The U.S. ski industry was forged by soldiers. We all know the story about 10th Mountain vets returning from war with visions of ski runs and chairlifts that would spark dozens of American resorts.
Innovators who worked every job at the ski area took the reins from those soldiers, creating even more lifts, better grooming and resort villages to anchor a multi-billion-dollar industry. After a few decades, marketing and finance experts took over, developing unique strategies for growth.
Today, the maturing ski industry is seeing a new generation of technology-focused bosses taking over. To wit: the transition of veteran resort operator and Alterra Mountain Co. CEO Rusty Gregory to Ticketmaster executive Jared Smith.
Colorado Sun reporter Jason Blevins sat down with 67-year-old Gregory for a few minutes in his corner office at the 15-resort Alterra’s River North HQ for a roaming chat as he steps away from the day-to-day operations, marking his first prolonged absence from running ski resorts in more than 40 years.
Q: You think Jared moving in is an example of a new wave of leadership for the resort industry as it matures? He’s got the technological chops this industry needs, and the resort world is more than a little behind when it comes to technology, right?
Colorado ski resort operators turbo-charged technology last season, and many of the upgrades are here to stay
A: Technology to us is automatic flushing toilets. That’s pretty much it. But yes, I really do think so. If you go back historically and look at the founders, people like Dave McCoy (who created Mammoth ski area where Gregory spent many decades), and you see the opportunities and the challenges back in those days — they were actually inventing the equipment and the grooming and all of the stuff just so people could get to know actually ski. So people with that kind of genius, they were the kind of resort operators who were involved back in the early days and that lasted a long time. Then it became about trying to take all that stuff and make enough money so that you can make it through the down years. And the next phase were Rob Katzes (the influential chief of Vail Resorts who stepped down from CEO last year) — and actually there was only one of him — who kinda pulled it all together. And now it’s truly all about technology. Yes, we’ve still got all the same challenges, but the real changes I think we will see in the near term will come from technology. The apps that do everything. The apps that direct guests to parking and food and everything else. And those will come from a new generation of thinkers and leaders.
Q: Like Jared? His experience at Live Nation and Ticketmaster gives him the chops to handle peak traffic, big crowds, surges and all the challenges that come with an industry that is finally growing, right?
A: Jared has that technological expertise and he understands our customers well enough to give them a customized experience, not just the same experience for everybody. We need to look at how Ticketmaster evolved under Jared. They grew all sorts of ways to sell tickets, not just paper tickets. They partnered with major sports clubs and leagues. And then Jared ran hundreds of software developers who were building all that. All that is very relevant to skiing today.
Q: Switching gears … I’ve been covering skiing in Colorado for 25 years and I’ve never quite seen the anger and angst directed to Vail Resort this season. Gotta say, nice job keeping your head down when your competitor was on the ropes. It wasn’t like your resorts were not enduring the same labor issues and crowds, right?
A: Ha. We did get lucky dodging that same reaction. I have to say part of that was earned — and by all of us, not just Vail Resorts. But then part of it is just the spot we are all in. There’s something about the pandemic that made everybody kind of pissed off. You know, whether you’re the government or a big company, or the waiter in the restaurant … if things don’t go perfectly, you’re gonna get a lashing from that, from your clientele. It’s sort of a body politic these days.
Q: When you look back at these last two seasons and think about that anger and how resorts adjusted and adapted, where do you see lessons? What did you learn that will help the industry moving forward?
A: There’s a lot there to reflect on but I can think of a couple things. First, as an operator who came up through the industry, I saw the people running the resorts, when you put a harsh reality in front of them and require them to adapt to it, they will absolutely do it. A great example is using phones or apps to order food. For years we heard we can’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 food and guests didn’t want to come inside, we simply did it. I think there were more things accomplished in the last two years than the previous 10 to 15 years simply because we had to do it. I think it’s essential for leaders to remember that going forward. We should not have to be forced into making improvements.
And other really big lesson for us was recognizing that it’s so very important for our resort presidents and their teams to have a lot of autonomy and authority to make decisions. Our very decentralized model gave resort leaders and their teams the ability to act on things right in front of them, the opportunity to immediately respond to threats without a lot of process. That was critical during the pandemic. And it was critical for taking care of the people in our resorts, the guests and our employees. I really saw that intensely and at hyper-speed during the pandemic.
Q: That’s a differentiating characteristic of Alterra versus Vail Resorts. You guys have obviously followed Vail Resorts in many ways except in centralizing operations and power in a corporate headquarters. The pandemic kind of affirmed that decision to keep individual resorts more independent and free to handle their own hiring and marketing and other tasks?
A: It is a differentiator for us. This is not a comment about what others companies should do. But for us it’s less about policy and rules and it’s more about culture. And that worked well and it’s working well after the pandemic. We need to support leaders as we bring them up through the organization, and that is about culture.
Q: When I think about pivotal, game-changing seasons in the U.S. ski industry I think about a couple seasons in the late 1980s when it didn’t snow until February and just about every ski area in the country invested in snowmaking. Then the Great Recession and it forced resort operators out of the build-a-village focus and toward season passes. And the pandemic seasons, which are forcing resorts to adapt in a whole new way.
A: That’s exactly right. I remember in the ’80s at Mammoth we had drought after drought after drought and the company wasn’t sustainable. We had to lay off employees. We didn’t have snowmaking and we had to beg the bank for money to keep us going and put in snowmaking. That was 1990 at Mammoth.
Q: That ability to convince banks to lend resorts money, a lot of that came from Vail Resorts, right? When that company started selling hundreds of thousands of passes in the summer, lenders suddenly became more open to financing big projects without having to worry about how snow and selling tickets might impact their ability to get paid back, right?
A: It used to be that we could only spend what we made in a season. So we had all sorts of plans and visions for what we’re going to do for our guests and how are we going to make better things better for the community and the employees. But if we didn’t have the snow and the visits and the revenue … we just didn’t. That’s one of the benefits of having so many resorts under one roof. It’s snowing somewhere and we have diversification of weather patterns. But there’s also a bunch of complexity that goes with running a big company. We saw some of those issues this year. Yes, it’s nice 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 contact with their employees and their guests. One outcome of that, I saw this season, is that there will always be room for smart, individual resorts to find footholds in this industry and do well.
Q: We have seen that in Colorado. The smaller independent resorts have had record seasons, even as you big guys grow and grapple.
A: Ski resort operators have to be wily and few are more wily than independent owners. They have learned survival techniques that make them experts at adapting and that is why I think, for individual resorts, the future is bright for those in the right locations. I think there will always be vibrant independent resorts in this industry.
Q: You’ve been doing this for a long time. Are you excited 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 stick our heads up and think about the larger issues.
A: Yeah the time is right. It’s the right time for tech. It’s the right time for me to cheer on the sideline and help out where I can and make room for a new generation to come in and tackle some of these issues, challenges and opportunities. We need a fresh perspective. I can still help out and, most importantly, I’l have time to actually get out and go skiing. When I’m up on the hill, maybe I’ll be more connected to skiing than standing here in this office, you know?