Squaw/Alpine CEO Andy Wirth: Resorts ‘will be connected in near future’
OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. — Between a proposal to expand the Village at Squaw and a separate effort to incorporate Olympic Valley, the famed Sierra location of the 1960 Winter Olympics could see big changes in the future.
The Sierra Sun recently sat down with Andy Wirth, president and CEO of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, discussing everything from past decisions to potential ones. Below is an excerpt of the Q-and-A:
Sierra Sun: In 2010 you became president/CEO of Squaw Valley, and this September marks the third year of the Squaw/Alpine merger. What are some of the big changes you think have taken place since?
Andy Wirth: “Importantly, from the customer’s view, we’ve invested in virtually every facet of the mountain experience. We’ve invested a great deal of money, time and effort into the quality of our snowcats, our grooming fleet, the quality of our snowmaking facilities, our snow guns (and) the training of our team. And so I know one thing that’s changed — I know that now, compared to four years ago, the quality of that part of the skiing experience is vastly improved.
“… We’ve also invested very heavily in the food and beverage operations both on the mountain and at the base of the mountain.
“… No. 3, something of which I’m most proud of, is that Squaw Valley, when I came here, was not known for its service levels, and we’ve gone from one of the lowest-rated ski resorts in North America, to we’re now in the top 20 percent. Last year — not this past ski season, but the past season — we had the highest service scores of any ski resort in California, better than anyone in Lake Tahoe, better than anyone else in the state of California. We’re exceedingly proud of that.
“… We’ve actually developed a service culture. We have a service culture that people believe in and people are proud to be a part of. With that said, we still know there’s so much more ground that needs to be taken, and what I mean is everything from the friendliness and attentiveness of our lift operators to the people working in the parking lot, parking cars to the ski patrollers who are actually engaging in customer service and customer interactions.”
Sun: What about the Squaw/Alpine merger?
Wirth: “I’m prideful in saying we’ve done something that people have been talking about since the 50s — we acquired Alpine Meadows. It was in a distressed situation. We acquired Alpine Meadows, and we’ve enhanced the service levels there.
“… Every aspect of the history and the culture we celebrate, we support and honor at both mountains, but to actually do something people have been talking about for decades and actually own and operate both mountains, now that’s the business accomplishment.
“But really the most important thing was the value to the customer. You get two mountains, over 6,000 acres of skiing on one pass and on one lift ticket. It’s really a simple value statement.
“… Now the interesting dialogue turns to when are you going to connect the two. Well, I’m proud to say that’s going to happen sometime in the near future. I can’t divulge how exactly. … We think that’s beneficial to literally every single person in this community. At the very least, it pulls cars off the road; at the very most, it makes us a more popular destination.”
Sun: What role do you think the village expansion plan may play in the resort’s standing in the ski industry?
Wirth: “There’s no doubt that the combination of the service culture being vastly improved, the investments that we’ve made in the mountain experience, coupled with if we can build viable, reliable mass transit for our staff, our locals and our guests along with quality lodging, I think we could easily find ourselves in the top five, top three destinations in North America, which again is where we used to be.
“… So really that’s why we call it the ‘Renaissance.’ We’re wanting to go back to a place; we’re not trying to contrive something new. We see there being value to everybody, all local customers, all locals by going back to where we used to be.
“… There are 82 acres of asphalt out there, and we think those 82 acres of asphalt can be something better. … We think those parking lots can be something better that don’t tear at the fabric of the soul of the community. … I have everything to lose if we don’t observe and respect and cherish the legacy and history of this place. We have something unique and special, why would we see to dilute or change that?”
Sun: As for the incorporation effort, if it is successful, what is the biggest concern you have for the future of the valley and Squaw?
Wirth: “In the very outside chance that the Incorporate Olympic Valley effort is successful, as the CEO of the parent/holding company of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, I am and would be extremely concerned as to the financial viability and solvency of the new entity and operating a business in such an unnecessarily, fiscally volatile city. In speaking to my friends in Mammoth Lakes, which a few years ago filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, every indication was that it was a challenge to the citizenry, the community and the ski business. The IOV assertion that they have the financial aspect of this endeavor covered is just simply untrue, and in turn, it would inject a tremendous amount of unnecessary risk, with no added value or benefit to the region, into the day-to-day lives of the people who live here and/or own property here.
