Vail’s new COO Beth Howard hits the ground running as company makes moves that will shape its future
Howard returns to Vail Resorts' signature mountain that is very much in transition itself
VAIL — Beth Howard spent much of her 20s on Vail Mountain in the ’80s and ’90s.
She now returns “much older, and hopefully wiser,” in her words, as the new chief operating officer for Vail Mountain.
Having transitioned from food and beverage at Vail and Beaver Creek, to Northstar in California as GM, back to Beaver Creek and now to Vail once again, Howard has returned for something that feels a little more permanent.
“I hope I’m here for a long time,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like I’m on an assignment. I think our company is moving talent and leadership around resorts depending on what the positions are and the needs are. And so I’ve benefited from that, in being able to get different perspectives and lead different teams in different regions of the country, so I think that’s all just been of huge value to me, but to come to Vail, and to come back home at our namesake resort, and have this experience at this point in my career is pretty special.”
Amid her hopes to end her own transitional period, Howard returns to a Vail that is very much in transition itself.
An effort to completely retool the mountain through enhanced snowmaking aims to reimagine the entire early season in Vail. With water pumped directly to fully automated snowmaking cannons that now line the sides of popular runs at Vail, the mountain expects to have a robust early-season palate of offerings moving forward.
In other words, gone are the days of Chair 8 opening first on the Friday before Thanksgiving with the infamous “white ribbon of death,” a local moniker for Born Free or any first-day-of-the-season, single-run offering from a ski resort.
Vail will now start its season at the top of Gondola One, where resort officials say lower temperatures and preferable terrain will combine to create a better early-season ski experience. Both the Swingsville and Ramshorn runs are scheduled to open a full two weeks before Thanksgiving on Nov. 15 this year.
“I can’t wait for the guest to ski this terrain Opening Day,” Howard said. “I think it’s going to be a ‘wow’ for the people who may not have seen what we’re doing up on the mountain … we’re fully embracing it, and for me, it was getting out to the community and saying, ‘You know what this means for all of us. We can activate early season.'”
Out and about
With good news to share, Howard started her new position in May by focusing on the community relations aspect of the job.
“It’s critically important how I engage with the community,” she said. “I work with the town, Eagle County commissioners, nonprofits, all of those things. It’s fun to be a part of the community: that’s one of the best parts of the role — we’re all part of a bigger picture, and that’s a big part of my job.”
Within a few months, Howard found herself embroiled in the controversial Booth Heights proposal, which seeks to construct 61 residential units on Vail Resorts-owned land in East Vail, which is bighorn sheep habitat and was once thought to be state-owned open space.
Howard spoke to the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission in favor of the project, saying the controversial location is ideal for employee housing. She also delivered a personal appeal, saying when she arrived in Vail from Iowa, she lived in Benchmark Condominiums in Avon for $400 per month.
“By the time I put in first and last month’s rent and deposit, my savings were gone,” she said. “I went to work and shared with my boss that I would take every hour available so I could pay next month’s rent, along with any gas and food. … What strikes me in telling you my situation today, is that the situation hasn’t really changed since I arrived in 1985, some 35 years ago.”
From East Vail to Ever Vail
At the time, CEO Rob Katz said the availability of affordable housing “is critical for the sustainability and vitality of our resort communities and we firmly believe Vail Resorts should be an integral partner in expanding employee housing capacity.”
As a reflection of that goal, Vail Resorts is set to receive 30 units for employee housing under the Booth Heights plan, which passed the town council on Oct. 15.
Also approved in Vail, the proposed Ever Vail portal to the mountain — located between Lionshead and Cascade — contains the potential for 45 employee housing units.
Howard said Ever Vail is now on her radar as new COO.
“That project was approved several years ago, when we were in the development business as a company. We’re not anymore, so to go forward with Ever Vail, we would need a developer to do that work,” she said. “So, it’s just a matter of can we find a developer, absolutely if that happens and moves forward there would be workforce housing accomplished on that parcel. … It’s been a while since we’ve talked about it, and it is starting to come up more.”
In executing the Booth Heights plan, Vail will first sell the East Vail land to Triumph Development, which will then develop the land and master lease 30 apartments back to Vail.
With affordable housing one part of a package of offerings from Vail Resorts as an employer, Howard says the company is striving to help workers make it in a place where it can be hard to get by.
“We lead with our mission of providing the experience of a lifetime, so we also take that and say, ‘How do we create the experience of a lifetime for our employees?'” Howard said. “Because if they’re having a good, fulfilling experience, that’s going to translate into the guest experience. So we truly look at that as a philosophy of how we look at the employee experience. And it looks at minimum wage, do they have a roof over their heads, what’s the work culture like, all of those things go into attracting great talent as employees, and retaining them.”
Howard said for some employees, training and mentoring opportunities are the best tools to help an employee succeed, while for others, it’s something as simple as the $5 meal on the mountain for Vail workers, which was instituted last season.
“It’s multifaceted,” Howard said. “I think for us to be able to offer a great $5 meal on the mountain, that’s truly money back in their pocket for something else, so we’re always looking at things like that that we can do to improve and really create a fun experience and great culture for (employees).”
Katz be nimble
Howard said that immediately Vail’s investment in new snowmaking will trickle down to improve the lives of Vail employees and workers within the town of Vail, as well.
It’s a point Greg Johnson, vice president of mountain operations, reinforced in the company’s decision to take on the project, which was the largest summer construction effort on Vail Mountain since the installation of quad chairs in the ’80s.
“The positive impacts (of the new snowmaking system) are going to ripple through the entire community,” Johnson said. “And that’s vital, to keep people working here, because we all know, it’s tough.”
Howard said that from big changes such as the snowmaking to little ones such as the $5 meal, Vail has managed to stay nimble despite its growth, to the advantage of its guests and its workforce.
“I see where the company was, 35 years ago, from my experience, and I see where it is today,” Howard said. “And there’s more opportunities today than when I started, hands-down.”
Gondola One will start taking skiers and snowboarders to Vail’s new early-season experience on Nov. 15.
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More base areas open means more space for guests to disperse upon, even if those base area openings don’t translate into more actual terrain openings.