corporation was formed in April 1956 with their investment of $1,250 in stock. 

Smith raised money through escrowed stock sales and then had to give it back and raise it all over again before he ever secured the leasehold agreement, which was conditioned upon an access road being built by the State of Vermont which was delayed to 1958. 

But with the same tenacity that he approached every challenge to the ski business, Smith persevered. Not only did he raise $127,500 through the sale of stock at $250 a share to open Killington on December 13, 1958, he eventually fulfilled a vision of creating a better ski experience. 

Innovation rules

Under Smith’s leadership, Killington pioneered many ski-area innovations. The area developed the ticket wicket; opened earlier and closed later, extending the ski season to six months; changed the snow report format; introduced novice terrain with chairlifts so beginners could have a better experience; developed innovative ski teaching methodologies; and pushed lift manufacturers to produce higher capacity lifts. They took grooming and snowmaking technologies to new heights as well. 

In the process, the area earned a reputation for offering the most terrain and the longest ski season in the East (and some years in the U.S.); the most dependable snow conditions; and an avant garde ski school which revolutionized ski teaching in the 1960s and 1970s.  

The willingness to experiment was set in motion by Smith when the Snowshed beginner area was built in 1961. The terrain was so flat that the lift manufacturer thought the engineering specifications were a mistake. Even Smith’s own staff thought the concept was risky, noting no one had ever seen such a gentle hill before let alone built a million-dollar beginner complex. 

But seeing the rising popularity of skiing and a need to teach first-timers, Smith was willing to invest in a new concept and the three-quarter mile long Snowshed trail quickly became so popular it had to be widened. 

Killington was not the first to install snowmaking, but it was the first to pioneer improvements and implement its own systems. This direction stemmed from the disastrous first installation of snowmaking on Snowshed in 1963, when the company responsible for the system misjudged the head of pressure that would build up in the aluminum pipe they installed. 

It blew up when turned on and from that point forward, Smith hired his own engineers to oversee snowmaking operations and to design snowguns and systems, including the early use of computers.

The commitment to snowmaking was initially based on insurance but soon transitioned to repair of skier wear and tear on trails and covering the mountain and the most extensive coverage in the East. With Killington’s jump on snowmaking, it was a leader in this field and even after others caught up in the 1990s, it continued to lead, first by accessing more water and then by going to low-energy guns.

Key turning point

Killington was the only ski area to say yes to an invitation from SKI Magazine to see if the short ski, which Clif Taylor had been teaching on, could serve as a learning tool to improve and accelerate the learning process. Many on Smith’s staff were skeptical and some scoffed at the notion of using “baby skis.” But Ski School Director Karl Pfeiffer saw the potential in preliminary tests in 1964, and in 1965-66 tests, he saw genuine promise in a radical new teaching system.

Working in conjunction with SKI, Killington developed the Graduated Length Method (GLM), which entailed learning on a 39-inch Head metal ski for two days, 5-footers for two more days, and skiing on a regular length ski on the fifth day. 

With snowmaking making it possible to guarantee snow for ski weeks and a promise of parallel skiing in just five days, Killington saw its ski week attendance skyrocket, processing 800-900 beginner ski weekers on a Sunday evening in the mid-1960s and 2,000 or more at peak times into the mid-1970s. 

 “It was the phenomenal midweek revenues from ski school that enabled Killington to grow, expand, and become so successful,” noted a former ski school director. (GLM gave way to Killington’s Accelerated Ski Method in the 1970s with special teaching stations. Perfect Turn and today’s plethora of lessons followed.)

Killington inaugurated a Uni-Ski Vacation for the 1966-67 season. It included a 5-day learn-to-ski package with GLM equipment and daily 2-hour lesson, lift ticket, après-ski social program, food, and lodging for $97 ($42 for skiing package, $57 for food/lodging) — about $912 today’s dollars, still remarkably cheap. The Uni-Ski Week made it easier for the new skier to take up the sport as Killington became the first ski area in the country to market a comprehensive ski package (offering both traditional and GLM learning options). 

