CO’s sidecountry king: Q&A with Telluride CEO Dave Riley

Since taking over as Telluride's CEO in 2007, Dave Riley has been busy expanding the storied Colorado ski area's hike-to terrain. SNEWS sits down with him to find out just what that means to Telluride's image, and to its bottom line.
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Since taking over as CEO of the Telluride Ski & Golf Company in 2007, Dave Riley has been aggressively opening up some of the most impressive “adventure” terrain in the Rocky Mountains. This year, his continued expansion into the Gold Hill Chutes has generated a mini PR campaign of positive press, and at the same time that landowners at the base of the area’s adjacent Bear Creek drainage have caused the Forest Service to shut down access to the area’s magnificent sidecountry terrain. SNEWS® sat down with Riley, who has worked in management everywhere from Keystone to Angel Fire, Jackson Hole and Mt. Hood, to talk about what it takes to keep moving the needle at one of U.S. skiing’s most storied locations.

SNEWS: You came to Telluride from Mt. Hood. What are the big differences between running a ski area in the Pacific Northwest, and running one in Colorado?

Dave Riley:
The main difference is that the Pacific Northwest resorts are very close to major metropolitan population centers, where you get these peaks of visitors on the weekends and valleys during the weekdays. There is tremendous drive-up business, unlike Telluride, where 80 percent of the guests came in on an airplane. People are here for seven days on average, and we just don’t have those peaks and valleys, but more of a steady flow throughout the week. The other big difference is that those coastal resorts from California to Oregon just get slammed with moisture coming right off the ocean, and can get 10 feet of snow in five days, or a major rain event. Both kinds of weather create their own set of problems. In the inter-Continental areas, such as Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, the weather is much more moderate and more predictable. It rarely rains in the wintertime, and the lifts aren’t icing up with rime. As far as the weather is concerned, it is much easier to operate a ski resort in Colorado.

SNEWS: What sort of differences does that create in terms of marketing?

DR:
When you’re in an urban area, you are basically marketing to a couple million people within an 1- to 1.5-hour drive from the resort. It’s much more centralized. With Telluride, the world is our market. How we place ads and salespeople is very different, and we have a presence in places such as Munich, London and Sydney. It is much more costly and difficult to market to the world than to a town. On the other hand, there is a really sexy story to tell about Telluride, and writers are always interested in covering it. We get lots of help from lots of different media. From the traditional vertical publications to travel to more niche-oriented media, writers are interested in helping us tell our story.

SNEWS: When you took the Telluride job, what were your big goals for what you thought you could accomplish at the ski area?

DR: I knew a fair amount about Telluride to begin with, and I knew I was walking into the coolest resort in the country. I would say that even if I wasn’t working here. What I didn’t know was that a lot of terrain in the permit area wasn’t open. It took literally about five minutes to think about that before I concluded that I needed to get that open, because it would differentiate Telluride between any other resort on this planet. I call it adventure terrain, not hike-to, or extreme. You can hike five minutes or 1.5 hours, depending on what you want to do. And it’s like going into the backcountry, but it is managed by ski patrol. They have a presence, the avalanche danger has been mitigated, and if you want to have that adventure, but don’t want to risk your lives by going into the backcountry, then Telluride offers that.

SNEWS: Opening the Gold Hill Chutes has certainly generated a lot of press, but has it resulted in tangible returns?

DR: That is a really good question. At the end of the day, a lot of times skier visits depend on how much snow you’ve got. Telluride’s skier visits have been growing at a faster rate than the market, but it’s not about packing the resort with people. It’s about the experience that we’re creating. On that question, we are clearly winning in creating an experience that you can’t get anywhere else. And the repeat business and referral business from people who come here for that experience continues to grow.

SNEWS: Do you think that having that kind of backcountry-style experience is aspirational to the people who ski groomers?

DR: Aspirational is the perfect word to use, and there is some truth to that. A lot of people won’t ski it, but they will look at it and maybe someday actually go out and experience it for themselves. But I do think that ultimately that pizzazz does positively affect all the skiers. Even the intermediates who just want to be associated with it. It’s like with Jackson Hole and Corbet’s. Not very many of the skiers who go there, ski it, but everyone knows about it -- and like being associated with it. And I think in the same way what we are doing has ultimately repositioned Telluride in the world ski market. More people know about Telluride now because of the new terrain and how we’re positioning it.

SNEWS: Not just because of its repetitive name, but because of things like “The Lost People of Mountain Village” video online, Telluride’s Town of Mountain Village has come in for a fair share of ribbing. How do you deal with that?

DR: There is certainly a big difference between the Town of Mountain Village and the town of Telluride. The hotels are up here, and a lot of the restaurants and shops are in the town of Telluride. Thank, god, there is a gondola that runs between them, which frankly, is something that people rave about. They love having that gondola connect the two, and for anyone who rents a car to come here, I think they are making a mistake because they really don’t need it. But absolutely, we are opening stores and restaurants to reverse that image of Mountain Village being too quiet.

SNEWS: You were offering guided access to the Bear Creek drainage, but the Forest Service has closed the gates because of a dispute with landowners at the base. What is your take on the issue, and what is the solution?

DR: If you look at Bear Creek, over the past 20 years it has opened, closed, opened and closed for many different kinds of spontaneous reasons. Most recently, these issues came up because of private property rights and mining claims. I think this will get resolved. I think the area is one of the more spectacular ski experiences on this planet. With the advent of equipment changes and the kind of people who want that kind of sidecountry experience, the amount of people who want to go in there has just exploded. Just a decade ago, there were maybe 25 locals who would ski there, and the last time I counted, it was up to 250 people a day going through there. Where will this be 10 years from now, and 20 years from now, I can’t say for certain. But sooner or later, it does have to be managed, just because the number of people using the area will require it.

SNEWS: Overall, what kind of year is it going to be for Telluride?

DR: I think this will be one of our top two or three seasons. We didn’t get much snow in January, but we are looking forward to what is typically a snowy rest of February and March. And looking at advanced reservations and airline seats, I think it will be a good year. Right now, we have a really clear vision of what we are offering, and we are not going to start flipping that and creating a new brand. We are going to stick with this vision of a high-quality, international destination resort that offers an experience that you just can’t find in other places.

SNEWS: Do you have to keep building new lifts and opening new terrain to keep up the momentum?

DR: This is certainly a business where supply leads demand. But not many ski areas can build a new lift or restaurant every year forever. So we focus on what we call “little big things” that have a big impact on the ski experience. A good example is the stairway we built up to Chute 9 on Gold Hill. The cost of that is equivalent to buying a two-page ad in SKI Magazine, but the impact we created by putting that little stairway in is way beyond that. Glading is another good example. It blows people away to have new terrain in existing areas, and all we did was a little strategic thinning. People do like to see improvements. And even little things can go a long way toward bringing them back for years to come.

--Peter Kray

On Oct. 6, 2010, veteran journalist Peter Kray joined the SNEWS team and is now editor of the new SNEWS WinterSports channel. We trust you are enjoying the full offering of WinterSports news. Be sure to email your friends and let them know the best WinterSports news has arrived -- just in time for the winter season. Got WinterSports news? Send your WinterSports news to Kray at pkray@snewsnet.com. Subscribers can also post WinterSports news releases directly to the SNEWS website. Email us at snewsbox@snewsnet.com to learn about posting your own news releases, or for any other questions or comments. We love to hear from our readers!

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