Peak Experience

Bill Stenger relies on his lifelong experience to guide the fortunes of Jay Peak, a remote ski area near the Canadian border

by Bill Simmon

Since taking the helm of Jay Peak in northern Vermont in 1985, Bill Stenger has overseen the construction of more than $12 million in residential housing; $10 million in expansions on the mountain; a $7.6 million central sewage infrastructure and a golf course now under construction.

Question: What do you get when you mix water and highly compressed air on a cold Vermont night? Answer: One of the key ingredients of Vermont's tourism industry. "It isn't fake snow or artificial snow, like some people refer to it," says Bill Stenger, president and general manager of Jay Peak Ski and Summer Resort. "It's water."

Stenger describes the snowmaking process with some pride. It's a surprisingly sophisticated and high-tech endeavor involving advanced computer programs, miles of piping, millions of gallons of water and highly compressed air. "Machine-made snow tends to be more dense than natural snow," he says. "The natural snow that falls in the area, of course, blends with it and makes for a very special surface."

Whether it's machine-made or the natural kind that falls from the sky, Bill Stenger knows snow. The 54-year-old Newport resident has worked in the ski industry for 30 years, and running the Northern Vermont ski resort means he sees more of the chilly white powder than most of the rest of us. Due to the particular geography and location of the resort, Jay Peak is dumped on quite a lot. "We get more snow here than anyone else in the state," he says, "and frankly, anyone else in New England."

Surprisingly, the sophisticated snowmaking operation is not what Stenger would say is the most important technology being employed at Jay Peak. "The Internet is the number one tool we have here," he says, noting that the advent of on-line marketing has leveled the playing field among the ski resorts. "We can compete with Aspen and Vale and Killington on an equal playing field because of the technology of the World Wide Web," he says. "We couldn't live without it."

Stenger was barely out of college when he went into the ski resort business. In the fall of 1971, a few months after graduating from Syracuse University, the Cornell, N.Y., native married a nursing student from Boston he had met at Cape Cod the year before.

Stenger and Mary Jane found a home in Boston, and he went to work for Northwestern Mutual. On a whim, in 1973, he responded to a want ad in the Boston Globe and was hired by the Eastern Ski Association in Brattleboro, a division of the U.S. Ski Association. It was a job that, along with introducing him to ski clubs and resorts up and down the East Coast, also moved him to Vermont for the first time. Living in Brattleboro, Stenger ran competitions and ski races for the association. It was on this job that he met Wes Smith, the man who would change his life forever.

"I met a fellow from Pennsylvania who ran a couple of resorts down there," says Stenger. "He was looking for an assistant somebody to help him." Stenger's U.S. Ski Association job had him traveling constantly, and he was looking for a chance to settle down with his young family. He accepted the job, and moved his family to Pennsylvania, where he went to work for Smith at Jack Frost Mountain and Big Boulder in the Poconos.

One year into Stenger's new position, Smith accepted a position at another resort. The owners of Jack Frost Mountain approached Stenger with an offer. "They said, 'We'll give you a year to prove you can do this job,'" says Stenger. That's how, at the tender age of 26, Stenger became the general manager of a respectably large ski facility. "I was very fortunate to have that kind of responsibility at that age," he says. "I stayed there for an additional 10 years and eventually became president of the company," he says.

In the mid '80s, Stenger met a man named Jacques Hebert at an industry convention. Hebert was the principal shareholder in Mont Saint Sauveur International, the company that has owned Jay Peak since 1978. "He was looking for someone to run and develop Jay," says Stenger. Stenger was ready for a change. "Those (Pennsylvania) resort properties had grown and were almost 100 percent built-out," he says, "so I was looking for another challenge and another opportunity."

Stenger was also ready to jump at the chance to move back to Vermont. "I loved Vermont," he says, "so my family my wife and three kids moved to Newport in the summer of 1985 and we've been here ever since."

Developed by a local group of skiers and business people, Jay Peak opened in 1957. In 1966, the lumber giant Weyerhaeuser bought it and subsequently expanded it significantly with a base lodge, a 60-passenger aerial tramway, several new trails and a 48-room slopeside hotel, before selling to Mont Saint Sauveur International.

Stenger soon found that he would have his hands full at Jay. The ski resort operates from the middle of November through the end of April, and when it's in full swing, Stenger's workday is packed. He spends most of his day outside with customers and staff, overseeing the highly complicated snowmaking procedures, keeping tabs on the hotel, keeping in touch with security, watching the weather and planning with his marketing team. "This is a big operation," he says, "but not so big that I can't retain involvement with all of the departments."

Stenger likes to be face-to-face with his customers and 400 staff members every day. "We're trying to share a sport with people that we really believe in, that we believe changes their lives and enhances their outlook and their family experiences," he says. "Making sure that attitude gets conveyed to our customers is a big part of my job."

Stenger isn't afraid to get his hands dirty in the process. He helps out the operation in any way he can, whether it's busing tables or helping with the lift line. "I might be shoveling snow if need be," he says. "That's just the nature of a hands-on general manager, and that's what I am."

"He's everywhere," according to area resident Allan Kalsmith, who used to own the Black Lantern Inn in nearby Montgomery. "He's cleaning the cafeteria, talking with customers; he's absolutely everywhere."

