I wanted to share an excerpt from a letter I sent to Alterra Mountain Company after participating in the November forum at the Gate House. If you didn’t have a chance to attend the meeting, it was a positive and upbeat session with refreshing candor all the way around. The Alterra team was genuinely respectful of the great work that has been done under Win and Summit Venture’s leadership. In a stated desire to “not screw up” all of the good things going on here, they encouraged the attendees to send along their thoughts and advice so they could learn from all of us directly. Bravo.
In response to their invitation, I shared the following insights:
Most of the reason I feel so passionately about Sugarbush has to do with intangibles. As you know, the initial focus of an acquisition is usually on tangible assets, but as time goes on Alterra will likely find that your success lies in understanding and perpetuating the intangibles i.e. those intimate aspects of the guest experience that have an out-sized role in influencing satisfaction. Tangibles like the prospect of great terrain and ideal snow conditions entices them to make that initial visit but the reason they come back again and again has to do with how they are made to feel when they’re here. Therefore, much of the below insight falls into the intangibles camp; it’s things that are not explicit or immediately evident but rather come to life over time in a very real and profound way:
Perhaps the most marked contrast to other New England mountains is that Sugarbush has a soul. It has an invigorating emotional and spiritual energy that makes you feel like you’re part of a richer experience than just going up and down the mountain. When you make the commitment to drive 11 hours every weekend to expose your child to all that skiing has to offer, you owe it to yourself to be somewhere where there’s more for the taking. We are better for our time at Sugarbush because its soul nourishes us, particularly my son who is in the midst of his most formative years. Sugarbush has a soul when other mountains don’t because it has the right set of values. When the values are right, the employees embrace them and behave them and the guests are better for the experience.
This isn’t just a catchy word in a mission statement, or something you feel over a beer with buddies, this is a true modus operandi at Sugarbush. It flows from a sense that we all belong to the same tribe and that we share a common interest and ownership in the wellness of the mountain. When you share a chair with a stranger at other mountains, there’s usually silence on the way up. At Sugarbush, there’s always a conversation and it’s usually initiated by a loyalist who wants to be sure that the guest is enjoying themselves. Other mountains may have formal ambassador programs, but at Sugarbush, anyone who truly loves our mountain is hard-wired to be ambassadorial; it just comes naturally. While there are many reasons why we’re coming off such a successful year, I can’t help but think that it has a lot to do with how our people treated our first-time Ikon guests. A visible Stratton Ikon Pass was an invitation to extend the guest the most generous courtesy we could because we genuinely wanted them to love our mountain like we do. Camaraderie at Sugarbush isn’t about skiing in packs and slapping each other on the back at the bar. It’s about treating each other with respect and admiration and paying it forward as often as you can.
Unlike many other mountains, Sugarbush has a very distinct local culture that influences the character of the mountain experience. To understand the essence of this culture you have to understand the ethos of Mad River Valley. This is the isolated corner of central Vermont that the railroads and the highway developers ignored. As a result, it takes longer to get here but that extra effort has forged the character of the Valley. People like me who are willing to bite off that extra distance on a late Friday night are doing it in part because we’re eschewing the homogeneity of the mass-market mountains. But we’re also drawn by the seclusion that the Valley offers and the chance to immerse ourselves in a refreshingly pure local culture.
The people of the valley are very proud of their heritage of self-reliance. They are not wealthy retirees, they are rugged individualists who have carved out a living with hard work and perseverance. These aren’t showy people wearing the latest ski fashions or boasting about where they live or what they do. They are who they are and they live with a “take me as I am” spirit. While all mountains have a local element, the Sugarbush experience is different because it’s the Mad River Valley version of local. It’s refreshingly pure without a trace of pretension.
History is usually left in the past but at Sugarbush it lives on. Our recent 60th anniversary was a chance to revisit some of the colorful stories, characters and events of years gone by and to appreciate the legacy that still persists. In all of my years of marketing, I have never seen an anniversary event executed as well as this one was. Win is no stranger to the celebration of history, having published a great book chronicling the creation and evolution of Merrill Lynch. He understands the importance of having the right core values and why they must endure over time. As such, the values that made Sugarbush such a popular destination all those many years ago are still very much alive today. If you make the effort to understand the mountain’s history, everything takes on new meaning. The rituals and traditions that we enjoy today are part of a lasting legacy that continues to enrich the mountain experience. All of the content, videos etc. that were masterfully produced for the 60th anniversary should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to truly understand the magic of Sugarbush.
Every mountain has accomplished skiers but Sugarbush has always had more than its share of skiing legends. Whether it was early phenoms like Stein Ericksen and Peter Estin or John Egan today, the active and visible presence of these icons has elevated the reputation of the mountain i.e. they could be skiing anywhere in the world but they’ve chosen Vermont’s Sugarbush for a reason. Even better, they’ve always been approachable and outgoing. In my first season at Sugarbush, my young son and I ran into Egan in a lift line. Not only had he remembered our names from a brief introduction the prior year, but he asked if he could ski with us the following morning. How great is that? Just a normal guest getting an opportunity to ski with a ski hero who clearly has a big heart.
Egan also tells a great story about the time he was chatting up some Australian guests at Allyn’s Lodge. Having not yet introduced himself, he asked them why they had come all this way to ski the U.S., and why they had chosen Vermont and Sugarbush. He learned that they had first been drawn to Sugarbush when they saw this guy named John Egan ski in a Warren Miller movie. They promised each other that they would save up to make the trip someday, and well, here they were. Of course, they almost fell out of their chairs when John introduced himself, but even better, he spent the rest of the day skiing with them.
Big & Small
Sugarbush is one of the biggest mountains in the East and it skis big too. Yet for all of its scale, it feels small and intimate. While some of this is physical e.g. the good proportions of the base area, most of it has to do with people. The tone of course is set at the top. It’s been great to have such a charismatic hands-on owner who has always genuinely cared about Sugarbush’s employees and guests. His team is inspired and it shows not only in their competence but in the cordiality in which all guests are treated. We benefit from a bit of a virtuous cycle, as nice people attract other nice people and so it goes. As I mentioned earlier, the Mad River Valley draws a certain kind of person and it’s been said that the people who come here want to be here. They’re not here to posture or to prove a point. They’re here to be around other genuine, down-to-earth people who care as much about helping others enjoy the experience as they do themselves. It gets back to camaraderie. When everyone seems to be in it together you feel as if you belong together. That’s the “small intimacy” that you’re never going to find on industrial mountains that lack a soul.
Well, that’s probably more than you ever wanted to know about Sugarbush but I thought I would share my thoughts in depth to help you and your team on your learning journey. We all know that the little things sometimes make the biggest difference, and in my experience, that’s always been about the Sugarbush intangibles. Congratulations again on your acquisition of Sugarbush and I know that I join many others in welcoming you and in looking forward to a future made better by your stewardship.