EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Tenney Mountain CEO Michael Bouchard (Part 3 of 3)
2015-16 operations and the future of Tenney Mountain
Tuesday, November 3, 2015, NewEnglandSkiIndustry.com
With Tenney Mountain's planned reopening just over a month away, CEO Sir Michael Bouchard sat down for an in depth NewEnglandSkiIndustry.com interview about his background, the reconstruction process, what the first season will look like, and what the future holds.
Located just outside of Plymouth, New Hampshire, Tenney Mountain ski area first opened in 1960. After repeated struggles in recent decades, the 1,400 vertical foot ski area closed in 2010. Bouchard's Tenney Mountain Development Group acquired the property in November of 2014.
Q: You have stated you plan to reopen the area on December 15. If there is significant natural snowfall prior, will you open early?
Q: Is there a planned closing date, or will the ski area remain open as long as there is snow on the ground?
As long as there's snow, which this year would have been into May. We'll see what happens.
Q: It's a given that ski areas are open on weekends and holidays. What type of weekday operating schedule do you plan to have this season?
It's fair to say we're definitely going to have Mondays through Thursdays, definitely open from 12 o'clock on. I have to say that because we have the high school ski race team, so we have to satisfy their needs.
There's a senior group that wants to ski early. So I have a huge following of people that want to come up and do the corduroy, first ski of the morning, then they leave, so they just want half day tickets. I also have a second group that wants 11 to 2 o'clock, meaning the working community. They'd like to come here, do some runs, and go back to work.
It's 9 to 5, definitely Mondays through Thursdays. No lighting [this season], except the tubing park.
Q: It has been reported no season passes will be sold this year. How will ticketing be structured, both for day visitors and frequent visitors?
I have to have the lifts before I can get anymore income. So, how else can I get income in here without the lifts being certified? The issue is: what if this is not running until January?
We might have a season pass. I'm thinking along the lines of, if I don't have season passes, then a frequent skier card. You come five times, the sixth one is free, or something. I want to do something that's fair, but I just don't know what's fair yet.
Q: You have had a significant Facebook presence since April. When do you plan to roll out a web site?
Q: Do you have any plans for reporting snow conditions?
Right now we're working with Plymouth State University; I'm getting called by all the different departments over there. One of them is the meteorology department and they're very interested in working with us. I want to do something that is unique. One of the important things is getting data points for weather and we have technology we use in the military on our wireless devices that allows us to get lots of data points, so we can actually calculate where icing will begin or end and so on. And that's valuable to be able to sell to towns for whether or not they have send sanders out at 6 or not send sanders out; that might be $60,000 they save that day. So, we're looking at exploring, working with Plymouth State University quite closely to help with weather updates and so on, but we want to have an added feature. Because we own special wireless frequencies and are in the wireless business, we're going to have a lot of wireless cameras here, so you'll be able to see the trails. Along with a weather report, they kind of get a visual at the same time, which is neat. I don't know, maybe other people do that, but I think it's important to be able to get that visual at the same time.
Q: It has been reported that no ski or snowboard equipment rentals will be offered this season. Is this correct, and if so, why?
The pre-season [rental inventory] order, from a year in advance, we just weren't ready to make that commitment.
We're going to direct everyone to Plymouth Ski and Sport, and they're going to leave a bunch of stuff here. So they'll call ahead and we'll have them here for you. We don't have a shop, because we're going to use all of that down there for administration this year. That building [the former administration building], we're not saving it.
Q: Will there be a retail shop this season?
There will be a minimal retail store; gloves, goggles, all that stuff, nothing real fancy.
Q: Will there be a ski and snowboard school this season?
We'll have volunteers here, but [customers will] have to call in advance.
Q: Will there be a cafeteria and bar this season?
Yes and yes. We're going to have a great cafeteria. We're going to have some offerings that are gluten free. I can't believe how many people in the area are gluten free.
Q: How many employees do you plan to have this winter?
