Local News

Okemo at 60: the ups and downs of success

By Chris Rueli, Okemo Snow Reporter

GM Bruce Schmidt, Tim and Diane Mueller, Dennis Brady, and mascot Calvin T. Catamount at Okemo’s 60th birthday cake cutting Jan. 30.

By Karen D. Lorentz

Editor’s Note: This is the final part of a three-part series on Okemo’s growth to one of the nation’s top 15 ski resorts over the past 60 years.

With an August 1982 purchase of the Okemo Ski Area, there wasn’t time for Tim and Diane Mueller to research, purchase, and install a badly needed chairlift.

But what the Muellers did accomplish was to set the tone for what was to come by emphasizing good customer service.

“We had to concentrate on what we could do to make a difference like add some paint, spruce things up, and hire good employees. We had to instill in staff that they could make a difference — it was the only thing that the skiers were going to notice as a change with new ownership,” Tim Mueller explains.

Maintenance was done on the lifts, more snowmaking was installed on the upper mountain, and a Pisten Bully with power tiller was added to the grooming fleet. A new lift was promised for the following season.

When it didn’t snow until mid-January 1983, the mountain followed a snowmaking policy to “bury a trail” and then move on to the next one and was able to offer six trails by Christmas with good conditions. “The skiers noticed and that helped us,” Diane Mueller said.

Still, it was a tough year with the old lifts constantly breaking down. The Muellers and their management team focused on fixing them as fast as possible and “raced from crisis to crisis.”

The area operated for 123 days with 95,000 skier visits. But in comparison to the 1980 “snowless season,” the Muellers felt they had done “comparatively well and with only a $120,000 loss before taxes almost broke even. We were actually encouraged,” Tim recalled, with Diane adding, “We knew the weather couldn’t get any worse.”

Team approach

With the 1983 installation of a triple chair (later replaced by a quad and then the Sunburst Six) to replace the Red Poma, Okemo was on a roll once again.

But this time there was a difference. The new owners had the ability to control the direction of the mountain and they solicited input for how to proceed from the workers themselves.

Former Mountain Manager Barry Tucker summed up the change when he recalled being “surprised” to be asked what he thought would be a good location for the new lift.

Workers were no longer taking orders from an off-site board of directors or a general manager trying to please the directors — they were now becoming actively engaged!

The Muellers’ team approach inspired their staff to have a sincere interest in their jobs and in Okemo’s future. One by one the Pomas were replaced with chairlifts and season by season the area grew better, instilling confidence and pride in its employees and renewing the area’s popularity among skiers.

Upgrades and expansion

The Muellers expanded and upgraded the snowmaking and grooming systems; enlarged the base lodge several times; added a welcome center; built two on-mountain lodges; constructed a 73-million-gallon water storage pond (enlarged to 155-million gallons, 2008); and added more trails.

Most exciting were the brand new mountain areas that were developed from scratch — Solitude Peak (1987), South Face (1994), Jackson Gore upper (2002) and lower (2003).

While the mountain work was carried out by Okemo’s own crews, the Muellers contracted with developers or construction firms for the building of trailside condominiums and homes, greatly increasing the number of ski-on/ski-off units and boosting the mountain’s popularity with families.

The convenience of trailside lodgings was part of the 1960s’ vision to engender family loyalty; for the Muellers it worked in spades as Okemo grew into a bona fide mountain resort. Real estate development included: Kettle Brook, Trailside Village, Okemo Mountain Lodge, Winterplace, Snowbridge,  Sno-Trak, Ledgewood, Trailside, Solitude Village, the Village at Jackson Gore with inn and condos, and now the expansion at South Face.

The profits from sales of land or units were poured back into mountain upgrades. But more importantly, so were profits from ski area operations. Profitable operations were signs of good management and increasing skier visits. Skiers loved the progress being made and appreciated the attentive and friendly service they received.

For the Muellers, it hadn’t been simply a matter making sure the mountain was up to modern standards, it was also a priority to raise the level of service.

“Okemo got the jump on offering quality service in the ski industry when we emphasized it from our first season on. It has been part of Okemo’s core values that have enabled the ski area to grow to such a success,” Diane explained, adding that today “these core values are part of a training program that also emphasizes co-operation and support for other departments and workers.”

