STEVENS PASS — With the clock tower just brightening in the morning sun, Tom Fortune stood in ski boots by a fire pit at the Stevens Pass Ski Area chatting with customers and employees on a late January Friday. He asked staff about their commute and solicited guests’ opinions on lines at the busiest chairlifts.
Fortune is the interim general manager at Stevens Pass. He arrived on Jan. 14 when the ski area was at a low point. After a delayed start to the season, snow hammered the Cascades during the holiday week. Severely understaffed, Stevens Pass struggled to open most of its chairlifts for six weeks, including those serving the popular backside terrain.
Vail Resorts, which bought Stevens Pass in 2018, had sold a record number of its season pass product, the Epic Pass, in the run-up to the 2021-22 winter, leaving thousands of Washington residents claiming that they had prepaid for a product they couldn’t use. A Change.org petition titled “Hold Vail Resorts Accountable” generated over 45,000 signatures. Over 400 state residents filed complaints against Vail Resorts with the state Attorney General’s office. In early January, VailDaily reported that Vail’s stock price was underperforming by 25%, with analysts attributing the drop in part to an avalanche of consumer ire about mismanagement at resorts across the country, including Stevens Pass.
On Jan. 12, Vail Resorts fired then-general manager Tom Pettigrew and announced that Fortune would temporarily relocate from his role as general manager at Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, California, to right the ship at Stevens Pass. Vail, which owns 40 ski areas across 15 states and three countries, has a vast pool of ski industry talent from which to draw. In elevating Fortune, whose history with the mountain goes back five decades, the company seems to have acknowledged what longtime skiers and snowboarders at Stevens Pass have been saying for several seasons: local institutional knowledge matters.
“Vail heard us,” said former Stevens Pass Alpine Club president Chris Weiss. “In Tom Fortune, they went out and found someone who knew the mountain, brought him in and gave him the resources to turn things around.”
Deep roots at Stevens Pass
To say that Fortune, 60, knows this snowy corner of the Cascades is an understatement. Born and raised in Edmonds, he learned to ski at Stevens Pass in the early 1970s when a school bus ferried his second grade class up Highway 2 for lessons.
“The first time I came up here I was hooked,” he said. “I had a calling for the mountains.”
As a high school student in 1978, he began working nights and weekends. Over the years, he worked in lift operations, repairs and rentals. He lived in a cabin at the pass for 15 years. In December 1988, he and his wife raced down Highway 2 to a Redmond hospital where she gave birth to their son, Tony, who is now on ski patrol at Stevens. For years he shuttled between the cabin and a house in Monroe when his three children were school aged.
In 1998, Fortune was promoted to Schweitzer, in Idaho, and continued to climb the ranks in a ski industry career that eventually landed him on the shores of Lake Tahoe in 2016 when he began running Kirkwood and later Heavenly. That is, until Jan. 5, when he got a call from Doug Pierini, Vail’s western region senior vice president, who asked him to take over at his former home mountain.
“It didn’t take me long to say yes,” Fortune said. “I really, truly care about this place and I do feel like I can help.”
Fortune arrived on Jan. 14, two days after Vail announced the leadership switch. In those 48 hours, the mood changed dramatically. He was greeted at the hill with hugs and high-fives. His phone began ringing with 206 and 509 area codes from old friends and colleagues that he hadn’t heard from in years.
“The attitudes have taken [a] 180 degree turn [and] everybody is pumped that Tom Fortune is here,” wrote Tim Wangen, who skied with Fortune in the 1990s and became a fierce Vail critic over the last four years, via text message in late January. “He was the best person to send up here to get the mountain back on track.”.
In Leavenworth and Skykomish, the two closest towns on either side of Stevens Pass, people stopped him in the street and the grocery store to thank him. A wellspring of social media commentary that had savaged Vail for weeks on end expressed cautious optimism. “I see a lot of corporate bloat in this message,” wrote Billy Sehmel on Facebook in response to Fortune’s welcome letter. “Actions speak louder than Kodak moments from the 90s.” On the Stevens Pass subreddit, a user called vectran wrote, “Heads are starting to roll as the stock price tumbles. Only thing Vail will really listen to. I’m optimistic but not holding my breath.”
“It’s a bit overwhelming,” said Fortune of his newly minted status as a local celebrity. For a plain-spoken career ski bum with a mild-mannered demeanor, he said, “It’s a little out of my comfort zone.”
Fixing what’s broken
While Fortune said he didn’t see Stevens Pass at its worst, confidants believe he knows that the situation was dire. “When Tom got here it was a bigger mess than what he thought,” Wangen wrote.
Morale was at an all-time low as an overstretched, underpaid workforce struggled to keep the bare minimum of chairlifts and base area amenities running. Management and administrative positions like marketing and human resources had been hollowed out as part of Vail’s corporate strategy to run its ski areas from a centralized operation at its Broomfield, Colorado, headquarters.
