Powder.com: New Thinking for Small Hills
The Mountain Riders’ Alliance partners with Mt. Abram, Maine.
Photo couresty of Mt. Abram, Maine
8/28/12 from Powder Magazine:
2012 has been a tough year for the resort industry in general, but small resorts in particular. Without the snowmaking infrastructure of more cash-rich conglomerates, many saw their seasons vastly shortened compared to previous years. Several, such as New York’s Greek Peak and Maryland’s Wisp Report, are now in bankruptcy proceedings in large part because of how rough this past season was on their bottom line. However, the announcement this week of a partnership between Maine’s Mt. Abram and the Mountain Riders’ Alliance may present a new blueprint for how small resorts can successfully compete in a market where consolidation and corporatization are setting the standard, yet one in which the collapse of several real-estate driven business strategies is opening the door to new ideas about how a resort could operate.
Mt. Abram is a privately-owned hill 90 minutes from Portland, Maine with 1,150 vertical feet of soulful laid-back skiing, hand-cut trees, and $49 adult day tickets. The resort has found success in owner Matt Hancock’s non-traditional model – minimal infrastructure, affordable prices, and commitment to sustainability (the mountain was awarded the Golden Eagle Award for Environmental Excellence this year). Hancock, who is entering his 6th season as an owner of Mt. Abrams yet is the 5th owner in 20 years, is thankful that the lack of planning by prior holders kept infrastructure minimal. That has given him freedom to focus on creating an experience at Abrams that is soulful, unpretentious, and focused on great skiing, and without having to support massive sunk costs. They privately own the 560 acres on which the mountain rests, and twice annually have hosted “Trimfest,” where Abrams regulars can head into the woods and clean out lines they’ve been eyeing in winters past, encouraged by Abrams’ boundary-to-boundary policy — the first in Maine.
”When you go to a new town, everyone wants to eat at the local diner,” Hancock said. “But you’re not sure if that local diner is good or not, while you know exactly what Applebees is like.”
MRA’s dream project is to build a bare bones resort on Alaska’ Kenai Peninsula that offers both affordable skiing for families and cheap and easy access to heliski-quality spines and backcountry. Their short-term goal with Mt. Abrams is to share best practices and establish a new model for accessible and sustainable home-grown resorts. However, the organization’s most salient strength may be in its medium-term potential to collectively market a host of existing small areas that lack name recognition and branding, and thus get passed over for more well-known corporate neighbors. “When you go to a new town, everyone wants to eat at the local diner,” Hancock said. “But you’re not sure if that local diner is good or not, while you know exactly what Applebees is like.” He thinks becoming an MRA resort will ‘stamp’ member resorts as soulful places with a focus on good skiing, affordability, sustainability, and spirit – helping small hills to brand themselves more strongly while also giving consumers confidence in a set of established expectations.
Mt. Abram, Maine. Photo courtesy of the ski area.
Mountain Riders’ Alliance plans on adding around 5 more ski hills to their Mountain Playground partnership in the next five to seven years, focusing on “Ski areas under performing with upside potential, on site renewable energy potential, an engaged community and a large enough population base to make the project viable,” according to MRA co-founder Jamie Schechtman. Schechtman mentioned June Mountain and Jackson, Wyoming’s Snow King as areas that could fit into the model. There’s no reason MRA’s collective effort couldn’t be successful – non-traditional operations like Silverton have shown that there are certainly unfulfilled (although not wildly profitable) niches in the resort industry to be exploited. With casual skiers looking for nothing more than some fun trails and a good time dialing down their ski days in front of escalating ticket prices at bigger mountains, MRA’s Mountain Playground model, given some resources to get the word out, could help keep a bunch more people sliding on snow on a bunch more hills that might otherwise close their doors.