R & D 

Whereas terrain on Skye Peak was originally deemed too wind and weather susceptible to be skiable and Bear Mountain was thought too steep to hold snow, Smith saw that the technologies of snowmaking and grooming — notably the development of the winch cat which occurred at Killington in 1984-1986 — would make it possible to offer lift-served skiing on these mountains. Thus Outer Limits became the steepest longest bump hill in the East and Superstar, another steep hill, proved it could hold snow into May thanks to generous snowmaking.

The original Killington Gondola was considered unbuildable by most lift engineers. But lift builder Carlevaro and Savio thought that Smith’s requirements of a four-passenger, higher capacity 3.5-mile lift with automatic entry and exit from both sides of the cabin would be doable if built in three sections. 

The prototype gondola with a capacity of 1500 rides an hour, about 50% greater than any other gondola, became the longest lift in the world at that time. It was also unique in that it operated in three stages, running either independently or as one continuous lift. It took two-plus years to install and when the transfer systems didn’t work, Killington hired its own engineers to rebuild them and perform other remedial work. (In 1994, the two stage 2.5-mile eight-passenger art-in-the-sky Skyeship replaced it, and in 1997 the 8-seat K-1 Gondola replaced the original Killington chairlift.)

Management, MIS, marketing

Killington pioneered in a most unusual way when its founders decided that the area should operate like a business, a growth business at that. 

With an office manager hired in 1960 along with a systems analyst, the area took an approach of minding the store and being consistently profitable. It went to the use of Burroughs and IBM computers in the 1960s and used specially designed NCR cash registers specifically developed for Killington for automatic ticket printing and control. 

Killington also developed an unusual management team whose members were often professionals from outside the ski industry. Inspired by the R & D approach, this team was in sync with the vision for Killington to become a world-class resort and came to be recognized as one of the finest management teams in the country. 

As the area grew and became a more complex operation, it required increasingly sophisticated management techniques to control the success of the operation. This led to the increasing use of computerized control systems in the 1970s — Killington pioneered computer programming specifically for ski area management in the 1970s —and also to formation of a management information services department in 1984. It not only utilized sophisticated computers but also fostered the efficient use of computers in other departments.    

Long before other areas got on the marketing bandwagon, Killington established a News and Public Relations Department in 1961 and hired professional staff. A market research program included: airplane flights to ascertain how others were doing, exit polls, and surveys to study skiers. As the public relations department grew and had more input into area operations and development, it transitioned to a full-blown Marketing Department that pioneered many advertising and promotional innovations from the concept of ski-vacation packages to the insertion of trail maps in ski publications to seeing the world as its market.

Killington was marketed from “a point of difference” —greatest diversity of terrain, six mountain areas, longest trail, steepest mogul slope in the East, most snowmaking, microclimates, etcetera. The bold and imaginative campaigns won industry accolades and awards.

Profitability and growth

After growing its profitability and size, the revamped corporation became S-K-I Ltd. in November 1984 and traded on NASDAQ — the only ski-area-only company to be so traded at that time. 

The strategy of growth and profitability at Killington had led to several ski area acquisitions, and S-K-I was on this path when Leslie B. Otten offered $18 a share and purchased the company in 1996. 

Otten formed the American Skiing Company (ASC) which was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1997. Progress continued at Killington with a land exchange for a Snowshed Village, the K-1 Gondola, and other improvements. But ASC ran into financial difficulties which meant Killington became privately owned in 2007.

As a member of Powdr, an adventure lifestyle company with 11 mountain resorts, Killington has continued to improve with age, adding the Peak and K-1 lodges, Skye Peak Express Quad and the Snowdon Six, and Woodward Terrain Parks as well as hosting Women’s World Cup races. With recent progress on plans for Snowshed Village, the excitement generated so long ago by a pioneering, tightly run ship continues.

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