In response, Fortune rolled up his ski-jacket sleeves and began chipping away at the Stevens Pass puzzle by drawing on decades of experience on how ski areas tick, especially this one. He met daily with four Vail hiring managers to secure more staff, buoyed by a $2-per-hour end-of-season bonus that Vail announced on Jan. 10. the ski area’s 130-bed housing stock from Monroe to Wenatchee— a mixture of ski area summit cabins, leased hotel rooms in larger towns and rented bedrooms in private residences—to ensure a roof for any potential candidate. He chartered bigger buses to scale up existing employee transportation along Highway 2 for the growing workforce.
“What I did in the last two weeks was work normally done in October,” Fortune said.
Fortune also recruited staff from Heavenly for a temporary deployment at Stevens Pass to tackle details like improving lift-line flow to reduce overcrowding when a limited number of chairlifts are running. On Feb. 24, Vail Resorts announced that Stevens Pass had filled the base operations director role, a senior leadership team position that had sat vacant all season.
For the rank and file, Fortune instituted morale boosters like surprise coffee and bagel or breakfast burrito spreads to perk up the weekend morning shift, and converted unused lodge space into an employee center with couches, games, TVs and a yoga room where staff can relax after work while waiting for a homebound shuttle.
The staff recruitment and retention efforts are paying off, although Vail Resorts declined to provide current staffing numbers. On Jan. 27, Stevens Pass opened enough chairlifts to access the backside for the first time all season. Stevens is now spinning nine of 10 chairlifts on weekdays and all chairlifts on weekends. Fortune documents every step of the way on the Stevens Pass blog in a series called “Fortune Telling.”
“He has greatly improved corporate communication since returning and that means a lot,” said Rebecca Timson, a former ski instructor who has notched 51 seasons at Stevens Pass.
In addition to staffing up, Fortune has restored components large and small that endeared Stevens Pass to the public. He resurrected the resort’s iconic bluebird logo, which decorates snowboards and bumper stickers across the region, and began signing communiqués with SPKA, an old acronym that stands for Stevens Pass Kicks [Expletive]. Fortune also pushed for Stevens Pass to stay open later into the spring and this year’s closing date is currently slated for May 1. In another coup, Vail reversed course on Feb. 11 and announced it would reopen the mountain bike park this summer.
Such rapid-fire changes run counter to recent methods at Vail Resorts, which minimized operations at its regional ski areas while using discounts to drive customers to the company’s destination resorts for multiday visits. That strategy backfired here with the longtime customer base that has high expectations for operations at Stevens. Fortune’s experience suggests that the debacle at Stevens Pass has begun changing Vail’s corporate playbook to allow more leeway for local managers.
“I pretty much did have carte blanche,” said Fortune.
Fortune’s hands-on approach has endeared him to Vail employees craving a human face. “My secret to success is blocking out time in the morning,” he said, describing a routine of checking in one-on-one with staff before opening, greeting guests as they arrive and taking a few runs to get the daily lay of the land.
But one general manager alone cannot always overcome larger corporate systems. During those morning rounds in January, he chatted with a seasonal employee from abroad. After a recent car crash, she had concerns about car repair bills and medical expenses. Fortune steered her to the company’s employee emergency relief fund, which she didn’t know existed. She thanked him profusely, but gleaning that tip took a serendipitous on-mountain encounter with the boss since Vail eliminated on-site human resources, though Fortune hopes to see more administrative staff locally.
“The model is not going to change, but the pendulum swinging back to the right level of support at the resort is something that’s being talked about,” he said.
“Vail Resorts has added HR resources to better support our teams — and continues to focus on improving the employee experience,” added Vail spokesperson Sara Roston in an email.
To alleviate the near-mountain employee housing crunch, Fortune met with a contractor about renovating or replacing former employee housing 2 miles from the ski area at the Yodelin parking lot — a bunkhouse he himself lived in 30 years ago — and regularly meets with brokers and leasing agents in towns along Highway 2.
Ski area traffic and overcrowding, meanwhile, remains an acute bottleneck. When a weekslong snow drought ended with 20 inches of powder on the Sunday of Presidents Day weekend, visitors surged and clogged Highway 2. The Washington State Department of Transportation shut down the eastbound stretch from Scenic to the pass for several hours.
“I know how frustrating traffic and parking can be up here,” Fortune said in a written statement to The Seattle Times. “We’re actively looking at how to alleviate parking-related stress/congestion, with near-, mid-, and long-term solutions in mind. We are evaluating everything from off-site parking with shuttles, to reservations, to lot expansions.”
With powder days back in the forecast and chairlifts finally spinning at close to full steam, Fortune’s honeymoon seems likely to last through the rest of the season. The search is currently underway for a permanent general manager. “Tom will support the transition period, and will continue to support/advise to ensure this positive momentum continues,” Roston wrote.
“Every week, passholders are thanked for the patience they have already demonstrated — and the continued patience they will be expected to demonstrate,” said Timson, the former ski instructor. “It wears thin, but most people are still giving Fortune the benefit of the doubt.”
An anonymous sticker affixed to a metal post on Skyline Express concurred. A fortuneteller’s hands cradle a crystal ball emblazoned with the letters “SPKA” while the Stevens Pass bluebird is perched on top. The bottom reads, “#GoodFortune2022.”
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