Dave Scanlan is new to Eaglcrest Ski Area, but he’s no stranger to small community ski areas. At 40, he’s spent his professional life working at, improving and advocating for the little guy in the increasingly corporate ski industry.
Eaglecrest’s new general manager has shoveled snow, built ski lifts and co-founded an industry advocate group, called the Mountain Rider’s Alliance, which over the last half decade has worked to improve small ski areas nationwide.
Scanlan comes to Eaglecrest off a three-year stint as the general manager of Greenwood, Maine’s Mount Abram ski area. It’s a return to Alaska for the midwestern-bred, dreadlocked mountain man: Scanlan lived in Hope, Alaska, for many years before departing for the East Coast and founding MRA.
In an interview last week in his new office at Eaglecrest’s old lodge, Scanlan talked about his dreams for the future of Juneau’s city-supported ski area. Snowmaking, local trust, sustainability and a forging a path into summer with mountain biking trails were all on Scanlan’s mind as he settles into his new position.
Juneau Empire: What did you learn from managing Mount Abram?
Dave Scanlan: We did a lot of big infrastructure improvement projects while I was at Mount Abram. It’s a really fiercely competitive area of New England. There’s a lot of ski areas of all sizes, small mom-and-pop ski areas similar to the size of Eaglecrest down to these little tiny places the size of a single rope tow, to the big corporate areas. I think we figured that within a three-hour drive there are 20 ski areas. So I mean there’s a lot of competition out there for skier days. We really positioned ourselves as one of the authentic mom-and-pop owned ski areas that were focused on environmental sustainability, renewable energy.
While I was there we installed a huge solar panel array, 803 solar panels. That was a huge project. Three-quarters of our total power consumption for the year came out of those solar panels. We used a lot of power on our snowmaking system. Being in New England, snowmaking is really critical to delivering a consistent product. We have big weather swings, similar to what Juneau has experienced in the past. During my time there as well we renovated our whole snowmaking system. So we redid the whole water pumping side of our system. When I came into Mount Abram, we had about 13 smaller kinds of tower-mounted snow guns that we could run at one time. After we did our improvements, we could run 50 guns at one time. So it changed our situation from needing two weeks of around-the-clock snowmaking temperatures to have one top-to-bottom run on our main chairlift, to be able to do it in four days. When you have short windows of opportunity, it really allowed us to maximize that.
I was able to really see that first-hand two winters ago. We had a really wet, warm winter, and I’ll tell you, it really let us stand on our own two feet. We were only down about 8 percent in gross revenue. Other mountains were down 40 to 50 percent in revenue because they didn’t have the capacity for snowmaking. Since we had that really good snowmaking system, we were able to put down a really good base for our core trails. We were able to keep it going with good conditions. … It really kind of put faith in our regular season pass holders, it really gave them faith that we were going to deliver because they saw what we could do with that warm winter.
So I really learned a ton about that whole side of the business, the sustainability side and the snowmaking side.
When you got to Eaglecrest, what struck you as unique? What were your initial questions and ideas?
One of the unique things about Eaglecrest, you don’t have a drive up audience. It’s very limited to the people that live here in Juneau. So 80, 85 percent of our revenue comes from season pass holders or multi-visit card holders. Whereas a typical ski area, 75 percent is one-day ticket sales. So it’s kind of flip-flopped around from what you have in a typical scenario. So the loyalty and the confidence of the local customers is so critical. We’re really dependent on the locals and how confident they are that they’re going to have skiing.
Really this first year is just meeting people, watching the wheels spin. I am so lucky to have this core staff that’s been here this long. They’re really knowledgeable. They know the operation inside and out. So for me, it’s learning the nuances of how the mountain is operating right now and looking for opportunities for improvement.
