Thursday, November 18, 2010

A chat with Chic Wilson

Chic Wilson is the affable owner and General Manager of Willard Mountain in Washington County, NY.  He and I had a chance to talk earlier this week not only about the upcoming season, but also about how he and his wife Kris have invested in Willard over the years and how the mountain has not just survived, but thrived.

Jeff: Could you give us a brief history of Willard Mountain, and how you became owner and General Manager?

Chic: Willard Mountain was started in the early 1950s by a group of partners who had the vision of creating a ski area in Washington County. I became involved in 1994. At that time I was the General Manager of a small ski area in Central NY, Toggenburg Mountain. I was also the President of the Ski Areas of New York association, and I was looking for a ski area that was a size that I could afford to purchase. This winter will be our 16th year.

Jeff: Was most of the infrastructure already in place when you bought Willard?

Chic: No, about half was here. We’ve added three more lifts, a lot of lodge space, a tubing park facility with its own lodge, more parking, more snowmaking.

Jeff: Where do most of your customers come from?

Chic: Draw a circle about an hour and a half around us. That includes Saratoga, Glens Falls, the Capital District. We even get people from Bennington and Manchester, Vermont. That will surprise some people, but these are primarily families with kids that don’t need a bigger mountain, and Willard is a perfect fit for them.

Jeff: Would you say that your customer base is typically families?

Chic: Well you know every ski area in the world will tell you that their customer base is primarily families. But smaller, local ski areas like us, we’re definitely for families: it’s what we are. We have a lot of kids that live close and have season passes here, and families that are coming back into skiing, that’s what our niche is.

Jeff: How do your advance sales look for this year?

Chic: Everything looks up. Of course, it could be that people are just buying earlier because it’s less expensive early. So by the time we’re done, it may not be as much of an increase, but right now it looks strong. Every one of the years we’ve been here has been a record year except for one, and that was a disastrous snow year.

Jeff: Wow, that’s a tremendous track record.

Chic: Well, of course we’re spending a lot of money to do that. We’re spending money on snowmaking, on grooming, on lifts. Every year, people are seeing improvements.

Jeff: What kinds of improvements do you have lined up for this year?

Chic: Well, for a ski area, snowmaking is a never-ending process. We have purchased 10 more guns: four fan guns and six air/water guns. We’ve also purchased a new groomer, a 2007 machine with very low hours. Those groomers run $275 thousand or more brand new, and for a small area like us, we have to wait until they are a few years old. But by far it’s the newest machine we’ve ever been able to afford, so it’s a nice upgrade.

Jeff: So snowmaking and grooming are an important part of Willard’s success?

Chic: One thing that people don’t understand is that acre-for-acre, we have as large a snowmaking facility as a big area like Killington. The key measurement is our uphill capacity, the gallonage of water that we are pumping uphill, and we are a 1,000 to 1,200 gallons per minute system. We’re covering about 60 acres with snowmaking.

Jeff: That sounds like a lot of pump capacity.

Chic: When you’re pumping around the clock, week after week, it’s a lot of water. And of course we’re just borrowing that water. It eventually returns back to the holding areas where we take it from. Willard holds its snowmaking water in ponds, one at the bottom of the mountain and one at the top, fed by surface water and springs. Like most ski areas, water supply is one of the critical limits to our snowmaking system. But there’s nothing worse than a customer coming in on a warm, rainy winter day saying “Well, at least your ponds are getting re-filled…”

Jeff: As a skier, it’s always discouraging to have unfavorable winter weather, but to be in the business it must be really heartbreaking.

Chic: If you’re going to enjoy doing this, you have to get yourself to the point where you accept the inevitable bad weather and roll with the punches. It’s just the way it is.

Jeff: It sounds like with your snowmaking plant and grooming capabilities, you can recover pretty quickly from those events.

Chic: Right. You know, as you come down in elevation and latitude, you have to have more snowmaking capacity per acre. If you go down south, say to Pennsylvania or even the Virginias, those guys have to have an even bigger system on a per acre basis. It’s all relative to where you are located. Our system is sized so that at our elevation, 1,000’ in our parking lot and 1,550’ up top, we can take best advantage of our local conditions.

Jeff: At the time that you bought Willard in the mid-90s, there was already a well established trend of smaller areas closing up. How has Willard survived that trend?

Chic: Snowmaking broke the back of a lot of small ski areas. It is so expensive, both the initial investment and the ongoing operating costs. If you don’t have a lot of people around you, a population base to be your customers, you can’t survive. Willard is lucky: within that hour and a half circle, there’s enough population.  We’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but we get our slice of the pie, and it’s enough to make us a viable business.

Jeff: Among skiing families that I know in the Saratoga area, it seems like almost everyone has brought their kids to Willard to learn, or learned at Willard themselves. There seems to be a big commitment to teaching programs here.

Chic: I think most smaller areas are teaching areas. Large ski areas understand and appreciate the teaching value and exposure that comes from the Mom and Pop ski areas. It’s just much less intimidating to learn skiing at a local ski area like Willard. We can make it less expensive, we can make it less chaotic because we’re not turning the numbers of people through that the big resorts are, and our customers have a different expectation level. At a local ski area, people are just out to have fun. Everybody talks to everyone else in the lodge, in the lift line, on the slopes. Willard is such a wonderful place, and small ski areas just have a different feel. Don’t get me wrong, I like to go to a big area to go skiing as much as the next guy, but I enjoy the camaraderie and I enjoy making my living at an area this size.

Jeff: Is there an opening date that you’re shooting for?

Chic: We tell everybody that we try to be open for Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, but that means we have to have three or four nights of cold weather in front of that. In the 16 years that I’ve been here, we’ve done that exactly twice, so the odds aren’t too good. However, we’re almost always open by the first week in December. It’s just a week later, but that week seems to make all the difference.

Jeff: Thanks a lot for your time Chic. I’ll do a snow dance when I get home tonight.

Chic: You and me both.

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