A visit from Down Under
More than three dozen members of a delegation from Mt. Buller Alpine Resort – in Victoria, about three hours from Melbourne – arrived at Donovan Pavilion Tuesday to open arms and smiles all around as part of a reconnaissance mission, of sorts, that also includes visits to Park City, Utah and Las Vegas.
“We are very much hoping to show you even a modicum of our hospitality,” said Sybill Navas, a former Vail town councilwoman and president of the Vail Valley Exchange, which has nurtured the sister-city relationships Down Under and with St. Moritz in Switzerland.
The ski resort at Mt. Buller – apparently pronounced “MAY-ownt BU-la” in Australian – is at the top of a long, winding road on the namesake mountain, which rises to 5,900 feet above sea level. With 263 hectares, or about 650 acres, of skiable terrain, it is a relatively small ski resort by Vail standards, yet with 7,000 or so beds and tens of millions of dollars in investment over the past decade, it is the largest and best-known ski resort in Australia.
The transhemispherical journey, for which the delegation members – including small business owners and merchants, hoteliers, property managers and ski company employees – paid their own expenses, roughly $3,000 U.S., was the idea of Sandie Jeffcoat, chief executive officer of the Mt. Buller Resort Management Board.
“Our mission is to show a lot of our commercial operators what you guys do here and how you do it,” Jeffcoat said. “We’re having a good time looking around.”
Jeffcoat said he and some of his colleagues attended a chamber function in Park City, and the similarities in issues at ski resorts worldwide, big or small, are “amazing.”
“A real eye-opener’
“It was a real eye-opener,” said Jeffcoat of the universal problems of summer marketing, the structure of municipal government, dependency on good snow and affordable housing for employees.
“For too long ski resorts have been just winter resorts,” said Jeffcoat, echoing sentiments expressed in Vail for years. “And to give a resort a soul, you need permanent residents.”
Dave Clark, one of two plumbers on the trip, said the trip will go a long way toward helping the resort raise its standard of customer service.
“I’ve not seen much that applies to plumbing,” he said of his experiences in Utah and Nevada. “But there’s a lot of little things, like tissues to wipe your nose at the chairlift. The level of customer service here is really, really good. We’re trying to learn how you do things so we can improve ourselves.”
“I’ve learned a lot about service to the guests, which is important,” added Helen Clark, Dave’s wife. “The service here is impeccable, and the facilities well-finished and professional.”
“I can’t get over how friendly and helpful people are here,” added Leanne Bertalli, who runs a bakery at Mt. Buller.
Vail leaders offered their Aussie counterparts a heavy agenda, including dinners at restaurants in Vail and Beaver Creek and other functions on Vail Mountain hosted by former Vail Mayor Ludwig Kurz and Bill Jensen, the resort’s chief operating officer.
John Parks, who runs Mt. Buller’s Arlberg Hotel, said the reception at Donovan Pavilion alone was “impressive,” and that he plans an exhaustive tour of Vail’s lodges and restaurants – as well as an intensive study of the municipal and countywide bus system – while the delegation is in town.
“I’ve been at Mt. Buller 25 years and we’ve never done something like this before,” said Parks. “Most of all, we’ll go home with greater friendships among ourselves. We’ve all got a common mission.”
Pam Brandmeyer, Vail’s assistant town manager, said the community wouldn’t be the same without the work Australians have done here over the years. She said she also hoped the sister-city delegation can take advantage of a busy schedule while they’re in town.
“I just hope they’re not overscheduled. We’ve really cultivated the relationship and have been delighted with it,” said Brandmeyer, referring to similar employee recruiting trips made from Vail to Mt. Buller in the past. “We wouldn’t be able to provide bus service without our exchange program.”
It’s true. To anyone who’s ridden public transportation in the Vail Valley, it should be obvious there are a lot of Aussies driving buses. As many as five dozen have been moving people throughout the valley for the past five years, working for the towns of Vail and Avon, and Eagle County’s ECO Transit.
Mike Rose, transportation director for Vail, says the workers from Down Under are good, hard-working, friendly and trustworthy.
“It’s been real good for us. Before this program, it was big problem every morning with supervisors just looking for bodies who could show up in the morning. And it costs money to train a CDL (a driver with a commercial license), and lots of times they just go somewhere else for more money,” Rose said. “The Aussies, on the other hand, by the time they get here, are motivated to work; and with a work visa, they can’t go anywhere else.”
As for Australians driving on the left side of the road at home, Rose said moving to the right side over here has not been a problem.
“It comes pretty easy,” Rose said. “We’ve not had one issue with the wrong side of the road.”