With new ownership and a fresh facelift, Bolton braces for winter
It’s been awhile since Bolton Valley looked like a normal ski resort. Two winters ago, the lifts were open but the lodge was closed, and school groups squeezed into cramped hotel rooms to change into their ski clothes. Last year, the lifts were idle and the lodge was shut, but locals still showed up in droves to scale the ungroomed slopes on foot and enjoy the gleeful, free ride back down. Now, as Vermonters wipe the first snow off their windshields, Bolton’s newest owner, Ned Hamilton, is bringing renewed optimism to the mountain.
On the Monday after the first weekend hosting guests, the resort’s muddy roads are lined with contractors’ trucks. The groan of a backhoe and the spicy scent of fresh sawdust fill the air. The just-refurbished hotel is back in business, and the atmosphere inside the administrative offices is tense, verging on chaotic. Freshly hired employees scurry back and forth among the still-unpacked cartons, tossing out desperate questions. Who gets this insurance form? Am I on the payroll yet? What should we do about the lady waiting to check out? The desk clerk can’t get into the computer. Someone just paid for something with a check; don’t we need a bank to put this in? Does anyone know where the boss is?
The boss — Bolton president and chief operating officer John Biondolillo — finally arrives at 10 o’clock, half an hour late for his scheduled interview. In sharp contrast to the stressed-out environment of the rest of the office, and in spite of his tardiness, the 37-year-old Biondolillo is the picture of cool and composure. Pleasant and easy-going, he comes to Bolton from Kansas City with 15 years of banking experience — including 10 spent turning around old debts and handling real-estate development.
Ushering me into his office, Biondolillo apologizes for the wait. “Our first bus tour arrived Friday night, and on Saturday another group came in,” he explains. With many staff positions still unfilled, everyone worked straight-out all weekend. The president’s wife Marsha — an MBA and former vice president for human resources with the Bank of Boston — enlisted some equally overqualified friends to help her make up rooms. Biondolillo himself took the night shift at the front desk. “I could have asked the staff to stay, but everyone was very tired,” he says. “You do what it takes.”
Biondolillo tosses the comment out with an unconcerned shrug. But doing “what it takes” to turn this ugly duckling of a ski area into a swan of a resort is no easy task, as anyone familiar with the Bolton’s 33-year slide can attest. “It’s been a marginally financed, medium-sized area in a market with a lot of competition, so it’s tough,” notes Bob Gillen of Warren, publisher of The Ski Industry Newsletter. “You’re stuck in second gear.”
Bolton Valley Resort opened in 1966, when Ralph DesLauriers turned 5000 acres on Bolton Mountain into Vermont’s largest ski area on private land — and the only downhill facility in populous Chittenden County. Though the area’s affordable prices and active after-school program attracted a loyal local following, the resort never really found its niche. When Bolton reached out to families, Smugglers Notch out-reached it. When Bolton marketed its cross-country terrain, Trapp Family Lodge out-marketed it. When Bolton touted its natural snow, Mad River Glen out-touted it. And when Bolton pitched itself to Vermonters, Jay Peak pitched locals an offer that appeared sexier: run of the mountain for $32 a day, or $17 off the out-of-state rate.
“You have to do something to stand out from the competition,” Gillen points out. “If you have limited financial backing and no terrain advantages, there’s only so much you can do. Ralph DesLauriers ran out of money.”
As his IOUs piled up, the original owner tried to cut his losses by selling the lodge and the health club to a partner, Paul Gale. But the move did little to salvage DesLauriers’ losses, and in 1995, $2.8 million in debt, DesLauriers filed for Chapter 11. Two years later, the Lyndonville Savings Bank foreclosed on Bolton.
Enter Mason Dwinell, a 27-year-old, seventh-generation Vermonter who took 10 years to graduate from the University of Vermont. Dwinell’s father, James, is executive director of Vermont’s Republican Party. With financial help from his family, the one-time Olympic hopeful bought Bolton from the bank for $2.5 million, in 1997. Dwinell came to the job loaded with enthusiasm, but lacking significant business experience. The year he ran the resort wasn’t a total disaster. He’s credited with making improvements on the slopes, and with recruiting Walter Pichler, an Olympic biathlon medalist who is reputed to be one of the country’s best Nordic coaches.
Despite a few good moves, however, Dwinell failed to achieve one critical goal: He never reached an agreement with Gale to gain use of the base lodge or the sports center. “I’m not too sure whether Mason hired the right team,” says Ken Richardson, owner of the Black Bear Inn on the Bolton Mountain Road. “I wonder if he really and truly had his heart and soul in it. Some of his financial backing passed away when his grandmother passed away.” At the end of the season, Dwinell threw in the towel.
