TELLURIDE - When you ask a lot of tough questions, it can rock the boat.
That’s one lesson Chuck Horning, owner of the Telluride Ski and Golf Company, is teaching – not only to Telski’s management and employees, but also to the larger Telluride community.
Some of the questions that Horning asks make others uncomfortable.
What’s the value of all the hike-to extreme terrain, considering how much it costs to open it? Why does marketing focus on promoting extreme terrain, since most skiers are intermediates? Why do we need to host the World Cup? Is it necessary to run all of our lifts all the time? Why are there so many commercial airports in the region? Why is the Telluride Conference Center so underutilized?
Horning is confident that the discomfort brought on by his asking challenging questions will lift, “like fog on a hot day,” because economic success will make believers out of any doubters.
His overriding objective, he said in an interview last week, is to fill in the slow weeks in our calendar.
“We have off-seasons and then we have more off-seasons within our on-season,” he explained. “This accounts in large part for our economic struggle. We are not economically sustainable as a community or as a ski resort. We do not have the vitality to make this a great place to live and work and the ski company is no different than most of the businesses here. We do not presently have the revenue to replace lifts as they get old, let alone to afford much-needed snowmaking, and other improvements.”
In some cases, after asking tough questions, the ultimate conclusion Horning reaches is to stay the path that others ahead of him set, and there will, for example, be a World Cup in Telluride this season. Not only that, after determining that the World Cup should be supported, Horning quickly approved the purchase of costly new snow guns to ensure a great racecourse, even in a warm early season with little natural snow.
He has photographs of the high-tech new snow guns on his iPhone, and shows them off as if they were pictures of a grandchild.
Horning said he questioned the value of hosting the World Cup because it is a huge financial outlay for the ski company with no direct return. In fact, he said, it interferes with the ski experience for locals and guests, particularly in a drought year, since early-season snowmaking has to be concentrated on the racecourse. The event does not draw large number of spectators, making its sole purpose to put Telluride on the international map. Ultimately, that value won out, but there was still some consternation while Horning weighed his decision whether or not to proceed with the event.
Change is not easy, Horning acknowledged, and some discussions inevitably fuel rumors. “It’s true that we’re resetting,” he said. “We’re considering everything. We looked at the World Cup just like we’re looking at the conference center, air service, marketing, the management of terrain, everything. We have to make adjustments to help fix this economy and make it better, not worse.”
Horning is at the start of his ninth season as owner of the ski company. But following the departure of five-year CEO Dave Reilly this summer, this is the first season he has taken such a personal and direct hand in day-to-day management.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Horning said. “We’re going to turn this company and this economy around and make it really successful.”
To Horning, a lot of it is common sense: “If something isn’t working but you keep doing it anyway, that’s just insane,” he says. So he’s looking at many things about Telluride that don’t work, and is looking for different answers.
“A lot of what we’re trying to do is accept the notion that we’re not really so different from other ski resorts,” Horning said. “Yes, Telluride may be more beautiful but as a ski resort we need to focus on the same basic things as other resorts do to bring people here. Sometimes we’re so much in love with Telluride, that it clouds our brains and makes us think we’re completely different. Maybe Telluride is not quite as different as we thought it was.”
So Horning has been conducting a lot of research about how other ski resorts operate.
He found a Swedish resort that had the same problem of low weeks in the midst of the ski season because, like Telluride, they were busy only when children were on school vacations. At the Swedish resort, they successfully filled in the slower weeks by creating programs to attract families with pre-school aged children and seniors.
“So we’re following the Swedish model,” Horning said. “We’ll be offering really good deals to attract [those groups].”
He learned from Squaw Valley that marketing heavily focused on extreme terrain can scare business away. So he is looking to feature some new ads that are don’t depict expert skiers descending chutes and peaks. Seeing that the Telluride Conference Center has been underutilized, because, he said, “the financial bar has been too high to attract many conferences,” he has obtained the contract to manage it from its owner, the Town of Mountain Village. Talking with executives from other resorts, airline experts, and his own employees, he has learned how difficult it can be to fly in and out of Telluride. So he has embraced a strategy of a regional focus on one central airport, at Montrose.
As for that extreme terrain so beloved by local expert skiers – and so widely noted by ski area reviewers that have put Telluride in the top five on so many rankings – there is no plan to close it.
“We will manage the extreme terrain according to three priorities,” Horning said. “First, safety; second a quality skier experience; and, yes, third, its cost versus its value in contributing to a successful resort.”
“Whenever there’s a lot of change, there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Horning concluded. “We have a so many things that need to be done. And only a certain amount of money with which to do it. That’s why we have to look at everything.”