The biggest in the East, the longest season, the craziest parties. Killington has always been a little extra. Now, the Beast of the East is getting even more so—in a good way.
It’s 10:40 on a March morning and Kristi Chadwell puts down her Bloody Mary. She fingers the whistle dangling around her neck, surveys the scene and then pulls it to her lips.
Three piercing blasts galvanize the crowd at the Long Trail Pub at the Snowshed base lodge. Some are bleary eyed, still cradling hot coffee. Others shotgun the last drops of stronger, clearer liquids. There’s a bellowing and hustling as Chadwell wrangles the crew out the door. “Hey, we gotta move, folks. More bars to visit! More trails to ski!” she shouts.
Gradually, several dozen skiers and riders—ranging from kids in their 20s to some in their 80s—shuffle out onto the snow, click or strap in, and push off toward the next lift. And the next trail. And the next bar.
Chadwell, 61, started coming to Killington as a novice skier from New York in the 1980s, enticed into a ski house by a co-worker at Salomon Brothers. The ski-to pub crawl is now a ritual.
“We started out one evening in our ski house saying, What if we could ski all the black diamonds at Killington in one day? And we did that one year. Then it became What if we could ski all the lifts? And then it became, What if we could ski to every bar on the mountain?”
The last idea was strikingly popular.
At any other resort in the East, those might seem like reasonable squad goals. But at Killington, with 21 lifts and 155 trails that run for 92 miles across six peaks, it’s no easy feat.
To put it in perspective, to simply drive from the base at Bear Mountain, on the southeasternmost edge of the 3,000-acre resort, to the base of the main gondola, K1, which rises close to the summit (4,241 feet), is five miles by back roads. To get from the Bear Mountain base on skis to K1, means ascending, descending and ascending. And you still won’t have covered the trails that spill into the Ramshead base area.
Skiing all the black diamonds, for instance, would take you to some of the most notoriously challenging trails in the East. Outer Limits, a long straight shot from Bear Mountain, is where Olympic medalist Donna Weinbrecht and many other mogul skiers have cut their teeth and competed at the Bear Mountain Mogul Challenge, held each April. If you duck into the tree runs such as Anarchy, you might find extreme skier Dan Egan, a Killington ambassador and coach, hosting a clinic. Then there’s Superstar, where Mikaela Shiffrin and the best ski racers in the world compete for the World Cup.
And while there are plenty of cruisy, wide blue slopes, getting across the black diamonds to get to the next lift used to be a bit like crossing a firing range. To address that, in the summer of 2018, the resort began building four vast tunnels under the worst intersections. “That’s really helped the traffic flow,” says Chadwell. “The new South Ridge lift makes a huge difference too.” That lift, also installed in 2018, meant you could lap the upper blues such as Pipe Dream.
As for bars, restaurants and watering holes. There are more than a dozen on the mountain, ranging from the Motor Room Lounge (open only for private dinners in—you guessed it—the motor room at the top of Killington’s first quad chair) to the Ledgewood Yurt, which serves gourmet lunches and elegant dinners; the ski-up Jerk Shack to the Peak Lounge’s giant food court and bar with views of four states.
And by winter of 2021 there will be a new lodge that will dwarf them all. This summer Killington Resort broke ground on what will be the largest base lodge in New England and, possibly, in the U.S. The new three-story K1 Lodge will dwarf the existing one, taking the space from 37,000 to 58,000 square feet.
Feeding The Beast
Killington has a history of doing everything on an outsized scale. From October’s first turns to June’s closing day, it skis hard and it parties hard. When it took on a women’s World Cup slalom and giant slalom, it made it the largest event ever on the women’s circuit, drawing 39,000 spectators for a Thanksgiving weekend of ski racing and entertaining them with a host of bands that would make a music festival promoter jealous: Michael Franti, Guster, KT Tunstall, to name a few.
Everything here is a little extra. And in the past few years, it’s been getting extra extra.
One cold fall day in 2018, Jeff Temple stood beside what would become the new Snowdon Six Express, a six-pack bubble chair, and rattled off numbers. “The old lift was 10 or 12 minutes, the new one is four and a half minutes and rises the height of the Empire State building.” The old quad lift was to be installed on South Ridge, making it easier to connect to K1 from Bear Mountain.
On the slopes above the Snowdon six-pack chair, you could hear the steady growl of machinery as a squadron of earth-moving machines worked on another massive tunnel under the Great Northern trail. The scene was a super-sized version of a kid’s Tonka truck-and-sandbox dream.
Temple, who served as Director of Mountain Operations for 38 years, had already talked about the new K1 gondola cars, replacing or adding 44,000 feet of snowmaking, adding RFID gates and putting in a Woodward Peace Park, designed by Burton pro rider Danny Davis.
In 2018, POWDR Corp., Killington’s parent company spent $25 million in upgrades around Killington Resort—roughly half what Vail Resorts spent to purchase Stowe Mountain Resort in 2017. And that $25 million? That was before the new base lodge or the 2019 upgrades.
“The investments we’re making will re-shape the guest experience for years to come,” said Killington CEO Mike Solimano, later that same day, over a Long Trail beer at the revamped bar at Preston’s in the slopeside Killington Grand Hotel.
“Uphill capacity will increase to 48,000 riders per hour. We’ve always had great expert runs but now we’re also trying to create more diverse terrain for all levels of skiers and riders.”
