Photo Credit: Solitude Mountain Resort
Here is the latest in the series of conversations with inspirational Utah women in business. I’m Foreste Peterson. I set out to speak to the women behind the business, research and ideas that are changing the world. They share their work, thoughts and advice. Note the opinions expressed by interviewees do not necessarily represent those of GOED, but they do promise to be interesting.
I sat down with Kim Mayhew, Solitude Mountain Resort’s general manager. We chatted about the path she took to get into the ski industry and the kind of leadership it takes to run a successful mountain resort.
What brought you to Utah and why did you stay?
I got married right out of college and began my first job as a dental hygienist in the Plymouth, New Hampshire area. In the fall of 1978, I neglected a slow oil leek and seized up the engine in my VW Bug. That evening, I sat down with my husband to try and figure out what to do…about my car and career that was not as satisfying as I would have hoped.
Skiing had always been a passion of mine, and so I wondered if I could make a living at it. I applied for a ski instructor job with the Plymouth Parks and Recreation, and immediately fell in love with the job. Having lived in the same zip code my entire life, however, my husband and I were itching to make a move. That winter, we bought a new car and a year and a half later, in June of 1980, we quit our jobs and drove across the U.S. and Canada, stopping at every ski resort in the West. We ended up in Utah and have been here ever since. We liked the proximity of Utah to some great recreational opportunities in the west.
What’s been your career path? How did you get started in the ski industry?
Upon our arrival in Utah, I started working at Sundance as a ski instructor. In the off season, I worked as a personal trainer and waited tables at a Chinese restaurant in Orem. In the fall of 1982, I heard about Deer Valley – which opened in 1981- and applied to be a ski instructor there. I was offered a position and spent the next 19 years working in the ski school as supervisor and then assistant manager.
In the summer of 1996, I started the Deer Valley Adventure Camp, which led to my position as Children Program Manager. In February, 2001, I applied for the director of human resource position at Deer Valley and while I warned that I lacked a degree in HR, I was reassured that I have “a degree in Deer Valley.”
From 2001 to 2015, I served as the HR Director, and watched the seasonal staff on the payroll nearly double in size – going from 1,500 to 2,800. When Deer Valley entered into a purchase agreement with Solitude, Bob Wheaton – president and general manager of Deer Valley – asked me if I would be interested in a leadership role at Solitude. Although my home is in Park City and my extended family remains at Deer Valley, I could not turn my back on this offer. I accepted the position on January 1, 2015 and never looked back!
How would you compare and contrast Deer Valley vs. Solitude? Target markets, operations, revenue mix, service levels, employee development?
Deer Valley and Solitude are two separate brands in the ski industry. Solitude has a unique position in both the local and destination markets. It is where the people of Salt Lake learned to ski and serves as the perfect local destination ski resort for families. In comparison to Deer Valley, Solitude is smaller and very cozy, which creates a truly wonderful atmosphere.
When it comes to service levels and employee development, we’re a great match. Last year, Solitude ranked 30th out of 50 ski resorts in the West in Ski Magazine. This year, Solitude ranked 21st, sandwiched between Snowbird (20th) and Alta (22nd). I’ve worked with a lot of teams in my lifetime. When I think of my team here, it’s A team material, no question.
Beside Deer Valley, what companies inside or outside of the ski industry does Solitude draw inspiration from?
In general, resorts of our size are just now starting to move toward becoming year-round destinations, so we are looking at other larger resorts and drawing inspiration from how they “do summer.” This past summer, we tripled our events and began inching our way toward year-round resort status with yoga on the lawn, geology tours, Frisbee golf, free live music, and running our Sunrise lift for downhill and mountain biking. We will continue increasing these and other opportunities to expand our summer recreation experience and further establish our niche.
What lessons from your background in HR do you deploy in the general manager position?
I learned a lot of good habits about how a business should be run at Deer Valley. The biggest lesson is that people are your business! As someone with a passion for people, I recognize that they need to be engaged and feel that they are a part of something greater than themselves. While I was HR Director, I learned a lot about the staff, and most importantly, the must-haves/needs of staff. I learned that they respond best when they’re recognized, so I developed an employee feedback system, which evaluates personal growth and development. This adds merit to their pay, and serves as a transparent and egalitarian way for advancement.
What are some big trends that are impacting the ski industry? What are the major challenges for ski resorts?
One of the most prominent trends that has been shaping itself over the last few years is the experience beyond the ski slope. People look back on their time spent here and reminisce on the memories they share with family and friends – memories that aren’t necessarily from skiing but perhaps from ice skating, snowshoeing, or one of our winter dining options. Creating an all-around, mountain resort experience is thus a trend we value and will continue to pursue. As for the challenges, they are the same with all ski resorts. Depending upon Mother Nature to supply your product and making sure you have enough staff are just a few of the challenges we all face.
What do you value about doing business in Utah? What could be improved in regards to doing business in Utah?
I value the support systems that are in place here in Utah, particularly the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and Ski Utah, an incredible entity that is dedicated to supporting the ski and snowboard industry in the state. Having lived here for 36 years, I have seen tremendous positive growth, and feel lucky to be in such an expansive place.
As a woman in business, what are the challenges you face vs. those faced by your male counterparts? Are these challenges unique to the ski industry, to Utah, or to business in general in our country?
When I originally started in the ski industry back in New Hampshire, a woman in a leadership position would be very rare. Over the years, however, it has become more normal. Leadership is not about gender, it is about people who are passionate about what they do and where they do it. At a recent industry conference, there were 12 of us female general managers out of the 470 ski resort general managers participating. Though we are still the minority in this world, I am more focused on the skills and qualifications I need to do the job.
What advice would you have for someone interested in the ski industry?
Jump on! If you are passionate about skiing, you can make a living out of it. Even I – someone who grew up in an earlier, more traditional era – was able to turn my passion for skiing, people, and the mountains into a livelihood. It takes time starting at the entry levels and supplemental jobs are often necessary due to the seasonal nature, but the opportunities to tap into are endless.