EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Angel Williams is heading to Breckenridge this winter for her first ski vacation ever and she wants to be ready.
“I’m practicing,” the New York City resident says as she boards the chairlift at Big Snow, North America’s first indoor ski area, located at a massive new mall a few minutes from her home.
“My plan is to go every weekend until it’s time to go to Breckenridge,” she says, her snowboard dangling from the four-seat Doppelmayr chairlift above the 1,000-foot-long snow slope. “Then I won’t have to spend all my time on the bunny hill. Maybe I can go to Peak 9, which I hear is awesome. This is the first time I’ve ever gone snowboarding on consecutive days. I feel like I’m getting better.”
By removing some of the critical challenges facing skiing — like long trips to a far-flung mountain, pricey access and a daunting learning curve — Big Snow founder Joe Hession hopes he’s found a key for a resort industry that needs new skiers to thrive as older generations fade from the sport. And those new skiers need to look different than the departing skiers. Of the roughly 9.5 million Americans who ski, about three-quarters are white, according to the latest participation survey by the SnowSports Industries America trade group.
“Who else is doing more to grow the sport?” Hession says amid hundreds of first-time skiers and snowboarders exploring their first moments on snow. “Anyone who wants to argue that point, they should come visit us here and see this diversity.”
While indoor skiing is common in Europe, this is the first ski dome in North America, where the balmy flatlands are littered with failed attempts to replicate winter play indoors.
A $215 million indoor ski resort proposed near Dallas anticipated more than 2 million annual visitors before collapsing in 2015. A similar dream died in south Florida around the same time. Conceptual plans for a $1 billion waterpark and ski slope in Las Vegas are entering their 14th year. Investors are peddling the idea of an indoor ski hill in Texas.
Hession opened the Big Snow ski complex at New Jersey’s American Dream mall in early December. He’s been hosting about 2,000 skiers a day since. If the pace continues, Hession expects he will log more than 500,000 skier visits in his first year. Most of them will pay $70, which includes all ski clothing and equipment, time with instructors and two hours on the slope.
(It’s $34 for two hours with your own gear.)
He holds out his iPhone, which controls SnowCloud, the e-commerce software his company Snow Operating created to handle all ski resort retail and online sales, lift access and management for the company’s 55 resort clients.
“You want to see why everyone in the ski resort industry should be watching us,” he says, scrolling through a list of hourly blocks for guests visiting the slope, all of which are sold out. “Response has been incredible.”
The hourly wave of guests who signed up online — some wearing T-shirts and flip-flops and just about all of them first-time skiers — hold out their phones, which Big Snow workers scan. The guests get high-frequency, RFID-chipped wristbands that have their name, height, weight, boot size and ski ability. Within minutes they have watched a cheery orientation video, stored their stuff in free lockers, donned helmets, parkas and ski pants, been fitted for boots and skis or snowboards and are stomping into a 180,000 square-foot, climate-controlled ski slope.
“That’s been our thing from the beginning. How do you design processes to make them more efficient? How do you make it less transactional and more experiential?” Hession says.
The flow of most ski resorts has been designed and built by skiers who have spent their lives on snow, Hession says.
“Those hardcore skiers are who make our industry our industry, but the newbies, it’s like everyone forgot about them,” he says. “We are lucky that standing up on the top of a mountain is such a spiritual experience because if it wasn’t, people would never come back.”
Last year, Hession and his Snow Operating partners — wife Halley O’Brien, brother Patrick Hession and their longtime friend Scott Baldassano — became the fourth owners since 2010 of northwest New Jersey’s Mountain Creek ski area. Hession’s first job at age 14 was parking cars at Mountain Creek and he ended up working there for more than 18 years, serving as the resort’s general manager before moving to Colorado in 2012 and starting Snow Operating.
The idea behind Snow Operating is to help resorts improve their guest experience, with a focus on first-timers. Hession’s team has developed innovative strategies for teaching skiing and snowboarding using terrain.
A small ditch helps beginners figure out how to turn. Banked tracks on a gentle slope guide first-timers down their first-ever ski run. By 2014 Hession was applying Snow Operating’s “Terrain Based Learning Program” at major resorts like Killington, Whistler Blackcomb, Aspen Snowmass, Telluride and Taos. Today the company is working with 55 resorts, helping design an experience that eases the conversion of first-time visitors into lifelong skiers.
Hession’s last seven years of work has culminated at Big Snow. There’s a pair of magic carpet lifts for first-timers and a chairlift that climbs 16 stories to the top of a harder slope, which offers a couple jumps and rails. The snow is crunchy and cold in the 28-degree room.
From 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., there are hundreds of skiers on the snow. Snow guns in the rafters blow a fresh layer of snow every night but the snow, which has never been frozen or seen a ray of sunshine or baked in warm temperatures, is carvable and not icy.
The chilly room begs Hession’s most fielded query: How fat are those energy bills?
Hession only opened a month ago, so he’s not weathered a swampy New Jersey summer, but at Mountain Creek, he pays about $3.5 million for electricity every year. Big Snow’s annual electric bill will be about $1 million, Hession says.
“And we are doing more skier visits here. So our kilowatt per skier visit is way lower than at a typical ski resort,” he says.
He’s got 180 employees working at Big Snow and 100 of them are year-round, full-time workers with benefits. Almost all his employees have never worked in skiing. That’s by design.
“The bias of someone who has worked at a ski resort might confuse them about how this place operates. We are not running a ski resort. We are operating this like an amusement park,” he says, clicking his radio on and telling staff at the front that the station for bootfitting is no longer full and they can release the next surge of guests through the system. “Every way we operate is different than a normal ski resort.”
