I sat down with the COO of Arapahoe Basin ski and snowboard area, Alan Henceroth, at the start of another busy day on the mountain. We discussed his perspectives on skiing, how the ski industry has changed, how this might affect the community and Summit County in general, and what the future looks like from his perspective.
Below is a somewhat truncated version of our interview, with the full un-edited version attached as an audio file, here. Sincere thanks to Alan for his time, and continued success at A-Basin.
AMRDI: Thank you again for your time today! Can we begin by asking how you got into the industry?
AH: You know I got into it really by chance, by luck. I studied Forestry at Northern Arizona, in Flag (Flagstaff, AZ). I really had aspirations of working for the Park Service, and really wanted to spend a few winters just skiing and being a ski bum. That kind of work was really only seasonal at that time, so it was a good mix (of seasonal forestry work and skiing). I started working for the Forest Service -- it was hard to get a job with the Park Service back then. I started doing a variety of things and landed in ski patrol.
I realized that everything I wanted to do for the Park Service was incredibly similar, if not the same to what skiing is about too -- taking care of a special place, taking care of the people who visit that special place, trying to help them have a better time. So it synced up perfectly for me.
AMRDI: Is there something specific about your Forestry background that overlaps?
AH: Yeah, natural resource management, multiple resource management, recreation management. If I were running a campground no one would question that, but sometimes when you're running a ski business, people might say 'what?' But I work closely with the Forest Service everyday, and these days we are helping them carry out their mission of managing public lands, for people.
AMRDI: Can you go into that a bit -- the management part?
AH: We have a long-term special use permit. The White River National Forest is the most visited National Forest in the country. The biggest chunk of those visitors is skiers. There is all kinds of levels of visitation - from driving through to more high intensity visitation like skiers. We are a part of that picture.
AMRDI: How do you collaborate with the Forest Service?
AH: We have a special use permit. There are a lot of standards, guidelines and laws associated with that, and we need to fit within them. The ski industry is constantly growing, developing and changing (and that is because what people want is growing, developing and changing, so what worked 10 years ago might not work today, isn't gonna work 10 years from now). So we are always trying to look at things, to be better, and by "better" I mean appeal to the people more.
AMRDI: How do you balance that (development), with some of the challenges regarding, say, local push-back with respect to expansion, water usage, those complaints, etc?
AH: You know we have a pretty good system -- a system that can be very frustrating to work in but a pretty good system of checks and balances. People get to be heard. Resources are analyzed and reviewed. We can't just do whatever we want. We have to work through NEPA. If we want to do something we have a pretty lengthy, expensive process we undertake.
And you know, there is no value in us in doing something to harm this place, because then people wouldn't want to come. We will always have discussions about what is an acceptable impact, and not everyone agrees. But when you look at what we have done. When you look at Montezuma Bowl, where we put a ski lift and a few other things -- I was looking at an aerial photo and you can hardly know it was there. We want to take care of this place.
You know, the White River National Forest (WRNF) is the most heavily visited forest in the country. Colorado has the most skier-days of any state (nearly 20% of all U.S. skiing takes place in Colorado), and the majority of those days takes place in the WRNF (it has 11 ski areas -- the 4 Aspens, the 4 Vails, A-Basin and Sunlight), and it's still less than 2% of the WRNF by area size...So in the big picture of things, it's a pretty small piece of the land area for all the great benefits it brings....
There are impacts, but for all the benefits that it brings, those impacts are in line.
AMRDI: A-Basin has developed differently than other ski areas in the region -- is that purposeful? Is there an ethos that underlies that or is it a function of ownership structure? What explains that?
AH: It's a great question. It's a complex question: Something unique to A-Basin...people talk about ski area expansion and how ski areas are going to take all the land...There is a real limit to what we can do here. We are in an EIS right now (for the Beavers expansion). But compared to our neighbors, the majority of the land here is public land, so you will never see condominiums here. That's why this has developed like a pure ski center, versus hotels, village, condominiums. A-Basin has had four owners, all really different, but I don't think ownership has mattered as much as the geography.
AMRDI: You have never felt a pressure, however, to expand, in order to stay relevant?
AH: I wouldn't say that there is pressure to "expand." And I wouldn't say that pressure is the right word so much as "need." You know you got to pay attention to what is going on around you, and what people like. Maybe I mentioned National Parks. One big difference between parks and A-Basin is that a park gets its funding from the federal government, no matter how meager it might be, and that is the way it is. We fund ourselves. So we do have a need, to be profitable.
And the whole thing, if we are not profitable, the whole thing will cave in.
AMRDI: Moving in that direction, do you see things changing within the industry?
AH: There have been extraordinary changes within my tenure. Technologically speaking: lifts, scanning technology, snow cats, the management of snow. Snowboarding happened, terrain parks came about...You mentioned consolidation of resorts. That certainly is a change.
AMRDI: Would you speak to that? How has A-Basin navigated those bigger trends of consolidation?
AH: We are owned by a Canadian company named Dream, which is primarily involved in real estate in Canada, Germany, and investments in renewable energy. We are their only ski area in their portfolio, but just about every ski area now has some sort of partnership. So whether you are a big company with multiple resorts, or one that partners with others, that is important, and what people want: The days of buying a $1000 pass to one ski area are gone...
AMRDI: How about "trickle down" with respect to community. Have you seen this affect how Summit County develops, or investment in Summit County? What does it mean for 'sustainability writ large'?
