NH ski area owner Sununu says perspective key

AP News
Posted: Oct 11, 2010 6:43 PM
NH ski area owner Sununu says perspective key

Members of a prominent political family in New Hampshire and other investors are counting on local money and a local perspective to help restore Waterville Valley ski area to its heyday.

Chris Sununu, son of former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu, heads a group of investors who bought the ski area from California-based Booth Creek Ski Holdings last week. His father, who also was former President George H.W. Bush's chief of staff, was among the investors. And his brother, former U.S. Sen. John E. Sununu, will serve as chairman of the board of the new Waterville Valley Holdings.

The resort was developed in 1965 by Olympic skier Tom Corcoran on 4,000-foot Mount Techumseh in the White Mountain National Forest. The ski area includes 52 trails and 12 lifts and employs 50 permanent and up to 500 seasonal workers. Known for the 11 World Cup competitions it hosted from the 1960s to the early 1990s, it has seen a drop from 300,000 skier visits in 1992 to just under 170,000 this past winter.

Chris Sununu, a former environmental engineer who works with two of his brothers in a business consulting firm, said he has been skiing at Waterville Valley since he was 5.

"It was a tremendous family resort then as it is now," he said. "We've seen it through the best of times and worst of times, which I think gives us a unique perspective."

Waterville Valley was the last of three New Hampshire ski areas Booth Creek shed in recent years. Booth Creek sold its stake in Loon Mountain in 2007 and sold Cranmore Mountain Resort in June. It still owns the Northstar-at-Tahoe and Sierra-at-Tahoe resorts in California.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed, though Chris Sununu has indicated the sale price was less than $12 million.

"I'm a firm believer that Waterville can return to being the premier resort in New England," said Sununu, 35, who is running for a seat on the 5-member state Executive Council that approves contracts and nominations.

He said he expects to make changes as early as this season _ opening day is Nov. 20 _ but would not say specifically what he has in mind.

"The biggest challenge with Waterville has always been the resources allocated to it. Frankly, the previous owners were from California and they just did not allocate the right resources to the valley, either on the marketing side, the infrastructure side, or the personnel front," he said.

"We're local, our investors are local, our team is local. We're going to keep the money here in the valley, we're going to reinvest back into ourselves," he said.

Both the investors and the new management team know the market well, he said. Bob Fries, who has managed Waterville Valley and other area ski areas, will be the new president of mountain operations, while Tom Gross, who owns several Waterville Valley businesses, will run the town square and conference center.

"Guys in California don't really know the New England ski market. They don't really understand that mentality. It's a lot different than a West Coast mentality. We understand that and we're going to go after that aggressively," Sununu said.

Ski industry analyst David Belin said he doesn't think having local owners makes much difference but said the sale could help Waterville Valley regain some of the market share it has lost in recent years.

While Waterville has never been a resort that closed its doors during the off season, it has faced competition from other resorts that have expanded and added more year-round activities, he said. Being part of the Booth Creek group put Waterville in a tough position once the other resorts were sold, he said.

"Waterville was kind of left on its own, and it's identity was in flux a little bit," said Belin, director of RRC Associates in Boulder, Colo. "I feel like the managers weren't sure what was going to be their future. Now it seems like this is probably a good move in terms of having a clear direction from the new ownership."

Belin said in order to succeed, ski resorts have to cater to two very different demographic groups at the same time: aging yet active baby boomers and younger skiers and snowboarders. He said Waterville is well positioned to capitalize on the trend of ski areas expanding their ski schools and other offerings for children.

"There's a huge opportunity to continue to build participation through those kids," he said. "I think Waterville is in a good place to be able to capitalize on that kind of thing because of the real estate and lodging and other activities they have at the base area."