Q: Is there an uphill traffic policy being put into effect?
We're still debating. We want to have it. We'll have a separate trail, [but] the question is, is it free, or do they pay a minimum of $5? It goes back to liability. And who dictates the liability? The insurance company.
Our uphill policy will probably be free, and it will be on designated trails, but that's for people snowshoeing. What about the people that want to hike and ski? We haven't worked that out yet. Maybe it's $5.
Q: What types of non-skiing activities will be offered this season?
Tubing. We're going to have dogsledding. We're going to have Nordic/cross country trails. Way down there, we have 2 or 3 miles of trails. That's why I bought that little Park Pro, and it comes with a special attachment that puts two grooves in for cross country skiers.
The local snowmobile club has approached me. This is kind of a main route up here and they don't have gas access. So, we committed to them this year to put in a trail, because we own property all the way down to Tenney Mountain Village Store, where there are gas pumps and fuel. So they'll be able to cut down here, not interfering with the skiers, and go right down and get their fuel, and we're going to have an opportunity for them to park their sleds [so] they can drink beers and get food as well. So that was important, supporting the snowmobile community; that wasn't done before I guess.
Q: You have worked to keep the community closely involved with the reopening process this far. What are some examples of how the ski area is benefiting the members of the community?
Let's focus on the school first of all. They had to get trucked out an hour away, so that's a lot of bus time, bus expenses, and it's two days a week. Now, by coming back here, they can come here four days a week, eliminate that down time and get more time in, and it allows the families to participate.
[With] this facility being open and as large as it is, a lot more people want to rent and have events here, from weddings all the way through, and we're starting to get those calls, which is awesome.
The rotary club needed a place and we said we would be glad to host this [event] for them as our contribution back to the community. It was for the skateboard and recreation graffiti park. So we had an event up here, Beerfest, that was extremely successful. We maxed capacity, with people waiting outside.
What we're giving back to the community is a tax base. Let's take our hats off and go to the business aspect of it. What's happening right now is that we have a fairly large piece of real estate in the Town of Plymouth. So does Plymouth State University, and they're growing incredibly. And as they grow in the downtown community, [the town is] losing extremely expensive tax base income. So, from a development standpoint, by us being up here, we're giving back to the tax base by doing our development. For every house we add, because we already have sewage and water infrastructure in place, it costs the town nothing. So every time we put a house in, they're going to collect a three to five thousand dollar taxable income without having to put that money up front.
Q: Do you plan to make a profit, break even, or lose money on operations during year one?
We're looking at possibly a small loss. I'm still going to have the groomers, all of the lifts running, the staff on, but I'm not going to have the volume of people because we're re-acclimating, getting the systems back online. We're not advertising. So there's that fine line. We know we're going to be at a little bit of a negative loss. As long as I get that revenue in, that affects the EBITDA, which is a very important number, so it prolongs the debt, which is important to get. Next year will be the big year.
Q: When do you plan on having the ski area break even on operations?
We're looking at year two being break even.
The Future of Tenney Mountain
Q: What kinds of ski area investments do you plan to make in 2016?
We plan on making huge investments in the snowmaking equipment on the Hornet side, finishing off that loop, and upgrading all of our pump systems to electrical. We already have all of the pumps lined up from our friends at Stowe, taking a lot of their electric motors, soft start switches, and so on, and placing it in here. That alone is a huge project.
And night skiing. It's very important to have night skiing. Our goal is by year 3, to have all the trails lit up, all 50 trails. It will be unique because we're using a very special light system.
Q: Assuming the Tenney reopening goes well, are you considering acquiring additional ski areas?
On the [Facebook page], people were encouraging us to look at other ski areas, and we have other developments going on, but after spending some time here and really starting to understand it, as a person who is not from the industry, from the outside looking in, truly, and not having biases towards snowboarding or skiing or the recreation industry in general, it takes a lot of effort to get something that's been closed for so long and damaged and neglected, it just wasn't worth my time to look at anything else. Maybe in the future, three or four years, we'll partner with other mountains, but I am not some guy that's going to go around buying ski mountains.
