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A lean operation builds impressive terrain parks at Jack Frost and Big Boulder

By Jim Chliboyko

 

At this point of his career, Pat Morgan finds himself calling The Poconos home. Also called the Poconos Mountains, it’s an escarpment tucked into Pennsylvania’s northeastern corner. This is where you’ll find Jack Frost and Big Boulder (JFBB), two properties of Peak Resorts. It’s an interesting spot to be for Morgan, JFBB’s director of freestyle terrain, being neighbors with 27 million potential skiers and snowboarders.

“With our guests coming from Philly and New Jersey and New York, there’s often no snow in their backyards. They’re pretty much basing it off our company messaging being, like, ‘It’s very much winter at the resort.’”

To be sure, Jack Frost and Big Boulder are separate resorts, about five miles apart. Morgan oversees the freestyle terrain programs for both ski areas. While they are usually referred to within the same acronym, they are distinctly different places. Big Boulder has been around since the late 1940s, while Jack Frost began in 1972. Jack Frost’s summit elevation is 2,000 feet and the base elevation is 1,400 feet. Big Boulder has similar statistics with a summit elevation of 2,175 feet and a base elevation of 1,700 feet. Big Boulder also has eight terrain parks, with half of its area devoted to freestyle terrain.

“Definitely Big Boulder has a lot of boarders and then Jack Frost has a little more of your traditional family feel,” Morgan said. “There’s a ski race team and more family-centric events. We do have a good park over there; it’s called ONE Park because there’s… one park. And there’s truly something for everybody. Just intermediate level, pretty good links, generally [there are] 40-plus features on that, between jumps and rails and things, but nothing that is over the top, like what we kind of sometimes do at Boulder.”

The Boulder Gang

The proximity to Philadelphia makes itself known in other ways, says Morgan, especially at Big Boulder.

“We call the regulars, ‘Boulder Gang.’ It’s a play off of the (NFL Philadelphia) Eagles’ thing; they say the term ‘Bird Gang.’ We just started saying Boulder Gang. You’d be riding down the hill and you’d hear catcalls from the lifts.… And it’s like, those are your buddies. Those are our die-hards. It’s a culture like no other.”

Does the location translate into a steady supply of skiers and snowboarders? By the company’s own indications, the numbers were looking good over the 2018-19 season, with robust sales of their Peak Pass, which gives passholders access to five different types of passes at 10 different locations, including JFBB.

According to a Peak Resorts December 2018 press release, “Peak Pass sales are up by approximately 18 percent on a unit basis and by approximately 20 percent on a revenue basis, compared with the prior year. Sales of the Drifter Pass, Peak Resorts’ unlimited season pass option for 18 to 29-year-olds, are up 27 percent on both a revenue and unit basis over the prior year.”

It may be surprising, but for all of this activity, Morgan’s team of groomers can fit into a Smart car. “Honestly, we just have two full-timers,” he said. “It’s awesome because even our park crew is small. We only have an average of 12 to 16 guys on a year. And everybody is super passionate and hard working.” This small team has set a high standard for itself.

“For instance, we rebuild multiple times a week and truly offer some of the more creative set-ups out there. Every weekend we have kids coming in, they’re regulars, the parents are up for the weekend in their vacation homes and they’re dying all week to know what the set-up is going to be. Our Freedom Park often has 40 features in it.”

“Our Plaza II Park is right outside the main lodge bar, so all the parents gather there to watch their kids throw down on training all night. It’s always switched up. We refuse to set it and forget it.... It goes without saying that it’s beyond appreciated by all our customers, whether they’re the most core or they’re the casual.”

Morgan’s fleet of equipment is also modest and includes two PistenBully Park 400s (“They’ve got some miles on them,” he said.), along with a BR 350 winch and a BR 275 with a 13’ Zaugg.

The JFBB team, specifically at Big Boulder, happens to benefit from a forgiving operations schedule which gives them a lot of room to maneuver. During the winter season, the hills are open for only six hours on weekdays, which negates the need for an overnight team – usually – and gives the crew all day to figure out the rest. On weekends, JFBB are open for 14 hours on Saturday and 12 hours on Sunday.

“Every single day our park is meticulously groomed. Like I said, with us only being open 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. during the week, that allows us a lot of daytime build time. We have a lot of luxury Monday through Friday. Every single day things are brand new again. That’s no small feat, especially [with] the weather swings you get around here.

“The holiday weeks, we have very long days… because the guys have to shift to an overnight maintenance schedule,” said Morgan. “We’re really just maintaining; we’re not really rebuilding those weeks, but there’s never any complaints.”

