Phil Castle, The Business Times
It was quiet enough on a recent weekday morning at Powderhorn Mountain Resort to hear snow crunch beneath boots and birds sing in distant trees. The chairlifts were motionless, the seats dangling like bulbs along a gigantic string of Christmas lights that stretched to the top of the Grand Mesa.
Inside the base lodge, the restaurant was empty except for a small group of employees going through training. Downstairs, workers were renovating a retail space for a new coffee shop.
The serene scene constituted the calm before what Daren Cole hopes will be a storm of skiers and snowboarders at Powderhorn this season, starting with opening day scheduled for Dec. 13.
A little more than a year after a new ownership group purchased Powderhorn and Cole became general manager, there are good reasons for an optimistic forecast.
Thanks in part to good snow conditions, pass sales and overall skier visits increased during the inaugural season under new ownership. Cole expects to build on that momentum through a combination of new amenities and incentives, instructional programs that encourage younger skiers and snowboarders to take up the sport and an ongoing emphasis on offering guests an enjoyable experience.
The goal, Cole says, is to continue to cater to local customers who consider Powderhorn their home mountain while developing over the long term a regional and, for some, a destination resort.
The upcoming ski season will be the second under new ownership for Powderhorn. Ken, John and Tom Gart joined with Andy Daly in purchasing Powderhorn and about 700 acres of undeveloped land nearby at an auction in August 2011. The Gart family, which has been synonymous with sports in Colorado for more than 80 years in operating two chains of sporting goods stores, brought financial resources to the venture. Daly, a veteran of the Colorado ski industry who has managed nine resorts, brought his experience.
Cole brought experience to the operation as well after working in positions at Vail Resorts, Purgatory Ski Resort and, most recently, as vice president of sales and marketing at Crested Butte Mountain Resort. Cole also ran his own firm specializing in business development and strategic sales planning for the active lifestyle travel industry.
Powderhorn is unique, Cole says, in that the resort offers a friendly feel reminiscent of an earlier time in the Colorado ski industry. “It’s such a community based resort.”
The Colorado Ski Country USA trade association counts Powderhorn among nine smaller “gem” resorts in the state.
Located on the Grand Mesa about a 45-minute drive east of Grand Junction, Powderhorn offers about 1,600 acres of terrain served by four chair lifts.
Cole says pass sales for the upcoming season have kept pace with expectations thanks in part to incentives offering discounts at six other Colorado ski resorts. In addition to skiing and snow board riding at Powderhorn, those who purchase season passes receive discounts to all four Aspen Skiing Company resorts as well as the Steamboat and Telluride resorts.
The idea, Cole says, is to cater to skiers and snowboarders who consider Powderhorn their “home mountain,” but also want to ski and ride at other resorts.
Skiers and snowboarders also have something to look forward to in a new cut trail and two new glade runs at Powderhorn, Cole says. New snow grooming equipment will help to better maintain skiing conditions. In addition, a food cart set up at the top of the mountain will offer service there.
Live music and special events are planned throughout the season, starting with a super hero costume contest as part of the season-opening celebration planned for Dec. 13 through 16.
A number of instructional programs will continue at Powderhorn this season, Cole says, including multi-week programs for children and teen-agers.
Rocky Mountain Orthopedic Association and St. Mary’s Hospital will join in an effort to provide free bus service between Grand Junction and Powderhorn on Saturdays and Sundays to children participating in the programs. “There’s a lot of really good community partners,” Cole says.
Yet another program introduces first-time skiers and snowboarders to the sports. The program includes three lessons and a season pass.
Even as Powderhorn continues to cater to a Grand Valley clientele, the long-term vision for the resort includes the potential for new chairlifts and terrain as well as additional development nearby.
Cole says there’s an opportunity to take advantage of several competitive factors, including commercial air service at the Grand Junction Regional Airport that offers nonstop service to and from seven metropolitan destinations. There’s also the ability to combine skiing and snowboarding at Powderhorn with other local attractions, including golfing, mountain bike riding and wineries, he says.
Expansion at Powderhorn ultimately will depend on the market response, Cole says, as well as what the community wants.
For now, though, Cole remains anxious to soon replace the calm and quiet of a ski resort not yet open for the season to the hustle and bustle of skiers and snowboarders sliding down slopes.