The American ski industry was forged by soldiers. We all know the story of 10th Mountain veterans returning from the war with visions of ski runs and chairlifts that would set off dozens of American resorts.
The innovators who worked at every position in the ski resort took the reins from those soldiers, creating even more ski lifts, better grooming and resort villages to anchor a multi-billion dollar industry. After a few decades, experts in marketing and finance took over, developing unique strategies for growth.
Today, the maturing ski industry is seeing a new generation of tech-driven bosses take over. Namely: the transition from veteran resort operator and Alterra Mountain Co. CEO Rusty Gregory to Ticketmaster executive Jared Smith.
Colorado Sun reporter Jason Blevins sat with Gregory, 67, for a few minutes in his corner office at Alterra’s River North 15-station headquarters for a roving conversation as he walked away from the day-to-day operations, marking his first extended absence from ski resorts in over 40 years.
Q: Do you think Jared’s move is an example of a new wave of leadership for the resort industry as it matures? It has the tech chops this industry needs, and the resort world is more than a little behind when it comes to technology, isn’t it?
Colorado ski resort operators optimized the technology last season, and many improvements are here to stay
A: Technology for us is automatic flushing toilets. That is just about everything. But yes, I really do. If you go back historically and look at the founders, people like Dave McCoy (who created the Mammoth ski area where Gregory spent many decades), and you see the opportunities and the challenges back then – they were actually inventing the equipment and grooming and everything else for people to learn to ski. So people with that kind of genius, they were the kind of resort operators that were involved in the early days and that went on for a long time. Then it was about trying to take it all and make enough money to be able to get through the tough years. And the next phase was Rob Katzes (the influential head of Vail Resorts who stepped down as CEO last year) – and really there was only one – who kind of brought it all together. And now it’s really all about technology. Yes, we still have the same challenges, but I think the real changes we will see in the short term will come from technology. Apps that do it all. Apps that direct customers to parking, food and everything in between. And these will come from a new generation of thinkers and leaders.
Q: Like Jared? His experience at Live Nation and Ticketmaster empowers him to handle traffic spikes, large crowds, power surges, and all the challenges that come with an industry that is finally growing, right?
A: Jared has that technology expertise and he understands our customers well enough to provide them with a personalized experience, not just the same experience for everyone. We have to look at how Ticketmaster has evolved under Jared. They’ve developed all kinds of ways to sell tickets, not just paper tickets. They have partnered with major sports clubs and leagues. And then Jared led hundreds of software developers who were building all of this. All of this is very relevant to skiing today.
Q: Switching gears…I’ve been covering skiing in Colorado for 25 years and I’ve never really seen the anger and angst directed at Vail Resort this season. I have to say, good job keeping your head down when your competitor was on the ropes. It’s not like your resorts aren’t experiencing the same labor and crowd issues, is it?
A: Ha. We were lucky to dodge that same reaction. I have to say some of that was earned – and by all of us, not just Vail Resorts. But part of that is just where we all find ourselves. There is something about the pandemic that has pissed everyone off. You know, whether you’re the government or a big business, or the waiter in the restaurant…if things don’t go perfectly, you’re going to take a beating, from your clientele. It’s a kind of body politic these days.
Q: When you look back on those last two seasons and think about that anger and how the stations have adjusted and adapted, where do you see lessons? What have you learned that will help the industry move forward?
A: There’s a lot to think about, but I can think of a few things. First of all, as an operator who came from the industry, I’ve seen the people who run the resorts, when you put a harsh reality on them and ask them to adapt to it, they absolutely will . A good example is using phones or apps to order food. For years we heard that we couldn’t do that. Phone batteries don’t last. It just can’t happen. But when there was no choice, and we didn’t have employees to serve the food and the guests didn’t want to come in, we just did. I think there has been more accomplished in the last two years than in the previous 10-15 years just because we had to. I think it is essential that leaders remember this in the future. We shouldn’t be forced to make improvements.
And another really big lesson for us was recognizing that it’s very important for our station presidents and their teams to have a lot of autonomy and authority to make decisions. Our highly decentralized model gave station managers and their teams the ability to act on things right before their eyes, the ability to immediately respond to threats without a lot of process. It was essential during the pandemic. And it was essential to take care of the people at our stations, the customers and our employees. I really saw that intensely and at high speed during the pandemic.
Q: This is a differentiating feature between Alterra and Vail Resorts. You obviously followed Vail Resorts in many ways except centralizing operations and power in one corporate office. Has the pandemic kind of confirmed this decision to keep individual stations more independent and free to handle their own recruiting, marketing and other tasks?
A: It’s a differentiator for us. This is not a comment on what other companies should do. But for us, it’s less about politics and rules and more about culture. And it worked well and it works well after the pandemic. We need to support leaders as we elevate them in the organization, and that’s a matter of culture.
Q: When I think of pivotal and game-changing seasons in the ski industry in the United States, I think of a few seasons in the late 1980s when it didn’t snow until February and just about every area ski resorts in the country have invested in artificial snowmaking. Then the Great Recession and it forced resort operators to focus on village building and turn to seasonal memberships. And pandemic seasons, which force resorts to adapt in a whole new way.
A: It’s exactly that. I remember back in the 80s at Mammoth we had drought after drought after drought and the business was not viable. We had to lay off employees. We had no artificial snow and had to ask the bank for money to allow us to continue and install artificial snow. It was in 1990 at Mammoth.
Q: That ability to convince banks to lend money to resorts, much of which came from Vail Resorts, right? When this company started selling hundreds of thousands of passes this summer, lenders suddenly became more open to financing big projects without having to worry about the impact of snow and ticket sales on their ability to be reimbursed, right?
A: Previously, we could only spend what we earned in a season. So we had all kinds of plans and visions of what we were going to do for our customers and how to make things better for the community and the employees. But if we didn’t have the snow, the visits, and the revenue…we just didn’t. This is one of the benefits of having so many resorts under one roof. It is snowing somewhere and we have a diversification of weather conditions. But there’s also a whole lot of complexity that comes with running a big business. We’ve seen some of those issues this year. Yes, it’s good to have a reliable source of capital to invest in your resorts, but on the other hand, companies can get so big that they sort of lose touch with their employees and guests. One of the results of that, which I’ve seen this season, is that there will always be room for smart individual stations to find their footing in this industry and be successful.
Q: We saw that in Colorado. Small independent resorts have had record seasons, even as you big guys grow and struggle.
A: Ski resort operators have to be smart and few are smarter than independent owners. They’ve learned survival skills that make them experts in adaptation, and that’s why I think for individual stations, the future is bright for those in the right places. I think there will always be vibrant independent resorts in this industry.
Q: You have been doing this for a long time. Are you eager to step back and play a role without necessarily getting into the daily grind? I feel like sometimes we get so busy that we can’t really hold our heads up high and think about the bigger issues.
A: Yeah the time has come. It’s a good time for technology. It’s a good time for me to cheer on the sidelines and help where I can and make room for a new generation to come along and tackle some of these issues, challenges and opportunities. We need a new perspective. I can always help and, above all, I will have time to go out and go skiing. When I’m on the hill, maybe I’ll be more connected to skiing than staying here in this office, you know?
This story first appeared in The Outsider, Jason Blevins’ premium outdoor newsletter. >> Subscribe