Bob Mulcahy has much wisdom to impart as a witness to the transformation of the ski industry through new technology.
By Evan Johnson
East coast ski resorts saw most of their development in the later half of the 20th century, and few people can remember the days before high-speed lifts and swanky resort communities with all the amenities and mostly five-star hotels. But Bob Mulcahy is the exception. In his 44-year term as president of Smugglers’ Notch Resort, he has witnessed the resort’s expansion and development from a small mountain with a handful of chairlifts and trails to an award-winning family resort, while still finding time to take a few runs himself.
Mulcahy’s first day of work was Dec. 1, 1969, when he started as the controller at Massachusetts-based real estate developer Stanmar. At that time, Stanmar had been contracted by, Tom Watson Jr., Chairman of the Board at IBM. The mountain was called Madonna Mountain and had a number of chairlifts and trails.
“At that point, Smugglers’ just had a few chairlifts,” he says. “It didn’t have nearly the village occupancy it needed to support the chairlifts that Tom Watson had put in. Our goal was build condominiums for village occupancy so that they could sustain the ski area.”
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Watson was the Bill Gates of his time as well as an avid skier. In 1972, he hired Stanmar to manage the area and sold it to the developer a year later. At that time, Mulcahy was the Chief Financial Officer, and set the priorities for the coming years.
“We knew we rapidly had to build more housing,” he says. “Because it had an uphill capacity of about 3,000 skiers an hour and a village capacity of about 500, we knew we had to get a lot more housing in there and once we developed the housing we had to market it to get people to come both midweek and weekends.”
With the development, came a push in marketing. The resort placed ads in the pages of the New York Times and promoted at local ski clubs. Mulcahy says it took three to four years for Smuggs to develop and market those developments to the point where they broke even — for the operation to take in just as much or more money than they were spending.
At the same time, other resorts around the state were developing and creating their own respective niche markets. Stowe was rapidly growing into one of the largest resorts in Vermont and Sugarbush was busy living up to its nickname of “Mascara Mountain” — attracting droves of models, designers and other celebrities.
“We were developing our own family niche, away from Stowe — at lower price point, and not with all the hoopla that Sugarbush was going after,” he says. “We were always trying to develop a midmarket, midweek family business.”
Much of this development and marketing was done under the direction of then-president and Smugglers’ Notch owner, Stanley Snider.
“He was a good marketer. He had a lot of the concepts and it was my idea to follow through on his marketing concepts — to go out and do the research.”
Sometimes that “research” required him to spend time at Club Med in Colorado at Copper Mountain and Mexico.
“It was a tough job, but someone had to do it,” he says.
As a result, Smuggs developed packages that combined lodging, tickets, equipment rentals and lessons.
Today, Smugglers’ Notch has continued to emphasize family packages and programming in both winter and summer months. During the 10-week summer period, Smugglers’ equivalent occupancy as in the winter, something many ski resorts struggle to achieve. Smugglers’ has also partnered with Club Wyndham, one of the largest timeshare developers in the world, to do the sales and marketing for real estate, a decision, Mulcahy says allows for development in other areas.
“It’s been a fabulous partnership,” he says, as they continue to develop the real estate and give us our share of the selling proceeds, then we’ve been able to reinvest on the mountain, particularly in snow making.”
Since 1969, Mulcahy has seen the installation of three lifts and the addition of over 30 trails at the resort. 44 years is time enough to observe some of the larger trends in the industry. Today, with the exception a few small areas, Mulcahy says most resorts have some kind of year round housing at the base for summer and winter occupancy.
Today, Smugglers’ attracts visitors from all over New England. Mulcahy says Smugglers’ also attracts large groups of customers from Toronto and Florida as well. The trick, he says, is balancing the wants and needs of both local and visiting customers.
“We have a whole separate pricing concept for the local market to encourage them to come,” he says. “We’re moderately expensive for those that come and stay in the village and economical for those that live closer by — the Vermonter. We’re very aggressive with our programs and the support from locals demonstrates that.”
This year, Smugglers’ Notch was awarded Number One Overall Resort in the East in a reader poll by Ski Magazine, a coveted rating previously held by Mont Tremblant, in Quebec.
Mulcahy says all credit is due to the employees.
“It’s really them,” he says. “They’re the ones that are delivering the product. The ski school, activities, and mountain operations, they’re the ones that are doing it. They’re the ones that are out there accomplishing that goal.”
He insists he’s not selling himself short.
In the future, he says he foresees further work with Wyndham to develop residential and commercial space including shops and food services in the village. He says he also looks forward to more development on the mountain.
“We have a great opportunity on the mountain. We’ve already developed a relatively small portion and we could probably double. We could do a lot more with lifts, base lodge, and facilities on the mountain and I think in time that’ll come.
In addition to that slow expansion, he says Smugglers’ and other resorts around the state will begin to target more diverse audiences including senior citizens and minorities.
Mulcahy will step down from his position by the end of the month but will continue to work as the principal broker for resale, a position that will free up his time for other commitments, like skiing with the 55-plus group on weekdays when the lift lines are shorter and the crowds are nowhere to be seen, but for now, he’s headed back to school. Vermont residents 65 or older are eligible to audit one free course per semester at any state college and Mulcahy is taking a lecture course in international relations.
“You have all the fun of listening to the lecture and reading for the material and you don’t have to study for the exam or study for the quizzes or do the papers – it’s a win-win,” he says. “You’re really there to learn as opposed to get a grade, which is what we all did in undergraduate and graduate school. It’s been great.”
He says he hopes to take a history or comparative religions course in the spring. In addition to classes, he’s active in Rotary and the Senior Council Of Retired Executives (SCORE), where he assists entrepreneurs creating business or marketing plans. He is the only person in the organization coming from a background in ski resort management, but he says that makes no difference.
“To some extent, business is business,” he says. The revenue and the expense and the banking relationships and the payroll and the budgeting and the management of people are similar no matter where you go.”