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The ski industry used to only be about operations. Women leaders are helping refocus it on experience.

Vail Resorts, with women at the helm of eight ski areas — including three of its five Colorado resorts — is leading the industry’s charge toward gender diversity.

Skis and snowboards at the base of Vail Mountain's Eagle Bahn gondola on December 18, 2019. The state is seeking public input on pandemic protocols and safety measures for ski resorts for the upcoming season. (Andy Colwell, Special to the Colorado Sun)
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VAIL — The U.S. ski resort industry started with a bunch of mustachioed dudes focused on uphill transportation. 

Sixty-plus years later, resort skiing has transformed from an operation into an experience, with attention paid to safety, snow grooming, speedy lifts, lessons, food and fewer hassles. 

The evolution of skiing can be attributed to a more diverse array of captains steering the industry, including a growing number of women. And Vail Resorts, with women at the helm of eight ski areas — including three of its five Colorado resorts — is leading that charge toward diversity, not only by elevating women to top jobs at the Fortune 500 company, but developing a pipeline to identify and foster the next generation of leaders for the 37-resort operation.

“We have shifted toward thinking about what we are doing for people while we produce this experience, and that has opened the industry to a different kind of leader,” said Patricia Campbell, the president of Vail Resorts’ mountain division. 

A panel at the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show in 2019 led by Matthew Banks, left, the associate director of energy and sustainability for Navigant, Cam Brensinger, founder of NEMO Equipment, Jon Goldin-Dubois, president of Western Resource Advocates, Vail Resorts mountain division president Patricia Campbell, and COlorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A decade ago, she was among the country’s first female resort managers when she took the helm at Breckenridge, the nation’s busiest ski area. 

Having women in charge is about building a diverse workforce that mirrors the guests the company — and, really, all of skiing and the outdoor industry — wants and needs. 

“It’s about putting leaders in place who can inspire and ultimately deliver a guest experience. That’s about people, not machinery,” said Campbell, a 35-year veteran of the industry.

“Now, we are working through a lens of, ‘How does this impact the guest experience and not just the operation?’ And because of that orientation, we are seeking a much broader set of leaders who can succeed in these roles.”

Women bosses in skiing? NBD, really.

Women bosses rarely raise eyebrows anymore.

In the ski world, Kelly Pawlak leads the National Ski Areas Association, where Geraldine Link guides national resort policies. 

Meegan Moszynski is the executive director of the National Ski Patrol. Melanie Mills leads Colorado Ski Country and Ski Utah has Raelene Davis as chief operating officer. 

Vail Resorts has women leading Vail ski area, Beaver Creek and Keystone; Northstar in California; Hotham Alpine in Australia; Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire; Liberty Mountain in Pennsylvania; and Mount Brighton in Michigan. 

With the recent appointment of Nadia Rawlinson, the continent’s largest ski resort operator now has four women on its nine-member board of directors. Rawlinson, the head of human resources for the 35,000-employee Live Nation Entertainment, is a founding member of the AllBright Collective, a network of female professionals, and this year she was named one of the “Most Powerful Women in Corporate America” by Black Enterprise Magazine.

Gender diversity on corporate boards is considered a key factor in women moving into top jobs, according to Utah State University researchers focused on gender, race and ethnicity in work and leadership. Last year, just 33 of the companies on the Fortune 500 list had female CEOs (a record number), compared with eight in 2004. Women accounted for 25.5% of board seats in 2019, up from 15.7% in 2004.

When women in charge becomes the norm in skiing, Vail Resorts will be credited with grooming their approach paths. The company isn’t just appointing women to top roles, it’s building a system that helps anyone in the publicly traded, 55,000-employee company find their path to management and executive-level jobs. 

Read more skiing stories from The Colorado Sun

Whistler Blackcomb ski area was scrambling to encourage more women to chase leadership positions in 2015. The Canadian government’s stock market regulator — the Ontario Securities Commission — was requiring companies traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange to detail plans for recruiting women, and the busiest ski area in North America had just one woman among its top senior executives. 

When Vail Resorts bought the resort in 2016, Campbell learned about the “Women of Whistler Blackcomb,” formed in response to the company’s dearth of female leaders, and its mission to lift women into top positions in the company and community included forums, camps, seminars and networking events.  

