Podcast #29: Mount Snow General Manager Tracy Bartels

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Who: Tracy Bartels, Vice President and General Manager of Mount Snow, Vermont
Recorded on: November 2, 2020
Why I interviewed her: Because Mount Snow is where big-time Northeast skiing begins. As the southern-most major Vermont ski area, it is a skier’s gateway to mountains that are big enough to get lost on. From its strategic position in the orbit of the East Coast megalopolis, successive owners have gradually built something uniquely suited to the frenetic swarms of wildly varied skiers who bullseye the place each winter: Mount Snow has one of the most outstanding terrain parks in America and one of the best snowmaking systems in the world. The families who swarm here find absolutely unintimidating terrain, blue as the sky and groomed smoother than I-91. It’s a perfect family mountain and a perfect bus skier’s mountain and a perfect first step from Mount Local to something that shows you how big skiing can be. It was the crown jewel of the Peak Resort’s empire, and it’s one of the most important pieces to Vail’s ever-expanding Epic jigsaw puzzle. I wouldn’t call it a special mountain – the terrain is mild and not terribly interesting, and the volume and quality of natural snowfall is best described as adequate. But it is a vital mountain, as the southern-most anchor of Vermont’s teeming ski scene, as an accessible ski experience for weekending cityfolk, as an aspirational destination for people stepping more fully into skiing culture, and as a testament to the power of the imagination to transform a big vertical drop and cold skies into a vital and vibrant node of the regional ski scene.
Killing it in the trees. Photo courtesy of Vail Resorts.
What we talked about: If you think it’s hard starting your marketing job from your dining room table, try running a ski area from another state; the extent of the mountain’s summer operations and how long it took to get those running; thinking through the masterplan for a mountain that has already had tens of millions invested into it over the past decade; potential future snowmaking improvements; why we’re unlikely to see a massive overhaul of the chairlift infrastructure in the near future; potential base lodge improvements; Bartels’ career path through Vail Resorts, starting as a kids ski instructor at Breckenridge 20 years ago; how Vail develops and moves employees through its resort network and why that’s good for business; how managing international destination mountains in the West is the same as managing them in the Northeast, and the big terrible way that it’s different (you all know what it is); what the Western resorts could learn from Northeast operations; how managing Mount Snow is a more complex undertaking than managing Mount Sunapee; the cultural differences between the two regions and how the Northeast stands out; Covid-era operations changes; most skiers should be able to ski most days at Mount Snow even with the reservation system; how that system will influence the number of day lift tickets available; balancing the blowout deal of the Epic Pass with the desire to keep ski areas from being overrun; the ops plan for the Bluebird Express; reminiscing on the Covid shutdown at Mount Sunapee; how Vail has learned from operating its Australian ski resorts over the summer; the parts of the mountains that are still in suspended animation from the March shutdown; how the losses of longtime grooming team members Leon and Cleon Boyd to Covid impacted the resort community; wow we won’t have to take our Epic Passes out of our pocket every time we ski up to a lift this year; why Vail favors handheld scanner guns over RFID gates; going deep on Carinthia and how much it takes to maintain a park of that size and complexity; the challenges of maintaining a super pipe and why Mount Snow has stayed with it even as many ski areas have abandoned it; why we’re unlikely to see any notable terrain expansions; yes I am on a quest to destroy Northeast over-grooming culture bwahahahahahaha; no but seriously talking about Bartels’ grooming philosophy and the advantages of creating a more balanced mountain.
Things that are outdated because we recorded this last week: We refer to the planned Nov. 14 opening date, which with current weather forecasts now seems as likely a moon landing in a hot-air balloon. We also talk about the imminent release of Vermont’s ski area operating protocols, which the state has since announced. Finally, we refer to the Nov. 6 launch of Vail’s Epic Pass reservation system, which is now fully operational. I would have liked to have released this earlier, but frankly we recorded this the day before the presidential election and I wanted to give the news cycle a little time to clear out before pushing this one out there.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview: Because Bartels, a 20-year Vail Resorts veteran, brings a deep understanding of the company’s ways to a Mount Snow still adjusting to post-Peak Resorts life. After a year settling into the Northeast ski scene as Mount Sunapee GM, she moves to one of Vail’s most important Northeast mountains. I wanted to see how she was approaching the particular challenge of steering a new-to-her mountain through the novel challenge of Covid, how she managed the shutdown at Sunapee, and her thoughts on the Northeast ski world and culture after a career spent mostly in the snowy West. I also wanted to see if perhaps she would bring a more freewheeling Western sensibility to Mount Snow’s forever overgroomed slopes, injecting some variety into a mountain often cursed by a dulling sameness (Fortunately, she seems open to that).
Why you should go there: Because for most of us, it’s the closest big Vermont ski area to where we live. It’s big and rambling and fast and fun. The sculpted terrain of Carinthia aside, this is probably the tamest large mountain on the continent (Okemo competes with it for this title) - the trails are largely blue square boulevards groomed nightly into a coma. But that’s OK: the toothless trail network makes Mount Snow one of the best large mountains imaginable for kids or people who ski five days a year or those who like to just put the gearshift into drive and go. If you want to see where the Northeast’s running-of-the-bulls ice-skating reputation comes from, drop by on a holiday Saturday after it hasn’t snowed in two weeks. If you want to see why people love skiing the Northeast anyway, show up mid-week during a snowstorm and walk onto the Blue Bird Express for 30,000 feet of gloriously stress-free vert. This isn’t the biggest mountain in Vermont, and it isn’t the best, either, but it’s an essential place and one that anyone who wants to truly experience and understand Northeast skiing must visit.
Also, you’ll find plenty of this here:
Carinthia will bring out your inner superhero. Photo courtesy of Vail Resorts.
And plenty of this:
Rip it. Photo courtesy of Vail Resorts.
Additional reading/videos: Mount Snow has a zany history, with early years defined by a hottub the size of Lake Champlain, an artificial ski hill called Fountain Mountain that materialized out of a pond each winter and lasted well into summer, and an oddball collection of chairlifts straight out of The Jetsons. For an amazing history of that time, check out Chris Diamond’s Ski Inc. His follow-up, Ski Inc. 2020 is also a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how the modern ski industry became what it is today.
The Brattleboro Reformer put together this video documenting the community reaction to the death of longtime Mount Snow employees Cleon and Leon Boyd from Covid:
A bit more on Cleon Boyd:
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