Q: The existing base area has some spatial limitations. Do you foresee creating a new base area in the future?
Yes. We plan on building out as well.
Q: Do you plan to construct additional trail pods on the mountain? Where?
The lifts are the character of the mountain. Are we in a hurry to replace them? I think it makes much better sense to put in a third or fourth major lift in that goes to another peak. The trails are already 50% cut, it's already partially plumbed, why not go and spend the effort to make it much bigger, get another 100 acres of terrain, and go up $10 on a ticket. I think it would be much more rewarding for the skier.
To the right, we have two more peaks; new terrain. There's already the infrastructure, meaning all of the valves and everything that heads over there, is in place. We have to put the full plumbing in. But all of the pipes and everything are up there; they've been sitting there forever.
Q: Summit ski trails were once cleared and a lift was proposed. Do you plan to pursue this complex in the future?
Absolutely. That's just a small run I'm looking at. I'm sure we can pick up some used equipment and run it up there. That's kind of a no brainer.
Q: What do you envision the ski area looking like in 5 years? 10 years?
In five years, we look at it being a safe, fully functional infrastructure with an extra lift in, with a summer time venue as well.
In 10 years, we're looking at a really big addition, meaning two major, major lifts being put in, and acquisition of more property, and a retail community. A possible third large lodge or major five flag hotel chain. More of a western like town. I want to have the nordic people, the [alpine] skiers, the cars, the snowmobilers in that wide street environment so they can all co-exist.
Q: What kinds of technologies do you plan to experiment with at the ski area?
A lot of re-engineering of existing technologies that are already up here.
Lighting is probably our number one. Number two is energy efficiencies, from recapturing energy to energy efficient electric motors, which means big electric pumps and so on.
And automation. Meaning, we have wireless frequencies that we control, so they're much more efficient than Wi-Fi. With Wi-Fi, you're limited to distance and it's unreliable. We'll be able to blanket the whole facility and give them a secure wireless infrastructure, and what does that mean? That means they can put security cameras up where they could never put before, fly drones, or whatever devices they want.
We already ordered five drones, we're going to be renting them out and operating them professionally for skiers that want to come here and get a professional video of them.
Q: What non-ski ventures do you envision for the property in the future?
An outdoor venue that supports X thousand people, country western focus.
Frisbee golf. We're working with two groups right now to put a massive system in here. Mostly on the flat beginner area.
We all worked with the military, and a lot of the folks are former military. We'll have our own version of Tough Mudder that we'll put in and keep the tickets way down but have that challenge.
Of course we're going to have a little bit different zip line system. Ours is not just one big long cable; it's actually an adventure course. It's about 25 cables that zig zag. I takes you 3 hours to do the whole thing, over the gorge. That's a big moneymaker too.
Q: Will you be able to use any of the existing zip line infrastructure?
We actually have the same company coming back in. We're only missing a third of it, the bottom third roughly.
Q: The 1980s Tenney Mountain real estate development largely did not come to fruition. Do you plan on constructing additional condos and homes in the future?
What we're doing here is these amenities drive value and interest for people to live here and buy activity houses or housing on a resort. So yes, the real estate part is a huge portion of it. Over the next 10 years, we're looking at 500 homes.
Q: What is the funniest thing that has happened to you during this experience?
Building up this great reputation by posting everything and going out there for polling and being a scientist, I always explain to everybody feedback is everything. The funniest thing is when I went out there and instead of polling, I told everybody I was changing trail names. I thought that was funny because I got e-mails and letters of how wrong that was. I thought that was funny, not knowing my ignorance got me in trouble. That was a big no-no; don't ever change trail names.
Q: What has been the most rewarding experience in this whole process thus far?
The positive energy from the people. The Facebook page with all of the energy. The energy that drives us. That's the most rewarding. It's not a dollar figure, it's just the sense of community.