By Polly Lynn
KILLINGTON— After a week of sunshine, clouds and spitting rain socked in the Peak Lodge Tuesday evening, Sept. 29, removing any possibility of panoramic views of the foliage. But the weather didn’t dampen the excitement of the night for the Killington Pico Area Association (KPAA) members who gathered there for the KPAA Annual Meeting and Killington Resort Business Update.
“2014-15 has been a great year,” said Howard Smith, president of the KPAA, welcoming the crowd of nearly 200. “Working together, the business community, resort and town have accomplished a lot. Most significantly, working with the resort we transitioned the Chamber into the Killington Pico Area Association, increasing our revenues and making us a more viable, sustainable, organization,” Smith said.
Other KPAA accomplishments achieved over the past year included introducing the new regional merchant pass, which helped to expand KPAA membership by 31 new members now to be 200 members strong; expanding the events schedule to include four new events (Dirty Girl Mud Run, JerkFest, Race to the Peak, Oktoberfest); expanding the Welcome Center hours to seven days a week; and, partnering with the town, constructing the Park and Ride, adding a way-finding system (including that great sign on the roof of the Welcome Center), and planting flowers to create a true sense of arrival to visitors, noted Smith and Amy Morrison, KPAA director and town events and marketing coordinator.
Morrison added that the total number of visits to the Welcome Center over the past year totaled 15,000, which is up from the 4,000 it attracted last year.
“Today, our community is better off than it was a year ago – because we are all working together for our common interest,” said Smith. “Under the umbrella of the KPAA, we are all collaborating and cooperating in the pursuit of our common goals – to improve this community.”
Reflecting on initiatives
Killington Resort President Mike Solimano spoke next, highlighting the resort’s progress on its stated initiatives. “Three years ago we set three goals: to grow winter volume, to work closer with the community and create ‘One Killington,’ and to grow summer,” he said. “Looking back at those goals, I think we’ve done well. I am not saying ‘mission accomplished’ but we’ve made progress and I think we have a bright future.”
Solimano showed charts of how Killington’s growth has continued despite recent industry trends. Nationwide, ski area visits were down 5.2 percent this past season, he reported. The Northeast region fared better that the rest of the country but visits were still down 0.8 percent compared to the year prior. In Vermont, however, the 2014/15 season saw more skier/rider visits with 4 percent growth and Killington did even better than the state, posting 9 percent growth! A growth of 37 percent in visits over the past four years.
Additional measures of growth were calculated by the Net Promoter Score, which measures guest satisfaction and loyalty, or as Solimano likes to jokingly say, the percentage of “people we’re pissing off.”
In 2009, only 47 percent were promoters. Over the past four years, the resort, town and community have helped increase that number to 74 percent in 2015, an increase of 57 percent “promoters” to the region. The areas that still need the most improvement are employee friendliness, resort cleanliness and crowding, Solimano noted.
This year, Killington Resort also made significant investments for future growth. It invested $3.5 million in the Snowshed Adventure Center, mountain biking, and other summer events and activities; $1 million in lift and snow making improvements, including fan guns on Superstar; and, together with Killington Mountain School, will build an airbag and mid-station on the Snowdon triple lift for this winter season. The resort is also extensively remodeling the Killington Grand Hotel restaurant, adding a coffee shop at K-1, and installing bathrooms at Needles Eye, Solimano said, receiving an enthusiastic applause for the bathrooms.
Additionally, the resort continues to pursue energy efficient upgrades. Its purchase of additional lower energy snowmaking guns helped save the resort 20 percent in its use of compressed air in just one season. (Compressed air is the most expensive component in snowmaking.) The amount saved could fill the Empire State Building 27 times! New efficiencies this year also include a 3.7 megawatt solar deal with Namaste Solar, which will eventually power the pumping capacity from the resorts snowmaking ponds up the terrain for snowmaking.
Summer growth potential
While the resort will continue to invest in its winter operations to improve the ski and ride experience, as it is “our bread and butter,” but the greatest potential for growth lies in summer development, said Tracy Taylor, director of operations for Pico Mountain.
The results of the resort’s investments over the past four years have paid off. In 2012, the resort posted $41 million in taxable revenue; in 2013, it posted $47 million; in 2014, $51 million; and for 2015 it is currently up 15 percent, projecting $60 million, though it could come in as high as $62 million!