“Moreover, the fact that the Resort at Squaw Creek, Squaw Valley Lodge and many other landowners … are now very aggressively seeking to be excluded from this “idea” is very telling.
“… As an engaged and very active citizen of the North Lake Tahoe community, I am and would be concerned about the inevitable, obvious and deeply concerning isolation from the rest of the region and community of North Lake Tahoe. We are just one part of an expansive interrelated community. Our staff, our customers and our friends are from the entire North Lake Tahoe area; to isolate a tiny portion of the region and retain the revenues for a small city’s use deprives the people of the region and of the community who presently benefit from our fiscal role in this society. It’s not at all an approach or an endeavor that benefits the region or community, but instead isolates and deprives.”
Sun: With this year’s mild winter, how did Squaw and Alpine fare in terms of business?
Wirth: “The 2013-14 winter season was a challenging season for all businesses in the region and … Squaw Valley Ski Holdings … was certainly adversely impacted by the weather. However, our substantial investment in the entire snowmaking system, snow grooming fleet and the entire mountain vacation experience allowed us to be not only competitive but have more and higher quality terrain and chairs open than our nearest regional competitor. Most importantly, the customer input and feedback was extremely positive, in the context of the tough season, relative to our service levels and our operations teams’ at-times Herculean efforts to open terrain.
“While I am not at liberty to disclose skier visits, revenue and EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization), it’s fair to say while our results were disappointing relative to our original plans, we were not only competitive within the region but outperformed those mountains in the region during key timeframes.”
Sun: What outlook do you have for future winters? What precautions, if any, may be taken at Squaw and Alpine should mild winters continue?
Wirth: “Relative to weather, I am and we are firm believers in climate change, and therefore, very long term, there’s understandable concern for the ski industry as whole. However, we are developing a planning approach that … accommodates increased volatility in weather, as there’s much research that indicates that while climate change is quite real, it doesn’t necessarily mean less snowfall for certain regions, but increased volatility of weather patterns. We will continue to invest in our snowmaking systems … along with every facet of the mountain experience.
“Specifically, relative to climate change, we know that our destinations’ largest contribution to GHG (greenhouse gas) is not our operations, but the vehicles used by our guests at embarrassingly low average ratios of customers per vehicle. There are many reasons for that, including the lack of viable, consistent and reliable mass transit in the region like one can find in Aspen, Park City, Whistler Blackcomb, Steamboat Springs and more. To enhance the guest experience and support our commitment to the environment, we are making every effort to lead and drive change in the region so to develop, in some cases, enhanced traditional transit systems, and in some other interesting cases, non-traditional solutions to our region’s transportation challenges.”
Sun: Speaking of winter, where do we stand as a region, and where does Squaw and Alpine fit in, with trying to host the Winter Olympics again?
Wirth: “Three years ago, I was selected by the governors and lieutenant governors of Nevada and California to be chairman of the bistate Lake Tahoe Winter Olympics Committee. It was and still is a group with no specific affiliation to a particular city, but the epicenter of any and all thinking, logistics and more is Lake Tahoe. … My friend and peer at Vail Resorts, Blaise Carrig, also serves on this board. Blaise and I see the possibility of hosting a Winter Games as an opportunity to substantially enhance the roads, transportation and transit infrastructure in the region just as those benefits accrued for Salt Lake City/Park City in 2002 and Vancouver/Whistler Blackcomb in 2010.
“At the time of formation, we were at the very incipient stages of considering a run at the 2022 Winter Olympics as Lake Tahoe; however, the United States Olympic Committee, in a very wise move, chose to pass on Winter 2022. The USOC continues to evaluate the opportunity to pursue a Summer 2024 Olympics and/or a Winter 2026 Olympics. Until their evaluation is complete, we remain in a holding pattern.”