Kings of the mountain
Area entrepreneurs haven’t been afraid to think big
The heritage of New England skiing is so rich with innovation, that even if you only skim the highlights, it seems as if you are leaving someone or something off the list of notable achievements.
The birthplace of the nation’s first ski tow? That honor goes to Gilbert’s Hill in Woodstock, Vt., way back in January 1934.
The country’s first night skiing? A 1936 Christmas Eve publicity stunt by Clarence Bousquet on the sloping pastures of his Pittsfield mink farm snowballed into an under-the-lights mainstay, copied worldwide.
The first snowmaking system? Walt Schoenknecht of Mohawk Mountain took a chance on blanketing his northwestern Connecticut ski hill with artificial white stuff during the snow-starved winter of 1948-49, launching the industry into an era of technological tinkering that evolves to this day.
The passage of time has proven each of these ideas to be bold, unique, and long-lasting. But skiing - like any industry - has a path of progress that twists and turns. For every stroke of genius that caught on, there are plenty of oddball concepts that never made the grade. And then, there are the innovations so universally integrated that we take them for granted.
For example, consider the most ubiquitous piece of equipment at any commercial ski operation, a tool so necessary for business yet so ridiculously inexpensive that resorts leave them right out in the open for customers to take as they please: The ticket wicket.
Unless your formative years on the slopes predate the Kennedy administration, you probably think this simple, curvy snip of wire has been around forever. That’s not so: Killington didn’t pioneer this method of affixing lift tickets until 1963.
“It was really invented for two main reasons,’’ said Phillip Camp, one of the ski industry’s pioneering marketing professionals and Killington’s first public relations director. “It was a ticket security kind of thing so skiers wouldn’t swap the same ticket between friends. At the same time, style and fashion were coming into play, and it was a consideration for people’s clothing.’’
Camp said that previously, an employee would take “a great big staple gun, and just crunch it two, three, four times into someone’s coat to make sure the ticket didn’t come off.’’
Paul Bousquet - the son of the late Clarence Bousquet - was Killington’s first general manager. He recalled that “as apparel improved and the cost of jackets became a major item, people didn’t want their tickets stapled into a $300 parka.’’
The solution to this problem is credited to Charlie Hanley, a Killington employee who came up with the idea of threading a thin strip of wire through a button hole or zipper, then sealing an adhesive-backed ticket around the metal loop.
During this era, Killington was a fertile proving ground for other experiments that eventually became widely adopted. Camp said the try-before-you-buy policy (ski free for the first hour to see if you like the conditions) debuted under his watch, as did Killington’s calculated gamble to devote money and acreage to beginners, so that there would always be a stream of newcomers populating the slopes.
“It was just little things, like teaching people how to ride a double chairlift by using a stationary chair to cut down on the intimidation factor, or cutting easy runs from the top of a peak so that even newcomers could experience the most spectacular terrain,’’ Camp said.
Some ideas hatched by New England resort operators in the 1960s were ahead of their time. They were unveiled with great fanfare, but fizzled for one reason or another. Today, thanks to changing times and technology, a few of them are making a comeback in altered formats.
Phil Robertson, the president of Attitash, launched an innovative “ski by reservation’’ program when his mountain first opened in 1965. Designed to cut waiting time in ticket lines while guaranteeing to management up-front payments, the phone- and mail-based plan also yielded to the resort a wealth of personal information about consumers.
The newfangled concept lasted only a season or two before Attitash went back to selling tickets in walk-up fashion. But 45 years later, the immediacy of the Internet has revived the custom of paying in advance for lift tickets, and customers who buy online are now courted with discounts tailored to their skiing preferences.
Still, even in the days before sophisticated theories about selling skiing, New England’s pioneers did pretty well just by following their business instincts.
Shortly after the Great Depression, when a group of young men first knocked on Clarence Bousquet’s door to ask if they could hike up and ski down the hill on his farm, Bousquet didn’t necessarily envision a “resort’’ so much as he thought he could make a buck or two by converting his garage into a warming hut and selling hot dogs. Similarly, by the end of the decade, when rope tows were springing up all over the Northeast, Bousquet saw an unmet need for saving people’s gloves and mittens from getting chewed up by the friction of the dangerous contraptions, so he invented and patented a safety tool called Bousquet’s Ski Tow Rope Gripper.
“Imagine a giant walnut shell cracker on the end of a short rope that was attached to a canvas belt that hung low around your waist,’’ ski filmmaker Warren Miller reminisced in a November column he wrote for onthesnow.com. “It worked well, but did nothing towards making a fashion statement.’’
In a rare instance of function trumping fashion, sales of rope tow grippers soared into the 1940s. Bousquet sold 500,000 of them, said his son, Paul.
“You have hopes, but I think it exceeded his hopes,’’ said Paul Bousquet. “It was a great boon for the ski industry at that time, and it actually became a bigger business than the family ski area.’’
As ski resorts grew in popularity, rope tows were phased out in favor of lifts, relegating grippers to extinction. Paul Bousquet said he still has one left, and that its value as a keepsake far exceeds the original $2.50 price tag.
When informed that Vintage Ski World, an online memorabilia dealer, currently advertises a small batch of his father’s tow rope grippers in their original packaging for $75 each, Bousquet booms loose with a hearty laugh.
“That’s wonderful,’’ Bousquet said. “My dad would have gotten a big kick out of that. He was quite an inventor.’’