At The Top Of His Game

photoAllen Wilson first skied at Killington in the ’70s; now he runs the place.

by Julia Lynam

Allen Wilson is a man of two passions: skiing and education. His role for the last 10 years as managing director and subsequently president of Killington, the largest ski resort in the East, has given him ample opportunity to make his mark in the two worlds he loves.

Allen Wilson, president of Killington Resort, skis 10 times more often than he plays golf, but a golf cart might make getting around Killington’s hundreds of acres a lot easier in summer and fall.

Originally from Wethersfield, Conn., where he and his brother ran a family-owned seafood business, Wilson started skiing at Killington in the early 1970s. His passion for the sport led him to move there in 1979 to work in the industry. “I’ve never regretted a day of it, although our restaurant business was very successful ... in 1979 I moved up here with a Mercedes and a new jeep; by 1981 I had a Chevette and an old jeep,” he quips.

Since then, Wilson has skied many slopes: he’s been president of Vermont’s Sugarbush Resort, vice president of Killington Resort Villages and chief financial officer of the Bear Mountain Resort in California. 

Under his guidance, Killington, with skier visits hovering at just under the 1 million mark for the last few years, is gathering steam for a long-anticipated development.

Back in 1968, Preston Smith, Killington’s visionary founder, produced a master plan that included a slope-side year-round village. “Thirty years later, by 1998, just 30 percent of that master plan had been achieved,” says Wilson. 

The village has yet to become a reality. He’s confident, however, that Killington is poised finally to realize that long-term dream and break ground on the village in the spring of 2008. 

“Killington is a diamond in the rough,” says Wilson. “Other eastern ski areas have far more residential development. We’re the last one to the dance — but that’s not necessarily bad, because you can learn a lot from what others have done. Throughout North America, we haven’t found a single resort community once constructed that has not increased both winter and summer visitation.”

photoKillington boasts an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Geoffrey Cornish, open from mid-May through peak foliage season in October. Dave Pfannenstein is the director of golf.

The delay was largely due to years spent negotiating the preservation of 2,948 acres of black bear habitat formerly owned by the resort in the neighboring town of Mendon. In a 1997 landmark deal that Wilson calls “an absolute milestone,” the resort agreed to exchange that land for 1,073 lower-lying acres stretching down the mountain from Killington’s base lodge. The agreement included a $375,00 donation from the resort for further bear habitat conservation and, crucially, permission from the Farm and Wilderness Foundation of Plymouth to allow its Woodward Reservoir, six miles from the ski slopes, to be tapped for the Resort’s snow-making operation. 

With the land exchange completed, however, the resort overextended itself and encountered financial setbacks that precluded further capital projects for several years. With those difficult days behind him, Wilson is now able to look to the future, and it’s on the tract of land formerly owned by the state that the slope-side village is slated to rise over the next 15 years, eventually becoming a year-round community with up to 2,000 residential units.

The much-discussed interconnecting ski lift between Killington and its satellite resort at Pico is a business decision that must await progress with the slope-side village, Wilson says. 

He credits former Killington president Les Otten as the architect of the vital land exchange. “When Les came into Killington, he brought with him substantial capital investment,” he says. “He took Pres Smith’s concept of the village and rolled it forward to the year 2000. Les is a visionary.”

David Wolk, Castleton State College president, uses that very same word to describe Wilson. Wolk worked with Wilson 10 years ago to set up an academic excellence program for Vermont schools. “He was the visionary,” says Wolk.  “It was an impressive demonstration of corporate methods: Allen wanted to reward academic achievement, and he left it to the schools to decide levels and whether they would make awards for improvement.” 

photoJeff Temple, director of mountain operations, and Dave Rathbun, vice president brand management and sales, stand on the deck of the Upper Lodge at the top of the gondola run.

The program, initiated in 1997, rewards academic achievement by awarding students free season passes to Killington. Launched in the Rutland School District, it has spread to 74 schools throughout Vermont, and Killington now annually awards 6,000 free passes to students.

 Wilson has also managed to put his passion for education to work in tackling one of the perennial challenges of a seasonal business: how to find and retain suitable temporary staff. In 2002 Killington Resort entered into an agreement with the Poultney environmental liberal arts school, Green Mountain College, in a resort-management program. 

