Bill Van Pelt's investment in Hickory Ski Center two years ago breathed new life into the ski area, allowing it to re-open after having been shuttered for four winters. In the following interview - the third in a series of outtakes from my Season Preview that ran in Adirondack Almanack last month - I talk with Bill about the progress that's been made at Hickory over the past two years, as well as where Hickory is heading.
Jeff: There have been some really significant, visible improvements at Hickory since 2009, but the one question at the top of everyone's list is whether there will there be snowmaking at Hickory. That could be a real game-changer. I understand that you have approval to draw water from the Hudson River.
Bill: We won’t have snowmaking this year. We don’t have all the approvals yet to tap into the river, there’s still one that we’re waiting on. You’re not the first person to make the statement that snowmaking could be a game-changer. But you know, last year we had great snowfall and great coverage from the time we opened until the end of March. People’s interest in skiing petered out long before the snow did, so I don’t know that snowmaking would have made much difference in our season except that we probably could have opened a week or two earlier. What snowmaking for Hickory really means is that we could have a much better shot at being open for the Christmas holiday period, which represents a significant amount of potential revenue.
Jeff: Do you see the possibility of a new chairlift at some point?
Bill: We have the same fundamental issue with a new lift as we do with snowmaking. Both represent a substantial investment, and we have something of a chicken-versus-the-egg issue: in order to justify the capital expenditure we need a certain amount of traffic. We’re just not at that point yet.
Jeff: The improvements that have been made over the past couple years seem to have been very well received by skiers, particularly improving the reliability of the lifts. I've heard skiers remarking that the place has never looked - or skied - better, and I agree.
Bill: Thanks for recognizing that. Over the past two years we’ve purchased new grooming equipment and upgraded the lift infrastructure to make them much more reliable. The lodge was renovated and we installed the electronic ticketing system. We’ve also acquired acreage adjacent to Hickory that could allow for future growth.
When I first got involved with Hickory a few years ago, I heard all these horror stories about the lifts breaking down. There was one segment of people who said that the lifts weren’t reliable and should be scrapped. Last winter, following the upgrades that we made, we lost just half of one afternoon when a bull wheel broke on Poma 1, but it was back up and running for the next weekend. That was the only interruption all winter. So we’re comfortable that all our lifts are reliable and dependable now. They’re not high speed quads, but they are dependable.
Jeff: I noticed that you made some significant reductions in the season pass pricing structure for this winter. Does that represent a change in your marketing strategy for Hickory?
Bill: You know, it actually didn’t make much of a difference in our season pass sales, so we’re still trying to figure that one out. One thing we’re contemplating is opening on Fridays, and also on Thursdays by appointment for groups. It’s tough to make a business work when you’re only open two days a week, three months per year.
Jeff: Who do you see as Hickory’s main customers: the avid, expert skier who can take advantage of Hickory’s terrain, or families looking for a low-key skiing opportunity?
Bill: I think our target market is absolutely families. We're working on some initiatives to increase our traffic from school programs and other groups. Hickory has a size and feel that I can be comfortable with as a parent: I know my kids won’t get lost or misplaced. If you talk with any of the people who have been associated with Hickory for a long time, that family atmosphere has always been there and is one of our strong suits.
The other thing is that historically Hickory never had good grooming equipment. But last year, the acquisition of the new Bombardier BR350 groomer gave us the ability to have groomed corduroy on the beginner and intermediate slopes that’s as nice as any ski area.
Jeff: That’s a good point – I hadn’t considered the impact of the new grooming capabilities on broadening Hickory’s appeal to beginner and intermediate skiers. A good example of that is my own experience skiing there last winter with my 6 year old son Daniel: we had a great time skiing mostly on the lower mountain.
Thanks for your time Bill. I’m looking forward to getting back to Hickory this winter, and I know there are an awful lot of people who are really pleased to see Hickory as a viable ski area again with a promising future.
Bill: I can tell you that Hickory will get to where it needs to be, the only question will be the speed at which it gets there. Thanks for the support!
Top photo courtesy of Michael Tokyo and Hickory Ski Center