Six months later, on March 21, Solimano gave his annual Community Day talk and party, hosting about 300 invited locals and business owners. “One of our goals with the new lifts was to spread out the crowds,” he said.
Measuring ticket scans over President’s Day weekend, the resort had assessed that the K1 Gondola previously was getting 16 percent of all ticket scans and Snowdon was 8 percent. After the changes, K1 dropped to 12 percent and Snowdon rose to 14 percent. Over on the other side of the resort, the addition of the new South Ridge quad, eased up congestion as well.”
“For this coming 2019-2020 season,” Solimano continued, “the resort is upgrading the North Ridge triple to a quad, replacing 12,000 feet of watermaking pipe, adding 400 low-energy snow guns, 120 low-energy snowmaking towers and 60 semi-automated hydrants”—all part of the plan to continue to be the earliest resort to open, the last to close and to pack the snow so deep and so hard that no matter what Mother Nature decides to throw at the mountain, there’s a solid surface all season.
More Than Numbers
Solimano, rattles off these numbers easily. He is a numbers guy, after all, who started his career as an audit manager for Deloitte Touche in Boston before moving to Burlington to become VP of operations for Skis Dynastar, based there at a time. He joined Killington in 2002 as the VP of finance and in 2012, after Chris Nyberg left, took on the role of president and general manager.
The white-haired, blue-eyed 50-year-old who could be a stunt double for Sting, is surprisingly candid. “I think POWDR let us invest and do what we do because we’ve shown a good return on investment,” he says of the parent company which also owns 10 mountain resorts, including Pico, just next door, Copper Mountain, Colo. and Snowbird, Utah, as well as Woodward Action Sports Parks and Outside TV.
Solimano estimates that winter skier visits to Killington are at about 800,000
(which would account for nearly 1 in every 5 skier/rider visits in Vermont in 2019/2020) and summer visits have grown to almost 200,000, with close to 40,000 coming for the 35 miles of lift-served mountain biking and the rest arriving for the Woodward Wreck Tangle, and events like the free Cooler in the Mountain Series or The Spartan Race, the epic endurance challenge which got its start in the Killington area. “We used to have about 350 year-round employees, now we’re up to about 600.” Considering the actual town of Killington (which lies just off Route 100), has a year-round population of 800, that’s significant.
Following a playbook laid out by Harvard Business School, Solimano and his team are ticking off where they can improve their core strengths and minimize their weaknesses.
But it’s not all about numbers. “What we really want to do, at the heart of our business is we want to create joy,” he says. “That can mean little surprises.” On opening day (Oct. 19 of 2018), skiers and riders, —already crusted with powder from the snow guns—were showered with glitter as they came up to North Ridge Triple. During the holiday season, candy canes appeared on cars in the parking lot. The opening of the new lifts were celebrated with champagne.
“We’ve seen a big change since Mike came on board,” says Chadwell,
unprompted. “Everyone knows him and he’s out there brushing snow off cars in the parking lot, or on the street directing shuttle buses. If you have a problem, you can reach him directly and he’ll listen. We went through a dark time here—the days when people called Killington ‘K-Mart’—but since Mike’s been in charge, the whole place is more fun.”
Chadwell’s sentiment is echoed in the feedback surveys Killington gets from
customers and in the meteoric rise of its Net Promoter Score—a way businesses measure how likely people are to recommend their product, measured on a scale of -100 to 100.
“Seven years ago we were at a 47 based on the question, ‘how much would you recommend this resort’,” said Solimano last March. “Today we are at 75, the highest in the East.” That’s on a par with some of the best-loved brands in the country, including Starbucks (77) and Costco (79), according to CustomerGuru.com.
In August, 2019, Killington was ranked as the second best place in the country to buy a vacation home by Vacasa, the nation’s largest rental management platform.
During the World Cup, Thanksgiving Weekend of 2018, Killington began celebrating its sixtieth year in business. Killington founder Preston Leete Smith, 89, was there, looking like a flashback from the 1980s, tall, tanned and sporting a brightly-colored one-piece suit. In 1955 he’d come to Vermont to hike the Green Mountains in search of a place to put a ski resort. His Sherburne Corporation registered with the state in 1956 with $1,250 in the bank. The first lifts opened on December 13, 1958. By 1996, when he sold his company, Killington was the biggest ski area in the East and he owned five other ski areas.
“It’s amazing to see all of this and what Killington has become,” he said, over the roar of the crowd as Mikaela Shiffrin got ready to slalom her way down Superstar. “This is the best thing that could have ever happened. They’ve done a magnificent job here.”
Smith was standing outside the VIP tent, where a who’s who of the ski world came up to shake his hand. Tao Smith, headmaster of the Killington Mountain School, was standing near him when a young racer, one of his students who foreran the course high fived him. “You did good out there,” he said to her. Around them, people were sipping champagne and sampling a buffet that included lobster dumplings.
Out in the parking lots, where you could still see the action on the slope, the smell of hot dogs on charcoal grills wafted through the air.
As Shiffrin stepped into the gate there was a hush and then a roar as it seemed all of the resort was screaming at once.
“I could hear the crowd the whole second run, from the start to the finish. It’s just amazing to race here in front of everybody. The atmosphere is incredible,” Shiffrin would say later.
As the announcement came that she had won her 45th World Cup win, beers were raised. Some shouldered their skis and headed to the K1 gondola to get a few last runs in. And the party went on.
Featured Photo Caption: Killington shines in the night. Photo courtesy Killington Mountain Resort