Despite living only 90 minutes away in southeastern Massachusetts, Wachusett Mountain was never really part of my youth.
In fact, the only real connection I ever had to the Princeton, Mass., area during my teen years was the ubiquitous jingle (“Waaaaaa. Wa. Wachusett”), born from one of the most successful marketing campaigns (courtesy of Handsome Brothers Music in Natick, Mass.) ever to grace New England.
Mountain skiing. Minutes away.
Even that wildly successful commercial hook never got me there, though. Growing up, my parents were prone to frequent New Hampshire ski areas like Bartlett’s Attitash and Black Mountain in Jackson, where I was lucky enough to learn the sport at one of the most old-school, soulful spots for skiing in the Northeast. My high school ski club took frequent weekend trips to Cranmore in North Conway, filled with a variety of activities to keep teenagers busy off the slopes at night. By the time I started college in Vermont, “mountain skiing, minutes away” translated instead to the likes of Stowe and Sugarbush, a pair of storied destinations available under one glorious student lift pass just a 45-minute drive south of Burlington.
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And Wachusett remained little more than a catchy melody lingering in the back of my mind.
It was some years later when I started to question the complete logic of this matter. Growing up, family ski trips consisted of a four-hour drive on Friday nights, logistically complicated Saturday mornings that started with rental shop lines, and a Sunday-morning awareness of the trip home that often led to early departures, cutting into the remainder of the ski weekend.
It was indeed my college days that presented me with a valuable frame of higher learning with a whole new outlook on the possible timeframe of skiing, oftentimes able to grab post-lunch runs on Mount Mansfield in the wake of my slate of morning classes. It was when I came upon the revelation that something I managed to do four or five times a year I could instead do four or five times a week, the backyard ski area mentality that put a frequent dent in my gas mileage not to mention a burgeoning passion for the sport that would have the sustainability of that radio jingle.
“Waaaaaa. Wa. Wachusett.”
“Mountain skiing. Minutes away.”
That has always been Wachusett’s calling card.
Marketing director Tom Meyers has worked at Wachusett Mountain for the past 22 years and the jingle even predates his arrival at the ski area, a time when radio was king in the advertising world.
In 2016, Wachusett committed more than $2 million to its X2 Snowmaking Project, and early snow this November helped the Princeton, Mass., ski area thrive in the opening months of the season.
“It’s interesting when you just look at jingles in general. You look at jingles that resonate in the public’s mind and a lot of it stems from radio,” he said. “It really helped build the brand early on.”
That’s a generation-plus that came to understand Wachusett as the around-the-corner — so to speak — ski area, a weekend trip that wouldn’t require the rush hour headache up 93 north along with thousands of other Boston-area residents who just clocked out for the week. Indeed, mountain skiing, minutes away, took away that notion that skiing and riding were activities enjoyed only at the tail end of a three-hour car ride.
It’s how Wachusett built an image that has lasted over the decades, combined with its never-ending emphasis on providing a quality product in terms of its snowmaking capabilities, grooming, lifts and base services. It’s how the Crowley family has managed to keep reinvesting in the mountain, delivering a ski area that might be among the most profitable in all America, a factor that can’t only be attributed to its friendly 65-mile distance from a hub like Boston.
If you build it, they might come. But if you keep making it better, they’ll continue to make the trip.
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That, more than anything, has been the code of success for Wachusett over the past 25 years. It has been what has allowed Wachusett to not just remain competitive, but be able to succeed and thrive in an industry that has seen plenty of consolidation and change.
“It’s the constant focus on upgrading and providing a high level of product and service,” Meyers said.
On that note, it has been Wachusett’s recent snowmaking upgrades that have served as not only an improvement, but rather a game-changer.
In 2016, the ski area committed more than $2 million to its X2 Snowmaking Project, which doubled the mountain’s pumping capacity from 4,000 to 8,000 gallons per minute. The project has allowed snowmaking crews to cover as many as two trails overnight with a foot of snow on each.
