Dealing with Resort Crises: Be straight, get help

Crisis management is the worst part of running a resort. But having a response plan for when things do go wrong can help save more than a mountain's reputation. SNEWS finds out the best way to deal with bad events from ski area operators who have been there before.

“By the time I got there" 10 or 15 minutes after the incident, recalled Sugarloaf general manager John Diller, “we were already on CNN.” Diller was recounting the Christmas vacation derailment of Sugarloaf’s Spillway East lift, which dropped five chairs to the snow and injured eight. The immediate and overwhelming media coverage turned out to be a positive: A CNN reporter who was on the lift with a smartphone was impressed by Sugarloaf’s quick response. Training and response plans ensured the resort’s ability to handle the incident, and in the aftermath Diller said there’s only one rule: “Be as accurate and straight as you can.” The resort’s followup included daily contact with the injured guests and their families.

Diller joined Matthew Drake of Mt. Hood Meadows and Tom Chasse of Schweitzer Mountain Resort in an NSAA Convention session on May 5, on “Lessons in Crisis Management from the CEO Perspective.” The panel was moderated by Bo Adams, senior vice president for MountainGuard Insurance. 

Drake continually stressed the importance of followup with a victim’s friends and family -- and with the resort’s employees. He cited a Valentine’s Day 2010 terrain park fatality that was more critical for what happened afterward, when the staff concentrated on taking care of the victim’s grieving girlfriend, driving her home to Portland, arranging counseling and dealing with the deceased’s family.

“We treated her the same way one of us would like to be treated,” Drake said. He and two other managers attended the funeral, where the family recognized the resort for its efforts surrounding the tragedy. Drake said resorts need to think of their employees, too. “It takes a heavy toll on the company,” he said. “Death is a part of life. We need to take care of the living.” Grief counseling for workers requires diligence, said Drake, who said his employees didn’t seek assistance until he did.

Chasse faced an unusually challenging pre-season predicament: the fatality of a water and sewer employee the same morning of a resort orientation that drew 400 people. The resort went forward with the orientation, but concentrated on dealing with the wife and family of the victim, who had just started at Schweitzer. They visited the family the night of the incident, and worked on grief counseling and anything else they could provide. 

All three resort managers echoed the same refrain about their participation on the panel: “We do not want to be here.” Added moderator Adams to the audience of resort operators: “This will happen sometime in your future. I guarantee it.”

--Andy Bigford

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