Melissa Karen POWDER

Stowe’s Melissa Day and Karen Wagner are part of the Vail Resorts Northeastern POWDER team.

Women have made strides toward workplace equality in many industries in America, but until recently the ski industry has lagged behind.

Historically, ski areas were founded and operated by men. Even when females joined the ranks as workers, women leaders and managers were relatively rare. Despite much progress, it’s still not common to find female operational executives and GMs at ski areas.

However, Vail Resorts, the world’s largest mountain resort company, is exceptional in both the number of women who have worked their way to the top and in the launching of a new program designed to encourage more women to seek careers and leadership positions in the ski business.

In a March podcast, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz announced the formation of POWDER, a program for Providing Opportunity for Women through Diversity, Equality and Respect.

Katz acknowledged that women and especially women leaders have been “traditionally underrepresented in the ski industry.”

Vail Resorts has been changing that, he said, mentioning many women who successfully navigated their way to the top of the “traditionally male dominated areas of our business.

“Our pioneering women leaders in ski-industry operations roles have changed the face of an industry and paved the way for those coming after them,” Katz said.

Several of those trailblazers addressed the challenges and gender bias they faced as they rose up in an industry where they “didn’t look like the typical ski-industry leader.”

Among them were Pat Campbell, who rose from ski instructor to President of Vail Resorts Mountain Division, and Beth Howard, who went from a food internship chopping vegetables to chief operating officer of Vail Mountain Resort.

In addition to explaining how mentors, training, and self-reflection were key to their own progress, they praised the development of the POWDER initiative and the role it can play for attracting women to ski-industry careers.

Interestingly, the July 2019 issue of Forbes magazine recognized Vail Resorts (NYSE: MTN) as one of “America’s Best Employers for Women” for “continued efforts to elevate women in leadership. Vail Resorts is one of only 13 Travel and Leisure companies to be included in this second annual list.

Additionally, Vail Resorts Chief Marketing Officer Kirsten Lynch was recently named a top CMO by Forbes CMO Next list, which named “50 CMOs who are redefining the CMO role” and who “serve as models of a new, emerging and disruptive chief marketer.”

POWDER: Changing the paradigm

The inspiration for this initiative was the Women of Whistler Blackcomb (WOWB) program, which began in 2015 with women leaders addressing the question “How do we do better?”

That resulted in a culture shift within the resort, impacting hiring practices, scheduling, development, advocacy, education and recognition. They accomplished this change by hosting forums, camps, and other trainings.

With such successful efforts and given the current climate and “Me-too Movement,” Katz said he saw the WOWB as “an eye opener” and opportunity to champion change by making an investment in women leaders.

Campbell and Lynanne Kunkel, Vail Resorts’ chief HR officer, became sponsors of the POWDER initiative with an aim of finding ways to engender more inclusivity and making ski industry jobs more appealing for women.

They formed a steering committee of executive and managerial leaders — 11 women, two men, and selected Karen Wagner, senior manager patrol at Stowe Mountain Resort, as the lead representative for the Northeast Region. The region includes Mount Sunapee, Okemo, and Stowe Mountain Resorts with plans to integrate the program into Vail’s newly acquired Peak Resort areas in the future.

Wagner, who began her career as a patroller, put together a team that includes Bonnie Macpherson, Okemo communications manager, Melissa Day, guest services manager at Stowe, and Jessica Clarke, lift operations supervisor at Mount Sunapee.

“They come from very different departments and bring a unique skill set to our team, and all bring incredible energy. I’m thrilled to be working with such talented and dedicated people, both here in the Northeast and across Vail Resorts, on such an important issue. Women have not been well represented in our industry, particularly in operations positions, so this focus is really appropriate. An inclusive business culture isn’t just important for women, but for other groups as well,” Wagner commented.

Noting these individuals are Champion chairs at the resorts, she said the term “Champion” stemmed from “the Women of Whistler/Blackcomb, an amazing group on whom our team is modeled. I like the term because it implies action and intent, as opposed to something like ‘representative,’” Wagner said.

At Okemo POWDER monthly events to date have been informal, social brown-bag lunch gatherings, MacPherson reported, noting the Northeast plan is to “hold six regional events — one each month throughout the winter.” The first one was on Nov. 4 at Mount Sunapee.

That evening program features a theme of Being Brave. In addition to a slide presentation introduction to the initiative, Olympic Gold Medalist Donna Weinbrecht will speak, and Wagner will interview her.

The December event will be hosted at Okemo. It will focus on “Unconscious Bias — those ingrained preconceptions, learned subtly over time, that we all possess but may not be aware of. It’s a fascinating and introspective topic.

“Other events will include how to champion change, who are some amazing trailblazers in our company, a celebration of International Women’s Day, and more,” Wagner said.

MacPherson is excited about the opportunities that the new POWDER program brings to women. Having taught snow reporters at Okemo their “first ski jobs,” she has both the experience of having mentored women [and men] and also the joy of having seen them go on to high-level jobs. “Sara Lococo began her career at Okemo and is now the senior communications manager at Breckenridge, one of Colorado’s largest resorts,” MacPherson noted, praising the new initiative for “sparking an interest in the sport and industry” and its “potential to launch careers.”

Future is bright

While the overall ski industry is playing catch up, Vermont actually was an early leader with women in “C-suite” and operational leadership roles.

They included Pico co-founder/owner Janet Mead and June Acker who both operated Pico for many years after their husband’s deaths. When Truxton Pratt died, Betsy Pratt ran Mad River Glen (1975 to 1995).

Sue Smith, one of the founding partners with Pres Smith of Killington, helped lead the resort for 40 years.

Diane Mueller was the active co-owner and executive VP of Okemo for 36 years. For a period during that time, the heads of the ski school, ski patrol, racing program, food services, and human resource departments were all females.

Mount Snow Director of Marketing Kelly Pawlak became GM, leaving to become president of the National Ski Areas Association (2017).

With Vermont’s history of female leadership and Vail Resorts’ initiative, Pat Campbell’s observation that “the future is bright for women in this industry” bodes well for women looking for a career path with leadership training and support.

Perhaps “proof is in the pudding.” Tracy Bartels, a former engineer for Texas Instruments and senior director of mountain operations at Keystone Resort (Colo.), began work as the first female general manager at Mount Sunapee on Nov. 4.

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