Yesterday, I got a chance to ride along with Chris Bates (owner of Cataloochee), in the groomer. To this day, Bates grooms the mountain every morning, and has a tireless work ethic. Bates has been in the ski industry for 33 years, and is a wealth of information. Here is the interview, along with photos:
On the advancements in snowmaking . . .
“20 years ago we never used to even think about blowing snow for a 5 hour window . . . Today, we do that routinely. We are making snow for half the cost we were 20 years ago . . . but we are making a lot more of it. We went from skiing 85 days (just before Christmas to early March). Now, we average high-120 to low-130 days per season, with a long year being 149 days. Snowmaking improvements have made this possible in a much more energy efficient way.”
On being an independent ski area in the southeast . . .
“As an independent, I can go out and make snow Oct. 31st, to try and open up. I am allowed to operate in a manner that serves the guest the best. There are challenges, though, as with any other small business. In the end, I try to make Cataloochee a better place every year, a good employer, and a good ski area.”
“All but one ski resort in the southeast is independent. If you study other industry out there, though, there is conglomeration and divestment. There is always going to be ebb-and-flow (conglomeration and divestment) in the market.”
On the Indy Pass . . .
“I’m excited about the Indy Pass . . . I’m excited about the possibility of the small to medium-size independent operators in the country being able to get together, and offer a product at a reasonable cost that allows skiers to have a lot of the same flexibility they would in buying the Ikon/Epic (pass). At the end of the day, we’ve got to get people more interested in wintertime recreation. I have high hopes that the Indy pass is going to offer an alternative product. ”
The New boot building . . .
“We studied the boot process over the last two winters seriously. We really got involved and tried to study flow. We realized we need to fit the boots to the guests feet. The boot rental process could be better with a guest/employee interaction. Getting the right boot on the customers feet required more space.”
Going forward in the industry and at Cataloochee . . .
“We (the industry) are near the end of the major snowmaking improvements. From a physics standpoint, I don’t think we can get much better with snowmaking.
“From a simple standpoint, my focus is on getting better at what we do every year. Our focus has been on snowmaking, lifts, grooming from the time that I have been here. My hope is we will continue to stay abreast of snowmaking. In addition, we hope to continue to automate the snowmaking process.”
“Where I see it is that it is going to involve a more interactive guest experience. I’d like to really focus on the guest experience in rentals and ski school. Eliminating the barriers to entry once the guests arrive is a high priority. I’d like to apply our same dedication to our customers, that we do to our snowmaking.”
“Skiing offers a unique experience. I’d like to ultimately grow more participants to the sport. “