Davy Ratchford already had his dream job by the time he was 28. Born in Dublin, Ireland, and raised playing soccer and boxing, Ratchford landed a job with Real Salt Lake, then an upstart Major League Soccer club.
He ran marketing for the club as they built a new stadium, won a league title, and went on a historic run in the regional championship tournament that ended a goal shy of going to the Club World Cup.
Ratchford, now 40, was recently named the GM of Snowbasin and is tasked with guiding the 78-year-old resort during the most tumultuous time in the U.S. ski resort business since the ’70s boom.
Along with sister resort Sun Valley, Snowbasin is one of the few major ski areas not gobbled up over the summer by the dueling Pac Men of Vail Resorts and Alterra. Snowbasin, located 30 minutes from Ogden, has 3,000 skiable acres, 2,900 vertical feet, and 300 inches of annual snowfall. Yet despite being owned by the Earl Holding Family, same owners of Sinclair Oil and Sun Valley, Idaho, the resort is a quiet alternative to the busy slopes of Park City and Snowbird/Alta. It still has no slopeside lodging, though that could change in the near future.
Ratchford’s path to the Ogden Valley included stops in Park City and Vail, but began with a call from a recruiter about a job at Tahoe's Northstar resort while he was still with Real.
"When I left Real Salt Lake, that was the job you didn’t leave," Ratchford says. "To be the director of marketing, to have the role and responsibly I had at a professional soccer club being an Irish kid, meeting people like David Beckham, Thierry Henry… you don’t give that up." He accepted, not because of a love for skiing—he was a bonafide novice at the time—but for his family.
"I remember being with Bill Rock, [then chief operations officer at Northstar]," says Ratchford. "And he goes, 'The thing about raising your family in the ski industry and being up in the mountains, you will see them. You’ll be working every weekend but, your kids will be up here skiing.”
Ratchford calls his story the quintessential American Tale. The youngest of six kids, he shared a bed with his brother for most of his childhood. At 13, his family emigrated to the U.S., and while on a road trip to Idaho, they passed through Utah's Cache Valley, which is where they decided to stop.
"We had never seen anything that beautiful," he says. "We had nothing, so nothing was tying us down." His dad got a job as a carpenter. Ratchford enrolled in high school in Logan, and skied for the first time at Beaver Mountain.
He eventually graduated from the University of Utah, and married a skier from Logan named Rachel. He and Rachel now have four kids ranging from 7 to 15 years old.
I sat down with Ratchford recently to get his take on Snowbasin's place in the ski industry, hear his plans for the resort's future, and, of course, talk a little fútbol.
DT: When Northstar approached you about a marketing job, had you already started skiing?
DR: Yes, I had, and I was terrible. Bill Rock gave me the best advice ever: He’s like, “You better work on this part pretty quick.”
So I did. That was one of the great side effects of coming into the ski industry. Skiing is a life-long sport, which candidly, soccer, for me, isn’t.
How did your experience working in soccer translate to working in skiing?
Vail Resorts really focuses on being the best leadership company in the world. So, I think that’s what they saw. The business acumen, the marketing side, the building of brands.
Do you see a lot of similarities there between Northstar and Snowbasin, in that both perhaps get overshadowed in regions crowded with world-class resorts?
There’s perhaps not a more beautiful property in Utah than Snowbasin. It is exceptional. What it hasn’t had is that destination caché that Park City, Deer Valley, Snowbird, and others have.
I would put the skiing up against any of them. I think the question with Snowbasin will always be, how does it maintain this hidden gem kind of feeling that people love, but at the same time stay relevant.
How do you stay relevant?
One of the things that I was most attracted to about Snowbasin was how they care about programs and incentives to get new people skiing.
The Learn and Earn Program is one of the most celebrated things within the company because it shows an amazing attitude towards not trying to make profit but creating skiers and snowboarders. And it’s highly successful.
They get a season pass once they go through the lessons, so the rate of return is huge. I’d love to see other places do it.
You mentioned the destination caché. You have approval to do a major development here. What’s the status of that?
We are very smart about how to judiciously grow. I think anybody, even locals, will tell you they'd like to have some overnight bed base.
It’s probably the most successful drive-to ski area in the country, but if those folks were given the opportunity to lodge overnight, life becomes a heck of a lot better for them.
Do you see some similarities between building a soccer stadium and building a potential village here?
There’s an inevitability to the growth of soccer in America. There’s an inevitability to Snowbasin, too. It’s too beautiful, and it skis too well.
As things get more and more crowded in the Cottonwoods or Park City, this is the area where people can come.
How do you balance the inevitable growth, but also maintain the vibe that makes it special?
We have the opportunity to be purposeful in how we grow. We don’t have shareholders. We have the support of an ownership group that wants to grow the industry and get kids and families up on the mountain.
We can build overnight lodging in an area that has measured growth but still not take away from that guest experience. The growth when you have lodging comes more often in that Monday through Thursday time frame.
You ski on a Tuesday here, even on the biggest powder day, and you're looking for somebody to ride the lift with.
And that’s the balance for locals, right? You want the mountain to yourself, but you need the resort to stay in business.
The industry needs new people to come into the sport, because if you don’t have that… there’s a reason why resorts are able to be purchased.
Wherever there’s an article about which resort will be bought next, inevitably Sun Valley and Snowbasin make the list. How important is the hospitality business to the Holding family compared to their oil business?
Stephen Holding was here on Monday measuring walls and where to put carpet. When you have the son of Earl Holding literally on the ground measuring, what does that tell you about the passion they have for these properties?