Bolton got a new lease on life last December, when Ned Hamilton bought the resort from the Lyndonville Savings Bank for $2.2 million. Hamilton, who has 40 years’ experience as owner of the 19-store Peter Glenn sports apparel chain, has assembled a broad base of local investors, among them former National Life president Fred Bertrand, Dynastar marketer Mark Gonsalves, Spyder Ski Apparel’s Susie Parnell and Peter Kailer, a Black Diamond representative.
Though the resort was officially closed last season, the slopes were not abandoned. As Biondolillo and Daniel Izer, vice president in charge of mountain operations, sat in their offices plotting Bolton’s rebirth, they watched the mountain’s most loyal and robust fans enjoy the slopes 1930s style — on foot. “It was a fun environment,” Biondolillo recalls with a smile. “Everyone absolutely loved it. It was nice to see people up here. During the week, it got kind of lonely.”
Someone with less business acumen might have closed the slopes — and succeeded in alienating the resort’s fervent core constituency. But Biondolillo seems intent on avoiding that sort of error. Industry observers who started out skeptical about Dwinell have welcomed Hamilton and his partners as capable professionals. “Ned Hamilton understands the retail side of the ski industry,” observes Gillen. “He’s getting into this with his eyes wide open.”
Also optimistic is Candy Moot, executive director of the Vermont Ski Association. “They seem like cool, calm, focused business people who know what they have to do and when they have to do it by, and always remember who they are and who their market is.”
Richardson, whose business depends on the ski area’s success, adds, “They’re serious about making this a year-round destination resort, and I’m going to ride their coattails. I’m just as happy as a pig in a mud puddle about the whole mountain.”
One quick confidence booster was the new owners’ ability to wrap up an agreement on use of the base lodge and sports center almost immediately. Why were they able to accomplish what Dwinell was not? “The base lodge was within reach of Mason’s hands,” Richardson claims. “I personally negotiated that deal on several different occasions. Paul Gale was not the bad guy here. It was a much, much better deal than DesLauriers ever had.”
Though Gale declined to comment about Dwinell, he does say of Hamilton and his group, “They’re business people. They had a business approach.” Biondolillo offers a slightly different perspective. “I guess 15 years of dealing with bankers and difficult customers paid off.”
Another positive sign for Bolton’s short-term future is the $2 million being invested in long-overdue capital improvements. “The resort suffers from 30 years of deferred maintenance,” says Biondolillo. When he and Hamilton first toured the hotel, the place was simply “awful,” the president says. “There were shag carpets that hadn’t been replaced since the ’70s. There were rooms with cracked door jams, chipped molding, the original toilets from 1966 and cracked sinks. One room had a big plastic bag attached to the ceiling, full of water. You would not have wanted to stay here.”
Biondolillo points to a huge jumble of construction — and deconstruction — debris at the foot of the quad lift: the resort’s second round of trash, waiting to be burned by the Bolton Fire Department. Top priorities have been gutting and reassembling interiors, removing rotting walls and replacing an entire building foundation. “They’re sending the signal that whatever they’re going to do, it’s going to be done right,” says Richardson. “I’ve seen that in every move they’ve made so far. It’s not just a coat of paint on the wall. You don’t spend $150,000 on something nobody’s going to see if you’re just going to walk in and walk out.”
The new owners are also hoping to initiate a number of new construction projects. Plans call for building a new maintenance plant; adding an upscale “log cabin village”; creating a tubing park at the Timberline Lodge; constructing a sport shop near the base lodge to hold the locker rooms, ski rentals and administrative offices; and widening the road to make drop-offs easier.
“They’re getting it set up with the right amenities,” Gillen believes. “That doesn’t necessarily place Bolton on a plane different from where it was before, but it gives them a chance to get it open and move on from there.”
To get an idea of where Ned Hamilton would like to take Bolton, you need only check out Peter Glenn Ski Tours, brochure, which goes out to 250,000 customers. Open up the glossy cover, and right there on the first page — ahead of Vail, Aspen, Jackson Hole and other national ski-area heavies — is an invitation to discover “the best little resort in the world,” Bolton Valley. “We’re trying to sell the Vermont experience to Peter Glenn customers in Florida and Georgia,” says Biondolillo.
One selling point is price. At Bolton, a seven-night package that includes accommodations and a five-day lift ticket goes for about $500 per adult — less than one-fifth what you’d pay at Jackson Hole, and one-tenth the price at Breckenridge, Colo.. What you get for your money, according to the ad, is a picturesque spot nestled in the peaceful Green Mountains, with Nordic and Alpine skiing, horse-drawn sleigh rides, backcountry and night skiing and specialty shops.
