Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Behind the scenes of Sierra’s offseason

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SIERRA'S Broadway run and tubing area without most of its snow. Photo by Charlie Ferris

From page A8 | June 12, 2013 |

The last day of skiing is always bitter-sweet before fond farewells and the long wait till next season.

Sometime in late November or early December, if we’re lucky, it snows enough to head back to the slopes and start skiing all over again. You drive up to Sierra-at-Tahoe and everything is ready.

The staff is on hand and welcoming, the coffee and crumpets are fresh, the slopes groomed, everything is tuned up and ready. Lunch is great, lift lines run flawlessly, and your ski season begins.

Ah, so nice!

How does all that happen? It isn’t by magic. Everything that greets you on that first day is the result of a year round operation. Though the resort simply stops mountain operations on that last day in mid-April, they don’t actually shut down.

Steven Hemphill is the Communications Director for Sierra-at-Tahoe, the PR guy. In an interview shortly after the resort closed mountain operations for the season, he illuminated what happens after they close.

First, Sierra-at-Tahoe closes in mid-April each year because of tradition, snowfall, temperatures and a general lack of demand for skiing and boarding. The outdoor crowd takes up other pursuits.

The day after the resort closes, operations actually continue, just not for the public. There are photo shoots, training for elite skiers and publicity shots. It’s a time when the resort starts the process of getting ready for next season.

Sierra-at-Tahoe runs 365 days a year, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. Vehicle maintenance, lift maintenance, and the business of generally maintaining everything is an ongoing process. They do not run any public operations during the summer months. Some of the resorts do.

Northstar turns into an internationally known mountain bike park. Squaw Valley is open to hikers, mountain bikes, and general tourism. Heavenly runs a tourist oriented summer program, and Kirkwood offers some mountain biking.

The week after closing, Sierra-at-Tahoe’s marketing, sales and maintenance staff are all on board. The ski patrol heads up to all of the runs to remove anything that is removable.

All those temporary gates that either slowed you down at intersections, rope lines, the signs in the snow, banners, all of it has to be collected, taken to storage, and put away in some sense of order. It takes them about a week to pull that off. They also pick up lost skier items that the melting snow reveals.

Food and beverage staff are busy with next seasons ordering, menus, and cleaning the various food venues. Purchasing staff start on the business of what needs to be in place by November. Hemphill says they, along with the different maintenance staffs, are the unsung hero’s at Sierra.

What’s first on the list of things to do? It’s “…a daunting to-do list” says Hemphill. “Everything” is first on the list.

The building maintenance staff are cleaning and repairing everything in sight. Anything that is past its useful life is replaced. There are a lot of moving parts in the buildings. The paint has to be scrubbed and renewed. If a new color scheme is needed, this is when it takes place. New furniture and fixtures have to be set up. Deep cleaning the entire place makes for many long days.

The vehicle maintenance staff takes on the task of cleaning, repairing and overhauling all of the machines at Sierra. The cars, trucks, snowplows, snow cats, snowblowers, backhoes, all of the big equipment goes through the maintenance routine. Road maintenance, from Highway 50 up to the resort, the roads and parking lots, takes place during this time, too. It’s all done by Sierra staff.

The rental shop has to inspect, repair, or replace all of the snow gear that Sierra has available for rental. When it’s time to replace the entire inventory, they are the ones who do it.

The marketing staff continually looks for new initiatives and is always searching in and beyond the ski industry for ideas. They talk to other resorts and mountain managers, and ski industry companies. Their goal is to keep adding to the value of a day skiing at Sierra-at-Tahoe. It’s a bit of a non-ending task.

In the retail shop, everything that will be offered next season has to be ordered now. The managers head to the Ski Industry Association show each February to figure out what to order. The ordering has to take place and the shop starts stocking around August. It really does take that long, and that far in advance for it to work.

Here’s a really big one: the ski lifts. You just ride them. What it takes for you to do that is a real eye opener. Maintenance is continual, but the heavy lifting takes place once mountain ops shut down.

For starters, there are 14 lifts—9 chair lifts, 4 conveyors, and 1 wire rope tow. In that mix are 600 double chairs, 200 triple chairs, and 250 quad detachable chairs. Each of the chairs and grips are visually inspected, and non-destructive testing takes place on 20 percent of them each year. They are taken apart, tested, and put back together.

But there’s more. The 140 towers need inspecting: 90 fixed, with 900 sheaves, of which 100 are changed, 50 detachable, with 700 sheaves, 175 of which are replaced.

Included in the lift maintenance is 12.5 miles of wire haul rope. These vary in diameter from 1.25 inches to 1.625 inches. Every inch of the 12.5 miles is inspected.

To say that this is critical would be to vastly understate the importance of it. Skiers and boarders ride the lifts with blind faith that they are safe. Sierra-at-Tahoe maintenance staff makes certain that it’s all safe and operating as it should.

John Rice, who is the General Manager, and his staff take a look back at the season. They look at action items—did they hit or miss what they had planned for? All of the guest comments and email queries are looked at.

They actively seek employee input, and take a very critical look, what they call a climate survey, at all of it with the goal of making the resort better. Nothing is too small to be insignificant. All of the details are considered. What they want is to provide guests with an experience that is truly unique and California in style and substance. Having their guests enjoy themselves so much that they come back year after year is the hoped for result of this.

Over the summer months, there are about 50 seasonal staff who work part of the summer. Full time and part time staff, around 30 of them, are there year round. That’s what it takes to run the place.

When you show up for opening day, everything works because of the intense amount of care and hard work that John Rice and the entire staff at Sierra-at-Tahoe put in over the summer, and throughout the year. As Steve Hemphill says, “There is no magic involved.”



Charlie Ferris



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