Resort Changes Draw Praise, Resistance

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – When the snow really began to fall on Big Mountain in early December, it fell hard and rarely let up for nearly five months. The snow blanketed a resort that has undergone significant changes as of late, with a new name, new management and new facilities – transitions met with accolades and, in some cases, resistance.

Those changes, according to Whitefish Mountain Resort executives, paid off. Daniel Graves, president of the resort’s parent company Winter Sports, Inc., said season pass sales increased 9 percent over last year, to more than 7,000. Visits by “destination skiers” – who travel to the resort for vacation – increased 20 percent. The number of visitors using the resort’s lodging increased 15 percent.

Those numbers are promising, but after such an epic season, are the increases the result of improved management or simply very good snow? By the time Whitefish Mountain Resort stopped running the chairlifts on April 6, it recorded 426 inches of snowfall at the summit, what many consider one of the top three seasons in 50 years.

In an interview with the Beacon, Graves and resort Marketing and Sales Director Nick Polumbus traced the visitor increases directly to recent changes, while acknowledging that room exists for improvement and giving Mother Nature due credit for the winter. The two also sought to set the record straight on rumors that circulate through Whitefish on everything from the treatment of foreign seasonal employees, to next year’s season pass rates, to rumors that WSI primary shareholder William Foley plans to sell his ownership in the private company.

Skiers at Whitefish Mountain Resort ascend Big Mountain on the refurbished Chair 2.

Over the last two years, roughly $25 million in infrastructure investments at the resort have gone up, including a new base lodge, the improvement and realignment of Chair Two, and the high-speed quad to the summit, Chair One. Last June, executives changed the name from Big Mountain Resort to Whitefish Mountain Resort, a move that did not sit well with many locals down the hill.

All of these changes, Graves said, were made with one goal in mind: to make the resort a profitable, modern business in an increasingly competitive market, while maintaining Whitefish’s character amid inevitable growth. Bringing the resort to a level where it will no longer rely on real estate sales, Graves added, was a key motivation for the infrastructure investments. “I think we have turned the corner to some decisions that are going to make the company profitable,” Graves said. “I’m excited about the potential.”

Graves called rumors that Foley plans to sell his shares unfounded and does not anticipate any ownership changes. Foley, the chief executive officer of Fidelity Personal Finance, purchased WSI’s primary shares in 2004. Two subsequent reverse stock splits reduced the number of shareholders in the company, eliminating many longtime local shareholders. “To my knowledge, Bill (Foley) is not only a big supporter of the resort, but is a huge fan of Montana and Whitefish,” Graves said.

That rumor stemmed from a delayed announcement of season pass rates for the 2008-2009 season, but Graves said rates will rise $36 to $535 for adults, attributing the new rate to increased costs of fuel, labor and health insurance. “We can’t afford not to increase prices in order to keep up with rising costs,” he added.

Nor does Graves anticipate changing the resort’s opening or closing dates, saying that an early April closure makes the most sense from a business standpoint. The resort determines the ski season length, not the U.S Forest Service, from which it leases the land, but there are simply not enough skiers that late in the season to sustain operations as long as the snowpack remains. “It’s the right closing date; you can’t always count on record snowfall,” Graves said.

A vocal critic of resort management, Ted Patten has been skiing Big Mountain since 1974 and maintains a blog about the resort at http://bigmtn.info. “The snow made it wonderful and the moving of the lifts, I think, was brilliant,” Patten said. “But there’s something about the management that leaves a lot to be desired.” While he praised the resort staff and called next year’s season pass price “incredibly low,” Patten said lifts often stopped running earlier in the day than their posted hours. He also criticized the resort for adapting poorly when daylight savings occurred, forcing skiers onto icy slopes early in the morning, but closing just as afternoon snow grew soft and conditions improved.

Polumbus acknowledged this year’s early daylight savings caused problems, and said resort management will discuss the possibility of moving the hours of operation back after daylight savings. “We didn’t realize the impact of daylight savings changing so early; that had a tremendous impact on the area’s daylight,” Polumbus said. “We make plans and we try to stick to them, that’s how businesses that run efficiently are run.”

Staying open later in the day raises safety concerns, Polumbus added, pointing out that tired skiers in wet, heavy snow increases the risk of injury. “We know we’ve got to look at these things,” he said. “There are some legitimate issues there.”

Critics have also charged that the resort, along with other hospitality-related businesses in the area, rely too heavily on local food banks and other social services to support young, seasonal workers, many of whom come from South America. “I’m not really certain that we need to have the tourist industry subsidized by social services,” Patten said.

Whitefish Mountain Resort directly hired roughly 70 international workers this season, most of whom came from Argentina, Brazil and Chile, and anticipates hiring 50 international employees next season. The resort no longer goes through an employment agency, Graves said, to ensure that none of the resort’s South American employees live in difficult conditions while here. The seasonal international employees receive the same wages as U.S. workers. The resort furnished seasonal employee housing with pillows, sheets, towels, kitchen utensils and other lodging necessities, Graves said. And shortly after arrival, the Army-Navy store in Whitefish provided the workers with warm clothes at a discount.

“These are college kids studying to be doctors, lawyers, engineers,” Graves said. “These are kids that came here to be a part of the American culture and learn English to better their business background.”

June Munski-Feenan, executive director of the North Valley Food Bank, said she has noticed a small increase in foreign workers coming in for food, but estimates that group still only accounts for about 5 percent or less of the people her agency serves. Staff at the food bank said a group of about seven foreign workers would come in for food who said they were resort employees, but most seasonal South American workers claimed to be employed at other local hospitality-related businesses.

“We can handle it,” Munski-Feenan said. “We’re happy to do it and they’re nice kids and they help us out.” She also noted that the resort donated 900 pounds of food after closing this season.

A last minute change to student worker permits in Argentina meant that many of the resort’s seasonal employees left March 15, creating a staff shortage, so Polumbus, Graves and other resort executives started washing dishes, cleaning hotel rooms, operating lifts and filling in any labor gaps necessary. It’s an example of a mindset, Polumbus said, that no one is above doing everything possible to keep the resort running smoothly. “At the beginning of the day, every single one of our job descriptions is about providing a quality guest experience,” Polumbus added.

Graves emphasized that this recent season’s changes are not an attempt to turn Big Mountain into some bland, massive ski resort, but the business cannot survive as the small, scrappy ski hill it was 20 years ago. Like so much else in the Flathead, the resort must adapt to the valley’s growth. Graves’s goal, he said, is to pick and choose some of the ideas he likes from successful resorts, and integrate them into a ski destination that remains unique.

“We know there are a lot of things we’ve got to continue to work on, and we will always continue to work on them,” Graves said. “We don’t want to be anybody else, we want to be Whitefish Mountain Resort – we just want to do it better, more consistently.”