The viability of the community and its ski hill were the chips on the table when the Red Mountain Resort powers that be laid their cards on the table for expansion three years ago.
Their ante was $2 million and the gamble was increased destination visitors to the area (called tourists), almost one third more (35,000) hoped for when the lift is realized for the coming season.
The idea for expansion was not driven by real estate, said Howard Katkov, chief executive officer at an official ‘ground breaking ceremony’ with toast at Red Mountain Resort last Thursday.
Instead, the new fixed-grip Poma quad chair—that began installation June 20—that will give access to almost 1,000 more acres of terrain is about sustainability for the community, the resort and for the region, he noted.
“In terms of the hill’s viability, it had to be done. I think it had to be done. It was supported profoundly by the community, more importantly,” he said.
The new lift opens up intermediate terrain and another mountain in Red’s arsenal to deliver a 360-degree ski experience—Granite being the other one—to create the twin towers of downhill efficiency, and a total of 2,800 acres of land to play in.
“Now, anybody who wakes up on a powder day here will look up and say, ‘Oh my God, where do I go?’” said Katkov.
The new lift is on schedule to be completed for this coming ski season to give people access to challenging new chutes and steeps off the north and eastern slopes of Grey.
Heart of the matter
Grey expansion was first envisioned three years ago in the heart of the recession when real estate had pretty much collapsed around the world for second homes.
After owning the hill for a number of years, and understanding the community, the ownership group of Red Mountain Resort felt it was necessary to do something “even bigger outside of real estate, to bring in more destination visitors for the sustainability of this community and the ski hill,” said Katkov.
“This is not a real estate play, to be clear,” he emphasized.
Katkov pointed to a metric in the ski world of 150,000 ski visits as a target sustainable number, and Red has averaged around 115,000 per year.
The consultants hired—S.E. Group—to examine expansion gave anecdotal evidence of terrain expansion at other ski hills in recent years and approximately 70 per cent of those showed increased skier destination visits.
Research also showed the addition of Grey Mountain would be the largest expansion at an existing ski hill in over four decades in North America, and would make Red Mountain the eighth largest ski resort in Canada and 20th largest in North America.
And the ski expansion also opens up intermediate terrain that the resort really needed, having a reputation as an expert mountain.
“That was part of the strategy, not only to open up terrain and bring in more destination visitors for the resort and the community, but also to offer more intermediate skiing and snowboarding,” he said.
And all signs point to the genius of the plan so far. Last year with news of Grey Mountain’s expansion, the opening of the new runs and offering cat skiing, day ticket sales increased 29 per cent over the previous year.
And with the expectation of a new lift at Grey, bookings to-date over last year are up 132 per cent (the year starting in May).
“And that obviously spells good news for the local and regional economy,” said Fran Richards, vice president of marketing.
With the increase in acreage there won’t be a corresponding increase in staff.
Red vice president of operations and development, Don Thompson, said there will more lift operators, more patrollers and another operator added in grooming department, but not a lot of staff overall added to manage the new mountain.
“But it’s not like we take the amount of staff we have now running Granite and are duplicating it, because everything goes on a rotation,” he said.
There will still be a testing format required next year for grooming, he said, with eventually Red staff grooming that whole side.
“Because nobody’s driven a groomer over there, ever, we have some early season testing to do,” Thompson said.
Machine time and numbers of staff needed to do the job will unfold over the next few years, he added, as the complexity of the hill is revealed.
Already Red staff have gained knowledge about Grey through last year’s trial run as a cat access mountain. In 2012-13, Red shuttled skiers in groups of nine to the top of Grey using a new snowcat.
Snow pack research, avalanche routes, control routes, patrol closures and gateways to the backcountry, all those elements of the operating side of that mountain have really had a good hard look at last year, Thompson said, and it gives the Red crews a head start this year.
There will not be access to base of the new lift from the Silverload chair this year, said Katkov.
There is another lift planned in the future that will access more runs in the area near the base of Grey Mountain.
The placement of the Grey chair anchor and route was chosen to provide a reasonable ride time, around 11 minutes, said Thompson.
“So striking that balance for riders and also being able to ski every direction off of Grey, collect and all come back to that bottom terminal (was key),” he said.
What Red staff are exploring is a form of connector from Silverload to Grey chair. There would be a 300 metre handle tow installed at some point.