AH: You know, I moved here thirty-three years ago. And one of the big changes is that, certainly back then, the community was more...a more itinerant lifestyle. A lot of things has caused that change. The mountain lifestyle is really appealing to a lot of people. Summit County, and the other ski towns, are awesome places to live. Now, with technology, not everyone has to be in downtown Denver to live. So that is one really big change -- more people live here than they used to, and more people make their careers here than they used to.
So in terms of 'sustainability' -- I also think of it in a much bigger picture than just green. Green is important and we are trying to do better and better in the green front -- we have the best recycling and compost programs that we can come up with. We have gotten rid of several horrendous old, energy-sucking buildings. We have our first on-site solar facility, and we continue to look at other ways to do better. But I think sustainability is much bigger than that.
My long-term hope/dream, long beyond me, is that A-Basin is going strong, vibrant, and people want to come here. On the climate change front probably nobody is situated better than us because we are the highest. But we need to be prepared. We need to invest in our snow-making system. We need to diversify what we are doing...So, stealing a quote here, we can't have just 'pray for snow' as our business strategy.
Average snowfall can mean really good skiing, so below average can be good skiing too, and we want to keep being as good as we can. On the mountain, with snowmaking, snowfarming -- we do a lot of work with snow fences to keep the snow here instead of blowing out into the plains, or the next valley, and keeping it where we want it.
We work hard to diversify here what we are doing as well. People come here for the bars, the restaurants. We do fun dinners at night sometimes...So by sustainable it's more than green. Guests need to be able to get here, and enjoy it, and people need to work here. When I started here there was literally a handful of full-time year round employees, and that was before snowmaking so nobody started working until the first snow, and as soon as the snow was gone, everybody was cut loose.
Hey that worked great in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, but now the technical demands and the professional demands on our staff have grown, because the expectations of the public is high. And our need to provide meaningful work on a consistent year-round, or near year-round basis is going, so we need to be able to be a consistent employer to be able to make this thing work. And we got to be able to provide services consistently to our guests to make it work.
And that then ties into our community - we got to be an integral part of the community and need to keep the quality of life, the quality of a visit and an experience really high.
AMRDI: Is there anything you can point to as far as A-Basin's role in the community and that bigger picture?
AH: We do a lot of stuff. We are actively engaged with several organizations. One is the Summit Foundation, our local community foundation, which in turns funds scholarships for kids, and supports local non-profits. We support that in a few different ways. I sit on the board...We do employee giving and we match dollar-for-dollar any donation an employee makes. We have a few other things we do. We have an employee environmental fund, and match dollar-for-dollar. This has helped the Friends of the Eagle's Nest Wilderness...and the Continental Divide Land Trust...We partner very closely with the High Country Conservation Center....We do a big fundraiser for them in the spring. A big fundraiser for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center...We give a lot of passes and tickets to groups to sell in auctions. We donate food to the Rotary dinner three times a winter. It all goes hand-in-hand with what we do, and the community is a big part of what we do.
AMRDI: Have you seen the the negative side of growth in the area, like low-wage employment and expensive housing, and is this something that is raised by ski area operators? Has it changed the social fabric of the community? What are your thoughts?
AH: While I do think the resort business is a really good cornerstone for these mountain communities. It's really sustainable. Even in the low-point of the recession people were still coming to the mountains. And it's not like the mill or mine shut down. So I do think long-term it's really good. I do think housing is a challenge. It's one of our biggest challenges. It goes in cycles.
I do think that staffing and availability of workers is hard to find. Sometimes those mix together. There are some changes going on now where long-term housing is getting converted into short term rentals. And that is causing some challenges.
I think...I don't know I have the answer for you, but housing is one challenge. And in our community, when you compare us to the Vails and Aspens of the world, we are still comparatively affordable, but that is kind of relative to what someone is doing in life, and I know we own a number of beds. And at times we rent more, because that becomes a critical issue.
We have an interesting world because we have a big chunk of seasonal employees. This is something they are going to do before they go on in life. Some of them are gonna stick around for a while, and some are gonna stay and make a career here. More and more some of them grew up here, and will make a life out of it too. And finding that housing for someone that is here for four months can be tricky. And people staying here longer who want to buy too, that's tricky.
AMRDI: Do you think the ski area industry as a whole..does it communicate around this, or is it more the nuts and bolts of operations?
AH: You know I think everybody knows it's a challenge. All the places here have housing for their employees, on some level. We are on the smaller size, but it's bigger than the resorts. Summit County has taken a really good stance on that. They just made a big trade with the Forest Service by Frisco with the intention of making some housing units there. But there is no getting around the housing issue in the mountains.
AMRDI: I will conclude with any observations with respect to climate change. Have you witnessed anything and does it affect how you operate, other than preparing and diversifying.
AH: Well I do believe in climate change, that's not a question. But I don't know what "average" means. We have so much variability in what we see, where we go through very snowy periods, average periods, then we go through -- hopefully we don't go through too many periods where it's dry but we do sometimes. We just got done going through three really COLD weeks, and then last year we had some amazingly warm weather. So it's hard for me to pinpoint one thing, but I know the science is there.
If I could pinpoint one thing. The first half of my career here, the second half of my career here, you know it was a little easier to stay open late -- we still go long, we stay open until June -- but we work a little harder to do it now than we used to. If I could say one seemingly real thing that I observe: we work harder now to stay open late.
AMRDI: Thanks for everything.
AH: You know A-Basin is kind of a one-of-a-kind place. And I think we have one of the brightest futures around here. When I think about where we are, the resorts around us, ease of access to Denver...I think the future is really bright.