Pay a visit to Gunstock Mountain Resort and it’s easy to understand what pulled Tom Day out of his retirement.
It was just about a year ago when me and my two sons made our first-ever trip to Gunstock, a place I had always been encouraged to check out, but one I just never managed to get to for one reason or another. It was a favorite destination for my parents and their friends during their teen years in the ’60s, and I always could recognize their fondness for the place in the stories they would relay about their many day trips from southeastern Massachusetts to Gilford, N.H.
So, while we found a much different Gunstock from the one they enjoyed more than 50 years ago, the satisfaction we discovered at the resort was probably on a similar level.
It just happened to be one of those days, the kind that starts with a bluebird sky and continues on to deliver a special day on the mountain, the sort of unexplainable encounter that can happen with skiers and riders on any particular day. Needless to say, Gunstock became an instant favorite with features that suited all of us — a top-rated park for the daredevil, smooth glades for my oldest, who loves to glide through the trees, and a layer-shedding sunshine that hinted of the joys of spring skiing.
Those oncoming spring-skiing days would be, of course, a portion of the calendar cut short in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Day, president and GM at Gunstock, had been on the job for less than two months when the virus turned the ski industry upside down, and while Gunstock managed to be one of the four privately-owned ski areas in New Hampshire to stay open a little longer than its colleagues in New England, the situation ranked as another volatile moment for an industry in which Day has seen plenty.
“While it was something that I certainly wish hadn’t happened, I think you sort of adjust well to changes in operations,” he said. “The biggest problem was that nobody really knew what this was and how to react to it, what to do for your staff and guests. You’re used to making, what I call, field adjustments. But it’s hard to make a field adjustment when you’re not sure what to adjust to.”
Almost a year later, and Gunstock has adjusted to the pandemic’s restrictions in much the same way as everybody else. Masks are, of course, required of guests from their vehicle in the parking lot to the queue at the lift. Employees have to start their day at a COVID checkpoint and have their temperatures taken. Reservations need to be made in advance in order to manage crowd control.
But aside from those differences, Day said, it is business as usual on the slopes.
“I’ve said all along, once you get to the line, your skiing and riding is the same that it was prior to the COVID issues,” Day said. “So, when you get there, after you go through the abnormality of wearing your mask the minute you get out of your car and making reservations for your ticket, the whole part of skiing and riding is the same. I’ve talked to plenty of people who agree with that. People are just happy as hell to be back out skiing and riding and being able to recreate outside where you’re not in a confined space and able to get out and breathe.”
Still, the pandemic put a lot of challenges in the lap of the general manager, facing him with questions and concerns he had never had to deal with during his long history in the ski industry. Day was at Waterville Valley for 33 years in various roles, including director of mountain operations and general manager. He “retired” in 2010 and kept busy with some other avenues before Gary Kiedaisch, the former president of Stowe Mountain Resort (1988-98), came calling. Kiedaisch is one of five commissioners on the Gunstock Area Commission, appointed by the Belknap County Delegation with the responsibility of managing Gunstock. He was familiar with Day from their time together at Waterville Valley, when Kiedaisch was the resort’s marketing director at the same time Day was Watervile’s mountain-ops guy.
“He knew that I was kind of going in and out of retirement,” Day said. “The prior GM (Greg Goddard) was getting ready to retire. I had known him for years and I just always thought it was a really cool place, that it has some great skiing here and it attracts a lot of families. I thought there was an opportunity to get here and see how it was being branded prior and what I could do to make a little bit of a difference with my experience. It’s a beautiful part of the state.”
Located only five miles from Lake Winnipesaukee, the views at the summit of Gunstock are among the most pleasant in the state of New Hampshire. “I’ve always loved the fact that it’s right by the lake,” Day said. “I mean, the views from the top are spectacular. The skiing is great, the snowmaking is great. Everything was in good condition. The geographical location was very interesting to me.”
There also was the chatter about possibly building a hotel on the county-owned property that fascinated Day as well, potentially turning Gunstock into more of a destination resort than it ever has been before.
“I don’t think people are going to fly here from other parts of the country,” Day said. “But there are a whole lot of things you can do here (Gunstock boasts a cross-country center, tubing park, mountain coaster and winter hiking), so I think if you can put a ski-in, ski-out lodge here it would make it that much more appealing to people who want to come here, especially families who want to get away.”
Among the new wrinkles Day has implemented at Gunstock during his first full season as general manager is the sound of music throughout the resort, from the parking lot to the lift line. “I just always say classic rock seems to appeal to all ages,” Day said. “Putting music in arrival areas, the tubing hill, and now at a couple of lifts, I just think, in this environment, it helps people. You see people bopping to the music and singing. I think it animates the resort. No big brainstorm, just had never been done before. Just seems to make people feel better.”
The informational vibe also spreads outside the resort, where motorists approaching Gunstock can now tune into local radio station 90.3 FM so that guests can be briefed about the latest policies as they pull into the parking lot.
One of the developmental projects greeting guests this season is a new look for the tubing hill, which has been doubled in width, with a new lift to help with uphill capacity. “Tubing is an incredibly popular sport,” Day said. “It attracts people who wouldn’t normally come to the resort.”
The hope, Day said, is that by enjoying what he calls a “high-thrill, low-skill” activity like tubing, that participants will see that it’s fun to slide on snow. Maybe then they will want to try it on their feet instead of on their rear ends. “Ski school people will go up and talk, but not like a furniture store where people come out of the walls,” he said. “We try not to overemphasize it, but we make sure they’re aware of it.”
On the skiing side of things, Day’s favorite trail at Gunstock is Recoil, which he describes as an old New England trail that has lots of turns, is narrow, and has a great fall line. The trail also is parallel to the Recoil Glades, a portion of the mountain that me and my sons lapped repeatedly during our lone day at Gunstock last winter.
It was easy for the resort to become an instant favorite with my family. And it might just be that Gunstock, even after decades of operation, is only on the cusp of creating something even more special in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.