The results were people noticed the mountain that “jumped through hoops for them” and Okemo received rave reviews in the media. Okemo also became the fastest growing ski area in Vermont, advancing to its current position as the second-most visited area in the state by the mid-1990s and also second in the East.

Not-so-easy challenges

If the success the mountain garnered looks easy, that isn’t exactly the case. While management teams could plan for new lifts and trails and workers could build them almost with ease, there were some thornier challenges as the Act 250 permit process became more difficult, causing delays and greater expense to build projects.

To expand the ski area and to allow for more housing, the Muellers purchased privately owned or state parcels on several occasions. But to meet with environmental and growth concerns, they also purchased other lands which they then donated to the state as “mitigation” for expanding. Okemo also had to build affordable housing, a condition imposed by Act 250 as mitigation for growth impacts in surrounding towns.

When snowmaking became a “hot topic” and concerns were raised regarding water withdrawal from the Black River, Okemo built a $1.5 million water storage pond (1994), even though they weren’t sure they would ever need to use it!.

These additional expenses came on the heels of the early 1990s recession and the national downsizing trend that was costing some skiers their jobs.

It was also a time when ski areas saw greater competition for leisure and recreation dollars exacerbated by a steep decline in leisure time and more choices for vacations like warmer beach resorts and cruises. Simultaneously, youngsers became intrigued by the computer and college tuitions skyrocked, affecting families as more women in the workforce translated to less time for family trips.

Some truly erratic weather seasons compounded the situation, and Western destination resorts beckoned with lower airfares while at the same time ski areas saw costs for insurance, diesel fuel, and electricity skyrocket.

During these challenging times, Okemo enhanced its focus on the mountain product with additional services — more daycare options, family and ski school programs, packages, and terrain parks.

Challenges well met

A most unusual challenge came with the 1980s advent of snowboarding, unlike anything the industry had ever seen. Ski areas were in a quandary over whether to allow snowboarders on their slopes. Snowboarding came out of a different culture, a younger surf-the-wave-dude crowd with some controversial behaviors in its early days; ski areas were worried about losing their skiing customers.

Okemo didn’t want to alienate its core skiers but neither did management wish to miss out on a new market. Venturing into this “uncharted territory,” the Muellers consulted their staff. It was a good example of having to make a decision as leaders but doing so based on the best thinking of various departments from snow surfaces to ski school to marketing.

Deciding the positives outweighed the negatives, Okemo welcomed riders and built up a snowboarding instruction program along with offering a halfpipe and snowboard park that drove the area’s increasing popularity in the early 1990s. Today, riders are a big part of Okemo’s market with terrain parks and pipes that were originally built for them now also open to skiers.

One of the Muellers’ concerns was the need for Okemo to become a true four-season destination resort so as to stay current with the ski industry trends and fulfill plans for a profitable operation. Recognizing the need for a first-class, full-service hotel, village, and more summer activities and attractions, they developed plans for Jackson Gore which included more beginner and expert terrain.

The Jackson Gore project started in 1996 with hopes of beginning construction in 1998. Permit delays and appeals added four more years to the project and $5 million in planning costs to a $5 million hotel, lifts, and trails project.

During that time, a local golf course was purchased and expanded and Jackson Gore plans were scaled back and changed in response to various concerns — lift locations were changed and ski trails rerouted to avoid a wetlands; gas fireplaces were incorporated in new residential units in response to air quality concerns; and a village with shops was dropped so as not to compete with Ludlow businesses.

Noting it was natural to “expect some bumps in road,” the Muellers never gave up on the Jackson Gore project, which increased the mountain’s vertical drop to 2,200 feet and expanded terrain to over 600 acres while enhancing guest services.

Although they had shelved plans for an expansion at South Face, that, too, is now happening in a partnership with a village developer below South Face.

As Tim had noted to his attorney in purchasing the mountain, he saw great potentional for Okemo; as entrepreneurs, they were willing to take the risks and persevere in their vision for the mountain.

Although the ski industry is an extremely competitive and difficult business, Okemo Mountain Resort has been a work in progress for 60 years now, 27 under shareholder ownership/direction and 33 under the Muellers. As hoped for, their “mom-and-pop” leadership has enabled Okemo to become one of the bright success stories in skiing and one of  Vermont’s shining gems.

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