It has been quite the run for Cannon Mountain general manager John DeVivo. Since taking charge in 2007, DeVivo has been at the forefront of a number of defining developments within Franconia Notch State Park, including the redevelopment of Mittersill Ski Area, a project that has increased Cannon’s terrain by 70 percent.
In addition, DeVivo’s team has been tasked with managing pandemic overflow from all activities at various venues within the New Hampshire state park, including the Flume Gorge, Echo Lake Beach and the Cannon Aerial Tramway, currently not in use due to COVID-19 restrictions.
We caught up with DeVivo to find out how Cannon was managing through a winter season that started late but has gradually found its flow.
New England Ski Journal: How has it been this season dealing with the tepid weather we had during much of December and January?
John DeVivo: It started horribly. We opened three weeks later than is typical for us. Most of December was not awesome and most of January was decent, at best. I think because it’s been snowing lately, the grooming has been impeccable, and the woods are open (I think we only have two remaining glades that aren’t open yet), people forget that (the season) started horribly, and most of the snowmaking weather in January was marginal. We were making snow at temps in the 20s when, ordinarily in January, we’d be at temps in the teens or singles. This is our final week of snowmaking and we’ve already moved well over a quarter of a billion gallons thus far.
It’s easy for people to forget, but look around. Everything is open and it would not have happened naturally. I tell people, look across the highway at Mount Lafayette, how it’s half-granite and half-snow, and how Cannon is fully covered. This is the difference between snowmaking and non-snowmaking. Natural snow is not as durable and it melts off pretty quickly.
The Notch is a funny place. Franconia Notch tends to split most storms, so we either get it before and after, or we get a lot of clippers coming out of the northwest. Any kind of typical nor’easter, we might get two feet spread out over four to five days. The Notch is a very strange place when it comes to weather.
NESJ: Have guests been complying with COVID-19 protocols?
DeVivo: To be honest, people have been behaving fantastically well this year. I would estimate 98 to 99 percent mask usage. People are distancing, they’re very much honoring our 50 percent indoor capacities. Everybody is only unmasked when they’re seated and eating. Things are working extremely well.
We’ve had a couple of cases, of course, where we’ve had to literally stop a lift and tell the college kids, put your mask on or you just can’t ski here anymore. We’ve had a couple people challenge us from a legal perspective. They’ve got the keyboard courage going with, “I’m going to call my lawyer” and “I’ve got a letter from a doctor.” And it’s like, “Listen, we’re not trying to stamp out your individuality. You’re on the hill skiing, that’s fine. If you’re in a crowded maze, please pull your mask up. And to walk into a building, yes you have to wear one because we’ve given you outdoor food options and we’ve given you outdoor restroom options.”
Again, this is like one percent of what we’re looking at, so it’s been phenomenally good. We are erring on the side of caution with everything. Except the skiing of course. This is Cannon. We’ll open just about anything.
NESJ: What has it meant from a traffic standpoint not to run the tram this season?
DeVivo: If the tram ever used to have a minor breakdown or wasn’t working, you’re really talking about an apparatus that only moves about 420 people, per hour, on average. And that’s if you’re fully loaded because, typically, it’s 70 people plus the operator. I mean, listen, the tram is our iconic entity and everybody loves it. But realistically it’s a 12 by 20 room. If we’re going to use the six-foot protocol, we’ve measured it. It’s five people plus the operator. So it doesn’t make any sense, operationally, to run it. If we were going to run five people at a time, we would have lines that go back to the highway.
I used to joke, it’s three times the cost of the lift right next to it, and it moves one-third of the people. Now, if the Cannonball Quad goes down, that’s 1,400 people per hour. That’s when the tram and Zoomer lift used to really get slammed. So you would feel it a lot more if your lose a lift than if you lose the tram.
NESJ: Did the way that Franconia Notch was overrun during the summer months give you pause before seeing how this season was going to go?
DeVivo: We were very nervous after the summertime. The summer was insane, and it was basically insane everywhere that featured outdoor recreation. Our venues this past summer were run very tightly. But the general use of Franconia North State Park exploded like we’ve never seen. I mean, just literally thousands of cars literally every day, and people were just walking around in the outdoors, picnicking, leaving trash everywhere, not behaving and wondering why you had to make reservations and what not.
Now we lost a ton a money by not running the tram, probably $2 million through the summer and fall seasons, just on the tram alone. However, we were parking six to eight hundred vehicles on the tram side every weekend for hikers. It was insane. From a hiking and general use of the park perspective, that worked out very well.
So we were very nervous heading into ski season because Cannon does tend to have a very passionate crowd, with opinions. But for the most part everyone has been fantastic.
NESJ: You’ve been there for 14 years now. What are some of your proudest personal accomplishments?
DeVivo: Probably building a great team and revitalizing Mittersill. The fun thing about that is that most of that revitalization was done in conjunction with Franconia Ski Club and Holderness School. Cannon funded the original $3.5 million for the teardown of the old chair and the rebuild of the new double chair. Then the ski club funded and gifted the $4 million improvements in snowmaking and grooming capacities over there, and now they’re funding like a $3.8 million mini-lodge on 9,000 square feet. It will be called the Mittersill Performance Center and that should finish up right around late April.
There’s so much stuff we’ve done since 2008, it’s insane. It’s been our ability to keep churning from a capital perspective while still running New Hampshire’s premiere state park. We have a very passionate team here. We love where we are, we love what we do.
The whole Mittersill project has added 70 percent to our terrain, two new lifts. We’ve shifted all our racing and training in that general direction, which has dramatically increased the skiing safety on Cannon proper. Once that building is done they will literally shift everything over there. But the general public has been the big winner because we’ve grown by 70 percent. We’re probably making 50 percent more snow than we were making a decade ago. We’re grooming 50 to 80 percent more than we were a decade ago. And we’ve had great leadership. Everybody here has a voice, and that’s why it’s working so well.
NESJ: What are the benefits of the ski area being part of the Indy Pass?
DeVivo: I’ve got to tell you, we’re seeing a lot of usage. I think we’re number four in the country right now, and number two in the East. I think Pats Peak is actually number one in the country. I spoke with (Pats Peak general manager) Kris (Blomback) last February and said, “Hey, we’re starting to think about this, how has it been for you guys?” And he said, “We’ve been seeing a lot of people we’ve never seen before.” That’s a great thing.
People seem to be pretty happy with it. Now, fortunately, it’s nowhere near as busy as Epic or Ikon. I’m hearing horror stories out there that a lot of Ikon and Epic resorts are just literally being swamped like you can’t believe.
NESJ: As we start moving in the right direction with vaccines, what’s your hope for the remainder of this season, or heading into next year?
DeVivo: I don’t see us making a lot of wholesale changes. I’d be pretty amazed if we got to the point where we’re comfortable running the tram for the public. I’m very hopeful we can run it this summer.
I would like to see more summer volume allowed within our venues and some easing of the stress on the park itself. We’re talking thousands and thousands of hikers last year and it literally started in March. People were desperate to get out of their homes. Because we were closed, we had skinners out here by the hundreds, every Saturday and Sunday.
Right now the pandemic is actually way worse than when we shut the whole country down. But now, we’ve learned a lot and we’ve reacted very well to it. So far, we’re managing this thing very well. ′