The 2011-12 season has been a tough year for small resorts. Without the snowmaking infrastructure of more cash-rich conglomerates, many saw their seasons vastly shortened. Several, such as New York's Greek Peak and Maryland's Wisp Resort, are now in bankruptcy proceedings in large part because of how rough this past season was on their bottom line. However, this week's announcement of a partnership between Maine's Mount Abram and the Mountain Rider’s Alliance may present a new blueprint for how small resorts can compete in a market where consolidation and corporatization are setting the standard.
Mount Abram is a privately owned hill 90 minutes from Portland, Maine. It has 1,150 vertical feet of soulful laid-back skiing, hand-cut trees, and $49 adult day tickets. The resort has found success in owner Matt Hancock's non-traditional model of minimal infrastructure, affordable prices, and commitment to sustainability (the mountain was awarded the Golden Eagle Award for Environmental Excellence this year). Hancock, who is entering his sixth season as owner, is the fifth owner in 20 years. He's thankful that the lack of planning by prior holders has kept infrastructure minimal. He says he can focus on great skiing without having to support massive sunk costs. For instance, the mountains hosts "Trimfest," twice annually where Abram regulars can head into the woods and clean out the lines they've been eyeing, which is encouraged by Abram’s boundary-to-boundary policy, the first in Maine.
MRA's long-term dream project is a bare bones resort on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula that offers both affordable skiing for families and cheap and easy access to heli-worthy spines and backcountry. Their short-term goal with Mount Abram is to share best practices and establish a new model for sustainable homegrown resorts. However, the organization's most salient strength may be in its medium-term potential to collectively market a host of existing small areas that lack name recognition and branding, and thus get passed over for more well-known corporate neighbors. "When you go to a new town, everyone wants to eat at the local diner," says Hancock. "But you're not sure if that local diner is good or not, while you know exactly what Applebees is like." He thinks becoming an MRA resort will 'stamp' member resorts as soulful places with a focus on good skiing, affordability, sustainability, and spirit—helping small hills to brand themselves more strongly while giving consumers confidence in a set of established expectations.
Mountain Rider’s Alliance plans to add approximately five more ski hills to their Mountain Playground partnership in the next five to seven years, focusing on "Ski areas under performing with upside potential, on-site renewable energy potential, an engaged community and a large enough population base to make the project viable," according to Co-founder Jamie Schechtman. Schechtman mentioned June Mountain and Snow King in Jackson, Wyoming, as areas that could fit the model.
There's no reason MRA's collective effort couldn't be successful. Non-traditional operations like Silverton have shown that there are certainly unfulfilled (although not wildly profitable) niches in the resort industry to be exploited. MRA's Mountain Playground model, given some resources to get the word out, could help keep a bunch more people sliding on snow on a bunch more hills that might otherwise close their doors.
Mount Abram will be hosting a summer ski party tonight, Thursday, August 23rd, at 6:00 p.m. at Home Again located at 140 Maine Mall Rd in South Portland.