Jay peak manager readies first ski season helm
Steve Wright, Jay Peak’s general manager, looks out toward the slopes last week. The resort plans to open Friday.
Steve Wright’s office space didn’t change, but his role at Jay Peak resort has greatly expanded.
Wright is preparing to guide the resort through his first full ski season as its general manager, named to the post in April shortly after state and federal authorities leveled allegations of investor fraud against Bill Stenger, then the resort’s CEO and president.
“April 13,” Wright said, referring to the date the lawsuits were announced, “everything changed for everybody.”
Wright talked last week about the resort’s plans for the upcoming ski season as well as how it has fared since that day in April. He spoke from his office inside a work trailer labeled “Administration” across the parking lot from the resort’s centerpiece, the Hotel Jay. It’s the same office, adorned with a mix of sports memorabilia and Grateful Dead concert posters, Wright occupied when he was in charge of marketing at the resort.
Now, he’s in a top leadership position as the resort aims to open the slopes Friday.
Even as some things change at the resort only a few miles from the Canadian border, he said, others stay the same, including the anticipated opening day. “We’re making snow in all the same places, the staff is ramping up, and we’re praying for snow around Thanksgiving,” Wright said. Since he spoke, the mountain has already gotten more than a foot of snow.
Last season, he said, the resort had about 300,000 skier visits, a number he is optimistic will climb with more snow this year. Last year, across the Northeast, skier visits were dramatically down due mainly to warm weather and a lack of natural snow throughout the season.
The bad weather for skiing through the winter was compounded by more bad news at Jay Peak in the spring.
The state and federal lawsuits announced April 13 accused Stenger and Ariel Quiros, owner of the holding company that includes Jay Peak, of misusing $200 million raised through the EB-5 visa program to fund development projects around the Northeast Kingdom.
The properties at the center of the fraud allegations, including Jay Peak, are currently overseen by Michael Goldberg, a court-appointed receiver.
Bill Stenger, former CEO of Jay Peak.
Stenger has since reached a settlement of the lawsuit brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. At almost the same time as that settlement in September, Goldberg announced that Stenger would no longer be employed at the resort.
Wright said last week one of his first priorities in his new role was to help “stabilize” the sentiment of the employees.
“That would rise and fall based off of what the narrative in the press was, and even my own sentiment would rise and fall,” he said. “We all learned an awful lot through the press.”
He said he told employees it would be a long process ahead. “The story is going to come out,” Wright said. “There needs to be a way for us to recognize what the narrative is, but not let it impact the work that we do.”
Wright said that in April when the news broke he had to make his own decision on whether to stay, adding that he talked it over with his family, weighed other offers, and ultimately decided to remain at Jay Peak, where he has worked since 2004.
“One of the reasons I decided to stay here,” he said, “is because I believe in what we are doing and the hard work that the employees are doing.”
Wright said that through the summer and fall the resort performed well over the same period last year. That’s largely due, he said, to a roughly 25 percent increase in weddings, a solid summer of “splash-and-stay” vacations centered on the resort’s waterpark, and a revenue boost from more hockey tournaments booked at its ice rink.
There have been some tense times, like around mid-July when reservations for ski vacations over the winter appeared soft, he said.
The Hotel Jay is the signature project of the Jay Peak Resort expansion. The developers used EB-5 immigrant investor money to build the five-story hotel.
“Part of that I ascribe to a bad winter (last season). Part of that I ascribe to the noise in the market after the receivership,” he said.
However, in recent weeks the view has changed on the “ski-and-stay” vacation front, thanks in part to a post-Labor Day boost in bookings, he said.
“We’re probably somewhere 8 to 10 percent ahead of where we were last year in terms of what we have on the books,” he said. “If you told me on April 13, with what was going on, that we would be where we are now, I would have thought you were crazy.”
Season pass sales, however, have been lagging, he said, off about 3 percent to 5 percent. Wright said he is hopeful that number will rise if the resort can get off to a fast start with lots of natural snow, getting skiers back into the mood to hit the trails.
On the jobs front, he said the number of seasonal employees needed to fill positions is on par with recent years. The resort employs between 525 and 550 in the summer and fall, and that number rises to around 1,300 during the ski season, Wright said.
Although the pacing of tasks at the resort has remained relatively constant through the months, some changes have taken place, including relating to money matters.
“One thing that we do a lot more than we did prior, at the manager level meetings that we have, we talk a lot more about finances,” he said. “Where those numbers weren’t really shared before, it’s important for them to understand the health of the company.”
In the end, he said, he knows eventually the resort will be sold as the receiver looks to recoup money for investors, contractors and others. However, that likely won’t be until well after the ski season.
“At the end of the day, this is going to sell,” Wright said of the resort. “(Goldberg will) be able to fetch a bigger number if we have a relatively solid performance.”
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