June Skiing at Killington?
Mike Solimano, the Beast's second-year CEO, talks spring skiing, the revival of the Bear Mountain Mogul Challenge, and why his customers were so mad.
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In an open letter to passholders at the beginning of last season, newly appointed Killington president Mike Solimano said, “We need to regain that swagger that allowed us to have bragging rights in almost every measurable category of operation. Look for us to return to the roots and essence of whom and what we are.”
Solimano, a lifelong skier who grew up skiing in the Poconos, certainly knows Killington, where he’s been employed for 13 years. He was the resort’s chief financial officer when Utah-based Powdr Corp. acquired it from debt-crippled American Skiing Co. When he took over as president in 2012, morale among Killington regulars was at a low point, but Solimano has since launched an aggressive charm offensive that has won back many of Powdr Corp.’s most bitter critics.
We had a chance to ask him about The Beast’s rocky recent past—and his vision for its future—in a conversation that touched on a range of topics near and dear to the hardcore Killington skier’s heart.
Communication Breakdown: Solimano freely admits that when Powdr first took over, Killington’s new managers weren’t as open and communicative as they could have been.
“In the past maybe we didn’t spend lot of time explaining what we were doing and why. People want to be in the know, and even when we were doing good things, we did a bad job of explaining what we were doing. We did some stuff that people didn’t like, but if explain better, they understand why you’re doing things. In a resort, you’ve got passionate people who feel like it’s their own, so if you do something that messes it up you’re going to hear about it. And sometimes when people don’t know the real story, they make up their own. I said, let’s just overcommit and explain what we’re doing, even if it’s basic stuff. Let’s just be honest and open. We’re not just big corporate guys. We love skiing too, and we want to have a great resort. So that’s what the team’s been focused on—listening and responding. I put my email address in blog posts, and I answer all my emails. I get some good feedback, and if something makes sense, we’ll try to implement it. It was crazy that it got so adversarial with our most loyal customers. I think we’ve done a lot of things to endear ourselves to them—mostly just listening.”
Open Early, Close Late:Bright sun, sloppy corn snow, tailgate parties in muddy parking lots…. Ultra late-season skiing was a Killington hallmark. Of all the things Killington’s new owners did to alienate its hardcore fans, shortening the season was the most controversial.
“When Powdr came in, it was easy to look at the early- and late-season operation and say, ‘Aw, it’s great, but do you make any money?’ But with Powdr, we get to keep the money we make. They hold us accountable, but they’re not going to take away our revenues and give to some other resort, like ASC would have. I never liked that model. I know we can make more if we can invest more. When we first bought the resort we did some things to keep operations tight, to improve the bottom line. We want to get things on a solid financial footing so we can start to reinvest—that’s the goal. Yeah, we did some things along the way that people didn’t love. One thing was shrinking the season. Well, we sat down and did some brainstorming, and we said, you know what, that’s one of the key differentiators for our resort. All this snowmaking infrastructure gives us the ability to open early and stay open late. That was part of what made us different, and when we stopped doing that, we were similar to other resorts, so what’s the difference between us and everybody else? A lot of it is just getting back to what made Killington great. On a typical Tuesday in April, we’ll probably have enough business to do a little better than break even. On a nice Saturday, we can make some money. But it’s less about money than the identity of the brand and making people love Killington.”
Biggest in the East?: When Sugarloaf, Maine, added huge tracts of trail-less off-piste terrain, and began counting all off-trail terrain as “skiable acreage,” it instantly became the biggest ski area in the East. Or did it?
“If you ski Sugarloaf and you ski Killington, you pretty quick realize which is bigger. I’m not sure you can really compare the two resorts. It’s a nice resort, but that’s a pure marketing play in my opinion. And that’s fine. Healthy competition is good. They’re fighting for spring business as well, and whatever gets people talking is good for industry. But our focus is we’re still biggest in the East, and from a pure vacation resort standpoint, we want to position ourselves as a viable alternative to going out West. You can’t ski all of Killington in a day or two, which is not true at most Eastern resorts. Yeah, we’re going to open up some more woods. I’m not sure we will go boundary-to-boundary—our locals already do that anyway. So it’s sort of a gimmick. The average skier is going to find a lot more terrain here than anywhere else.”
Bringing Back the Bear: Killington’s Bear Mountain Mogul Challenge (scheduled this year for the weekend of April 4) was once the East’s biggest spring event. When things got too rowdy for Powdr’s taste, it was shut down. That, Solimano says, was a mistake.
“It was a signature event that was part of what made Killington great. Besides the long season, we’ve got all these steep mogul runs that we’re known for, and we’ve produced a lot of great bump skiers, like Donna Weinbrecht. That is part of our heritage. So let’s focus on our strengths. That hardcore group of customers—the ski-house group—really enjoyed that party. So we brought it back, and it was a huge success. Sometimes you forget you’re in the entertainment business. It’s a ski resort. It’s supposed to be fun. We got to point where we made too many rules. Sometimes you make a rule to stop one thing—something stupid that only 2 percent of the people are doing—and you end up taking something away from the 98 percent to fix it, and you lose something fun. We’ve got a crazy crew down here. We had a problem with dogs one year, so we said no dogs, and the next year a couple of passholders bring a donkey. Well, all we said was no dogs. And that’s the kind of fun crowd we have.”
Future Beast: Killington’s new summit lodge opened in December, and Solimano says he feels like he’s “getting caught up.” Future projects, he says, might include a revival of the Killington-Pico interconnect, or expansion of intermediate terrain at Ram’s Head. Meanwhile, the plan for a big base village is back on track.
“There have been some challenges to get it moving at a pace we would like, and the real estate market has not been perfect. As far as the Act 250 process (Vermont’s development-control law), we’re getting through it, but you only need one person to hold it up. Fortunately I don’t think we have a lot opposition. In the next couple of years we should be able to get going on stuff, but we’re probably still two years out before we can put a shovel in the ground. Obviously it’ll be nice to have some new high-end clients that come with that, but with our terrain, we’re always gonna be a skier’s mountain. We want to stick to that.”