Skibowl Lead Story for Portland Business Journal

Skibowl Lead Story for Portland Business Journal

This story appeared on the December 19th, 2014 edition of the Portland Business Journal:

Jon Bell
Staff Reporter- Portland Business Journal

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Cover Story: Praying for snow on Mt. Hood

If skiing and Mt. Hood are in anybody's blood, it may very well be Hans Wipper's.

Born to parents who met each other at Timberline Lodge, Wipper — yes, that is his real name — was skiing by the time he was 18 months old. After high school, he started working at Mt. Hood Skibowl on bike races in the summer and in the ski area's demo shop in the winter. He then earned a degree in ski business and resort management from Sierra Nevada College in Lake Tahoe, less than a mile from the closest ski resort, before returning to Skibowl, where he's been ever since.

"I've done and seen a little bit of everything here," said Wipper, now 45 and Skibowl's head of public relations.

What Wipper's not seen so much of this year is snow. Skibowl, the lowest elevation resort on the mountain, had a few natural dustings by mid-December and it made enough snow to get its tubing operations up and running in time for Thanksgiving weekend. But skiers and snowboarders have yet to descend upon the slopes at Skibowl — or most of the ski areas on the mountain.

The three major ski areas on Hood — Skibowl, Timberline and Mt. Hood Meadows — usually generate well over a million ski or snowboard visits a year, not to mention a powerful economic impact. While it's hard to pull out specific numbers for each resort — there are 12 in the state — a 2012 report prepared in part by the University of Oregon found that the industry's total economic impact to the state topped $482 million. Collectively the three main Hood resorts — plus two smaller ones, Summer and Cooper Spur — employ close to 2,000 people at peak season and support thousands more in service and hospitality jobs in Government Camp, Parkdale and other mountain communities.

"We missed Thanksgiving, so we're off to a disappointing beginning to the season," said Jon Tullis, public affairs manager for Timberline. "It's been a slow start, but we're looking forward to a lot of other things, and Christmas, we gotta get Christmas, by golly."

Slow starts are nothing new on Hood. In his roughly 30 years at Timberline, Tullis said the ski area has been able to open its slopes in time for Thanksgiving about 65 percent of the time. At Mt. Hood Meadows, ideal conditions in the 2007-08 season attracted more than half a million ski visits; last year, with another late start and a warm, wet Christmas, that number dipped to around 380,000.

Weather is the biggest variable for Mt. Hood ski operators. It's also one they have no control over. As a result, the operators of SkiBowl, Timberline and Mt. Hood Meadows have diversified their offerings, and are considering ways to improve traffic flow, develop land and add amenities in a way that attracts visitors to Mt. Hood year-round.

It's not always easy. With so much land and so many competing interests in play on the mountain, it's no surprise that some efforts have slowed - or been abandoned altogether. But with many decades of experience among them, Hood ski operators have become adept at managing through the lean years.

Height matters

Blessed by its elevation high on the south side of Hood, Timberline had seen some snow and intermittent lift operation by mid-December, primarily on its Palmer Express Chairlift, which takes more advanced riders up to an elevation of 8,500 feet. That's one of the ski area's advantages on the mountain. Tullis said Timberline also lowered its annual pass to make it $100 cheaper than Meadows and the Mt. Hood Fusion Pass, which gives skiers access to both Skibowl and Timberline, not because of the bummer early season, but just as a marketing effort to try and offer more access to the mountain to more people.

Unlimited season passes cost anywhere from $400 to $800 this year.

Timberline also benefits from hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit the lodge every year. And though the Thanksgiving ski weekend was a bust, Tullis noted that nearly 600 people had Thanksgiving dinner at Timberline.

"That doesn't make up for skiing," he said, "but it's part of our bigger picture."

At Mt. Hood Meadows, a multi-year terrain improvement project and large grooming fleet have already boosted runs and features that, when the snow does come, will add room and interest for patrons of the mountain's more eastern ski area.

"Because we can get such huge amounts of snowfall, it's important for us to have prepared the terrain and to have the right kind of equipment to create some really great product out of that snow," said Matthew Drake, CEO at Mt. Hood Meadows. "Guests will find wider runs and more interesting terrain."

Drake said Meadows has also added a new restaurant to its lineup and beefed up fiber optics. And for the first time in its 46-year history, Meadows this summer held a few weekend events, including athletic competitions and kids camps.

"Absolutely we're going to expand that again for next summer," Drake said.

Located at an elevation of about 3,600 feet, Skibowl is often the last ski area to see snow, though it also has more capacity to make snow than some of the other areas. Its location is a big reason why it has the greatest array of off-season activities.

According to Wipper, year-round activities have been the goal at Skibowl since the day Kirk Hanna bought the bankrupt ski area in 1987. In addition to its ski runs, tubing and other winter activities, Skibowl also has mountain biking, bungee jumping, an alpine slide, zip lines and at least 16 other summertime pursuits. The resort usually racks up about 500,000 visits across an entire year, Wipper said, and while winter still rules at Skibowl, the warmer-season activities are just as vital.