We’ve already purchased a small booster pump for our snowmaking system to see how increasing the water pressure behind the type of snow guns we have would improve efficiency, and already we’re seeing the improvements. … So kind of the big projects we’re looking at, evaluating into the future is doing improvements to our snowmaking system. When the Black Bear Chair got put in, that was really the mindset, is that could be utilized on a warm winter, being a lot higher in elevation it would be consistently above the snow line. Kind of the dots that need to be linked are, OK how do we get people down from Black Bear? We can get them up there, we can keep them up there, but what happens at the end of the day? How do we get them down?
So that’s what I am really looking at, making some substantial upgrades to the snowmaking system so we can make snow all the way to the bottom of Black Bear. Right now, we don’t quite have the capacity to do that, we don’t have enough pipeline, we don’t have enough guns. It’s looking at how do we most efficiently give ourselves that ability to make snow under the chair and down to the bottom of Black Bear. So if we get plagued by another warm winter, it’s like insurance: We are able to fortify this artery. It’s not all the trails, but it’s an artery. It’s Sourdough next to Hooter and out from the bottom of Black Bear. Really fortifying those big travel arteries, I think that will do so much to keep the excitement from the local people up and helping them have the faith and confidence that, even if it’s a warm, fickle year, they’re still going to get to the snow.
You co-founded the Mountain Riders Alliance, which focuses on supporting community ski areas. In your mind how does a community ski area differ from other models? What role do you hope Eaglecrest plays in the Juneau community?
All ski areas are really focused on getting more people in the pipeline. Getting more kids in. One of the big problems the industry is having in general is we’re competing against the digital age. It’s getting kids to go out and do something active outside. How do you make it exciting, how do you make it appealing? I think the community ski areas really do that well and I think Eaglecrest has done that very well. I am very much looking forward to supporting these programs that are already in place. We’ve got our fifth-grader passport program, that gets all the fifth graders out for free skiing during their fifth-grade year. That’s a really great age to get kids into it from just their physcial movement, balance and strength. It’s a great age to capture kids. Then we’ve got the Books to Boards program that the Eaglcerest Foundation supports that helps lower-income kids, really drives academics and good behavior that is another opportunity to get kids free lessons, free gear. We’ve got a whole rack of clothing for Books to Boards kids. If they don’t have a good ski parka, they can come and use a parka while they’re here. So I really think that community outreach and just involving the community on that level, doing these outreach programs to make sure that it’s accessible and affordable to youth and to the local residents is really an important thing.
Mountain Rider’s Alliance has done a lot of consulting and is very much focused on a lot of the same things. They’re also very much focused on helping mountains evaluate their renewable energy potential and things like that. We’ve got our little microhydro plant generating hydro power from Croply Lake and doing some things like that already. It’s really exciting and I am looking forward to continuing the dialogue with Mountain Rider’s Alliance and help them get the message out on what Eaglecrest out to a larger audience.
Eaglcrest is a little rare in that it’s public supported, which means there’s a little more public scrutiny of its bottom line. What financial challenges do you see to keeping Eaglecrest in the black?
If we look at the performance over the years, years when we’re getting snow, the numbers come up pretty good. So it’s what can we do to eliminate those dips. I think that’s where the snowmaking really comes into play. I also think there’s a really big opporunity to do more with our summer operations. The lift-served mountain biking is a sport that’s really taken hold all across the U.S. That’s really been driven partly by the climate change patterns in the warm winters that have been seen in various parts of the county. The whole west coast had three winters of very warm, low-snow years. So everybody is looking, how do we diversify? We’ve got all this infrastructure, we’ve got all this land base, how do we use it more than four months out of the year? So a lot of people are going in many directions, but the mountain bike direction is really starting to take hold. And the numbers back it up. People are starting to travel for mountain bike visits and I think there’s a unique opportunity for us here to attract these independent travelers. You think about the summertime in the Lower 48 and a lot of these people that are becomming passionate mountain bikers, they’re riding in 100 degree weather, sweating their tushes off. So funny enough, there’s an opportunity for them to come to 55 degree, cool misty mountain air is a very attracctive idea. I think there’s really an opportunity to play to our strengths of our summer weather patterns of cool, damp moist weather periods. I think there’s an opportunity to capture these people that are really getting into this sport of mountain biking.