Campbell and Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz used the Whistler program as a model for a companywide effort called “Providing Opportunities for Women through Diversity, Equality and Respect,” or POWDER. Announced in March on International Women’s Day, the initiative offers venues for men and women to gather six times a year to hear from inspirational women and identify challenges, and offer mentorship and training to any employee who wants to pursue a leadership position in the company. 

The experience of developing women leaders is helping Vail Resorts craft programs that attract customers from underserved communities that haven’t had access to the sport or haven’t felt welcomed, Campbell said. 

Beaver Creek chief operating officer Nadia Guerriero speaks to participants in the Vail Resorts POWDER program in Beaver Creek on Dec.18, 2019. POWDER, which stands for Providing Opportunity for Women Through Diversity, Equality and Respect, is a new Vail, is a new program organized by Vail Resorts, intended to attract, train and retain women in leadership roles. (Andy Colwell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

And it starts with an awareness of unconscious biases, which was the focus of the first sessions in the POWDER initiative.

“When we include a more diverse group of thinkers in a room, those biases start to fall away,” Campbell said. “There is so much research around gender diversity being good for business, and I think that applies to all forms of diversity.”

The first year of the POWDER program, which hosted its initial meetings in November at each of the company’s major U.S. resorts, is focused on awareness and then will move into development and recruitment programs.

“Oh wow, I left that meeting so inspired,” said Jody Churich, the head of Keystone ski area, whose first POWDER session featured Summit County professional ski mountaineering racer Sierra Anderson screening her film “Sisters of Skimo.” 

The film details Anderson and her fellow female teammates on the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Team vying to compete in the world championships in Switzerland in 2019. “I think we had more than 150 people there. It was amazing.”

Churich was the head of California’s Boreal and Soda Springs resorts when Campbell ran Breckenridge, making them among the first women resort leaders in the country. Churich, the yoga-practicing mother of two grown sons, also helmed Powdr Corp.’s Camp Woodward action sports training facilities, building the company’s Woodward Tahoe facility and overseeing the development of Woodward Park City, the nation’s first year-round action sports and ski resort.

“My whole thing has always been maybe we can question tradition and see if there are different progressive ways to do business, hence the stuff we did at Woodward,” Churich said.

Keystone vice president and general manager Jody Churich poses for a portrait at the base of Keystone’s River Run Gondola on Dec. 18, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

One weekend in November, she was skiing her resort and checking out conditions when she came across a girl who was struggling. They were on Schoolmarm, one of Keystone’s most iconic runs. It’s a green run, but it’s long, meandering more than three and a half miles from the top of the mountain. 

“This girl just couldn’t get down and I thought ‘OK, I get to teach a lesson.’ And that’s what we did. We even picked up another person on the way down and I had my first class at Keystone and we made it successfully down the hill,” she said. “She crashed a couple times, but she was having fun. I just love teaching kids. They are so creative and ready to follow and really embrace this new approach to having fun in the mountains. Kids are my passion point; keeping them in the sport and keeping them in the game is important to me.”

Churich just hired Julie Rust to run operations at Keystone. Rust, who worked last year as the head of operations at Northstar, spent almost two decades as director of Vail’s ski patrol. Down the road, Addy McCord has been directing the Beaver Creek ski patrol since 1998.

More women are following the lead of Rust and McCord into traditionally male-dominated jobs in ski patrol and lift operations, Churich said. “It all goes back to these role models that girls and women can see. If that’s the one thing I leave behind, just being an inspiration, I’m stoked with that.”

Read more outdoors stories from The Colorado Sun.

The woman who peeked behind the operations curtain

Beth Howard arrived in Vail in 1985 as an intern from Iowa. 

She was drawn to the scene behind the curtain, marveling at the complexity of running Vail ski area, one of the nation’s most-trafficked resorts. She found herself working amid a sea of men in kitchens on the mountain. She ran the company’s food and beverage program, which ranges from cafeterias to remote cabins offering fine dining, for years before she was tapped as the first female general manager at Northstar and then as the first female chief operating officer at Beaver Creek and now the first female to run Vail, the company’s flagship resort.

“All these firsts, and we didn’t really talk about it. I just did it, and didn’t think anything of it and that’s how I’ve always approached it,” Howard said from her warm office overlooking frozen Gore Creek in Vail, but still dressed in her gray-and-blue Helly Hansen uniform and ready for outdoor work should duty call. “It hasn’t been my purpose, all the firsts. It’s just my path and my journey.”