“Then you get a real efficient kind of loop ski,” said Thompson.
The new chair lift creates redundancies in the system, said Katkov. If Motherload chair went down, for instance, people could go over to Grey Mountain chairlift to keep skiing.
“So that’s a good thing. Plus it opens up all of that terrain,” he said.
There will be snowshoeing, cross country branded area created at the foot of Grey Mountain, said Katkov, with guiding.
“It’s absolutely fabulous terrain,” he said.
The sands of time
There is a real big demographic shift happening at ski hills across North America.
Baby Boomers are leaving the sport, and the younger generation is looking at the world differently than that generation, it’s as an electronic age, it’s a social age, it’s a completely much more modern world.
“And our focus is communicating to that generation because we think that is the market that will really appreciate this product, but also the affordability of this product,” said Katkov.
Our affordability set against this product and this town of Rossland is going to be very desirable to that generation.
Red Mountain is in the entertainment business, said Richards, and when people make choices of where to go and where they are going to spend their vacation and where they want to be entertained, they will hopefully look to Red now with the expansion and the additional events and marketing planned.
“And I think the warmth of this community when they get here really adds to their experience,” he said.
Follow the money
Funding for the new chair lift came in-part from a loan from the Southern Interior Development Initiatives Trust (SIDIT).
SIDIT’s funding programs are specifically targeted toward investments in self-sustaining projects that support the 10 mandated themes as defined in legislation approved by the province.
It was the first significant investment in the region by the trust.
“So that’s a third party validation of the project,” said Katkov.
At the time of the development, Katkov said the management team spent eight years “reinforcing” the company’s infrastructure, investing $50 million in the facilities, and completing world class slope-side accommodations.
With $2 million being poured into the project, the question of return on investment was one Katkov hesitated to answer at this point, characterizing it as “complicated at this point.”
The importance of having a daily shuttle bus run to the ski hill from Rossland several times a day was emphasized.
Last year Tourism Rossland operated a shuttle bus to the hill for the first time, but there is a push to get a public transit route set up, in partnership with the City of Rossland, BC Transit and the regional district.
“We’ve lost business as a result of not having it,” said Richards.
That’s one of the questions people ask about the hill is how do they get down to the city after skiing, he said.
“People love Rossland. It’s a real place rather than a manufactured mall at the bottom of the resort. That’s an experience we are lucky to have,” Richard noted.
Transportation is as critical as any other component for the success of this community and this resort.
“We are competing with other resorts that have that as a given, and have had it for years,” said Katkov. No taxi service or rental cars in town. The ownership group did not want a townsite at Red when they bought it, and downsized the commercial end.
“We didn’t want to disenfranchise ourselves with this community,” he said. “We are part of this community. We come here to ski and hang out with friends and family.”
That town is a big part of the experience and part of the attraction because it is so authentic, Katkov added.
“This town loves this mountain and skis this mountain and that just creates this rich experience between the guests and the people who live here and ski,” he said.
“That experience is virtually vanishing from ski hills across North America,” Richards added.
Speaking of Rossland
The expansion ultimately means more jobs in the Rossland area, a more robust and diverse local economy, and more of the word-of-mouth that put Red on the map in the first place, Katkov said and Mayor Greg Granstrom agrees.
“This can be a remarkable thing for the city of Rossland,” he said. “The opportunities that this opens up for the entire region could be significant.”
The benefits to the tourism economy were obvious, he said, but was more excited about the spinoffs into the community as far as development potential went.
• Expansion on Aug. 1, 2012 added 997 acres and a whole new mountain to the 1,685 acres already developed at the hill.
• Grey, like Granite (Red’s other peak), is volcano-shaped, which allows for 360-degree skiing around the peak from a single lift.
• The 997-acre expansion on Grey alone is about the same size as the Mount Baker ski area in Washington.
• The total acreage with the new terrain on Grey makes Red larger than Jackson Hole in Wyoming.
• With the new zone, Red falls into the top three per cent of all resorts in North America for skiable acres (2,682).
• At the completion of run development, Grey Mountain will have 22 perfect ski runs.
• Expansion makes Red the eighth largest ski area in Canada and, for comparison, the 18th largest in the USA out of approximately 500 resorts.