Part of what’s really driving this growth rate is the change in mindset of trail construction. For a long period, lift-served moutain biking was very exclusive. It was really an expert, extreme rider type of sport. Now it’s going in another direction. They’re building trails focused on the entry level, focused on families, on kids, so everybody can go out and ride becuase they saw the writing on the walls. That’s really driving this rapid growth rate. The mountains that are building to that standard are seeing 30, 40 percent growth rates on the year. A high percentage of their winter users are converting over to summer users.
I think there’s a really big opportunity when we talk about, OK, how do we protect our bottom line? How do we make this more financially sustainable? How do we become less dependent on the general fund subsidies?
I really think those are the two big things we’re looking at. We’re going to be putting out an RFP in January or February to hire a consulting firm to come up and look at what the mountain bike potential is for us. I want the professionals to do that evaluation, becuase to be completely onest, we do have our challenges for building that infrastructure here. The main one being our soil: it’s a wet, boggy soil, which is expensive to build in. Really there’s one leading company, they built Whistler Blackcomb’s mountain bike park. They’re a company called Gravity Logic. They’re now built in over 10 different countries. Their model is really working for people. You can have anybody come up and give you a spreadsheet, but they really have the experience to back it up. I really am interested in what theyir evaluation would show. They’ll give you a five year, forward looking financial perform out, the build out costs, participation levels, return on investment probabilities. So I am really looking to get that data next summer so we can use that data to drive the conversation to really look at, to really evaluate do we have an opportunity here? And what are the numbers behind it. So you can really have some eduacted sicussions talking with CBJ, talking about different ways of funding that growth.
What are your goals as a general manager here?
My goal is to stay here very long-term. My wife and I both love Alaska. We love big mountains, deep powder snow, we love the people of Alaska, we love the diversity of Alaska. So we are very much looking to be here long-term. I am very much looking forward to keeping Eaglecrest as affordable as we can and diversifying out the year. I want to make it net nuetral. I want to see Eaglecrest get to the point where we don’t have to rely on any general fund subsidies. And I think there’s a lot of creative ways to do that. But it’s going to be a long process, nothing is going to happen fast. You have to be very thoughtful, very deliberate. You have to have the data to drive the decisions. It’s a long-term play. In the ski business, we talk about the ski business being the long game. The changes you make today usually aren’t felt until two years out, three years out. It’s a much longer strategy on your decision making. It’s not like other businesses where you can make changes to your operations and see the impacts on the next month’s P&O. It’s like you make some changes, add some more dependibility, do some terrain improvements, catches people’s attention, are they going to make the decision to buy a pass? Maybe they’re going to wait one more year. Then ‘Oh man, it’s working’ and they make the decision. So it’s a long game, and you have to have the stamina to play the long game. I am a big believer in letting the data drive the decisions and being very deliberate on what the best avenues are to keep costs at a minumum and try to drive some new revenue markets.
Which is more fun, skiing or snowboarding? Which is a better sport?
I love all the tools. I telemarked exclusively for a very long time. Now I am more alpine skiing but I have definitely put some miles on the snowboard. I think different snow conditions favor different tools. Now with these big fat rockered skis, that’s kind of my tool of choice. You get the mobility as far as being able to traverse out to higher places, access further reaches of the mountain, but you still have the flotation and kind of the surfability in the deeper snow. So I like the mobility of skis, but there’s nothing like cruising around on a snowboard in some denser creamy powder. The one thing I haven’t done much in my ski career is the nordic side of things. So I have been talking with some nordic users and I am very much looking forward to getting out putting some nordic skis on and going out with the folks from the Juneau Nordic Ski Club. For me, it’s very important to do the sport so I understand what is good nordic conditions. If I don’t do it and I don’t understand what a good groom on a nordic trail feels like, then it’s harder for me to deliver. I am a firm believer of getting out there and bonding with everybody and doing all the different aspects of it. But if I have anything on my feet that slides and I have snow underneath me, then I have a big smile on my face.