New England native and longtime industry professional Molly Mahar is in her second year as president of Ski Vermont (also known as the Vermont Ski Areas Association).
The nonprofit trade group represents the state’s 20 alpine areas and 30 cross-country centers, working to promote a vibrant cultural and business climate where tourism generated by the industry can continue to grow and thrive.
A lifetime skier with decades of experience in resort marketing and sales, Mahar’s focus as Ski Vermont president centers on governmental affairs and lobbying on behalf of the state’s ski areas, while still overseeing all the association’s programs and operations.
Mahar took some time from her busy schedule (it isn’t all skiing and riding), to talk about the work she is doing to promote skiing and snowboarding, which the Vermont legislature has declared as the state’s official sports.
New England Ski Journal: Vermont ranks No. 1 in the East as a skiing and snowboarding destination and is among the top destinations nationwide. What does it mean to you to be the chief representative of this proud tradition?
Molly Mahar: Being able to represent and advocate for the ski industry in Vermont, where it is such a big part of the economy and the culture, is both a responsibility and a privilege. Supporting our members, helping them be successful and finding new ways that we can engage to help solve issues is very interesting work, and I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity. There’s still a lot I need to learn and a lot of work to do!
NESJ: This is your second go-around with Ski Vermont, having served as its director of marketing from 1995-2001. Can you talk about how the association’s work has changed over the last 20-plus years?
Mahar: The industry is constantly evolving and it’s important for Ski Vermont to be able to evolve, too. The business has become more sophisticated and technology has changed operations and marketing and communications immensely. We remain focused on strengthening the Vermont brand and telling the stories that illustrate why it is a special, authentic and unique place … and this hasn’t changed. The ski industry is important to Vermont in a number of ways, and our goal is helping to make Vermont to be a better place to live, work and play, which can take many avenues.
NESJ: What do you see as some of Ski Vermont’s specific agenda items important to achieving its overarching goals?
Mahar: We talk a lot about needing to help new skiers and snowboarders discover the sports we love so much. While some areas have done and continue to do a great job with this, growth probably doesn’t get enough of the consistent focus that it needs. Understanding demographic and societal issues that are at play and how we can approach them is important. Also, keeping the industry connected and working collaboratively on growth and other issues is very important for its resilience. The ski areas are competitors but face very similar challenges, and the more we can all improve together, the stronger and more successful the industry will be. Another key issue is climate change, which is a huge topic for not only skiing, but humanity. I think about this a lot and it’s a topic that I look forward to engaging with others and working on.
NESJ: Government relations is an important industry focus that I’m sure most visitors and guests take for granted. What are some of the legislative issues you are lobbying for on behalf of your member ski areas?
Mahar: Starting this job, I really benefitted from working here earlier in my career, knowing the lay of the land, many people at our member ski areas and in Montpelier, and having a good idea how the organization operates. I’m now in my second legislative session and I really learned so much going through last year’s session. One of our board members said that it was the most rigorous in recent memory, so that is a helpful frame of reference. We had a broad array of issues touching on employment, the environment and legal issues that we were following and engaging on. While I had done some limited lobbying in the past, this was all pretty new to me and I had to figure it out quickly. Fortunately, I had some great help, and some transferable skills. Outdoor recreation is a huge draw for Vermont, and skiing and snowboarding is the largest piece of that, accounting for about a third of all tourism spending in the state. It brings in millions in direct spending and millions in tax revenues. The ski areas are often the largest employers in their town or region and they really support their local communities in many ways that go way beyond the economy.
NESJ: Hopefully you don’t spend all of your working hours in the statehouse. Do you get to conduct “research” at the areas you represent?
Mahar: I really try to take advantage of being able to ski everywhere in Vermont and so far this season I’ve skied equally in south, central and northern Vermont. It’s part of my job to ski everywhere. How great is that?
NESJ: What are some of your earliest memories in skiing?
Mahar: My dad got me started on skis early, tromping around in the backyard and the woods … and then of course, later I took lessons. I grew up in central Massachusetts and my mother worked at Wachusett Mountain when I was in middle and high school. I spent every weekend there, all weekend.
When I was a kid, Wachusett had a rope tow and a couple of T-bars, so it’s changed a lot. I participated in seasonal programs and started teaching skiing when I was in high school. Some days, I would ride the bus after school right to the mountain to teach a couple classes. Making time for skiing was always a priority, and since I grew up around the business, when it came time to go to college I decided on recreation management instead of a liberal arts type of major, figuring I could always switch if I didn’t like it.
NESJ: You liked it …
Mahar: I chose to pursue a private sector track at the University of Vermont for recreation management, which included business and marketing classes. I designed and completed an internship at Sugarbush Resort so I could get more experience before graduating: ops, ticket and season pass sales, events, reservations, marketing and sales. That led to a sales job after graduation, seasonal at first and then year round.
NESJ: Since then, you’ve never looked back, building up invaluable experience at some of New England’s top resorts — Sugarbush, Bolton Valley and Loon (N.H.). Can you share a little about what makes each such a successful resort and how you worked with each unique situation to help move it forward?
Mahar: I worked at Sugarbush twice, right out of college and later as director of marketing. The resort offers a nice diversity of terrain including the all-natural Castlerock area, and it’s also located just a few miles from Mad River Glen. The Mad River Valley, where Sugarbush is located, is quintessential Vermont with its farms, barns and covered bridges, and it’s a bit more off the beaten path, so building trial was what we were after (build trial is a marketing term to attract prospectives and ideally convert into loyal customers).
Bolton Valley is largely an undiscovered gem. Its location overlooking the Champlain Valley means it often gets generous lake effect snow and there’s a lot more terrain there than many people realize. Again, we were trying to build trial, appealing to the local market and also to families looking for a new destination to try.
At Loon, the challenge was different. We didn’t need to build trial, but the task was about evolving the positioning of the area to a destination — one that just happens to be extremely accessible. Shortly after I got there we opened the long-awaited South Peak area, which expanded the terrain and created another portal to the resort. We also invested heavily in snowmaking, which really was a game changer for Loon. My team led the charge on the messaging and communications of those projects, which were successful and a lot of fun. We told the world about it and the mountain ops team delivered it — great teamwork!
NESJ: Teamwork is obviously one of the reasons you’ve devoted your career to this sport. Can you talk more about what skiing has meant to you personally?
Mahar: Skiing is a great industry with great people. When I started, I had my friends and then there was work and over the years, the two have really melded together. And, while you may think, “It’s just the ski industry,” what we do on a daily basis to give people access to the days they remember and dream about is so important. We really are helping to make peoples’ lives better. It takes so many different kinds of people doing many different jobs to operate a ski area, but it’s the teamwork that really brings it all together and makes the difference for the guest. It’s not an easy business and people work really hard — whether they are making snow, teaching a lesson, driving a shuttle, maintaining the lifts, ski patrolling, serving a burger, grooming or whatever it is — to provide the best for their guests every day.
Behind the scenes at a well-run resort, you’ll find a well-oiled team with members who have each other’s backs. When you’re part of a team like that, you naturally develop respect and some great friendships.