Derek Franz
dfranz@eaglevalleyenterprise.com

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January 9, 2013
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The weight of spoken words

The job may look easy to some, but not just anyone makes the cut to be a member of Vail Resorts Research and Marketing team.

Former Eagle Valley High School Principal Mark Strakbein has been deemed as worthy. This season, he's working part time as a surveyor at Beaver Creek - asking visitors all sorts of questions to help Vail Resorts give people what they want.

"I was skiing with my son here 14 years ago and we rode up on a lift with a surveyor," Strakbein said. "I told my son, 'That's the job I want when I retire.'"

This statement proved to be prophetic. Strakbein retired from his job at EVHS in 2011 after he turned 50.

"My wife's parents died in their 50s," he said. "We made a pact with each other that when we turned 50 we would quit whatever we were doing and try something new. I loved my job at Eagle Valley High School but it was time to move on."

Strakbein began his career with the Eagle County School District more than 18 years ago. He spent his first year as a physical education teacher and a coach at Battle Mountain High School. After one year in the classroom at BMHS, he was hired as the school's principal. He served in that capacity for four years.

When Strakbein left BMHS, it was to establish a new alternative high school for the district. He helped create Red Canyon High School and remained that school's principal for four years.

He started his job at Eagle Valley High about 10 years ago. During his time at EVHS, the school saw a significant enrollment increase and a massive renovation. In 2010, he was named Colorado High School Principal of the Year.

"I went through three interviews to get this job with Vail Resorts, including a Skype interview at 4 a.m. while I was in Hawaii," he said. "They are very selective. One of the questions they asked was if I can resolve conflicts. I told them I did that every day as a principal."

Vail Resorts wants to hire people who are good at interacting with people because people are what Strakbein's job is all about. That, and accurate research.

"We have different sets of survey questions," he said. "Each day, we are assigned a different quota for each set and a specific place and time to collect each set."

Ryan Clark, assistant manager of market research for Vail Resorts, said the exact strategy for collecting the data is proprietary.

"Basically, the more people we have on the mountain, the more surveys we collect," he said.

Some types of surveys are collected at the base of the mountain while others, such as the guest satisfaction survey, are done on a ski lift.

"The guest satisfaction surveys are my favorite to do," Strakbein said. "People are usually happy to give their input and Vail Resorts listens. The company is always looking for ways to get better and that is impressive."

Clark said Beaver Creek's Rose Bowl Express Lift was installed last season as a result of feedback.

"When we add things to our infrastructure, it's usually because of feedback," he said. "How fast changes occur depends on the data and size of the decision. Some things might change from week to week while other decisions take longer."

Since the company takes the survey information so seriously, surveyors like Strakbein have to be as accurate as possible. That's where the people skills become very important.

Strakbein makes a point to be tactful in how he approaches visitors. He doesn't interrupt conversations or go up to someone who is clearly not available to talk. At the same time, he tries to select interviews as randomly as possible.

Sometimes people get frustrated when a survey takes longer than they expect. Strakbein will try to coax them through it - an unfinished survey won't count toward a quota - but he'll let them walk away if they want. More than anything, he wants honest opinions and he wants to collect them without interfering with a guest's overall experience.

"The negative opinions can be the most important ones to hear so that the company knows where to improve," he said. "I want people to be comfortable telling me whatever they have to say."

Clark said there is a team of eight to 10 surveyors at each mountain and that the company has a few analysts.

"We're asking about every single aspect that the guest touches and the analysts sort through the data and make sense of it," Clark said. "We have bimonthly meetings with the analysts. It's about staying on top rather than playing catch-up."

Vail Resorts has been surveying its visitors for at least 15 years, Clark said. He wouldn't say how visitor demographics have changed over time but he said the company is trying to see through the eyes of its guests on a daily basis.

"Vail Resorts is really striving to be the best in the world," Strakbein said.

Strakbein said the elements are the biggest challenge he faces.

"No matter what the weather is, I have to do the same job," he said.

Some of his coworkers, Stevenson Smith and Taryn Petzel, agreed, and listed a few others.

"I have a hard time asking ladies how old they are," Smith said.

Other times, it's an unexpected response.

"People never really refuse to do a survey on the ski lift, since there's nothing else to do, but one time a guy did," Petzel said.

It made for a quiet lift ride.

Strakbein said it's been a privilege to work with two of the biggest employers in Eagle County - the school district and Vail Resorts.

"The employees in both are great," he said. "It's fun to work in an environment where everyone wants each other to succeed. My coworkers have bent over backwards to help me, the new old guy."

Strakbein is thinking about serving in the Peace Corps with his wife a few years from now, but he plans to stick with his job at Beaver Creek for a bit. While Smith and Petzel are looking to move up the corporate ladder, Strakbein wants to stay right where he is.

"I like being outside and meeting people," he said.

It was actually one of his former students that helped him get the job. The student was a former ski instructor at Beaver Creek who had gone to work in the talent recruitment department. She spotted Strakbein's application one day and told his interviewer her former principal would be perfect for the position. Her prediction came true.

"Mark is a great asset to our team," Clark said.


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The VailDaily Updated Jan 9, 2013 12:50PM Published Jan 9, 2013 12:38PM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.