Tom Foley, the head of business operations and analytics for Inntopia, says places like Big Snow certainly tear down the well-known cost barrier that hinders skiing’s reach into a wider demographic.
But more importantly, Foley says, indoor ski hills represent the “gamification” of skiing.
“It’s an experience that doesn’t require you to go to an intimidating place, like a 10,000-foot rocky mountain,” he says. “By allowing you to side-step that intimidation, it removes a barrier that is more fundamental to human nature than the cost impediments.”
Foley, a longtime student of resort tourism’s growth and challenges, wonders about indoor skiing’s long-term sustainability with a focus on training skiers and pushing them toward bigger pursuits. But he sees hope that easily-accessed skiing can nurture a new generation of skiers.
“I see a graduated process from an indoor area to an eastern slope or a smaller mountain to eventually the Rockies,” he says. “In 10 years, I see someone at Alta saying they came from Big Snow.”
Foley wonders if the big players — like Rob Katz at Vail Resorts and Rusty Gregory at Alterra Mountain Co. — are watching.
“If I were sitting in Rob or Rusty’s seat, I would be looking for a way to give 25% off a season pass to graduates of Big Snow,” Foley says. “Why wouldn’t you do that considering it’s in the Tri-State area and they both own properties in the Northeast.”
Gregory, the chief executive at Alterra Mountain Co., is watching Hession and Big Snow. He calls Hession “a real disciple of skiing.”
“What I like most about Joe is that he’s got a million people telling him it’s never going to work and that, more often than not, is the basis for success in the ski industry,” Gregory says.
Alterra is “very interested” in the promise of indoor skiing as a way to grow participation, he says.
“One of the biggest disadvantages to sharing the joy and passion of skiing with more people is that you can’t bring it to the cities they live in. Well, Joe is changing that with a very leading edge and a really big idea,” Gregory says. “This could play a big role in demand generation.”
In the American Dream mall, a short walk from his ski hill, Hession leans over a glass railing overlooking Nickelodeon Universe, the largest indoor theme park in the country. Thousands of parents and kids ride roller coasters, ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds and more. They have each paid $45 to $60 for their day at the park.
He points to a worker using her iPhone to scan wristbands for kids waiting to ride a Monster Truck train. They are the same wristbands used at Big Snow. Both Nickelodeon and the next-door DreamWorks Water Park are using Hession’s SnowCloud system for their guests.
“That’s our software,” he said. “The ski industry painfully knows it has a technology problem and here we are with the country’s largest indoor theme park turning to our platform — built for ski resorts — yet no one in the ski industry is using our system yet. I don’t understand the ski industry’s hesitancy. But I’m no longer chasing them down. I’m just going to keep doing my thing here and in 10 years they will get it and come to me.”
The simplification of the resort transaction is hardly a new concept. Disney has mastered that game, with scannable technology that eases just about every step in their resort playgrounds. For skiing, with its host of mandatory equipment and specific skills, the easy transaction eliminates yet another barrier to entry. And it’s another example of the gamification of skiing, Foley says.
“It’s an opportunity to remove complications that keep people from stepping into the sport,” he says.
The American Dream mall is being developed by the Ghermezian family, the Canada-based owners, operators and developers of Minnesota’s Mall of America.
The family is reviving the foundered Meadowlands project on more than 200 acres of publicly owned wetlands. The controversial project was initially proposed in the mid 1990s. After years of study and environmental lawsuits concerning the impact of the sprawling mall next to MetLife stadium, a skeleton of the Meadowlands project — including the indoor theme park and ski slope — was built in the early 2000s.
The project stalled in 2009 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The Ghermezian family took control of the project in 2013 and, following a few years of bond-issue financing work, announced Nickelodeon Universe would set up in the indoor amusement park space.
In 2018 DreamWorks joined the American Dream project with plans for the world’s largest indoor wave pool and the world’s second tallest water slide. Nickelodeon opened in October, Big Snow opened in December and the water park is set to open this month. In March, the owners of the 3 million square foot mall expect to have more than 450 stores and 100 eateries open alongside the three parks, climbing walls, miniature golf courses, concert venues and an ice rink.
A Hard Rock Cafe and Lucky Strike bowling alley are under construction with views overlooking the Big Snow ski action.
Hession is already talking with the Ghermezian family about an even bigger Big Snow indoor ski slope at their proposed American Dream mall in Miami, which would be the largest mall in the country.
“It’s a whacky marriage isn’t it?” Hession says, navigating through hordes of clomping skiers unfamiliar with the ski-boot strut. “Malls have been saying for years ‘How do we get more people to continue to come to malls? Skiing and snowboarding has been saying for years ‘How do we get more people to come skiing? And now the ski industry and the mall industry have met, and they are both a little down on their luck. So I said ‘Let’s get married and we can fix this up and maybe we can actually help each other.’”
Isaac O’Neal, a medical school student in Washington, D.C., has skied the last three days at Big Snow with his two brothers as they visit their hometown Newark for the holidays. O’Neal wants to work with Hession to get more city kids on snow.
“We are trying to find a way we can bring more kids out here from the city,” he says as Hession shares his phone number to start the conversation. “There is so much possibility here. I mean, look around, it’s already happening.”
Hession is welcoming a diverse array of visitors who do not look like the skiers who flock to mountain resorts. Time will tell if he’s creating the new skiers the resort industry has been struggling to find as the Baby Boomers who built the industry walk away from the sport. He’s pretty sure he is forging a new wave of lifelong skiers. But he worries that resorts might not be ready for them.
“The challenge is how will the industry receive the new guest I am giving them?” he says. “What happens when my group shows up in Vermont or Colorado and says ‘Hey I’m a snowboarder. I go to Big Snow.’ How will they be welcomed?”