October 9, 2017

Powder Ridge revamps business model to bridge four seasons

Photo | Jennifer Schulten Photography
Photo | Jennifer Schulten Photography
Newlyweds Kevin and Carly Arpin celebrate their wedding with a mountaintop ceremony at Powder Ridge in Middlefield in September. Below, a skier tries out a synthetic snow run at Powder Ridge.
Photo | Contributed
Skiing on synthetic snow at Powder Ridge.

The Powder Ridge Park in Middlefield and Brownstone Exploration and Discovery Parks in Portland have long offered winter, spring and summertime recreational sports, but that fourth tourist season — fall — has historically been quiet.

Company CEO Sean Hayes is trying to change that. This autumn's launch of Powder Ridge synthetic snow runs, coupled with this past summer's introductions of downhill mountain biking and mountaintop weddings, are intended to lift attendance and revenue during the fall season and year-round.

They're also necessary to kickstart two businesses that have had to overcome multiple challenges in recent years, Hayes said.

"We hope fall becomes a primary season for us at Powder Ridge, because of the combination of synthetic snow runs, downhill mountain biking and mountaintop weddings," Hayes said. "To make the business model work, [the site] has to be a four-season facility."

Starting this fall, Powder Ridge's synthetic snow aims to appeal more widely to racing clubs and more experienced skiers, allowing the facility to form a usable ski base with only three inches of snow, instead of three feet.

"That's huge," Hayes said. "It'll provide season passholders with a guaranteed trail."

Future school and parks and recreation training programs will also be part of the mix, he said.

Increasing access to the sport is something owners felt they needed to do to keep both businesses financially viable, Hayes said.

Brownstone, which launched in 2007, provides zip lines, cliff walks, wakeboarding, kayaking, swimming and other outdoor activities. Despite years of recent facility improvements, attendance dropped 15 percent this year to about 87,000 visits from 103,000 a year earlier, largely a result of a cooler summer, Hayes said.

Powder Ridge, which closed between 2006 and 2014, also had a decline in attendance this past year, though exact figures were not available.

In its heyday, Powder Ridge drew tens of thousands of visitors, but the previous owners tried to convert it into a water park when Six Flags burst onto the scene in Springfield, Mass., last decade, ruining its prospects, Hayes said.

As primary owner and investor, Hayes purchased the ski resort in 2012 with 11 other investors who, combined, have spent more than $8 million making improvements. That included the recent $1 million investment in synthetic snow. They will spend millions more in coming years, he said.

The synthetic snow project is coming in two phases. The first stage debuted in September, featuring 500 feet runs for skiing, snowboarding and tubing. Within two years, a skiing and snowboarding trail will be extended up to 2,800 feet to the top of the mountain, Hayes said.

Synthetic snow's selling point is that it will allow beginners, who are prone to quit because it's hard to remain upright in the cold on real snow, to train in a more comfortable climate, he said.

"Eighty percent of people who try skiing for the first time don't do it again," said Hayes. "That's something we couldn't accept."

Powder Ridge now has the only synthetic snow ski run in New England, with the closest competitor located at the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., Hayes said.

The new wedding season

Powder Ridge also hopes to grow its business with mountaintop weddings, which it is marketing for the key fall foliage months of September and October.

The owners acquired Marquee Events, a Hartford-based wedding company, in late 2016 and are booking nuptials in a mountaintop gazebo that provides a 360-degree view of the Connecticut River Valley.

"The 'new June' is October," Hayes said. "It's the most popular wedding month of the year."

They also hired an executive chef.

Bookings for weddings, banquets and corporate events are expected to help bolster the bottom line 10 months a year, with the exception of January and February, he said.

The company budgets about $100,000 a year on advertising and marketing, and relies on the state's official tourism website for referrals to draw in customers. With marketing funding from the state reduced to $6.4 million this past fiscal year from $9.5 million the year before, and devoid of TV advertising, promoting the facility can be a challenge, he said.

"If there's one year I could have used the state support, this would have been the year," he said.

Powder Ridge has its own page on the state's tourism website, where it gets 65 percent of its indirect website referrals, Hayes said.

"The digital play [through www.CTVisit.com] still is one of our biggest online referral sources to our website," he said. "We see the value in that for both of our businesses."

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