Business Elevated Podcast (Episode 49)
This podcast series features business and government leaders discussing what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. This episode includes a conversation between Pitt Grewe, director of the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation, and Mike Maughan, president and general manager of the Alta Ski Resort.
Welcome to the Business Elevated Podcast, where we discuss what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. Did you know Utah is frequently ranked the best state for business by Forbes? This podcast is a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Thanks for joining the conversation.
Pitt Grewe: (0:22) Welcome everybody. I am Pitt Grewe, the director of the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation within GOED. I’m here today at Alta Ski Resort with Mike Maughan, the general manager. Alta is one of the oldest ski resorts in Utah. It’s been an operation since the late 1930s, and it’s famous for its great snow and, of course, receiving the most of it each year, usually.
Mike has been working up here at Alta for over 30 years. Let’s dive right in and learn more about Mike and Alta’s operations this winter. Mike, can you give us a little background about yourself?
Mike Maughan: (0:56) Sure. I’ll tell you a little bit about how I came to Alta. I didn’t come in a traditional way of starting in the industry. I worked for a CPA firm in downtown Salt Lake, one of the big six at the time, it was Ernst & Young, and was invited up to do a little project for Alta and came up and did the project. And, when they finished, they said, ‘Hey, what will it take to convince you to come work for us?’.
It wasn’t very hard, loving the outdoors and loving skiing. I started there on the finance side of things for many, many years. And then, about four years ago, when Onno retired, I was given the opportunity to step up and be the general manager here at Alta. And, so born in Utah, I love the outdoors and this place.
Pitt Grewe: (1:42) Excellent. So there’s a lot of talk around the ski season this year. Back in March, the ski industry turned off across the country in 48 hours. It was the most abrupt end to a ski season I think I’ve ever seen. I’ve worked in the ski industry as well, and usually, there’s a little bit of time to wind down and ease into spring when the weather’s getting warmer. Last year it was very different because of the pandemic. So now here we are, it’s Nov. 24th, 2020. And you are one of the first resorts open in Utah. So coming into the season, tell me the biggest concerns about operations and how you are addressing them?
Mike Maughan: (2:23) Our concern is, how do we open the ski area and do it in a way that we minimize the spread of this virus to our employees and guests? And we don’t find ourselves in a situation where we’re like last spring when all of a sudden we used to have to shut down to stop the spread of this thing.
I look at my employee base, and I’m concerned about providing them a livelihood and doing it in a way that is in their best interest for their health. They get to do what they love to do, which is being here, working at Alta, and living their dream. And then it’s similar for our customers that come when we looked at our operation, we said, well, where are the challenges?
We’ve worked with the town of Alta, who’s worked with MIT a little bit on studying how this thing spreads. We’ve stayed in touch with the county and everyone. And we’ve been able to determine that the risk of exposure is fairly minimal outdoors. So if you’re outdoors, even if you’re standing in the lift line or riding a lift, the risk is quite low. The studies that they’ve shown the risk of exposure indoors is higher. It is as much as 20 times higher sometimes.
That’s been our focal point. How do we minimize exposure in those indoor spaces, food and beverage ski shops, employee spaces in our offices? And so we’ve implemented physical distancing, wherever possible. We’ve changed procedures. We’ve reduced the capacity of a lot of our buildings and food and beverage. We’ve provided outdoor food and beverage opportunities.
Everything is focused on how we reduce the interaction of people in indoor spaces. We followed the ski industry pandemic playbook. The Ski Well, Be Well playbook that talks about four pillars. One is face coverings required in ski areas by everyone employees and visitors, physical distancing, employee wellness checks and sanitizing things.
So we’ve implemented all of those things. It’s pretty standard across the industry. We’re encouraging our visitors when they come to say maybe this is the year to use your car as your locker room and your place to have lunch. Maybe have less interaction inside of the buildings, and you use the buildings less. Out of necessity, we kind of need to go there because we have less capacity.We’ve reduced our capacity and our food and beverage indoor capacity to about 50% of what it normally is to provide adequate spacing. And so, those are some of the things we’re doing. Out on our lift lines, we have ghost maze lines to help have physical distancing when you’re waiting to get on the lift. And we have that requirement that you have to have a face covering.
So those are some of the things we’re doing. We adjusted, and as conditions change and as more information becomes available, we’re continually adjusting to try to make this experience work for everybody.
Pitt Grewe: (5:34) It’s interesting to see all the work that goes into this. Typically for a guest here, somebody that’s coming to ski, it seems pretty simple, right. To pull it to a ski resort, pop into your skis, sit down on the chair and enjoy the day. But, hearing you talk about all of the different aspects that you have to be concerned about in the process here.
