WinterSports Q&A: Kicking Horse CEO Steve Paccagnan’s talks growth

With a 40-year master plan just approved, a $2 billion dollar Trans-Canada highway project heading to its door and La Nina bringing snow, the folks at Kicking Horse could be excused for being cocky. But they just think it's cool.
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Celebrating its 10th anniversary this season, Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden, British Columbia, seems well poised to be Canada’s next big mountain star. Even among a stellar list of deep north B.C. mega-mountain projects -- including Red Mountain, Revelstoke and Fernie, just to name a few -- Kicking Horse’s role as the cornerstone of Canada’s "Powder Highway" has earned it a high profile among the heli, cat and hut-skiing crowds that have frequented the region for years.

Heading into the start of what looks like a banner year already, the area’s international profile seems destined to grow. In January, a 40-year master plan was approved, which includes up to 20,000 new beds at the base, an 18-hole golf course and an on-hill expansion encompassing up to 4,200 acres (in-bounds, Kicking Horse currently has nearly 3,000 acres of skiable terrain, and a vertical drop of 4,133 feet).

An ongoing $2 billion Trans-Canada Highway improvement project will speed international skiers directly from the Calgary Airport in 2.5 hours to the town of Golden, and with Ballast Nedam International, the Dutch engineering and construction firm that owns the resort, backing every project, substantial improvements including a mountain-top lodge have already been added on the hill.

Throw in substantial early snowfall and the addition of ‘"Super Bowl," new terrain accessing 15 expert chutes, and it seems as if the ride has begun early. Kicking Horse President and CEO Steve Paccagnan, a former Intrawest management man who acted as general manager of Copper Mountain, told SNEWS® just how fast the mountain is expected to grow.

SNEWS WinterSports: Steve, congratulations on the 10-year anniversary. It’s a great milestone. But I remember when you guys started out, even up there on the Powder Highway, you had some less than cooperative snow conditions. Along with that initial roadblock, what have been the other biggest barriers to getting Kicking Horse off the ground?

Steve Paccagnan: I wouldn’t call them roadblocks. I think there has certainly been a timeline to how we have achieved our goals. That story has to go back 25 years, to when Whitetooth, which became Kicking Horse, was started as a non-profit community ski area. Volunteers ran it off generators and had a little T-bar, but they planted that first little seed right there. It’s that same opportunity that Ballast Nedam saw when they were working in Canada on the Confederation Bridge, that there was this existing vision from the community, and the opportunity to do something from the ground up to complete what they already saw here. In a period of about nine months after the initial master plan was approved, they put in a brand new day lodge, new lifts, sewer, water and hydro. In a very short period of time, there was a commitment to this opportunity. And when the first master plan was passed, it had a 97 percent approval.

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SNEWS WinterSports: What have been the highlights of the first decade?

Paccagnan: The real highlight is what we have right now -- a big-mountain experience that’s still 10-years young, and already has a vibe that’s right up there with ski areas like Jackson Hole. What we’re doing is taking place in a town where there are all these established deep powder skiing experiences like great Canadian Heli-Skiing, Purcell, Chatter Creek -- all based out of Golden -- and we’re adding the lift-served experience to what already exists here. We think Golden will be the hub for adventure, because it’s still undiscovered. We don’t have all the build out or commercialization of other resorts -- not that there’s anything wrong with that -- but it still has a rawness and newness to it that makes people feel like they can come and discover it still.

SNEWS Wintersports: Who is the Kicking Horse skier right now? And how are you reaching out to Americans?

Paccagnan: I love the American market. My son was born in Vail. I look at us as being North Americans, and I look at the Colorado Summit County market, and the Telluride, Jackson Hole or Big Sky market, and I want to tell them all that if they want to experience something kick ass and new with big snow, in the champagne snow capital of Canada, with incredible terrain and a North-facing exposure, then they need to come ski with us, too.

Internationally, we do have quite a mixed market. Calgary and Edmonton are really starting to wake up to how easy it is to get here because of the highway. There are always new skiers from Eastern Canada and the Eastern Seaboard -- we are starting to see a lot more folks out of that area. And we do have some strong partners in Europe who we work with the host tours. We also have a large number of homeowners who are out of the UK. They absolutely love this part of the country, and it’s interesting how many of them own a condo or a home here, just because of the natural beauty and just because you can see five national parks from the top of the hill.

SNEWS Wintersports: Last February, you received the official approval for your 40-year Master Plan. From now into the next four decades, how much is Kicking Horse, and the town of Golden going to change?

Paccagnan: When I joined in the winter of 2006-07, we already a 10-year plan, so this was a bit of re-envisioning based on what we know today that we didn’t know six years ago. We really put the end result in mind when we decided to look out over 40 years. The beauty is that we will move at the pace of demand and work with our community. It’s not about rapid growth and conspicuous consumption. I think the whole industry experienced a big reset button hit in terms of resort growth in the past couple years. If people are going to invest here, we’d like to attract people who want to be part of the community, not just because they see it as an investment for later.

SNEWS Wintersports: What is your business forecast for this season?

Paccagnan: Nowhere but up. And we are seeing positive signals. It’s definitely tracking better than last year and the year before. Lodging bookings are up, people are still getting out and recreating, and we partnered up with Lake Louise on a pass product that is generating a lot of buzz in Alberta and Calgary. At the end of the day, we all know snow is the driver. We think we have the best staff, and the best machine-made product, and we hope the winter is as wet as the summer, which in Golden was the wettest it has been in the past 30 years.

--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 start of 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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