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Bachelor has fixed lifts, prices, image and they're letting you know about it 

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Behind mountain biking and pushing babies around in thousand-dollar jogging strollers, bitching about Mt. Bachelor is one of Bend's most beloved pastimes. Bendites complain about ticket prices, parking, grooming or staffing issues just like people in larger, more urban cities bitch about the coaching decisions of their local sports teams.

While this is certainly a storied pastime, last season the bitching went from nit-picking static to fever pitched shouting as winter began with hiked lift ticket prices and ended with reports of potentially dangerous chair lift maintenance practices and an earlier than usual closing date.

Even after the lifts quit running the bad news kept coming. This past spring it was reported that the mountain saw a seven percent decrease in visitors during a season when other regional resorts had record-breaking attendance. Just a few weeks after the end of the season, Mt. Bachelor's parent corporation, Utah-based Powdr Corp., fired four of the mountain's top managers including General Manager Matt Janney, who had been in the top spot for less than a year. It's probably not the way that Powdr Corp would have scripted the way the resort would roll into its 50 year anniversary, which it celebrates this winter.

But after a brief period of rudderless coasting in the off season, Mt. Bachelor kicked off a flurry of new hires, a management reorganization and a capital improvement plan aimed at improving the mountain's maintenance-challenged lift system. It capped the off season moves by dropping season pass prices in an effort to lure back locals to the mountain. As the first snow begins to fall, managers say Bachelor is poised for a turnaround year.

Alex Kaufman is the newly hired marketing director at Mt. Bachelor and recently moved to town from Bethel, Maine where he worked at Sunday River ski resort. He says that it's not only important for the mountain to make changes, but also for the community to know that the changes have been made.

"The mountain and the town need to be on the same page more. They might not always see eye to eye, but they'll know where each other are coming from," says Kaufman - an energetic self-admitted ski junkie who emancipated from his parents as a teenager so he could ski bum in Colorado. Kaufman said he will move his office to the mountain to get a better sense of what's happening on the hill and also so he can get some turns in on a daily basis. Tough job, right?

Well, skiing on the job is definitely a nice bump, but Kaufman's job is hardly a cakewalk considering he's one of five executive members (Mt. Bachelor's previous structure included eight executive members) tasked with healing what many in the community have viewed as a black eye that swelled up on Bachelor's face not only last season, but several before as well. While it will be difficult to judge the state of the mountain's reputation until at least opening day (and likely much longer than that), the attempts to remedy whatever problems and ill perceptions exist were quite visible this off season.

First, there was the hiring of Dave Rathbun from within the Powdr Corp. family (he was previously working at Powdr's Killington Resort-Pico Mountain in Vermont) as the mountain's new top executive, which was followed by the aforementioned restructuring and new hires, including that of Kaufman. The second notable change was a drop in season pass rates, which Kaufman attributes directly to Rathbun. News of the season pass price drop circulated through the Bend gossip circle at Spears/Lohan/Palin speed. Before the local media had a chance to fully report on the news, most local skiers were already aware that season pass prices had been cut for the first time in a couple decades. Then, local TV news cameras were up on the mountain as Mt. Bachelor crews made repairs and replacements on a chair lift system that was plagued by maintenance issues, including some lengthy delays and closures last season.

Again, the impact of these changes on Bachelor's image with locals is hard to measure in several areas, but there are some hard numbers to be found. Kevin Stickelman, the newly promoted director of guest experience (last season he worked under the title "director of skier services"), said that when the early season pass sales concluded at the end of September, the resort saw a 17 percent increase in sales from last season. Stickelman says that the price cut, which featured rates cut $130 for adult passes and nearly in half for teens and young adults, were, not surprisingly, aimed at getting the locals up on the hill.

"If we lose sight of what the locals think of us, it affects our business," Stickelman says.

While season passes may have been a deal compared to what we're used to, it's still not clear what daily lift tickets will ring in at. Bachelor did announce, however, that Saturday tickets would be at a "peak" rate - which last season was a stiff $66.

Some locals will shout from their barstools all year around that there ought to be special local rates. But Kaufman says the lift ticket and season pass prices, which some believe should be even lower and closer to the range of Colorado's relatively low-priced passes that are good for multiple resorts, also serve to combat overcrowding.

"If we were to cut prices just to put a smile on everyone's face, they wouldn't be too happy when they got up to the mountain and it was crowded," Kaufman says.

Mt. Bachelor took another hit last season when lifts broke down on multiple occasions, and it doesn't take long for stories of lift breakdowns and hikes from the Outback Express chair back to the lodge are relayed over after-ski beers and cubicle walls.

With all this in mind, Bachelor publicized its effort to overhaul the mountain's lift systems. Rathbun says the total cost of the parts alone for the repair project, not including man power, is in the neighborhood of half a million dollars and could amount to more by the time the job is completed in mid November. In addition, Bachelor requested that representatives of Doppelmayr, the manufacturer of the resort's lift systems, come to the mountain to inspect the work before and after the replacement and repair project.

"I don't want the parts to be an issue and I want everything to be up to snuff with the manufacturer's standards. I don't want to have something happen that prevents us from not running a lift because a part has failed," Rathbun says.

The visit from Doppelmayr isn't a requirement, according to Rathbun, but Bachelor made the decision to have the company inspect the work as a sort of assurance that the work had been done properly.

The season pass prices have dropped and lift repairs have been made, but what Bachelor executives have also focused on is letting everyone know about all of this.

"We have been making sure that people are up to speed with the work we're doing," Kaufman says.

He also adds that the mountain is in the process of revamping its website and instituting some other programs to keep people "up to speed" with what's going on at Bachelor. And Stickelman says that off-season maintenance at the resort extends far beyond the extensive lift repairs, including painting touch ups, improved snow removal and even a complete overhaul of Mt. Bachelor's food menus. (Settle down, no one is going to take away your chili fries.)

"We're doing things that aren't that noteworthy in the industry, but they're noteworthy for Mt. Bachelor," Rathbun says of Bachelor's revamped emphasis on communication with the community. This is about as close as Rathbun comes to taking a swipe at the previous management. He is extremely guarded when it comes to discussing his predecessors, declining to comment when asked about widely publicized criticisms of the mountain's past maintenance and safety record.

In hopes of getting a better handle on the local discontent with the mountain, Mt. Bachelor's execs conducted a series of focus groups with local business owners, season pass holders and other notable members of the community, Rathbun says. The focus groups took place between July and August and included between 60 and 70 participants.

"Overall the invitation was very promising and it's something that, to my knowledge, hadn't been done," says Doug LaPlaca, president and CEO of Visit Bend, who attended one of the focus groups.

Another participant in one of the focus groups said that he was taken slightly aback that Bachelor staff attended the meetings and at times attempt to rebut some of the problems that were presented by members of the focus group. The participant, who asked to remain anonymous, said the focus group seemed rather like a question and answer period at times, but nonetheless saw the opportunity as productive.

Rathbun says the input from the community won't stop with the focus groups. In fact, he says he is staying in contact with members of the groups.

"I'm engaging them on an ongoing process of improving things up there," he says.

With broad-based efforts to clean up everything from its industry-wide reputation to its bathrooms, Bachelor seems overtly concerned with rebuilding its place in the community during its 50th season in operation. But, of course, there are other factors at hand playing into the mountain's success, as Rathbun bluntly points out.

"By the time we open, we'll have done everything we said we were going to do as a company. The only concern I have at this point is the snow," Rathbun says.

Photo by Pete Alport

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