OUT: Skiers’ needs main focus at Powderhorn

Powderhorn resort owner

KATE BELKNAP-BRUCHAK, director of the Powderhorn Resort ski school, gives 4-year-old Ralph Calley a few tips on his technique during a recent lesson at the resort. Powderhorn this year has 112 ski and snowboard instructors.

On the wall of his office, below the what-might-have-been poster showing a Powderhorn Resort only a developer could love, Steve Bailey has posted a smaller, more-cogent sign.

“Stop selling what you have/Start selling what they need” the sign reminds the resort owner.

It’s less a nag and more a reminder, one Bailey sincerely adheres to, and probably one reason there isn’t an 18-hole golf course wrapping around the snow-covered base of the resort or a high-speed detachable lift zipping brightly clad skiers and snowboarders up the hill.

Those things are nice, don’t get us wrong, but it’s not what people need. What they need, or at least what they tell Bailey and the rest of the Powderhorn team, is an affordable, family oriented ski experience, and that’s what they get.

“We know where we are and what our capabilities are and we live within that,” said Bailey, sounding as if discussing family economics around the dinner table.

And well he might, since Bailey considers Powderhorn an extended family, one that grows to around 350 members in the winter and drops to fewer than 30 in the summer.

It’s a family he and partner Dean Skalla of Ridgway adopted 10 years ago, auspiciously purchasing on Friday, the 13th of November 1998, a struggling ski area with a checkered past.

“I sometimes thought about that, but I’m not really superstitious,” Bailey said with his shy smile. “You don’t get ahead of yourself, you just plan ahead and be careful.”

Sound advice from a fellow who spent 30 years in the Air Force, most of that at the controls of a KC-135, basically a flying gas-station where success relies on steady hands and a good eye.

When he retired to Ridgway in 1994, he and business partner Dean Skalla ventured into various businesses and in 1998, they added Powderhorn to their portfolio.

“I always wanted a business of my own, I just never thought I’d have 17 at once,” Bailey said, laughing. “It keeps me busy.”

But not too busy to be a constant presence at Powderhorn, even on the days he’s away.

“We talk at least twice a day,” said resort spokesperson Sarah Allen. “He’s only a phone call away if we need him.”

There’s a lot to talk about. Two new expert-level runs, a 120-foot long Magic Carpet lift for beginners, upgrades on the terrain park, new menus and a larger inventory of rental skis and snowboards.

And that’s just what you can see. As with any ski resort, what you see isn’t the only thing you get.

Ski areas such as Powderhorn are key to the future of the sport, affirmed Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, a ski-industry trade group. Bailey sits on the NSAA board of directors.

“The ski areas closest to communities are vital for the long-term health of the industry,” Berry said. “When people first come to the sport, it’s usually to the area closest to them, the most affordable, and they typically are brought by friends, family, church or school groups.”

Bailey understands this, and he makes sure his employees, that extended family, understand it, too.

Take the resort’s two newest runs, Bear Claw and Hooligan, black-diamond rated runs carved from the treed slopes inside the ski area’s permit boundary. Not expansion, Bailey is quick to announce, but improvement.

He said the trails were approved nearly 10 years ago, as part of the design implemented in the resort’s master plan, and with that plan ready to expire, it was preferable to cut the trails now rather than wade through the expense and delays of the next master plan.

The trails added more than more skiable acres, they’ve brought a new spark to long-time Powderhorn skiers and made Powderhorn one of the few resorts in the state to have new terrain to offer.

“We’re really getting a lot of attention out of this,” said Allen. “It’s easy to market new runs.”

Oh, it’s not all honey-and-spice. The most common complaint voiced at Powderhorn (bet you guessed this one) concerns the “slow” lifts. They aren’t running slow, really, it’s just that it’s easy to get spoiled by riding the high-speed detachable quad lifts at Aspen (lift ticket $96 a day), Telluride ($85 a day) and Vail ($97).

Somebody has to fork over some big silver for those multi-million dollar lifts. 

“Yeah, our lifts are slow but our prices are low,” Bailey quietly rhymed. “We could spend $10 million on a high-speed lift but to amortize that, well, do you want to pay $75 for a lift ticket?”

He doesn’t wait for an answer.

“Our guests understand that we are going to provide as good a product to them as we can within (their) means.”

But lift tickets jumped a bit this year, up to $53 for an all-day adult ticket, reflective of the general costs of running a year-round resort.

“We had very few complaints about our lift ticket increases,” Bailey said, sounding almost surprised at his own words. “One gentleman called and asked “Does snow cost more this year?’ ”

There also was a call or two about the new Magic Carpet, a stand-on lift for beginners.

“Oh, we got some complaints about ‘the new lift’ but they aren’t from the people it was meant for,” Bailey shrugged. “The rave reviews far outweigh the ridicule.”

Bailey knows the value of small ski areas. He honed his love for skiing at small Beaver Mountain Resort while growing up in Logan, Utah.

Bailey also sits on the board of directors for Colorado Ski Country USA, a state ski industry trade group, another position that give him (read that Powderhorn) some valuable exposure.

“That’s very important for places like us to be represented,” Bailey said. “We’re not the biggest or the fanciest (but) they treat the small guys with the same respect they do the big guys.”

The NSAA’s Berry said it’s good for the industry to hear from the smaller resorts.

“We talk a lot about that,” Berry said. “We make an effort to ensure the resorts who are creating the new skiers are viewed with the same image as those who enjoy lifelong skiers.”

After 10 years, Bailey can’t think of anything he’d do differently.

“I love it and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he said, sitting comfortably under that huge poster of a former owner’s inflated dreams. “This is the best job in the world.”


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