Stenger's dedication has not gone unnoticed by the community. According to Kalsmith, many of the surrounding businesses are highly dependent on Jay Peak's presence as a major tourism draw, and among local residents, Stenger is highly regarded. "He's very well respected around here among the whole gamut of the community, from the people who work for him to his customers and all of the people who live around the area."

Jay Peak's goal is to raise the number of annual skier-visits to 7 million. Chris Veillon, director of marketing, and Zoetrope Holt, marketing coordinator, are part of the team to make that happen.

The hands-on work may be tough, but that's not where the real challenges lie in Stenger's job. Jay's locale and clientele present some unusual obstacles for him to overcome. Half of Jay Peak's guests are American, the other half are Canadian. Along with the obvious difficulties of dealing with two currencies, this international combination makes for some odd cultural mixtures. "We have this convergence of native Vermonters and East Coast folks and Quebeckers and Ontario residents," says Stenger. "When you look at the complexity of the political world in Canada, the French/English thing and the culture there, the cultural differences here between Vermont residents and the rest of the world, and the two currencies and two countries, it makes for a very interesting market mix."

Culture isn't the only difference between Jay's Canadian and U.S. markets. Stenger has to work to overcome two distinct and very difficult economic realities.

U.S. customers see Jay as being the farthest north ski resort, and the most remote from the population centers. "We've got to get our U.S. customers to drive by Stratton and to drive by Killington and to drive by Stowe to get to Jay Peak," says Stenger. "We work really hard to prove that the product is distinctively different and worth the trip."

Canadian customers have a weaker dollar to contend with and potential difficulties crossing the border. Since Sept. 11, 2001, security is much tighter at the border, and the ease with which Canadian customers can go back and forth has diminished. These obstacles make it more challenging for Stenger to woo potential Canadian guests. "I worry as much about how the border authorities will perform on a weekend as I do about whether our lifts will perform well," he says, "because I've got to make sure that these guests from Canada can get back and forth easily."

Once the guests are here, he says, the hard part is done, because Vermont's bucolic beauty goes a long way to helping sell Jay Peak and the Vermont ski industry as a whole. On the subject of selling Vermont and Vermont's economic landscape, Stenger has much to say. Along with running the Jay Peak resort, Stenger wears a couple of other related hats. He serves as chairman of the Vermont Ski Areas Association and chairman of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce. "Travel and tourism and skiing are part of a bigger puzzle," he says. "It's not by coincidence that travel is a 'T' and education is 'E' and agriculture is 'A' and manufacturing is 'M.' It's the economic "team" of the state, and we're part of that."

Stenger says each part of the team relies on the other parts. Tourists come to here to vacation in large part because of Vermont's bucolic brand identity, which is heavily dependent on the state's farming and agriculture industries. Once vacationers see how lovely it is here, they might decide to send their children to college in Vermont or to move their businesses here. Stenger is quick to point out that it was because of Vermont skiing that Tom Watson Jr. decided to bring IBM to Vermont in the 1950s. He adds that hundreds of IBM employees and their families vacation at Jay Peak regularly. "Whether you're a nurse or a teacher or in manufacturing or a farmer or a ski area operator," says Stenger, "we all have to recognize we're all in this together."

In doing his part for Vermont's economy, Stenger has to contend with some old demons. Even though he believes that skiing "rewards and challenges the human spirit like few other sports," there are decades of negative perceptions of the sport that he must overcome in order to make his business grow. "Many people who don't ski very much or don't ski at all, think that it's too expensive," he says, "or that it's too dangerous; it's embarrassing if they try it; or that it's too cold." Stenger points out that these are the same perceived negatives that he had to deal with 30 years ago when he was teaching skiing in college. The only difference now is that the equipment is better. "If we take somebody and introduce them to the sport today," he says, "they have a much better chance of enjoying it early and longer and in a better way, but the perceived negatives are still there."

Unlike 30 years ago, however, skiing is no longer the only activity to enjoy on the mountain. There are snowshoe tours, cross-country skiing and snowboarding. "It's more of a complete winter experience going on and not just alpine skiing," says Stenger. "It's a much broader experience than it used to be."

Jake Webster (left), vice president of operations and development, goes over details with electricians from J&S Electric in Newport, Shawn Britch and James Leithead.

There are warm-weather activities available, as well, which is an aspect of the resort that Stenger is trying to build upon. This summer, construction has begun on a new golf course that should be ready to tee off in the spring of 2005. "We have hiking and biking and fishing and tennis and other things here in the summertime," says Stenger, "but we will be adding this golf facility and that will help us become a more four-season facility."

Still, skiing is the bread and butter of the resort, and Stenger would like to see the sport grow. Vermont gets about 4.4 million skier-visits per year, and Stenger says his goal is to get that number up to 6 or 7 million. The thrust of his growth initiative will be centered on the middle of the week. "Our weekend business at the moment is sufficient to keep us quite busy," he says, "but Monday through Friday our goal as an industry is to bring more people into the state to either learn the sport or just continue to enjoy the sport, and think of Vermont as a vacation destination." With a little snow-making now and then.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In our August 2003 story on Bill Stenger and Jay Peak, we wrote the Jay Peak gets 4.4 million skier-visits per year and that Stenger's goal is to get the number up to 6 or 7 million. That was an error. In the quote, Stenger was speaking as chairman of the Vermont Ski Areas Association and was referring to the number of skier visits in the state of Vermont, which do number 4.4 million, and his hopes for their increase to 6 or 7 million. We apologize for any confusion.

Originally published in August 2003 Business People-Vermont