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Carving Class

By Jeff Wakefield Article published January 19, 2005

Ski Practicum
Stowe Mountain Resort's Steve Droney, a lift mechanic, gives UVM students in a ski area management course the lowdown on how the computerized equipment works. (Photo: Jeff Wakefield)

“Ski Area Management” has been a popular and successful course in the Rubenstein School’s recreation management concentration since the class was introduced in the 1970s, boasting such highly respected alums as Molly Mahar, marketing director at Sugarbush.

But for a university located in the heart of ski country proud of its hands-on learning philosophy, there was always a certain something missing from the experience the course offered students: a ski area.

Three years ago, Vermont-based marketing consultant David Kaufman, who has taught the course for six years, decided to do something about that. The course had traditionally brought the mountain to the classroom, in the form of guest speakers.

“I thought it would be interesting to do a portion of it on-site,” says Kaufman.

He knew that wouldn’t be possible after the semester started, so he invited students to return to UVM a week early for an intense hands-on practicum. Stowe Mountain Resort, an obvious choice given the university’s many ties to Mt. Mansfield, has been a willing and enthusiastic partner in the enterprise.

The course maintains its traditional form after the semester starts. But for five days last week, students went slopeside at Stowe, learning the ins and outs of the ski business from a ground zero vantage.

Wintery insights
Mornings were spent listening to an impressive lineup of Stowe vice presidents, along with a contingent of executives from Smugglers Notch, address such topics as marketing, operations, food and beverage, trail management, the ski school, and the regulatory environment.

In the afternoon students clamped on skis and snowboards and learned about those topics in real time.

The morning lectures were hardly dull. In one, Stowe’s marketing vice president, Mike Colburn, was attempting to explain — to a room full of snowboarders — why the half pipe and terrain park, stunted by the season’s poor weather, were not getting more attention from Stowe’s snow guns.

Motivated by personal as well as academic interests, students were impressive in their prosecutorial zeal. But as Colburn explained that Stowe’s limited resources were more strategically spent blowing snow on the blue, groomed trails that would keep affluent out-of-staters coming back, the cold winter light of insight dawned on the fresh faces in the room.

In the afternoons, students saw computer-controlled ski lifts and snow guns in action; learned the intricacies of matching trails with ability levels in the ski school; and observed how clearing terrain for new trails is considerably complicated by Vermont’s challenging regulatory environment. They also spent several hours learning the food and beverage side of the operation.

The takeaway? For Matt Getz, a senior from St. Johnsbury, it was learning just how tough the business is. “The biggest thing is that a lot of companies aren’t making any money. It’s a flat industry,” he said, where people work hard “to get a few more thousand skier-visits a year. It might seem like ski areas are ripping people off, but they’re just doing everything they can to stay in business.”

Getz isn’t contemplating a career in ski resort management just yet, but the idea of working for a marketing agency catering to the winter sports industry is gaining traction with him.

It will take awhile for students to process all the information they absorbed during the week, Kaufman explained one afternoon from the noisy, interior hub of one Stowe’s larger ski lifts. “It’s quite an intense learning environment,” he roared over the din of the machinery.

Asking students to cut their break short and not make room for a little play wouldn’t seem fair. So each day, students left time in their busy schedules to sample the business they were studying. Kaufman occasionally found time to join in on these late day runs, just to keep on top of the curriculum, of course.