By Brandon Sheaffer
The June Lake Peer Resort tour convened in Albany, New York, on Monday morning to visit four different ski resorts in New England, with talk of consensus-building and re-branding June Lake.
Made up of members of the June Lake community, representatives from Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, and employees and elected officials of Mono County, the purpose of the tour was to provide an opportunity for these disparate groups to develop a common vision for June Lake that they can present to the community back home.
“It’s really important that we get June Mountain open again,” says Mono County Supervisor Larry Johnston.
The first stop on the tour was Peru, Vt., home of Bromley, “Vermont’s Sun Mountain.” Bromley was started in the 1930s by Fred Pabst, who Ski magazine once called, “a hulking, swearing, blunt-minded outdoorsman who drinks bourbon, and was a nut about skiing.” His commitment was evident when, in 1950, Pabst, of Pabst Blue Ribbon fame, spent $1 million on snowmaking.
The ski resort enjoyed its peak skier visits in the 1980s. The numbers have been falling since then. In 1986, the resort was sold to Joe O’Donnell, a self-made billionaire who’s been called the “most powerful man in Boston.”
Bromley struggles during the winter. One problem is “the aging skier,” claims Peter Dee, Bromley’s Director of Guest Services. Also, nearby Stratton resort is a bigger mountain with more amenities and an Intrawest village. “What Stratton does in one day, we can’t do in a week,” says Dee. Regardless, their billionaire owner keeps them open.
Bromley uses Facebook and groupons to attract visitors, as well as guest surveys to improve customer service. One important distinction here is that they’ve decided to respond most vigorously not to the unsatisfied guests, but to the happy guests who can bring people with them next time.
The June Lake group makes a comparison between Bromley and June, in that they are both “feeder” resorts. Bromley is a feeder resort for Stratton; and June for Mammoth.
“One comment I hear a lot is that Mammoth is just too expensive,” says former MMSA Vice-President Jack Copeland, a consultant on the peer resort tour. He sees June as a feeder mountain, or as a retreat for more mellow skiers and for skiers who can’t afford Mammoth.
An idea takes hold: June is an affordable alternative to Mammoth, set in an idyllic, mountainous landscape, that people who aren’t rich can afford to visit. Then talk of Chair J1 surfaces. Even though it’s a safe, state-inspected chairlift, now even with a safety bar, parents are intimidated to put their kids on it. Some parents tend to have the perception of the chair as being unsafe, which it is not.
A more important point about J1 is that it can’t handle the volume of skiers during the busy times. But during the rest of the season, it’s not a problem. There’s an argument that replacing J1 will help June Mountain, but, according to the representatives from MMSA, skier visits numbered the same when June boasted the QMC gondola. Having a gondola did not increase skier visits, nor has gotten rid of the gondola caused skier visits to decline.
Bromley has found success in the summer, especially with their alpine slides. They’re paying for themselves after three or four years, Peter Dee says. Bromley makes most of its money in the summer. They have a network of zip lines, ropes courses, water parks, trampolines, climbing walls, bumper boats, bounce houses, giant swings, space bikes, trampoline things and alpine slides. Bromley is the biggest thing in the state of Vermont in the summer.
Peter Dee’s advice to the June Lake group is to deploy their capital on summer activities, because the winters are too hard, for many reasons.
I begin a list of what I’ve heard from the group: What does June need?
More summertime activities for kids?
To replace J1?
To reinvent J1?
To buy the Rodeo grounds?
To build an ice-skating rink in the parking lot?
We pile back onto the bus, endearingly called, “The Good Van,” and our driver, Tish, hits the road. Tish used to play one of the acrobat cats in the musical Cats on Broadway. Only three percent of theater actors make it to Broadway, she tells me. Now she runs a yoga retreat in a tiny town in Vermont. If you blink, you might miss the whole town, she says. There’s no cell phone service at her retreat. “How do you do that?” people ask. She says, “once you’re as powerful as me, you’ll be able to do it, too.”
Tish drops us off about a block away from “the best book store in the country,” in Manchester, Vt. Manchester and the “Mountains Chamber of Commerce” serves an 18-town region, with an aging population of about 10,000. Executive director Berta Maginniss welcomes us into a quaint little house and invites us upstairs, where we sit around a long table. We’re here to glean some information on how the business community in June Lake can organize itself.
Berta is an engaging woman who worked 20 years for the Disney corporation before retiring to Vermont. When she arrived in Manchester, she noted that the business community needed to be more active and told them so. They responed by asking her to lead them. At first she was reluctant, because she was new to Manchester, and didn’t know anyone, or how the politics in the area worked. But ultimately she found that not knowing anyone was an advantage. She hadn’t burned any bridges, so she started with a clean slate, and didn’t gossip about other folks.
“We are very independent people, and we all have opinions,” she tells us, “and we all want to voice them, but it’s better to voice them backstage, instead of on center stage.”
With a staff of three, and one part time worker, she started organizing themed events to generate some excitement. “Awesome August” gave way to “Fabulous Fall.” She organized a community gardening event called “Seeds, shovels, buckets, and boots.” Berta stresses that the community should work together to achieve a common goal.
“We try to make it easy for everyone, if we all have the same song,” she says. “You’ve gotta work together, because you’re not big enough to go it alone.”
When asked what it would take for a community to organize and start up a new chamber of commerce, she emphasizes unity and consensus-building. “In today’s world, you wanna get the key community members and the key employers to sit down in a room together,” she said. “It’s tough though, because if you’re in charge, you gotta get re-elected every day.”
