By Karen D. Lorentz
Having grown up next to Mt. Ascutney, where he learned to ski at age 3 and snowboard at 15, C. Michael Bell was part of the first wave of skiers to try riding.
“At that time [mid-1980s], snowboarding was just going mainstream and most resorts didn’t allow snowboards on the lifts, so I would hike the mountain to get my runs in,” Bell said of his early passion for snowsports and the outdoors.
“Given the current popularity of ski touring and backcountry exploration, I guess I was ahead of my time,” he said. “I still love the meditative rhythm of touring, even if I’m just skinning up Okemo for a quick lap before work.”
The route to his current position at Okemo, his first job in the ski industry, took an outdoors and indoors work path.
After graduating from Kimball Union Academy (in Meriden, New Hampshire) in 1991, Bell studied mechanical engineering at Syracuse University before transferring to the University of Vermont and earning a degree in environmental science. He spent several years in the Southeast, working for the USDA Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. Next came managing utility systems and mapping projects for an Atlanta-based cartographic contractor. He returned to Vermont in 2004 “to enjoy the full range of seasons again.”
“My day job for the last decade or so was in software engineering with a local tech firm. When my role there was eliminated as part of a reduction-in-force exercise, I quickly decided against continuing in that professional direction. That’s when I took the opportunity to apply for my current position overseeing a guest services program at Okemo,” he said.
Q&A with Michael Bell
Mountain Times: What was your thinking that led to your first job at a ski area?
Michael Bell: Vermont’s outdoor recreation community has been a large part of my life for many years. I’ve worked as a trailbuilder at Ascutney Trails, served as president of Sport Trails of the Ascutney Basin (now Ascutney Trails Association) and also served on the board of directors of Vermont Mountain Bike Association.
In addition to that I’ve served on the leadership teams of some of Vermont’s signature cycling and trail running events, including the Vermont 50 Mountain Bike Race and Ultra Run, the Point to Point (Vermont Foodbank’s largest fundraiser), and the Vermont Mountain Bike Festival.
The outdoor recreation roles and events provided good experiences for my current role, where my teams need to efficiently manage the flow of guests on and around the mountain.
MT: What does your job as guest services team lead entail?
MB: My role here, managing the greeters and hosts, is to support my teams and ensure they’ve got everything they need to consistently provide accurate information and services to guests, so we can get them through the entry zones of the resort and up onto the slopes or into their activities as efficiently as possible.
MT: Has Covid-19 changed things or made that goal challenging?
MB: Every day, we’re on the front lines of guest engagement, working to maintain compliance with state [guidelines] and incorporate Covid-19 protocols so as to keep people as safe as possible under the circumstances of the past year.
This has been a great challenge, as employees and guests alike have had to become accustomed to entirely new ways of operating. This includes reservation and ticketing systems, as well as providing consistent reminders about the required use of approved face masks and social distancing.
Most people understand the policies and are grateful to have the opportunity to enjoy the mountains. The impacts to certain amenities around the resort have made good guest services skills more important than ever. For example, this year we’re not providing locker rooms or storage areas for personal belongings, and food and beverage services require reservations. Also, Ski & Ride School programs are being run differently than past years.
We’ve safely made it through the bulk of the season and my teams have done an amazing job staying positive every day. I can’t give them enough credit!
MT: What is your take on the mountain/ski town/Vermont lifestyle?
MB: I’ve always loved mountain life and how a ski area or a great trail network makes an area come alive.
There’s a vibrancy to an outdoor-focused community that is unique as people are drawn in by their shared passion for those opportunities. Vermont is especially suited to this type of lifestyle where strongly connected communities are so inherent to the state’s overall social foundation.
MT: Has a return to outdoor recreation in Vermont been satisfying?
MB: Whether it’s the high-energy buzz of an event or festival, or just the chance meetings of friends and neighbors on the trails, I just feel more at home here than anywhere else.
MT: If someone were thinking of moving to Vermont, what advice would you offer?
MB: Vermont’s outdoor recreation industry is very strong right now, and there are lots of opportunities for entrepreneurial spirits.
For anyone moving in, I’d suggest getting to know your neighbors. That community fabric is the essence of Vermont — becoming a part of it is the key to the real experience. Be prepared for things to move at their own pace.
MT: Any words of wisdom to share?
MB: Every day, take a moment or two to breathe, and get the snow shoveled out before it freezes.