“I believe it will be one of the best, if not the best in the nation,” Wilson says fervently. “It’s a three-year degree program, and in their first two years the students work here from December to April, choosing their area of operations — lodging, food service, mountain operations, finance, IT and human resources, or marketing and sales. It’s a great education for the students, combining theory with reality. Killington in Christmas week is something you can’t learn from a book!” 

Year-round staff at the resort number 400, rising to 1,900 during the winter season. In another bid for quality seasonal staff, in 2002 Wilson began recruiting young ski enthusiasts from overseas. “In the first year we recruited about 120, mostly from Australia, New Zealand and Korea,” he says. “The following year, 150.

“At first we worked with outside recruiters, and we wouldn’t necessarily get what we signed up for. The past two years we’ve sent our own folks abroad, most recently to Bulgaria, Argentina, Peru and Brazil. By sending our own staff, we’re hiring for service and we’ll be up to 200 for the coming season. They add a great energy level to the resort and make it feel very international.”

photoProjects in the summer of 2006 included adding to the resort’s low-energy snowmaking equipment and a face-lift at Pico Mountain, Killington’s satellite resort. Pictured are George Potter (left), Pico’s vice president-general manager, and Tom Horrocks, Killington’s communications manager.

Among Wilson’s achievements in his 10 years at Killington has been a dramatic reduction in energy costs, achieved despite rising fuel prices by acquiring energy-efficient snowmaking machines. Killington has typically made more than 70 percent of its snow, with that figure’s rising to over 90 percent in the snow-starved winter of 2005-06. This summer, Wilson is adding to his battery of low-energy snowmaking equipment. Summer projects also include a face-lift at Pico, where bathrooms are being remodeled and the base lodge painted.

These improvements are part of Wilson’s drive to broaden the focus of Killington and add all-around excellence in customer service to its reputation as an exciting ski center. Customer surveys confirm, he says, that over the last four years, with the active participation of the management team, Killington has substantially improved its service levels.

Wilson lives nearby in the town of Chittenden with his wife, Paula, a keen equestrian. Their daughter, Erica, also a horsewoman, works in the human resources department of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.   

David Dillon, president of the Haystack Resort in West Dover, shares with Wilson the distinction of being a former president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association. He met Wilson more than 20 years ago, when they were both working at Killington in the 1980s. 

“Allen has demonstrated over 20 to 25 years that he’s one of the key people in the ski industry,” says Dillon, “not just in Vermont but nationally, with his work at various resorts and his involvement with the National Ski Areas Association.” Wilson was a director of that body for six years. 

photoSitting in front of one of the great-stone fireplaces in the lodge are John Dithmer, vice president of lodging, and Cheryl Owens, vice president food and beverage.

Wilson’s main contribution to the ski industry in Vermont has been “his ability to lead teams of people to respond to the changing nature of the industry over time,” Dillon continues. “He has a knowledge and understanding of all facets of the industry and an ability to hire and train people to build an extremely effective team. He’s done it a number of times at different resorts.”

In addition to his involvement in industry bodies, Wilson serves as a trustee of St. Joseph’s College, Rutland; a member of the board of visitors of Green Mountain College; and a director of the Rutland Regional Chamber of Commerce. 

Land ownership continues to be a contentious issue in the ski industry. Killington’s parent, the American Skiing Co., is currently locked in a dispute at The Canyons ski resort in Park City, Utah. “ASC leases property for The Canyons,” Wilson explains, “and the landlord believes that we have defaulted on the lease. While we acknowledge that we entered into an agreement with another party, we believe that we have cured the default.” At press time, ASC had obtained a court injunction preventing the landlord from terminating the lease. The case, says Wilson, will not affect the operations of Killington or any of the other ASC resorts. “We’re stand-alone entities.” 

Despite such scraps, Wilson is as enthusiastic about the ski industry as he was when he joined it in 1979.

 “This is a spectacular business: it’s dynamic and infinitely frustrating,” he muses, “The people in the industry are phenomenal and they’re all half nuts. But you have a bad day, you grab your skis and you can go out on a hill for two or three hours.”

It may just be that Allen Wilson’s secret is his inclination to keep his finger on the pulse by indulging his passion for skiing on good days, too! •