Vail Mountain vice president and chief operating officer Beth Howard poses for a portrait at the base of Vail’s Eagle Bahn gondola on December 18, 2019. Andy Colwell, special to the Colorado Sun

After 29 years shaping the company’s on-mountain dining, Howard set her sights on running a resort. She credits the company’s mentorship and leadership training programs with fostering her growth beyond on-mountain dining. In addition to working in a formal mentorship program with Campbell at Breckenridge, she took on a “stretch project” that had her leading a companywide team charged with identifying the best practices for grooming and snowmaking. 

She spent a year working with the 11-resort team, most of which was male.

“I was so out of my comfort zone, leading all these resorts with very experienced snow surface experts,” she said, noting a few awkward moments when veteran groomers and snowmakers wondered why a food-and-beverage boss was in charge. “I told them all I’m probably going to learn more from you than you will ever learn from me, but I want to lead us through the process. The best way to learn is to be in charge of something.”

The discomfort of that project, working with heavy equipment operators she had not interacted with before, gave her an outsider’s perspective. It’s a mindset she uses today as the company — and, again, all of the ski industry — scrambles to attract a wider guest demographic.  

“Being looked upon by the group as not one of them, I really tried not to fake that I was an expert on anything,” she said. “I just got in there and worked with them and we had some great outcomes. I learned so much.” 

Howard feels the eyes on her as a role model. While she mentors a growing circle of younger workers — both formally and informally — she knows she is being watched by countless others. 

“There is that part of having someone in a highly visible position, like a COO, and there’s the inspiration that comes with that that you never hear about,” she said. “So for me it’s just realizing the things we say and how we lead and how we have this visible position and how we model, it’s a big responsibility.”

Nadia Guerriero takes mentorship seriously

Nadia Guerriero uses that same word — responsibility — when talking about mentoring potential leaders at Beaver Creek, where she is chief operating officer.  

Guerriero took a different tack than Campbell, Churich and Howard to the corner office. She worked as a sports agent for many years, representing some of the biggest names in action sports, including Picabo Street, Tanner Hall, CR Johnson and Jonny Moseley. She joined Northstar as head of events in 2007, three years before the California ski area was acquired by Vail Resorts. She ran the resort’s bustling village before taking over base-area operations on her way to becoming general manager and vice president of the ski area and then heading back to her home state of Colorado to run Beaver Creek. (She appears to be chasing Howard, who she replaced as boss at both Northstar and Beaver Creek.)

The different paths to the corner office are key, Guerriero said. 

“Not only have our paths been different, but we are different leaders,” she said. “it’s important that people see there is not just one way to be a female leader and be in female leadership like we are. We all have different strengths and different ways that we lead our teams in our resorts.”

Guerriero said she has “a responsibility to work with young women who are coming up and making decisions about their career.”

“Because I’ve had these experiences that they can learn from,” she said. 

Beaver Creek chief operating officer Nadia Guerriero poses for a portrait in Beaver Creek on December 18, 2019. Andy Colwell, special to the Colorado Sun

And what is her advice for women aspiring to the executive office? 

“Experience as much as you can. Put yourself out there. Raise your hand. Jump in and learn as much as you can. Try different things,” she said. “Learning something different really opens doors. Anything is possible, and it’s a different conversation that we are having now than we used to have. It used to be if you wanted to work at a mountain there were certain roles for certain people. That is not the conversation anymore.”

Diversity in management helps bring diversity to the mountain

Having a diverse set of voices in a room together “is where the magic happens,” Guerriero said. “When you have a room full of different people with different backgrounds and upbringing and races and genders, that’s where different perspectives are shared and that’s where creativity and innovation happens.”

Fostering women leaders delivers tools, perspective and strategies the company is using to help grow skiing through outreach to people of color and underserved communities. Guerriero, Churich, Howard and Campbell all talk about meetings and gatherings over their careers where they were in the distinct minority. That gives them a perspective on the nuanced approaches required to spark the appeal of skiing among populations that haven’t traditionally flocked to ski hills. 

“In general, we want to grow inclusion, and if you have ever been the one in the minority, whether it’s gender or race, the power of being included I do think gives you a very good perspective on the importance of including a diverse collection of people in conversations,” Campbell said. “We have certainly seen that play out with gender in our company.”

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