“That doesn’t happen by tripping and getting lucky,” said Taylor. “It happens by working together toward a plan for future growth,” he said.
This past summer, the resort built the Adventure Center at Snowshed that includes the Mountain Coaster and the Soaring Eagle Zipline, which will both also run in the winter during weekends and holidays; a four-person trampoline; a 50-person, four-story high ropes course; a maze; a mining station; various water sports on the pond; ATV and Segway tours, among other activities.
Next summer, the resort plans to add to these offerings by building a 600-foot-long, 100-foot-high zipline (the two-stage zipline from the peak is still in the plans for 2017), as well as many other smaller features to keep younger kids happy, including a jungle gym/swing set, bounce houses and sprinklers.
“Small kids bring families,” Taylor said. “Having lots of low-cost, easy activities for them to do keeps people around.”
For older kids and adults, they also plan to build a jogging/exercise course around Snowshed Pond, a mini-adventure training course, improved water elements on Snowshed Pond, shuffle board, a basket ball court, and volleyball arena.
Additionally, the resort is considering adding a number of other activities, which are currently in “the development stage” for summer 2016, Taylor said. They include multiple lines for the 1,000-foot zipline at Snowshed, a canopy zip tour, a sky coaster, a paintball course at Ramshead, multi-passenger all-wheel drive mountain tours, moving the 10-meter Umbrella Bar to Snowshed, and building a deck overlooking the pond.
Becoming the mountain bike capital of New England
Mountain biking is an extremely large market that is largely untapped with relatively few park competitors, Taylor explained.
“All the other stuff is not like skiing,” Taylor said referring to Adventure Center activities. “For mountain biking, people come back. It is, and will continue to be, the backbone of summer operations… mountain biking is where it’s at, make no mistake about that. We will be the mountain biking capital of New England.”
Currently, in New England, there are two other large-scale bike parks in addition to Killington: Burke Mountain in East Burke, Vt., and Highland Mountain in Northfield, N.H. Both are pretty much at capacity, Taylor said. “There is not nearly as much competition as skiing and potentially many more riders,” he explained.
According to the most recent Outdoor Industries Association report, there are 30 million active mountain bikers compared to only eight million active skiers/riders in U.S. That translates into 400 million biker visits compared with 55 million skier/rider visits per year nationwide.
Whistler Mountain Bike Park in British Columbia, Canada is the industry model for successful growth, and Killington is working with Gravity Logic, the design/build company from Whistler, to follow a similar path to success. (In 1999, Whistler’s bike park had only 10,000 rider visits. After it invested $1 million in its bike park, visits grew to 130,000 in 2013.)
One of the biggest focuses for Killington’s five-year bike park build-out is beginner and intermediate terrain.
“Fully 90 percent of the mountain bike market is novice to intermediate, just like skiing,” Taylor noted. “We had that flipped.”
For summer 2016, the resort will expand its mountain bike offerings to include Ramshead. It plans to open those trails on weekends only, at first. The resort plans to built two new jump trails, a dirt jump track, and a pump track at Ramshead, and at Snowshed build a teaching skills park, more beginner obstacles and enhance the existing trails with more paving/grading to keep it easy and fun for first-time riders.
Ticket sales measure growth
With investment comes growth (at least that’s the hope) and Killington Resort was not disappointed with its growth in ticket sales this past summer.
This past summer, 8,000 mountain bike tickets were sold at Killington, which is up from just under 5,000 in 2013 (a 64 percent growth in three years). The resort expects that growth to continue at a fast rate and has set a goal of 20,000 rider visits by 2018, three years from now.
At the Adventure Center, 37,000 tickets were sold this past summer, up from just under 15,000 in 2013 (146 percent growth).
This puts the total at approximately 45,000 tickets sold in 2015, up from 20,000 in 2013 (adventure center and biking combined).
The resort hopes to continue to build on this success, eventually attracting 200,000 visitors to the area for summertime activities and events, Taylor said.
The news of past growth and future investment was welcomed enthusiastically by the business community in attendance, most of whom answered the resort’s question: “Is your business doing better than it was three years ago?” with a resounding “Yes!”