For those working at JFBB, the season starts as early as possible. They generally aim for the start of November and keep things going as long as they can, which is usually sometime in April.

“We start making snow the very second we’re able,” said Morgan. “And we make snow on this one hill called Freedom Park. Once we’re done with that initial snowmaking effort, we’ll have a park up and running within two days. We always open with a pretty significant park. I think the last couple of years we’ve been open, we have 20-plus features on a hill.”

For 14 years JFBB has taken advantage of the snowmaking window and has been the first ski area in Pennsylvania open, according to Morgan.

In terms of the preference between fake and real snow, Morgan says that he doesn’t particularly differentiate.

“It doesn’t matter, especially if you’re making good snow. I mean, if you’re doing it the right way, it is what it is. Don’t get me wrong; things can go wrong with temperature swings and things like that. But ultimately, it’s about the end product. We also don’t overprocess our snow. We take that very seriously. If we don’t need to be on it, we stay off of it.”

Neither is Morgan one to store snow. “There’s enough snow there where once we shift to limited late season operations, we keep machines off it, we let it bake in and it’s pretty easy to push it out for cover snow for top to bottom of [a] run.”

Packed events

JFBB’s annual May Day event caps off the season. “For better or for worse, it generally coincides with Cinco de Mayo, which gets the kids extra rattled up. With generally over 1,000 riders through the door that day on one slope, there’s a lot going on,” said Morgan.

Besides May Day, there are other events as well. Morgan is pretty happy with the resorts’ record of accessibility as well as their women-specific initiatives. “I think accessibility and participation are crucial in this day and age,” he said. “Any age and ability can go out and use our parks; there’s something for everybody.

“And one of the things that we’ve really come into in the past couple of seasons are our women’s initiatives,” said Morgan, referring in particular to a series of events known as Park Affair which takes place at Big Boulder in the early spring. “That’s a women-only event. It’s 60 participants and it’s just an all-day, awesome experience, whether the girls are coming to learn to ride or if they’re looking to take their park riding to the next level. And then we just got an event with Nikita this year called Girls Who Ride. And we’re pretty proud of being at the forefront of that stuff.”

Adapting for climate change

Anyone who depends on the weather for their career knows, Mother Nature can provide the biggest challenge.

“I think the challenge is the uncertainty of what the winter is going to bring,” said Morgan. “I mean, we’re not blessed with bountiful snowfall anymore. But the success is we are truly able to provide a level of winter that our guests keep coming back [for]. And that boils back to the snowmaking commitment from Peak right through the top down.”

With that commitment comes some of the successes the JFBB crew has had, such as being ranked the No. 2 park on the East Coast, against much bigger resorts with more terrain to work with and being featured in various publications.

“We’re also excited to keep this momentum going with the recent acquisition by Vail Resorts, to be alongside the same team with some of the best freestyle terrain programs in North America,” said Morgan.

Friendly competition

Less technical, but just as important these days, is the task of handling the communications for the resorts. Instagram comes up frequently in the conversation, especially when Morgan is referring to the teens and twenty-somethings who populate his slopes.

“We call ourselves the ‘content factory’ and it’s a frequent hashtag we use. We create so many edits and photos and things like that. I have 13,000 photos from just this season alone. And obviously I don’t need 13,000, but probably 7,000 are legit bangers that could be used for just about anything, due to the deep talent base around JFBB.”

Then there’s the particular social media approach to the two resorts. This is another way in which JF differs from BB, especially for Big Boulder who responds to disses and attitude not with a press release title or a link, but with a challenge.

“If somebody’s calling us out, which doesn’t happen often, we real-talk them; we don’t curse at them or anything like that, but we’re not going to let somebody walk all over us,” said Morgan. “We’ve kind of cultivated the culture where you can say real things, there’s no marketing fluff and typical resort marketing fodder. From a Big Boulder standpoint, we’re never going to tell you about machine-groomed packed powder and all [these] other buzz terms…. We’re just going to be, ‘You know, there’s 75 features on the hill, and it’s sick – get here.’

“But obviously with the Jack Frost account, you’re talking to more of a family customer, so you can’t deviate too much from traditional marketing without going off brand.”

In the end, as with most jobs, the satisfaction is as great as the sense of community.

“Our park guys are so active on the hill and then there’s always guest education going on out there. I mean, it’s not uncommon to see park guys working with a guest that’s trying to figure out a trick or learning the ropes or what’s going on around the place. We, like I said, have quite the community here.”

 

 

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