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Community needs connection to mountain

NWS Bill Jensen KL 8-16-06
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VAIL – In 1974, 21-year-old Bill Jensen’s ski experience was quite limited. He could count his lifelong-total ski days on both hands.But he walked into a Mammoth Mountain lodge during a ski trip and – not sure what he was going to do with his life – asked for a job working at the mountain.”If I hadn’t walked through that day lodge, which very much could have happened, I could have just missed that one second in the universe and gone a completely different path,” he said.That spontaneous inquiry, which got Jensen a job as a lift operator, began a career which has made him a high-profile executive in the ski industry. His official titles are chief operating officer of Vail Mountain and co-president of Vail Resorts Mountain Division.He runs Vail Mountain and oversees Vail, Beaver Creek and Heavenly resorts out of his Lionshead office, though the full ski rack there hints at his affinity for taking a few runs to check out the operation or hold a meeting on a chairlift. Now that Vail Resorts’ corporate headquarters have moved from Avon to Broomfield, Jensen – with his calm and self-assured demeanor – is Vail Resorts’ most prominent official in Eagle County.Vail Resorts chief exec Rob Katz gave Jensen the “co-president” title in February when Katz took over and decided to move the headquarters to the Front Range. The new title doesn’t significantly change his duties, but it gives him more visibility in the community and within the company, he said.The corporate offices’ move away from Eagle County give Vail and Beaver Creek a chance to be just ski towns and shake the notion that they are “corporate” ski areas, Jensen said.”That’s a hard reputation to lose when your corporate office is directly adjacent to the mountains,” said Jensen.And Jensen disputed the theory that Vail and Beaver Creek lose out because they are no longer in the chief executive’s backyard. The two resorts didn’t get preferential treatment in the first place, he said.”In many ways, maybe it was comforting to people in the valley,” he said. “‘Well, if the corporate headquarters are here, Vail and Beaver Creek must be getting treated better.’ I would argue that in my nine-plus years with the company, all the businesses, all the resorts are treated equally.”

Jensen was born in Hawaii and grew up in Southern California. But it wasn’t until he came to Mammoth – where he worked on the lift crew for four years – that he discovered his kinship with the mountains. That connection is something that’s fostered instant bonds with people from across the globe, he said.”It’s almost kind of a nod and wink,” he said. “There’s an acknowledgment that you’re part of this secret little club.”Being in the club has taught him that some little things are important. Like if the lifts run two minutes late on a powder day, it’s a big deal.At Mammoth, founder Dave McCoy became a guiding light who taught him about the “connections” that ski resorts can create with their skiers.Part of that connection is making sure local skiers and snowboarders are on the mountain, he said, with deals like merchant passes and ski-school discounts.”For our community to be successful and healthy, it’s important that our community has a connection to skiing and snowboarding,” he said.Locals and Front Range skiers also provide great word-of-mouth marketing to out-of-state visitors, Jensen said.Input from locals gets taken seriously, too, he said. Opposition from local skiers was overwhelming when a replacement for Chair 5 was considered in 2003. But there’s always a balance between the needs of guests, too, not to mention shareholders.”What’s changed in four years is more of our guests from out of the community, because of fat skis and everything else, can rip up the Back Bowls right beside a local, and they are the guys who are paying $80 for a lift ticket,” he said. “They get down there and they’re in a 35- or 40-minute line, and that’s not the Vail experience. And I hear from those guests.”Chair 5 still has seven to 10 years of useful life, and the mountain’s updated long-term plan, which will be made public in the next couple of years, plans for its replacement.Jensen also said he doesn’t see any significant expansions at Vail and Beaver Creek soon.”What people are skiing today on the mountain is what we’ll be skiing 10 years from now,” he said.

At age 28, Jensen got a chance to build a brand-new ski resort outside of Walla Walla, Wash., called Skyline Basin.”We built it, opened it, and went bankrupt after the first season,” Jensen said. “Our total skier visits our first season was 38,000, which would be the equivalent of a good Saturday and Sunday at Vail.”That experience gave him all the more respect for Vail founder Pete Seibert. Jensen calls himself a caretaker of Seibert’s dream. “I think Pete had a very clear vision that developed over one or two decades of what he saw as the perfect ski mountain,” Jensen said. “He searched long and hard for it. He didn’t compromise.”Jensen sold grooming equipment for Kassbohrer All Terrain Vehicles from 1983 to 1989. He probably visited 600 ski resorts, he said, and got to know a lot of people in the ski industry. From there, he worked for Sunday River in Maine and then for the company that owned Northstar-at-Tahoe, Sierra-at-Tahoe and Bear Mountain Ski Resort in Southern California.He came to Vail Resorts in 1997 to work as Breckenridge’s chief operating officer. In 1999, he took the same position at Vail.

In May, Jensen took over as chairman of the National Ski Areas Association, a trade group. He’ll be a leader for the industry in that role.Last year, skier visits in Colorado surpassed the long-sought-after 12 million mark. And nationally, skier visits set a record, coming close to 60 million.Jensen cited a convergence of three generations that has boosted numbers. Baby boomers are staying with the sport as they age past 50, Generation X has been brought into the sport through snowboarding, and the Echo Boom generation is coming into the sport now, too, he said. As a result, skiing can expect high participation – and revenues – over the next five to 10 years, Jensen said.”It’s an instinct,” Jensen said. “There are numbers to back it up, but it’s a hunch that things just may be very good for every ski area, not just a fortunate few.”Jensen also said he’ll stress environmental stewardship as chairman of the ski area association.Some have warned that global warming threatens the future of the ski industry. A report released last month by The Aspen Global Change Institute said that, by 2100, there will probably be no consistent snowpack at the base of Pitkin County ski areas due to global climate change.Jensen said the threat of climate change doesn’t worry him. Ski areas are held up as a high-profile example of the effects of global warming, Jensen said. If the worst-case scenarios are realized, Jensen said, more significant will be the decimation of coastal communities, not that “there’s not skiing in Pennsylvania anymore,” he said.

Jensen came up with the idea, announced earlier this month, for Vail Resorts to offset all of its electricity use with wind energy. The move wasn’t prompted by worries of the death-by-warming of the ski industry.”It was not a self-preservation move,” he said. “We thought it was a good business decision. There is an expectation on our industry, not just Vail Resorts, to be environmental stewards.”Another dark cloud looming over Vail Mountain is the effect of the mountain pine beetle. The outbreak is killing trees on the mountain as well as all over the region. Jensen said the company is waiting on the scientific community to come up with a viable solution for the problem. Another solution would be a long-enough cold snap that would kill the bugs, he said.Though Jensen now seeks to position Vail as a leader on environmental issues, the resort was targeted in 1998 by radical environmentalists who burned down Two Elk Lodge. The act protested the planned expansion onto Battle Mountain, which became Blue Sky Basin. Earlier this year, seven years after the arson, authorities arrested several suspects, some of whom later entered guilty pleas.Jensen said he appreciates law enforcement’s perseverance, and he said that justice was served.”In some ways I think its sad that it happened at all,” he said. “It’s sad that people from outside Colorado came in to do it. In hindsight, I wish that the emotional situation around the Blue Sky development had been more mature.”Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 748-2929 or estoner@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado


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