When Mike Chait was managing the snowboard school at Smugglers’ Notch Resort a few years back, he encountered a father who was dropping off his two kids for an all-day camp program. It would be their first-ever snowboarding experience and their dad, a skier, let slip his misgivings.
“He made numerous comments along the lines of, ‘I can’t believe I’m trusting my kids to a bunch of snowboarders,’ ” Chait recalled.
In typical Smuggs fashion, Chait found a way to put the dad completely at ease. He lined up his snowboard instructors and introduced them one-by-one. “This coach works part time here, and the rest of the time, she’s a nurse,” Chait told the anxious dad. “This coach works as a teacher full time. This one is a nuclear engineer. And this one is an architect. They all teach snowboarding part time because it brings them joy. Together, they are responsible for the safety and futures of millions of people. Your kids are in good hands.”
Chait, now the public relations director at the Jeffersonville, Vt., resort, says he enjoys telling that story because it shows the commitment the Smuggs staff has to its guests. “None of them really needed the money they were making teaching snowboarding one to two days per week,” Chait said. “They were doing it for the experience of sharing something they love with others.
“I also share this because it provides a great snapshot of the diversity of the coaches in our program. I’ve met some amazing human beings in my years here at Smugglers’ both on the chair and on the hill. Even on the shuttle. Smugglers’ is a magical place. The vibe, the terrain, the people, the company philosophy … all of it is magical.”
The local place
Smuggs is a place where people ditch the egos for the sake of celebrating something they all love through winter sports — a connection to nature and a beautiful mountain range. Chait says some mountains feel more like a fashion show than a celebration, but Smuggs takes pride in embracing that deeper connection.
“We have a silly saying around here about our chairlifts that goes like this: ‘Double chairs that keep the riff-raff out.’ What do we mean by that? Well, the lifts are quite humbling. They allow us to slow down and appreciate the ride down the mountain a bit more. They give us the opportunity to share a chair with a stranger. And with only two riders per chair, the environment supports conversation. I can’t tell you how many times I was fascinated by something a complete stranger has shared with me on a double chair, or the times when I’ve said, ‘Wow, what a small world’ when making connections with visiting vacationers.”
Lance Pitcher is a Smuggs local who has extensive industry experience at resorts around the world. He chose Smuggs as his home because everything about the pace felt right to him. “Over the past 20 years being a ‘Smuggler,’ including making real estate decisions to be close to Smuggs, I’ve found the pace we keep helps slow you down for an appreciation,” Pitcher said. “At Smuggs, the 10- to 12-minute ride up gives me the chance to think about what line I want to ride, or what trails to take. I’ll consider it the whole time and sometimes go over three or four different options. As a Smuggs rider, my pride is built around that appreciation. Sure, the mountain gets busy sometimes, yes. But that slower pace keeps us all humble to focus on the quality of our time on the mountain.”
Smuggs’ quality is no secret, especially when it comes to customer service. Perennially ranked at the top of the industry in numerous hospitality-related categories, 2020 was no different as Ski Magazine readers voted Smugglers’ Notch the No. 1 overall resort in the Eastern U.S., No. 1 for service, No. 1 family friendly and No. 1 for local flavor.
The resort’s renowned Snow Sport University is designed to teach kids skiing and riding through fun. “The overall goal is to help foster a love for the outdoors through snowsports,” Chait said. “Programming is built around fun games, activities, sculpted learning terrain, and social interactions. Many of the SSU coaches come from an outdoor education background, reinforcing the school’s diverse array of games and activities to explore movement concepts without using technical terms.”
No two families are the same, Chait said, explaining why Smuggs has put together a 43-page book filled with all the different activities offered around the resort each week. “When vacationing with the family, things can tend to get a bit ‘rocky’ at times between kids fighting, parents being frustrated, hungry little bodies, boredom during ‘parent stuff,’ et cetera,” Chait said.
At Smuggs, kids are empowered to make many of their own choices, easing pressures on the family as a whole.
“Smuggs offers a Kids’ Club for all kids visiting, which is a free, kid-centric pack of activities and coupons,” Chait said. “Included is a coloring book with highlighted activities that kids can complete for prizes. It comes with a tracking chart where kids can indicate which activities they’ve completed using stickers provided.”
The staff is collectively dialed in to the resort’s “Guest of One” philosophy that encourages each to go above and beyond to advance customer service. Employees across the resort are trained to keep their eyes open and stay vigilant, not just to keep guests happy, but safe.