There’s a lot of work that goes into this, and kudos to Alta and your team for taking this on and being willing to adjust and still provide a great opportunity for people to get outside this winter. So as we’re sitting here, right, we’re looking out, I can see Collins lift and Wild Cat lift they’re spinning, and there are people riding them. There’s people out skiing. I pulled into the parking lot today, and there’s a good amount of cars in there. This summer has been a big year for outdoor recreation. Everywhere across the state, we’ve seen people getting out and enjoying the outdoors. We suspect ski season will be the same. Whether that is skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, or any other outdoor activity, we expect to see higher participation rates.
What’s your expectation here at Alta. And who are those visitors going to be, or who do you expect to see here at the resort this winter?
Mike Maughan: (6:49) So traditionally, about 60% of the visitors that come to Alta are from outside the state of Utah. So we anticipate that that number will be down.
We’ll see fewer of those, but as you mentioned, and as we’ve seen across the Wasatch all summer, increased interest by the local population and getting out and recreating. We anticipate there’ll be more locals. More people will choose to drive to this market rather than fly to it and go skiing. It is more of a regional market and more interest from people who want to recreate even not within the ski areas like in the backcountry here around Alta. So we’re anticipating that we will see more people, our capacity will be reduced. So we may have more days that we may have to turn some people away. We hope not. We hope it all balances out, but it remains to be seen. We’ve heard from other resorts that operated in the Southern hemisphere that they saw a leveling out of the skier traffic, meaning that the weekends weren’t as big and the weekdays were busier. As people have the flexibility, because they’re working from home and their kids are studying school from home, that they’re coming more midweek.
So we’re hoping to see a little bit of that. It is a little balancing out. That would be great if people would come in those off times and then it would enable us to social distance and give everybody to have that type of experience that they’re looking for.
Pitt Grewe: (8:18) Yeah. Very interesting. And I’m sure the normal weekday skiers don’t want to hear that. They enjoy the quiet lift lines. I think it would be beneficial all around and it’d be great to see.
Mike Maughan: (8:29) Well, sorry. It’s interesting. We opened yesterday, our first day, and we saw a lot of families and a lot of kids. The demographic was a little bit different. We saw more people than we thought, so maybe that is the way it’s going to play out this year.
Pitt Grewe: (8:44) Yeah. Interesting. All right. So, let’s get to a fun question. You’ve been at Alta for over 30 years. You’ve probably seen a lot of exciting things up here. Do you have one day or a week, a storm, or a season that stands out as being most memorable?
Mike Maughan: (9:02) A day I remember was probably 15 or more years ago. I had to come up to work early one morning. It was a morning when we were doing control work in the canyon. So I beat the road closure up and got to work. It happened to be my birthday. And so the idea was to come up, go to work a little early, leave a little early and go home and have a little party with the family to celebrate my birthday. So I got up here, and it was dark. And, I remember, I was in the hallway or something walking in, and one of the members of the ski patrol said, “What are you doing here so early? You didn’t have to beat the road closure to get up here.”
I said, well, “You know, it’s my birthday, so I came up a little early.” He says “It’s your birthday? Well, you’re coming with us.” I said, “What do you mean? He said, “Go get your skis and stuff when you’re going with us.” So the next thing you know I was riding up with the patrol to do their early morning control work.
And we were assigned to the High Meadows route, which runs the ridge just above the backside. And we went there and hiked up on top. And just as it is getting light, we’re throwing the charges over the edge or tying them on the rope and throwing them over. And we went line by line at the ridge, and after they had done that, we got to the end of the ridge, and now the sun was up, and they said, “Okay, throw your skis down about a 15-foot cliff. And then you climbed down the rope, and we were at the top of Eddie’s High Nowhere.
The sun had come up with beautiful snow sparkling. There was two feet of new snow, and it was the typical light Alta powder, and he said, “It’s your birthday, we’ll start singing. You start skiing.” So they sing happy birthday. And I put the first set of tracks in that run that morning. And that’s one of those memories. It’s just a magical moment. There’s a lot of magical moments here at Alta for everybody, but that’s when it sticks out in my mind.
Pitt Grewe: (10:56) In my opinion, that sounds like the best Christmas or birthday present you could ever get.
From a business standpoint, how do you have to think differently when it comes to running a business where your revenue comes in just a few short months of the year, and it’s kind of dependent on mother nature. So you’re trying to run a business that doesn’t seem ideal, especially for a lot of the business owners across the state of Utah, they would think that’s pretty risky. How does your mind change? I mean, you’ve been in this industry for many years. That’s the mindset.. How do you tackle that?