Last season, the ability to make so much snow led to Wachusett’s earliest opening ever on Nov. 12. But weather wouldn’t cooperate, and the mountain was forced to close for a few days before reopening for the remainder of this season.
In 2018, Wachusett still managed an early opening — Nov. 17 — but also welcomed an agreeable stretch of weather that has allowed it to remain open ever since.
“With the powerful snowmaking system that we have after our huge upgrade doubled pumping capacity, we’re able to offer much more reliable conditions early in the season compared to anything that we had done previous to that,” Meyers said.
That ability helped lead Wachusett to its best start ever during the latter half of November and early days of December, 17 percent ahead of numbers from 2017 and far ahead of three- and five-year averages to date.
So, while a 10-inch snowstorm within days of running the lifts certainly didn’t hurt, the promise of the early season product has still been a big deal for Wachusett.
“You still get those fluctuations in the weather, but in terms of people coming out early, that’s really what kind of signifies that we’re off to our best start ever,” Meyers said. “We get more terrain open quicker, we get more terrain open earlier, and we offer more reliable skiing conditions for two straight years now a week or more before Thanksgiving.”
Wachusett is going to suffer more from variations in the weather than its cousins to the north, so an optimal snowmaking system always has been a need in Princeton. Now, the ability to lay down a solid base allows for a much quicker turnaround after rain. Ever since the improvements, Wachusett thinks of this in terms of hours, not days.
“When we’re in operation, especially in optimal conditions, we can produce so much more snow quickly,” Meyers said. “In a window of 12 to 24 or 36 hours of solid snowmaking, we can open ski trails much faster than we previously could.”
There was a day in early December when the resort posted an Instagram photo of a just-completed snowmaking run on its popular Smith Walton trail, accessible from the 2,006-foot summit. Massive whales of snow lumbered in the image, somewhat reminiscent of something you might see somewhere after a snowstorm in Tahoe. It was a frame that showed just how powerful Wachusett’s new system can be, not to mention an effective way of reminding local skiers and riders what might be so close by.
It’s also a snapshot of how Wachusett effectively markets itself these days. Less “Waaaaaa …” and more social media-based opportunities.
“What we’re really striving for is to stay relevant with the millennial market,” Meyers said, adding that it’s a generation that isn’t nearly as familiar with the radio jingle as their parents might be.
“The recognition value of the jingle is certainly attributed to the high volume of radio and television we’ve done over the years to make it mostly recognizable,” Meyers said. “It’s really re-created how we’re advertising, in a sense.”
But they haven’t needed to re-create the message.
Mountain skiing. Minutes away.
Or about 90 minutes from downtown Boston, where the MBTA runs a weekly ski train from North Station Saturday and Sunday mornings, complete with shuttle service from the station to the mountain. The trip ($11.50 one way) even includes a designated “ski” car for easy storage of ski/snowboard equipment.
When you think about the number of college students who flood Boston every year, many without cars, the ski train to Wachusett is an ideal situation of ease for avoiding the travel headache that Wachusett has done so well to cure.
“The ski train service has been a huge opportunity to remain at the top of the Boston market,” Meyers said. “Because we’re now one of the very few ski areas in New England if not the country that provides real viable public transportation to the ski area.”
The catering to the younger market continues with the mountain’s expanded college night schedule this season. Each Wednesday (when the ski train will be available from Boston) from Jan. 16 through March 27, college students can enjoy discounted night lift tickets, rentals and learning packages. Wachusett also has created a promotional partnership with Uber for Worcester University students.
Never mind how easy those minutes manage to be. Or how much better the mountain skiing manages to get every year.
A commitment to upgrading the product and providing steady improvement year after year continues to be the staying power for Wachusett Mountain, which, yes, may be minutes away, but also has grown into its own as more than just the local hill down the road.
Waaaaaa. Wa. Wachusett.