A Season of Growth

After tallying more skier visits than ever and recording a near record snowpack, Whitefish Mountain Resort considers its growth

By Tristan Scott
From left: Dan Graves, Don Wood, Chester Powell, Tim Hinderman and Hans Castren celebrate the opening of Chair 5 in its new location in East Rim on opening day at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Dec. 7, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The 70th ski season on Big Mountain is almost in the books, culminating a milestone that saw Whitefish Mountain Resort usher more skiers and riders through its chairlift lines than ever before during a stormy winter that kept on giving.

Whitefish Mountain Resort recently surpassed last year’s record of 346,859 total skier visits, and expects to tally more than 350,000 skier visits when the lifts stop spinning on April 8, the mountain’s closing day.

Indeed, the ski resort is more popular and beloved than ever. Last winter, Whitefish Mountain Resort tallied more than 346,000 skier visits, roughly 1,000 more than the previous record set in 2013-14. The record visitation emerged from one of the best winters on record, during which Big Mountain accumulated 407 inches of snow, the second-deepest snowpack in 20 years.

This year’s winter similarly delivered the goods, dumping 391 inches of snow on Big Mountain as of April 2, when the Beacon went to print. And it was still snowing.

The mountain’s popularity has been burnished by its growing recognition as a top-ranked contender for best ski resorts in the West, even as it takes care to set itself apart from the pack and take pride in its distinction from other cookie-cutter resorts.

Last fall, the towering mountain was named the 10th best ski resort in the West by SKI Magazine readers, marking the fifth time in the last six years that Whitefish Mountain Resort landed in the top 15.

The SKI Magazine rankings, which feature top reader-ranked resorts and ski amenities, includes a list of prominent resorts, such as Vail and Deer Valley, but the local mountain tucked in the northwestern corner of Montana still holds its own.

The ski industry has seen an increasing number of consolidations in recent years, but Whitefish Mountain Resort has remained on its own. The wave of consolidations does create challenges for local resorts that have to compete against a network of mountains, but it can also create opportunities.

Dan Graves, CEO of Whitefish Mountain Resort, credits the support of the local community dating back to the ski area’s inception as well as the growing lineup of visitors from across the U.S. and Canada.

All the while, the resort has continued to invest in the ski area, making annual improvements including multi-million dollar remodels of the Summit House, Bierstube and Ed and Mully’s; expansions of the Base Lodge and Bike Park; and the addition of the Flower Point Chair and subsequent relocation of Chair 5, now called East Rim Chair.

As the 2017-18 ski season wraps up, the Beacon sat down with Graves to discuss Whitefish Mountain Resort’s success and learn about upcoming plans for its future.

Flathead Beacon: Given Whitefish Mountain Resort’s continued growth, both in skier visits, terrain expansion and other offerings, has management taken care to ensure the resort retains its unique identity that has made it a beloved small-town fixture for seven decades? How? Is that a part of the planning conversation as WMR looks to the future?

Dan Graves: I prefer to think that the continued growth in services, skier visits, terrain and infrastructure is a result of the resort maintaining its character and identity that we all admire and want to cherish. Management and ownership know how valuable our brand is in the marketplace, nationally and local. We view all decisions through this perspective.

FB: Have you gained a sense of whether or not WMR’s growth has affected, enhanced or hindered the visitor experience, either for locals, out-of-town visitors or both?

DG: I believe the vast majority of visitors and locals recognize that WMR’s growth has enhanced all aspects of the business. I say often that this resort thrives because of both our out-of-area visitors and our locals, but we could not thrive with only one of these groups. There is not enough volume in either customer group to sustain the remodel in lodges and restaurants, new lifts and terrain, etc. that we have been able to do in the last decade. It’s just a simple fact of the ski industry. Without this growth, you’d have to take away all of these improvements. I don’t think any of our skiers and riders would want that.

FB: Are there plans in the works for additional developments, changes or expansions in the near future?

DG: We are always planning for the future and I think what we have on tap is exciting and will be well received by our customers. I generally work in the 3-7 years range, so planning is always interesting to me. We have some U.S. Forest Service approvals to get through, which may take a couple of years, but I’m confident that we’ll see our plans approved. It’s the hope of management to ease lift service out of the Base Lodge area and improve the terrain and lift service in Hellroaring Basin. I’ll leave the details for later. I’ll leave you with this thought … There were a few naysayers about our recent East Rim Lift addition, but by the end of today (March 30) over 175,000 riders will have used that chair this winter. It was another wonderful addition to the mountain just like the Flower Point pod was a few years ago.

FB: Despite WMR’s bountiful winter, other corners of the country were not so fortunate. Is there concern that a warming climate will impact the mountain, or is that ever part of the conversation?

DG: I always find the discussion of climate change interesting. Climate has always changed. I believe it always will. Naturally, as a ski area we depend upon snow. So, we are planning an expansion of our snowmaking system so that we can be better prepared for those years where we may see less snow. I’m glad that since I’ve been here we’ve only seen one out of 12 winters when snow was a little lackluster; however, even that winter the skiing and riding was pretty good.

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