Brian Heon always knew he wanted to work at a ski resort. However, the Connecticut native’s first foray into the industry following graduation from Colby-Swayer College was a bit off-beat.
“I worked one of the only chairlifts in the state of Florida,” he said.
OK, so technically, the ski resort in question was really Blizzard Beach, the winter-themed water park at Walt Disney World, where Heon worked in the parks and recreation division. But after two years in central Florida, he packed up his car and drove to Utah. It was a place he had never visited, but seeing as the Olympics would be held at Park City in 2002, it seemed as good a place as any to make his way into the industry.
He ended up staying for 12 years.
These days, Heon is in his first few months as the new general manager at Sunday River Resort after spending the past seven in the same role at Wildcat Mountain. He recently sat down to answer some questions about how Sunday River plans to operate in what could potentially be a truly challenging year amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
New England Ski Journal: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your new position right out of the gate?
Brian Heon: The first thing that comes to mind is my first day at work here and how I had to meet everybody. I met so many colleagues the way I’m talking to you right now (via Microsoft Teams online conferencing), which is something I never had to do before. Meeting people virtually, being introduced to them over email, has been kind of awkward. Then, actually meeting people face to face, I go to shake their hand. But then I can’t shake their hand, so I do this little dance. It’s just a very awkward time to come into such an awesome team and have to meet people without shaking hands, keeping distance, and wearing your mask as you go around the hall.
NESJ: What are the major challenges and hurdles you would have faced in your first year even without COVID-19?
Heon: One of the biggest things when coming into a new team is just meeting all the players and understanding the team that’s in place. Sunday River is a large resort and there are a lot of moving parts and pieces. So, one of the challenges is learning who the players are — from our senior team to our golf team to our lodging team here at the property. We also have a lot of support from Boyne Resorts. So, the challenges that come with meeting those people and figuring it out. Also, at all the ski resorts I’ve worked at, there is the challenge of understanding your guests. Every resort I’ve been to has a certain feel to it, and I think that is transpired into your guests as well. The challenge of getting to know the pace of the environment, the pace of our parent company, what the guests’ expectations are and how we’re delivering on that. That, coupled with the size of Sunday River is a pretty big challenge.
NESJ: What was the thought process behind the New England Pass Promise, introducing a new winter assurance program with a commitment to being open at least 150 days, and why the decision to halt all season sales after June 15?
Heon: I think the thought process was that a lot of people in our industry are getting creative with the pass product this year. And I think the pandemic that we’re in has forced us to do so. I think, looking back, that’s where we came up with the 150-day guaranteed season. That, hopefully, reassures our guests how committed we are to our product moving into the winter. As for halting it, I think it’s going to be a nice time for us to kind of see where the world goes with this. Does the season look like we may be in a limited capacity? I don’t know. I think it gives us time to throw the brakes on a little bit, figure out where we are and then what we want to continue to offer moving forward.
NESJ: In what ways do you anticipate Sunday River having a different set of responsibilities than you had at Wildcat Mountain?
Heon: Sunday River is very much like running a municipality because of the size and the grandeur of the resort. We have a snowmaking system that is five times as big as Wildcat. Our lift infrastructure is about the same, four or five times the size. Just the sheer vastness, and there are some real anomalies at Sunday River. For example, we manage all our own distribution of power and we treat all of our own waste water. So, the diversity of what we do here I think is going to be a little bit different than being at Wildcat Mountain.
NESJ: What other experience do you have in resort operations?
Heon: This will be my 22nd year in resort operations. I started out working for the American Ski Company. I started with them in 1998, working at The Canyons in Park City. I did lift operations there, I helped out with lift maintenance. I also built some chairlifts out there. I was in Utah for about 12 years. I did a lot of lift operations trainings, not only at The Canyons, but a little bit at Steamboat (another American Ski Company property). From there, I did mountain operations, lift operations, lift maintenance, ski patrol at Mount Snow. That’s when I started to work for Peak Resorts. So, I worked at Mount Snow for about three years on the mountain ops team. Then I was asked to go join Wildcat as their general manager, and I was there for seven years.
NESJ: Has COVID-19 paused or stopped any impending resort improvements? And what does this stretch mean for the 2030 Plan?
Heon: It certainly has put kind of a brief halt to things. I think that the 2030 Plan is still moving forward. I don’t think it has changed too much of that right now. We didn’t put hard-fast deadlines on some of our growth there. So, it gave us some room there to adjust. I don’t think anybody would have predicted we’d be dealing with a pandemic right now. So, all our plans for 2030 continue to march forward, as well as some of our routine maintenance that we do. Typically, summer at a ski resort is the time when you do large projects — your lift system, your snowmaking system, your facilities — and we have a lot of those projects currently under way, as well as slated to start within the next days, weeks, months, as the resort has planned those well before I even joined the team. But like any business, as you move forward, keeping an eye on where we are, where we’ve been and what lies ahead, especially when you’re in the middle of a pandemic, is just responsible business at this point. So, we’re just moving cautiously ahead.
NESJ: What are some new wrinkles that you would like to see, either in our new normal or when things get back to the real normal, implemented during your first year as general manager?
Heon: Nothing has really jumped out at me that says there’s something we need to correct. But as we move forward, having people learn my management style, learning how I communicate — I am very hands-on. I really enjoy being out in the field. I certainly have some office responsibilities, but I love being out on the hill, helping out snowmaking, helping lift operations. I like to help in the kitchen. I’m not very good at it, so I usually get kicked out. And being out with our guests. I didn’t have anything specific in mind. I didn’t come into my job with an agenda, by any stretch. As I learn the team and they learn me, we’ll certainly spell out some goals and objectives for the upcoming season.
NESJ: What are the challenges in assuring the public that you’re open for visitors, but, at the same time, being wary that the number of guests you usually welcome might have to be reduced?
Heon: That’s the million dollar questions for everybody in the industry right now. When I came here, we really focused on, first off, making sure that our staff felt comfortable coming to work on a daily basis. And we talked a lot about that. Not only because, it’s the rule, but I think that really sets the tone of your culture. So that, when we do start inviting our guests back, not only does the staff feel comfortable about their work location and what we’re asking them to do, that they have the right PPE (personal protective equipment). In my mind, you can’t have staff working at a resort who are uncomfortable with their job or PPE or policies and procedures, and have them create a comfortable guest experience. We’re taking the time now to make sure that when I walk around with my mask and that I know there is hand sanitizer and I know how to use that stuff. It sounds silly, but if I’m not comfortable in showing that to our team members, how can I be comfortable sharing that experience with our guests? It’s not taken us very long of adapting to the new norm of wearing the mask and using hand sanitizer, keeping six feet away from each other. But it’s important for us to feel really solid about all those different new norms. Then, when we have our guests come back it’ll be like second nature to us.
NESJ: What has been the most rewarding part of your position so far?
Heon: It’s always nerve-wracking coming in to a new team, especially a senior team. I think that having a warm welcome when I first got here, it’s been really moving to be brought into Sunday River. Just to see what phenomenal team members we have here and the way that they’ve welcomed me with open arms — from six feet away — and given me the tour, and really gone above and beyond to help me feel more comfortable in my role and supported me in my role. It’s been super-rewarding just to be welcomed in that way.