By Sarah B. Hood
It’s six decades old, and it’s brand-new. Last December, as it moved into its 58th winter season, New York’s Windham Mountain Resort entered a strategic partnership with Connecticut-based private equity firm North Castle Partners, with plans to build on an impressive program of recent improvements and take the property into a new stage of life as a true four-season destination.
Located in the Great Northern Catskills, about 2.5 hours north of Manhattan and an hour southwest of Albany, N.Y., Windham already attracts crowds of winter visitors to enjoy its 285 skiable acres, 54 trails and six terrain parks. The ski area includes an east and a west peak, which share a single base lodge. The Windham Mountain Adventure Park offers tubing and kids’ snowmobiles.
During the summer, guests come for amenities that include Windham Mountain Bike Park – which has hosted five Union Cycliste Internationale World Cup Mountain Bike races, a public golf course and a roster of weddings and special events. One such event is the Music on the Mountain concert series, a free-admission, all-ages music festival that expanded in 2019 (its third year) to become an eight-week series that ran until the end of August. New for 2019 was the Keg, Rattle & Roll in the Catskills festival, which matched local craft beers, ciders and wines with food, music and craft vendors.
The 20-room Winwood Inn operates all year long and includes a Mexican restaurant called Rock’n Mexicana, one of several dining options on the property. Windham also operates a rental pool of 60 homes and condos and 26 privately-owned condos.
The winter months are certainly the busiest; Windham employs close to 1,000 people during the winter high season. Through the summer, the staff drops to about 150. North Castle, which focuses on the healthy, active and sustainable living sectors, has expressed its intention to build upon Windham’s strengths by maintaining the existing management and staff while investing $8 million into capital improvements; many of which are already in place for the 2019-20 winter season.
Among the upgrades are a new high-speed chairlift and RFID lift access (a first for New York State), which can be uploaded from any computer or smartphone to eliminate the need for guests to present their tickets or season passes before boarding lifts. Snowmaking and grooming improvements and a new swimming pool at the Winwood Inn are also in the planned upgrades.
Chip Seamans, Windham’s president and general manager, has been with the resort for the past eight years. He says that many of the capital projects were already in the works before North Castle came on board, “but they are certainly involved in longer planning. We are involved in master planning right now that will take us into the next five to 10 years. We’re very excited about what they bring to the table; I think they are unique, in terms of who owns ski areas.”
New investment will not likely change Windham’s essential character, which is family-focused, with a new internal tagline: To be above and beyond.
“We think of ourselves as being a little bit higher-end; we have a private club within our base lodge and we set a high bar for ourselves,” said Seamans. “Over the last five to seven years we have invested heavily in infrastructure: grooming, snowmaking and the base-area amenities.”
Making and maintaining snow
The program of improvements has ramped up steeply over the past few seasons, with major investments in snowmaking, grooming and lifts.
“Snowmaking is obviously critical for us, particularly as the weather seems to become more inconsistent. We would not be in business without snowmaking; that’s been probably [the] biggest area of investment over the last seven years,” Seamans said. “Snowmaking technology has come a very long way. Our whole network of pipes and snow guns is being replaced by technology that’s in some cases 70 to 80 percent more efficient.”
Windham’s director of mountain operations, Ted Davis, has been with the resort for more than 40 years in various capacities. Over his career on the property, “the interesting thing is it’s grown in every aspect,” he said.
“When I first started here, the resort had just begun, and I think they had four chairlifts and virtually no snowmaking. They were attempting it, but it took so long to get any snow down at all. Now, with the new automated systems that
everybody’s putting in, you can hit a button and start making snow on the trails right away.”
A decade ago, Windham’s snowmaking equipment consisted of high-pressure water snow guns, comparatively expensive diesel compressors and what Davis calls “very inefficient” electrical compressors. After analysing the cost, “we decided to eliminate all of those – nine compressors in total – to bring in four very efficient electrical systems,” he said. Windham Mountain is now operating Ingersoll Rand compressors.
“The pump stayed the same; we just made sure it was pumping as efficiently as it could, to increase the pressure. We also put in a booster pump about halfway up the mountain because with the older one we were using, we were getting [pounds per square inch readings] that were in the 40 to 50 range. The new guns require 300 psi.”
