Waterville Valley’s general manager, Tim Smith, was born into a skiing family.
His grandfather cut trees to clear the trails on Mount Holiday in Michigan. His parents met there when his dad was on ski patrol, later becoming the patrol director. At age 13, Tim became a junior patroller and joined the regular ski patrol when he was 15. And it has been all up from there, culminating in his appointment as general manager of Waterville in 2015.
Smith is passionate about snowsports and passionate about his role at Waterville. It was a pleasure to sit down with him recently and learn about the trail he took, leading him to his current role as one of the youngest general managers at a major resort.
New England Ski Journal: It sounds like your family history at Mount Holiday started you out at a young age on a fast track to a career in the ski industry. Did you always want to make this a career?
Smith: I developed a passion for skiing at a young age when I joined the ski patrol as a regular patroller at 15 in 1995. During my junior and senior years in high school I was on a work/study program, working at Mount Holiday. When I was a senior I decided my next step after graduation was to enroll in Gogebic Community College in Ironwood, Michigan, in their ski area management program. I then went to Beaver Creek, Colorado, as an intern, working as a snowmaker and groomer. After doing this for a while, I realized I needed more education to get to the next level and went back to the Midwest and enrolled in Northern Michigan University in their ski area business management program. I worked at Marquette Mountain making snow and grooming and transitioned into park management. I’m proud to say I laid the groundwork for the best terrain park in the Midwest.
NESJ: Did you enjoy this aspect of the business?
Smith: Very much so. But in 2002 I was in my early 20s and suffered an injury. I got out of skiing and went into insurance sales and crushed it, but I just didn’t have the passion for it. Mount Holiday had become a 501(c)(3) community area and when they asked me to come back and work there, I did. I was hired as lodge manager, but as so often happens at small areas, I was involved in everything — marketing, patrol, ski school, payroll, you name it. My passion was rekindled and I knew I wanted to do it all. I went back to Beaver Creek as project manager for a new pump house that was being built, then became a snowmaking supervisor. I knew I wanted to work my way up the corporate ladder.
NESJ: What made you leave Beaver Creek?
Smith: I had two offers on the same day. One was from Sugarbush for a snowmaking position. Although I liked the area, I thought it was a lateral move. The other was from Hidden Valley in Green Bay, Wisconsin, which I felt offered more opportunity. It’s the question of being a little fish in a big pond, or the big fish in a smaller pond. I opted for the latter and was at Hidden Valley for two seasons. Then I got a call from Felix Kagi, COO of Peak Resorts, offering me the opportunity to come east to Crotched Mountain in New Hampshire as outside operations manager. Felix was really my mentor, teaching me so much about the business and about managing people. The area operated from 8 a.m. until 3 a.m. It was really like running two areas. Since you can’t really be there all those hours, I learned lots about delegation and trust. I stayed at Crotched for six years.
NESJ: What brought you to Waterville?
Smith: It was a good time to make a move. My wife and I had 3-year-old twins and it seemed sensible to move before they started school. I started looking around and heard there might be something at Waterville. I hit it off immediately with Chris Sununu, the CEO, and he hired me as director of mountain operations in 2014. That lasted about 6 months — one season — and then Chris announced he was stepping back and I tossed my hat in the ring. I was promoted to general manager and the following year became president as well.
My first season as GM was the year from hell. It rained all winter. We had a record low skier visits. But it allowed us to break down the business and set goals. Number 1 priority was to get Green Peak done. We broke ground in mid-August of 2016 and opened the chair in February of 2017.
NESJ: How has the opening of Green Peak affected Waterville?
Smith: Originally it was a 10 million dollar project. But we decided to scrap the idea of a detachable high-speed lift and instead relocate the World Cup triple, reducing the budget for Phase 1 to 3.5 million. This was a big decision. It totally changes the feel of the mountain. It’s a nice ride, there are no lines on busy days because more people are up in the air — on chairs — rather than making a quick trip up and a fast trip down. I’ve had people thanking me for the fixed-grip chair saying they love the different experience and especially like Governor’s Run. Green Peak has a more natural feel while the main mountain, although it has excellent recreational trails, has always tended toward racing and freestyle.
NESJ: How is Phase 2 of Green Peak progressing?
Smith: We are now putting $7.5 million into capital improvements for the area including Green Peak with additional trails (bringing the total to 11), snowmaking pipeline and snow guns; a new T-bar for High Country, which will change the feel and usage of that area; upgraded infrastructure plus base lodge renovations and improvements to our nordic and summer operations. And we’ve revamped the learner’s area.
NESJ: What are your goals for this winter?
Smith: Business wise, I want to accomplish and exceed expectations. Show our loyal guests who we are and who we’ve become, meet their expectations. Show our season-pass holders we value them and give them the service they deserve even better than in past years. Personally, I want to be a stronger skier. I would like to take my boys, 8-year-old twins — one skier, one snowboarder — to Europe skiing in the spring.
NESJ: What is your biggest challenge as GM?
Smith: I have a lot of challenges. Every GM does. But my biggest one is meeting my own expectations. I’m hard on myself. I’m not where I want to be yet. Sometimes it keeps me up at night.
NESJ: You will be hosting a number of big events this season, including the U.S. Alpine Championships this March. How excited are you about that?
Smith: This is a very big deal! In 2017 we hosted the freestyle nationals and it was a huge success with the spectators. Last year we had the World Pro Ski Tour, which was also a big hit and will be returning this season in February. In March we’ll host the U.S. Freestyle Championships again. The first thing you see as you come into the valley is a sign proclaiming “Birthplace of Freestyle Skiing.” We have a great venue for this event and spectators love it. Shortly after this we’ll have the national alpine championships. This is a huge deal. We are a race mountain and it’s incredibly exciting to see the resurgence of the interest in racing and be able to host an event with competitors of the quality of Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn. I’m very excited about bringing that level of racing back to Waterville, having world-class athletes back here.
NESJ: What comes next?
Smith: We’re still in Phase 2 of our expansion, transitioning to the next level. It’s all about the next customer and developing a great progression scenario to take them from beginner to recreational skier to moguls, freestyle or racing. We’re known as New Hampshire’s family mountain and we are always looking to take our skiers to the next level.
NESJ: What is your favorite part of the job?
Smith: Guest relations. I really enjoy passionate people, and our guests are passionate about Waterville and skiing. We see eye to eye and I love having them around. And they are now here in the summer, too. For me, it’s a great life!