“We promote an environment where each staff member is an extension of our guests’ family,” Chait said. “Parents visit and revisit Smugglers’ because they feel it’s a safe environment where they can let their kids run ‘off leash’ versus back home where roads and other dangers pose threats to children’s safety. We have parents who literally find their annual travel to Smugglers’ helps teach their children independence by having them riding our free shuttles on their own around the village, and even letting them ski and ride sans-parent on Morse Mountain and beyond. The opportunities for social growth are tremendous here.”
With all the family talk, don’t be surprised by the variety of terrain spread across the resort’s three mountains — Morse, Madonna and Sterling. With a vertical drop of 2,600 feet — the fourth largest in New England — Smuggs features Vermont’s only triple-black rated trail: The Black Hole.
Smuggs’ double- and triple-black trails (runs like Upper Liftline, Robin’s Run, Freefall and Upper FIS) are accessed off the Madonna chair, which escorts guests to the 3,640-foot Madonna Mountain summit. These trails are never groomed and feature rock drops, waterfalls and steep natural terrain. Morse Mountain is dedicated to long, mellow runs and Sterling Mountain appeals to advanced intermediates with a blend of blues and blacks, including The Zone and Birch Run terrain parks.
“We keep green terrain separated from blue and black terrain,” Chait said. “This allows those looking to hone their skills on easier terrain the ability to do so without worrying about taking the wrong trail and ending up on a cliff, or experts whizzing by making them feel uncomfortable. Additionally, the intermediate, expert and extreme terrain can be left without intersecting any long, winding green trails, eliminating a lot of risk associated with collisions, which is a major focus at all resorts nowadays.”
Terrain on Madonna and Sterling mountains flows to a centralized base area, making it easy to link back up with friends, rather than worrying about ending up on the other side of the mountain from the rest of your group.
Chait sums up Smuggs’ focus over the next decade with one word — families. “We have established what works and will continue to develop this concept,” he said. “We believe the family model is the ultimate model in sustainability pertaining to the snowsports industry.”
It is an industry that has experienced monumental change in the past decade with corporate acquisitions and season pass consolidations. Smuggs’ closest neighbor, Stowe Mountain Resort, is now part of Vail’s Epic pass offerings, along with Vermont’s Okemo and Mount Snow. Vermont resorts now available via the Ikon pass include Sugarbush, Killington and Stratton. Smugglers’ remains independently owned and proud of it.
“We find great success in offering person-to-person interactions when dealing with guest issues and feedback,” Chait said. “When we receive feedback, we are able to easily make decisions on how to proceed. There is far less red tape than in other possible ownership scenarios. With that independence come some challenges. Without a corporate ‘parent,’ we have less capital to work with on a day-to-day basis. But our approach thusly involves more creativity and responsible decision-making based on our customer feedback.”
In the past few years, Smuggs has invested $5 million in snowmaking improvements, including the installation of 100 percent low-energy guns and a six-mile pipeline to draw water from the Lamoille River, which Chait said is much more environmentally responsible. The resort also has invested $5 million to develop the FunZone 2.0 indoor Family Fun Complex, which offers 26,000-square-feet of climate-controlled activities for the whole family.
These and other investments enable families to pass on the tradition of Smuggs to the next generations, Chait said. Five distinct condominium communities — Highlands Hill, North Hill, Village East, Village West and West Hill — offer a variety of lodging choices from studios to five-bedroom units that are ski-in/ski-out or along the resort’s free shuttle service route.
“Our condominium-style lodging features all the comforts of home so families can spend the quality time they miss out on during their hectic lives at home,” Chait said. “The free, on-demand shuttle service allows guests to leave the car at the condo and forget about all the loading and unloading. Simply make the call, hop on the bus, and arrive at your destination stress-free.”
The resort’s Guest Reviews page on its website is filled with posts confirming why Smuggs is a perennial favorite for families.
Meghan from Baltimore wrote of her stay in January: “The whole family loved Smugglers’ Notch! I can’t say enough about how Smuggs lived up to the hype of being a family-oriented resort. From the winter carnival and dance party to fireworks and glow tubing, we made amazing family memories during our stay. We loved our vacation! The skiing, family activities and convenience of our condo location were going to make for a great vacation, but the Smuggs staff, and how we were made to feel so welcome during the visit, is what will stick out in our minds and make us want to return year after year.”
Chait loves to read reviews like this because he’s in a unique position to relate. “My daughter is 4-and-a-half,” he said. “She’s been coming to Smuggs five days a week since she was 8 weeks old. I experience first-hand just how wonderful the offerings at Smuggs are for families. I believe in this place as an employee, a local and as a parent.”