In all, nearly 100 automated snow guns are being installed on the resort’s Whistler, What Terrain Park (previously called Assembly Line), Lower Wipeout and Upper Wraparound ski runs, along with more than two miles of new snowmaking pipe on Whiteway, Wraparound, Wilbur and Way To Go runs.
To date, said Seamans, “we have replaced all of our air compressors. We continue to replace metal pipe that’s in the ground and our biggest push now is to go towards automation. We had to have people at every hydrant to turn them on; now somebody can sit in the control room and push a button.”
Grooming protocols have also been stepped up. “Ten years ago, we had machines that were 10 to 12 years old; they were used every night on steep, icy terrain. With these machines, as soon as you hit the five-year mark, they start to need a lot of maintenance,” Davis said.
“Now, when they reach five years old, we trade them in. It’s really made a difference because now we have all of our equipment out all the time. We have more snowcats on the mountain for more time and it’s consistent,” he said. Windham employs a fleet of energy-efficient PistenBully 400s that comply with the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Tier 4 Emissions Standards.
Increasing lift capacity
The biggest of the recent improvements, says Seamans, was the addition of a new six-passenger lift to replace two older lifts out of the base area: a detachable quad and a fixed-grip triple, which both served the same location on the mountain.
“We got rid of the 30-year-old triple and replaced it with a detachable six-pack, which obviously has a lot greater lift capacity and is a quicker ride to the summit,” he said. “It was exciting for us; it was our first six-passenger lift.”
Windham celebrated the opening of the “Westside Six” with a ribbon-cutting ceremony last December. The high-speed Doppelmayr lift can now transport 3,000 skiers and snowboarders per hour. The 5,105-foot trip to the summit of the resort’s west peak takes less than 5.5 minutes.
Most recently, the detachable quad, which has been made redundant by the new six-pack, is being moved to a new location, where it will replace another triple lift. “This will bring our total uphill capacity to just over 19,000, and just the year before last we were bringing up 17,000,” said Davis. “We’ve increased our capacity by 2,000 an hour.”
There are further developments off the slopes. Windham has a close relationship with the Adaptive Sports Foundation (ASF), a non-profit organization based in nearby Windham, N.Y., that provides life-changing experiences for children and adults living with disabilities and chronic illnesses. When ASF recently received the donation of a ski simulator, Windham stepped up to build a new building to house it.
Guests will be able to practice their skills on sliding rails that simulate the movement of a real hill in front of three large TV screens that project a choice of racecourse scenarios in preparation for facing the slopes.
“It’s very exciting,” said Seamans. “This is a training mechanism for everybody: people with full capability and people with disabilities.” The ski simulator is expected to be ready for the Columbus Day weekend, at the latest.
Windham is also hopping onto an emerging trend with the addition of an umbrella bar to the patio area on the slope side of the base lodge. “They’re very popular in Austria and they’re starting to become more popular in the Unites States,” Seamans said.
These round pavilions have a festive, carousel-like appearance and give guests a feeling of being comfortable yet immersed in the landscape. Windham’s, which will have a 33-foot diameter, can be completely enclosed or open on all sides. It will house a central bar surrounded by stools and tables.
“We can use it all year for special events and weddings,” said Seamans. “In the winter it will be available as an extra location that can be heated; it will be a lot of fun.”
Overall, “the investments we’ve made over the last few years have made a significant difference in the experience here,” Seamans said. “I think, going forward, we’ve invested in that infrastructure and now we’re looking at what’s next, how much can we grow? We’re looking at becoming more of a four-season destination; we have a lot of choices for the direction we want to go and we want to do that right.”
Of all the potential challenges, “the weather is our biggest challenge which is why we’ve invested so heavily in snowmaking and why we’re investing in becoming more of year-round resort. We have an underutilized asset with the lifts and the mountain and the beautiful views, and we’re trying to take advantage of that,” Seamans said.
“The other challenge,” he said, “is hiring so many people as seasonal employees. We try to make it a fun place to work and we’re on a pretty exciting growth path that I think is fun to be a part of.”
“It’s all positive,” said Davis. “The new owners are very excited about growing the area and interacting with the community. They’re very in-tune with the business side of it, and I am really looking forward to working with them over the coming years and seeing the increasing energy.”