Like all skiers and snowboarders in November, Merrick Kacer itches to get on snow. The new director of the ski and snowboard school at Whitefish Mountain Resort has skied plenty, but never among the snowghosts on Big Mountain. “I believe one of the worst days here will be better than the best day I’ve had skiing in the East,” he said with a grin.
Soft-spoken and measuring his words, Kacer talks about the ski and snowboard programs he was hired this fall to direct. Those programs include group and private lessons that run every day of the season with big holidays attracting 260 students per day. Multi-week lessons draw more than 540 locals between adults, kids, and the freestyle and race teams. In addition, 45 valley schools come up for inexpensive instruction field trips during the winter. Add one of the largest departments on the mountain, and it’s a big helm.
Kacer came west from Virginia. While working toward a degree in sports management and Leisure Studies at James Madison University, he moonlighted at Massanutten Resort. Once he graduated, he never left. Over 15 years, he directed the ski school and later served as the assistant ski area manager. “I woke up one day wondering why I worked year round in the ski industry in Virginia,” he said.
Massanutten has half the vertical of Whitefish Mountain Resort, but its ski and snowboard instructors double the number of instructors here. Kacer’s first order of business is to increase instructor numbers here by 15 percent to avoid turning away lesson takers because of instructor shortages. With 60 returning instructors, he’s in the market for hiring 40 more to hit his targeted 100, with a ratio of two-third full-timers to one-third part-timers. Hiring will take place in a clinic over opening weekend on Dec. 6-7.
Kacer, who comes with his Level III Professional Ski Instructors of America certification, aims to redesign the training program for instructors. “The industry is ever evolving. We as professionals need to be on top of service,” he said. “Training plays a key role in being able to accomplish that.” He ticks off his three-phase training vision based on core concepts, teaching and implementing, and exam preparation.
Most people will see Kacer’s work via the kids and adult programs on the snow. Those taking private lessons will find more flexibility in scheduling, rather than being locked into only three times during the day; however, Kacer still recommends making reservations in advance to guarantee the desired slot.
He also intends to design a mountain adventure culture targeted at kids, but also for families. Indigenous wildlife cutouts will be scattered around the mountain. “You might be skiing Toni Matt and find a replica of a woodpecker perched in a tree or the shadow of a mountain lion on Ed’s Run,” Kacer said. Instructors will swing their kids into education shacks, where pictures and pelts provide hands-on learning about the mountain environment. In daily lessons, kids will receive wildlife cards that check off skills mastered. They can work up from a snowshoe hare to a black bear to earn animal pins.
Two new multi-week kids programs make their debut this year at opposite ends of the skill spectrum. The Race Team Academy coordinates intensive training and regional competitive racing in conjunction with Flathead Valley Ski Education Foundation and the Whitefish School District. For tots ages three to four years old, the Buckaroos program meets for two-hour skiing sessions on Saturdays or Sundays for nine weeks. Classes cap at a three children maximum ensuring that kids always ride the chairlift with their instructor.
This fall, Kacer hiked around the mountain, eyeing runs. “I look forward to skiing East Rim,” he said. “But I’m also looking forward to seeing the operation in action and taking on the challenges here.”
Call 406-862-2900 to sign up for ski and snowboard programs by Dec. 31.
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