"Kirk Hanna's vision from the beginning was to develop the summer business to help maintain a core of employees, not only to help the community year-round, but to hedge against lower snow years," Wipper said.

Traffic trials

All the Hood resorts would also benefit from transportation improvements. From full parking lots to traffic jams and overall safety issues, congestion on Mt. Hood has become a primary concern.

"Transportation and getting people to and from the mountain safely is always a big factor," said Wipper, a member of the Mount Hood Transportation Alliance, a group of stakeholders that works to improve transportation issues on the mountain.

The group has played a key role in the development of the Mount Hood Multimodal Transportation Plan, which looks for ways to improve traffic flow. The current widening project on Highway 26 just outside Government Camp is part of that plan, as is a long-term goal to run an aerial tram possibly from Skibowl to Government Camp and on up to Timberline and potentially over to Meadows.

The Mt. Hood Express, a bus service that runs from Sandy up to Timberline Lodge seven times a day through the busy winter months, was also expanded this year. The service, funded by Timberline, Skibowl, the Resort at the Mountain and a $476,000 federal grant awarded to Clackamas County, offers rides to the mountain year-round for $2 one-way. From October 2013 through September of this year, the service had more than 28,000 riders. Outfitted with carriers for skis and snowboards in the winter, the buses — two new ones were acquired this year — are also equipped with bike racks for summertime mountain bikers.

Collective bargaining

Clearly, Mt. Hood's big players are doing what they can to inject consistency into their business models. But plans are often easier to conjure up than execute due to the various stakeholders — residents, native tribes, environmentalists, business owners and others — who want a say about the public and private resources at stake.

For instance, Timberline's plan to launch a lift-assisted mountain bike park has been locked up for more than two years in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups against the Forest Service. The groups, including the Friends of Mt. Hood and the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club, argue the park could damage fragile alpine ecosystems.

Over the mountain, Meadows recently abandoned a plan for a new park-and-ride lot near its Cooper Spur Mountain Resort after residents raised concerns over traffic and safety.

The ski area, which is moving forward with a new 900-car parking lot at the resort, also has long-term ideas for property it's acquiring in Government Camp, including possible residential development. Meadows, which is only about 63 percent built out in its permit area, agreed to swap about 700 acres it owns on the mountain's north side for 120 acres in Government Camp as part of legislation that expanded the wilderness areas on Mt. Hood in 2009. That exchange has been dragging along for years. Brad Tait, a realty specialist with the Forest Service, said the complexities of the deal have made for a long process, but he said appraisals of the properties could be completed by the fall and, barring any unforeseen circumstances, the exchange could very well be a done deal sometime in 2016.

"That may be optimistic," he said, "but it is definitely still on track."

Skibowl owner Hanna has had more luck with development in Government Camp with his Collins Lake Resort. The 200-unit project was finished in the late 2000s, and there are plans for an additional phase that would add another 200 units and retail space.

While no firm start date has been set, the development is another example of how Skibowl is diversifying and adapting in an environment where predictability is rare.

"We are at the whim of Mother Nature a bit, so we don't want to take too big of a step with anything we do," Wipper said. "But at the same time, you've got to maximize your permit area. You don't want it to sit there doing nothing six months out of the year."

Surviving a no-snow season

A disaster loan rescued Mt. Ashland after Mother Nature doomed its last ski season

The snow may be coming late this year for ski resorts on Mount Hood and across the Pacific Northwest, but for Jamie Schectman, it's better late than never.

Schectman is director of sales and marketing for Mt. Ashland Ski Area, which last year, for the first time in its 50-year existence, was unable to open for the ski season due to lack of snow.

"Last year, we really got dealt the short hand," he said.

To keep itself afloat through the dire season, the nonprofit ski area turned to a $742,000 Economic Injury Disaster Loan from the Small Business Administration. The funds helped offset some of the $1.8 million in revenue the resort lost as a result of the absent ski season.

The ski area, which usually averages around 70,000 ski visits each year, also turned to a more creative financial approach leading up to this year's season: a crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo that aimed to raise $50,000 to make improvements to lodge and food services and add more concerts, competitions and other events. On Dec. 15, the day the campaign ended, just over $15,400 had been raised.

But Schectman was not daunted. The money that was raised will still go toward improving the guest experience. The weather patterns are already markedly different than last year's, and earlier this week, the upper reaches of Mt. Ashland were already blanketed in up to 19 inches of snow — with two more storms on the way. If those all continue on course, Schectman said the resort, which has also begun to look into off-season activities, could open beginner terrain as early as this weekend.

"Another season without snow would be devastating for the Rogue Valley," Schectman said, adding that Mt. Ashland employs about 160 people during the peak of the season. "It would be tough to bounce back from, but we are optimistic."

Thanks for a great article Jon Bell! To read it in the Portland Business Journal, click HERE

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Mt. Hood Skibowl is an equal opportunity service provider and employer. This institution operates under a special use permit issued by the Mt. Hood National Forest, USDA Forest Service