Specialty shops? That’s right. The paint is still drying on a set of brand-new retail spaces. Aprés — and avant — skiing, Biondolillo hopes visitors will drop some extra cash on wine and cheese, quilts and other Vermont-made products. And, of course, Peter Glenn apparel. “We’re not going to be North Conway, but it will give visitors something else to do when they’re not skiing,” he says.
By marketing Bolton as an authentic Vermont experience, Biondolillo hopes to attract out-of-staters — and fill in mid-week business. “They’re not going to come that distance for a weekend,” he points out. Though he hopes long-distance customers will help keep Bolton solvent, the area’s main mission will continue to be what it has been since DesLauriers groomed his first slope 33 years ago: “To cater to Vermonters and families and to offer a good value,” Biondolillo says.
The resort is relatively inexpensive, but it’s not rock-bottom. Fees for after-school groups have gone up. Adult passes, at $399, are less than half the price at Stowe, but the same as Smugglers’ Notch. As for food, Biondolillo promises, “Our prices will be equivalent to McDonald’s. Families are already shelling out enough for the equipment and the lift passes. It’s not going to be a five-dollar hamburger that’s been sitting in foil for three hours,” he adds. “We don’t want our guests ever to say, ‘I’m paying through the nose for lousy food because I’m in a ski area.’ That’s no excuse.”
So far, nostalgia for Bolton’s past, expectations for its future and satisfaction with its present corporate persona are generating a positive buzz among area skiers. Andy MacLea, who coaches skiing and says he’s spent his “whole life skiing Bolton,” gushes, “I can’t wait to get back up there.” The Vermont Ski Association’s Candy Moot agrees. “I started skiing there as a child. I’m really wildly excited about it re-opening.”
That excitement — combined with some good marketing moves — has paid off in swift pre-season-pass sales. A risky Labor Day weekend ski sale was a “tremendous success,” Biondolillo boasts. Sales of season passes — offered at the bargain-basement price of $200 — “exceeded all expectations.” The last year Bolton was open, the resort sold 847 passes. As this September ended, the resort had had already sold about 1000. And Biondolillo hopes to move even more passes at an Octoberfest and ribbon-cutting event this weekend, as well as at a wine-and-cheese party scheduled for the end of the month.
Is it possible for these enticements to be too successful? Actually, yes, Biondolillo suggests. The resort hopes to sell 200 to 300 more passes, but no more. “We don’t want huge lines and unhappy people,” the president points out. In fact, keeping the customers satisfied will be a major challenge for the resort. “We’re trying to differentiate ourselves with our customer service,” Biondolillo says. “Being selective in a tough market is difficult.”
In other words, with fewer than 60 days between now and snow season, Bolton is hustling. “We need to hire lots of people,” one employee moans breathlessly between answering phones. “But the labor pool is so tight right now. Everyone in the Burlington area is in the same boat.”
In mid-September, the resort hosted a multi-employer job fair, teaming up with such prestigious Vermont businesses as Green Mountain Coffee, Tubbs Snow Shoes and the New England Culinary Institute. “We got a few dozen solid applications,” Biondolillo reports, apparently satisfied.
Hiring good help, investing in bricks and mortar, marketing intelligently and offering a good variety of activities should all help keep the resort afloat. Many observers believe, however, that the real money in skiing isn’t to be found on the slopes themselves, but beside them, in trailside real estate. Bolton, already the site of 200 condos, is zoned for as many as 1500 units. With housing pressures rising in Chittenden County and the local economy strong, the potential for turning the mountain into a four-season bedroom community is greater than ever, Gillen believes. “It would be somewhat analogous Park City, which is to a bedroom community for Salt Lake City,” he says.
But Bolton’s owners are putting any such long-range plans on the back burner and concentrating instead on more immediate concerns. “They’re saying, before we worry about anything down the road, we’re going to take care of what needs to be addressed today,” Richardson observes. “Why not make sure what they have is taken care of first before they start expanding?”
For now, Biondolillo’s eye is on November 20, the projected opening of ski season. Assuming he has a full staff hired and trained by then, his next concern will be one that’s completely beyond his control: winter weather. Though about 60 percent of the resort is covered by snow-making, a little real snow would be nice. A lot would be even better.
Biondolillo faces this unknown with equal measures of faith and bravado — and pond levels he says have not been adversely affected by drought. “There’s going to be lots of precipitation in the late fall and early winter,” he predicts. How can he be so sure? “Ned and I went to a New England Ski Association seminar, and there was a workshop with a meteorologist on El Niño and, La Niña and all that,” he continues. “So far we’ve been pretty blessed with the way everything has been going up here, so it would be only fitting if we got a ton of snow.” Then he adds, with a sheepish smile, “It wouldn’t dare not snow for Ned.”