The next morning we drive up to Jeffersonville, Vermont, where Smugglers’ Notch cuts a path in between Mt. Mansfield and the Sterling Range. During the days of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, people used to smuggle embargoed goods from Canada to the United States through the Notch. Later, alcohol would also be smuggled through from Canada into New England, during the days of prohibition.
Today, just north of the Notch, on more than 1,000 acres of terrain, is “America’s Family Resort.” Yet Smugglers’ Notch doesn’t have a single detachable quad chairlift. They’re all fixed-grip chairs. And, there’s a lot of steep terrain on Madonna mountain, where about 30 percent of the trails are rated black diamond, and one as a triple-black diamond.
Yet Smuggs still maintains its character as a world class family resort. They’ve had it since 1976, just before the summer Olympics in Montreal, when they decided to provide an alternative for the kids who didn’t want to go to Montreal with their parents. They started kids programs that summer, and their commitment to families grew.
“You say it enough, and people start to believe it,” the President of Smugglers’ Notch, Bob Mulcahy tells us. He estimates that about 35 percent of skier visits are children, and that, from June to September, they’re 80-90 percent full, mostly with kids programs. Magazines have been rating Smuggs #1 for families over and over, Mulcahy says.
The June Lake group asks Mulcahy how he feels one should reinvent a ski area. He says to try to find out the market potential, and to identify where there is a demand. “What market could you develop?” he asks. “What makes sense?”
One member of the group, pointing out that Smuggs is finding success even though they have only fixed-grip chairlifts, asks the group’s opinion whether June needs to replace J1 or not.
Mulcahy replies, “You need a hook, be it family, lifts, snowfall amounts, and so on.” He then describes an ad campaign he saw once, in which a guy has his arm around his girlfriend on a double chair, and the caption says, “You can’t get a date on a quad.”
It hits like an epiphany. The conversation turns to reinventing J1 as a cool experience to get up to the lodge of a unique and picturesque ski resort, and a spirited debate ensues:
“We need to find a new brand for June Mountain, and commit to it and market it, to move forward.”
“We’ve got to come back to the community with an outline or framework for how to start.”
“I feel like there’s a perception from the public that we’re out here deciding their future.”
“There’s an underlying thought that June should be family-oriented. I’m not sure I agree.”
“We have to make a long-term plan. I’d like to see from Mammoth Mountain who Rusty is going to delegate to oversee a vision for June.”
“This community wants you all to take a hike. There’s a perception in the community that Mammoth is dictating their future.”
“The community understands that Mammoth Mountain Ski Area owns June Mountain, and they need to accept it, and move forward.”
“If we come back with a plan that looks reasonable, the people in the community who count will get behind it.”
“There’s a handful of people in June Lake who are not going to be happy with anything we say. We have to go back, and give [Mammoth Mountain] a chance to accept our recommendations, and then we have to get behind them.”
“We need to invest money into June Mountain. When we come up with a consensus, we have to convince Rusty, because sometimes he charges off in the wrong direction.”
“Customer service will make a difference; it will bring people back.”
“We have to think of our audience. Are we preparing this for Rusty, or for the June Lake community?”
“Everything that makes Smuggler’s Notch work, it’s not the lifts; it’s the village. You’ve already got a village. Good news! It’s just not animated.”
“Our heads are in it. This is the moment when we’re going to come out of this with a vision.”
The next morning we arrive in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, population 247. Waterville Valley Resort has branded itself “New Hampshire’s Family Resort.” At the entrance to the base lodge, “Love” is written in huge letters on the side of a building, near a roaring village campfire.
Inside, we’re welcomed by a barrel-chested Russian lift operator and ski check guy named Vladimir, who takes a deep breath, fills his lungs, and bellows out an opera song right in the middle of the cafeteria. Everyone applauds and we go upstairs into the “Sky Box,” where we spend the rest of the day conducting a healthy strategic analysis of the future of June Lake.
Waterville Valley is an island in the middle of the White Mountain National Forest. About 2% of the land is privately owned. It happens to be the birthplace of freestyle skiing.
At its peak in the ‘80s, Waterville Valley enjoyed around 300,000 skier visits per year. This year, Waterville Valley Resort President and General Manager Bob Fries claims they will see only half as many.
Fries attributes this to a lack of expansion in the past 25 years, while competitors were developing their respective resorts. He also feels that, while the resort was owned by Killington and the American Ski Company, starting in 1994, the attitude became too corporate, and they lost focus on employee morale and customer service.
In 2010, Waterville Valley was bought by local residents, the Sununu family, and is now well known in the region as the official resort of the Boston Red Sox.
Now, inside the Sky Box, the June Lake group is working to achieve a common goal, to redefine and re-brand June Lake.
It’s clear that June Lake can offer a low-cost, family introduction to skiing. It can be a feeder resort for Mammoth Mountain. The terrain parks can be feeders into the Unbound parks on Mammoth as well, where kids can learn in a less intimidating environment. And the J1 chairlift, for now, could be sold to the public as an attractive hook, a unique feature of June Mountain that is part of the experience.
The village is already there, set within an idyllic alpine environment … the Switzerland of California. If MMSA can commit to marketing June and contain the losses, perhaps there could be investment in better infrastructure later. Regardless, the June Lake Peer Resort tour is going to present a vision for June to MMSA and to the community when attendees return.
“Mammoth has to decide what they want to do with June Lake,” Johnston explains. “If they want to keep it, then they should invest in it. If they want to sell it, then they should sell it, and let someone else have a shot.”