Snow might be a problem for drivers trying to make their way through mountain passes, but for ski resorts, it’s time to smile.
“I had a really big smile on my face after skiing today,” said Joey O’Brien, managing director of the Baldy Mountain Ski Resort.
With several dumps of snow earlier in November and another big snowfall last week, Baldy reports 83 centimetres at the summit and 25 cm at the base — and counting.
That equals enough snow for Baldy to open to the public on Dec. 1, though O’Brien, who comes to Baldy from ski resorts in Nova Scotia and Alberta, joked the resort staff disagree with him on the conditions.
O’Brien said, by his standards, conditions on the mountain are “unbelievably spectacular.” Staff that have experience on Baldy, though, are telling him “it’s okay,” and to wait and see just how spectacular it gets.
This is O’Brien’s first season on Baldy, but not his first experience reinvigorating a ski resort. The resort has suffered through years of financial difficulties, culminating in bankruptcy before being bought out of receivership in June.
Read more: Mount Baldy sold to new owners
“I’ve owned ski resorts since 1979. This is my third ski resort resurrection turnaround project,” said O’Brien. Ski Martock in Nova Scotia, he added, was one of his successful turnarounds.
“You want to talk about a challenging environment? Thirty feet above sea level, rains all the time, every storm that goes by is like a mugging,” said O’Brien.
The resort is kicking off its 2016 season with the First Chair Festival, a celebration of all things Baldy and harkening back to the year it first opened, 1968.
Sip hot chocolate around the fire pits, listen to some great bands, sample some of Firehall Brewery’s finest, and even watch a film premiere.
There’s also prizes, and special goodies, like free skiing on Sunday, for those who dress up like it’s 1968.
O’Brien said the Back to Baldy theme of the First Chair festival is part of setting a vision for the resort. They can’t, and shouldn’t, be a corporate ski resort, he said.
“We are going with the theme of pricing and programming and food and events that you might have enjoyed during a less busy time in your life,” said O’Brien.
“We hope that when people arrive at Baldy, they will shift into Baldy speed. Enjoy the snow, enjoy everything else and have a relaxing time.”
An opening ceremony is planned for Dec. 2 from 2 to 3 p.m. at The Hub (formerly the Kiosk) with Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band and MLA Linda Larson for a toast to kick off the season.
After the mountain remained closed during the 2015-16 season, O’Brien said he heard concerns that it wouldn’t be able to re-open in time for this season. He admits it has taken a lot of hard work.
“We did it in 150 days. Some of our staff say normal people don’t try to do what we did. But we did,” said O’Brien. “Even today, we are scrambling like crazy, new equipment is coming in. Tomorrow, 56 boxes of furniture are arriving that we have to assemble. Sleep is a precious commodity at this stage.”
O’Brien said there is still a lot of work to be done, and a number of things they have to do well in order to successfully run a ski resort. For Baldy, he said there are 19 fields of expertise they have to be “really good” to “pretty good” at.
“You need to develop the skill sets and you need to put the programming in place that accomplishes your overall goals,” said O’Brien. “Just one is there is not enough skiers and snowboarders in our two-hour umbrella.”
“We have very clearly defined targets and strategies to accomplish that. It’s not hard, you just gotta know how to do it,” said O’Brien.
Previous owners and operators, he continued, were focused on real estate and from about 2010 on, they were focused on survival.
“Get the lifts open, get the lodge open, have some hamburgers and hot dogs, and hope enough guests come,” said O’Brien. “That may have worked in the ‘60s. It sure doesn’t work in today’s world.”
O’Brien said the first focus has to be growing and retaining the number of active participants in that two-hour umbrella. Part of that is instruction, which he said has been neglected at Baldy, comparing it to another hill he managed.
“That was a ski resort with four trails. And I had 125 instructors and they were busy,” said O’Brien. “The snow school is not just a revenue department, the snow school is your genesis of all your new guests.”
A ski resort doesn’t survive on lift tickets and season passes, according to O’Brien, explaining that 60 per cent of the revenue comes from other services.
“It is the rest of that stuff that we need to develop to maturity. We need to grow our capability in all those departments, before we really start reaching beyond the two-hour window,” said O’Brien adding that instruction is just one of the 19 areas of expertise they need to cultivate at Baldy.
“It is a real focus, but it takes a couple of years to develop that core skill set. When we’re at a level that we’re pretty good, that is when we will focus on moving up and growing our market to the 4.5-hour umbrella,” he said.
For year one, O’Brien said he is not making any promises the resort can’t deliver. They have seen sales from Vancouver, and a substantial number of season passes out of West Kelowna, but O’Brien said that is not their target.
“Our target is for people to come and have an extraordinary experience,” he said. “That is going to lead to a very high retention rate.”
O’Brien, who is in his 42nd year of owning and managing ski resorts, mostly in Nova Scotia and Alberta, said he hasn’t experienced the level of support he is getting from the local population in previous projects.
“It has been an incredible group hug,” said O’Brien. “It is breathtaking how much people are willing and hoping that we will succeed and doing whatever is possible.”
Apex Mountain Resort announced Tuesday that they will open on Dec. 10.
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