Ski industry trailblazer Bill Jensen receives lifetime achievement award
The National Ski Areas Association recognized the former president of Vail Resorts Mountain Division for his nearly 50-year career in the industry
Bill Jensen, local resident and former president of Vail Resorts Mountain Division, received the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Ski Areas Association at the 2022 National Convention earlier this month.
Each year, the association recognizes industry leaders and trailblazers whose contributions have had a positive impact on the ski industry as a whole. The 2022 National Convention took place on May 11-14 in Nashville, Tennessee, and celebrated recipients from the past three years.
Jensen was awarded the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his nearly 50-year career in the ski industry, during which he has served in leadership roles at resorts around the country. The association dubbed him “The Revered Leader” in its annual publication, and highlighted his impressive track record for increasing skier visits and upgrading the visitor experience at every mountain that he has touched.
“Bill Jensen’s resume is as impressive as it is long,” said the publication. “He’s known for helming many ski areas across U.S. markets and leaving them in better condition than he found them — as destination resorts with double- and triple-digit growth.”
Jensen is a giant in the ski industry today, but he started his career just like any ski bum: as a liftie. Born in Hawaii and raised in Southern California, Jensen did not grow up skiing, and had only been on skis a handful of times before joining the staff at Mammoth Mountain in California. It was a K2 ski demonstration video playing through a window on Ventura Boulevard that first captured his attention and sparked his desire to join the ski community.
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Jensen said that he did not originally envision pursuing a lifelong career in the ski industry when he started out, but that the culture and leadership that he experienced under Mammoth CEO and founder Dave McCoy opened his eyes to the possibilities.
“He was such a powerful influence, especially in his respect for all the people that worked for him,” Jensen said. “His other thing, he would always ask you, ‘Are you having fun?’ Yes, you were working 12 hours a day, but you were having fun, and that atmosphere permeated throughout the culture.”
Jensen said that even as a liftie, he was compelled to go the extra mile, keeping his ramps meticulously manicured and building elaborate snow sculptures to entertain the loading skiers. In the following decades, he would become known for his practice of adding an extra 2% of effort at the end of every completed task. It is just one of many “Bill-isms” that have guided his career and that of his many employees.
“It’s a line I’ve used my whole career — is that I want to make a difference,” Jensen said.
Enhancing the ski experience
In time, Jensen became known as a leader who could make a difference, and nowhere was that better demonstrated than in Colorado. He was hired as the chief operating officer at Breckenridge in 1997, and within two winters grew skier visits by 22%, overtaking Vail in popularity for the first time. Seeing his success, Vail Resorts hired him as its chief operating officer, where he then boosted skier visits by 25% and returned Vail to the No. 1 ranking among ski resorts in the US.
Jensen said that his guiding star was always to improve the customer experience, or what he referred to as “polishing” the experience. During his time at Vail, he increased grooming from 750 acres a night to nearly 1,500 acres. He also placed a high value on customer recovery, making sure that anyone who had a bad experience received both consolation and a free stay to encourage them to come back. He emphasized the power of a bad experience to negatively impact business, and gave an example of someone sharing news of their trip at a water cooler.
“How fast is it that people who heard the story go home to their families and tell the story, and all of a sudden your reputation is tarnished,” Jensen said. “You have to come back and say we’re really sorry, obviously we fell short. This is what we’re going to do, but more importantly, we want you to come back. Now, all of a sudden you’ve got a raving fan. Now, the story they tell when they go to work the next week is a completely different story.”
While some of these measures were not necessarily cost-saving, Jensen said that they are the fuel that kept skier visits high and customers satisfied for years to come.
“I’ve always put experience first,” Jensen said. “I believe that if you deliver the experience, then the financial benefits follow for the business, and I think it was proven out.”
Leading through challenging times
Jensen has led some of the largest ski resorts through the most difficult times this country has seen in recent years. During the Great Recession in 2008, Jensen was the CEO of Intrawest — a company that ran operations at Winter Park, Deer Valley and Steamboat, among others — and he was acting CEO of Telluride Ski and Golf until 2020.
“I think what I like most about the business is it’s a people business, but those are the difficult times of having to tell people that there isn’t a job, or we’ve had to reorganize how we do things,” Jensen said. “If I go back to Dave McCoy and he asked me, ‘So are you having fun?’ Um, not today. Not this week, not this month, and maybe not this year, but that’s where you go back to all the experiences you’ve had for a decade or two or three before, and you can call on those experiences to find a path.”
Jensen has stepped away from running full-time operations, but he is not done impacting the ski industry. He is now part of a group of investors who purchased Sundance Mountain Resort in Utah from Robert Redford in 2020, where he continues to bring his philosophies and his knack for enhancing customer experience.
Looking ahead, he hopes to find ways to address overcrowding on peak days, which he sees as the biggest obstacle for customer experience in the modern ski industry.
“I cautioned when I was at that conference that I think the threat to the ski industry right now is peak day demand or crowding,” Jensen said. “With the change in remote work environments, how do you create more interest in moving some of that peak day demand to Mondays and Tuesdays and Wednesdays? It’s been interesting.”
Celebrating a decorated career
The Lifetime Achievement Award joins a prestigious collection of accolades that Jensen has received over the years from the industry’s foremost organizations. He is a two-time recipient of the Colorado Ski Country USA Chairman’s Award for his time chairing the National Ski Areas Association, and was honored with the Ski Area Management Industry Leadership Award in 2002.
He was inducted into the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2008, and the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame a decade later, in 2018. Though this is not Jensen’s first time being recognized by his peers in the industry, the significance of their support continues to move him.
“When they did my introduction, I had a few tears in my eyes, and it took me 30 seconds to collect myself,” Jensen said. “I’m not sure a lot of people ever have the chance to spend their entire career in one business or industry.”
Looking back, Jensen said that he takes greatest pride in the people that he has had the opportunity to work with, and he knows they will carry forward the “Bill-isms” that help make the ski industry great.
“I’ve always believed that making a difference, that’s the goal,” Jensen said. “To me, if I made any contribution to the sport and the industry, it’s that I’ve got a legacy with dozens and dozens of people who I had the chance to work with that are having great careers on their own.”
After leaving his position as CEO of Telluride Ski and Golf in 2020, Jensen moved back to Vail, where he shares a home with his wife, Cheryl Jensen, the president and founder of the Vail Veterans Program. Having lived in many of the country’s best ski towns, Jensen said that it is the community in Vail that makes him feel at home, and that he is happy to be back in Eagle County for good.
“15 years before I had the chance to come to Vail, I was hopeful that at some point my career would take me to here. I think Vail has always been a place in my mind that just seemed to be the right place,” Jensen said. “Community is a really important part of our lives, and for Cheryl and I, the Vail community just resonated with both of us. The whole valley, it just resonates with us, and it’s really where we want to be.”