Mike Maughan: (11:34) You know it’s true. We are dependent upon mother nature. So we’re a little bit like farmers. The weather determines our outcome a little bit. Snowmaking has evolved in the last 20 years, which helps to soften that a little bit. So we’re not as dependent on the early season. We can get a somewhat general time, and we’re going to open. We’re open primarily on manmade snow. Even though mother nature has given us some, and we’re hoping she’ll kick in, and we’ll be able to expand the terrain that we have available for skiing. But it’s recognizing the reality we have a very short window to generate revenue. It’s budgeting. It’s figuring out we’ve got to create so much revenue to offset all the expenses, and the expenses run for all year long. And so it’s looking at the business model a little differently and understanding those are the realities and then it in forecasting and budgeting.
Pitt Grewe: (12:35) Great. I’ve never heard of that comparison. It was kind of being like a farmer. I never thought of the ski industry as being similar to the farm industry, but that makes sense. Very dependent on mother nature. Utah ski resorts have been a big economic driver for the state since they started. And they opened in the 1930s. They’ve helped produce more than $200 million in taxes to the state and local economies each year.
Ski resorts, not to mention all the other businesses that support the ski industry, can make a living because of all the resorts and the access to skiing here in the state of Utah. I know this answer will be a bit biased because you work in the industry, but, from your eyes, how important is the ski industry and businesses like Alta to the economy and to Utah’s wellbeing?
Mike Maughan: (13:29) Well, when I think about the economic side, I think that’s what you kind of worry about on your end, and your role in the state is what’s the impact these businesses have. And what I look at from the well-being side, and how it’s tied to the economy, I think Utah’s a pretty awesome place to live when you think about it. You can have access to all these recreational experiences. And one of them is skiing. The brand here that’s been created at Alta, the quality of the experience, we have attracts people from all over the world, but it also attracts businesses and individuals to move to the state of Utah and live here.
And so I see some value in that. And then I see the value of just being able to have a place where you can get out and recreate. It’s good for us physically, mentally to have some time alone, connect with mother nature and have those magical moments on the mountain.
Pitt Grewe: (14:30) From my perspective, I was raised in the ski industry. My dad was a snowcat salesman my whole life as a supplier to the ski resorts in the state. Not only did it provide an honest salary to support a family and for us to have a good home, it also provided me an opportunity to have a pretty charmed childhood.
I spent every weekend of the winter skiing, and I have to say that was instrumental in forming healthy habits, being active and loving the outdoors. It set the base for a strong quality of life. Even though skews are providing strong economic value, it also highly boosts residents’ quality of life. Whether you’re working in the industry or just taking advantage of it, that’s an important aspect.
Mike Maughan: (15:19) Yeah. Our mission statement tries to provide authentic ski experiences in a natural mountain environment. As we try to help people develop a love and passion for the character, beauty and magic of skiing at Alta, we provide it, and we get out of the way because the mountain provides that experience. That’s here for people that come up to beauty on a morning and after it snowed two feet and the sun is shining, the snow is sparkling, it’s crisp, and you get to make those first few turns. Life is not any better than this.
Pitt Grewe: (15:59) It’s amazing how formative just a couple turns like that can be for driving the rest of your life. One more kind of fun question. Give me one interesting fact about Alta that you’d want people of Utah to know.
Mike Maughan: (16:12) In this day and age of all this ski-area consolidation, all these larger businesses that have bought up the ski areas. Alta has always been privately owned. Just a small family primary controls Alta. And we’re still independent. In the last five years, every other ski area on the Wasatch front has changed ownership to some degree or other, except for Alta.
We’’re kind of independent in that way. And we’re not driven so much by the bottom line as we are driven by the quality of the experience we’re trying to provide. And how do we protect what we have here, not only the ski experience but the summer experience and natural resources that are here?
Those things are very important to us. And it’s not about getting as many people as we can in here. It’s not about making as much money as we can. It’s about providing that quality experience and preserving the natural resources that are here.
Pitt Grewe: (17:15) Excellent. Well, Mike, I appreciate your time today. And I appreciate taking a few moments to talk about Alta and the upcoming ski season. As we know, a lot of people are interested to see how it plays out this year. Nobody’s ever had to deal with the ski season through a global pandemic. And so it’ll be interesting to see that.
I want to mention,, for anybody listening, that it is important to support these local businesses across the state. Get up here, be safe, be responsible in your recreation and how you’re dealing with this. It might look a little different this year, but there’s still plenty of opportunities to get outside, have fun, enjoy the recreation and the ski season here this year in Utah.
So, you know, Mike, thanks again for talking with us and we really appreciate it.
Mike Maughan: (18:06) You’re welcome. Hope to see you on the slopes.
Pitt Grewe: (18:10) Thanks.
Thanks for listening to the Business Elevated podcast, a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Listen to other episodes where you get your podcasts or at business.utah.gov.