March 2, 2013

Skiing in Maine: The hills are alive with customer service

By JOHN CHRISTIE

When chatting with folks on the lifts, especially at our Maine ski areas, I'm always gratified to hear how many of them remark that what impresses them most, even beyond the terrain, facilities and conditions, is the friendliness of the staff and their eagerness to welcome and assist visitors.

Whether it's the jovial lifties at Sugarloaf recognizing and calling customers by name, to the locals joking with skiers and boarders while checking tickets at the Camden Snow Bowl, to Saddleback's personable ambassadors helping folks unload their gear, there's a palpable and pervasive welcoming feeling that resonates throughout the entire facility.

This customer service ethic doesn't happen by accident, and we can thank enlightened management for inculcating in their staff the recognition that the impression most visitors get, and leave with, results almost exclusively from their encounters with the front-line staff.

A surly lift attendant can ruin an otherwise enjoyable ski day whereas a friendly one can leave an impression that will last for years. And either way, the word will spread.

Maine ski area operators understand that they're in the service business and have done an outstanding job training their staffs to realize that their area's success -- and their jobs -- depend on pleasing their customers.

While the front-line employees are the ones who make the most visible interpersonal impressions, there's a cadre of unsung heroes who merit recognition for their roles in assuring a satisfying experience for the visiting vacationers.

The fry cook expertly preparing a treat on the grill, the chambermaid spiffing up the hotel room and the instructor herding his Bubblecuffers to the lift all contribute to making customers' visits memorable ones.

And a shout-out to perhaps the least visible, but I'd argue, two of the most significant teams of ski area employees -- especially in seasons like the last couple we've been experiencing with their weather vagaries -- the snow makers and the groomers.

Their work is done not only out of sight from most of us, but often in the worst conditions. In the dark of night and, in the case of the snow makers, in the coldest possible temperatures.

All we see are the results, unless we happen to be staying near the base and can see the lights of the groomers wending their way up and down the trails all night long.

What we see when we head out for first tracks is an array of smooth, fresh corduroy. Even if we remember that late the day before some of the steeper pitches were getting scratchy, and even some of the blue runs had moguled up.

This winter, more than I remember in the past, many areas have continued to make snow to patch up problem areas and resurface popular trails much later into the season, and we owe them our gratitude. Additionally, I have the impression that more stockpiles were built during the coldest weeks, providing a resource that can be spread around as warmer weather starts to melt the base.

I have a special affection for one other group of ski area personnel, both paid and volunteer, who are nearly invisible to most visitors but whose role is vital to the successful operation of any ski area: the patrol.

My affection derives in part from my own past, as a volunteer patroller while still a high school student in the 1950s at our local ski hill, to a paid employee of Russ Haggett's at Pleasant Mountain in the early 1960s, to my first real job in the business serving under the legendary Stub Taylor at Sugarloaf.

I joined a tradition that began when the National Ski Patrol System was created in 1938. Over the years, thousands of men and women have practiced and perfected their skills in getting injured fellow skiers down the mountain to medical care.

History tells us that by 1964, patrollers had already tobogganed a quarter of a million ankle-sprained, shoulder-separated, leg-fractured victims off American ski slopes. Over the next 40 years, NSPS membership grew from 10,000 to more than 25,000, including an elite corps of paid patrollers who were able to care for the growing number of midweek skiers at the major resorts as weekend volunteers were unavailable,

Thanks to improved grooming and marked improvement in ski design and release-binding, injuries are rare indeed as we seldom see a toboggan headed down a trail today to retrieve an injured skier or boarder, whereas longtime skiers remember the days when rescue sleds were a common sight.

Although the patroller is someone we'd rather not see unless we need his or her assistance, the fact is that caring for injured skiers is a very small part of the modern patroller's work. In fact the list is almost endless. Trail check in the morning before the lifts start to turn? Bamboo warning poles in place? Towers padded? Hydrants shielded? Ropes up? Downed branches cleared? Surfaces groomed or otherwise safe? Thin spots or dangers marked? Signs in proper places? Nets secure? Slow signs up?

Then during the day it's riding the lifts and skiing the trails to ensure they're safe, repacking toboggans that might have been used the previous day and checking all their gear. At day's end, trail sweeps are coordinated to be sure everyone's safely off the mountain.

That's the behind-the-scenes stuff on the average day for the modern patroller, not to mention hours spent in both on- and offseason training.

So next time on the slopes, give a nod to the unsung heroes that contribute so much to your enjoyment and your safety.

John Christie is a former ski racer and ski area manager and owner, a ski historian and member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. He and his son, Josh, write ski columns on alternating weeks. John can be reached at:

jchristie@fairpoint.net

 

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