Q&A with John Kircher: Crystal Mountain’s new owner wanted to buy resort for years

Crystal Mountain Resort General Manager John Kircher fires a snowball at co-workers during a break at getting the ski area ready for the 2016-17 season. He just bought the resort.
Crystal Mountain Resort General Manager John Kircher fires a snowball at co-workers during a break at getting the ski area ready for the 2016-17 season. He just bought the resort. lwong@thenewstribune.com

As news circulated Tuesday morning that Crystal Mountain Resort was sold, the new owner was doing what he loves most.

He was skiing at Crystal Mountain, shredding the slopes on 1950s-era wooden skis and leather boots.

“Everybody should do that at least once a year just so they can appreciate how far equipment has come,” John Kircher said. “Five runs and you are toast.”

Kircher acquired the skis a few years back when a visitor asked to trade them for a lift ticket.

Kircher has been the CEO and president of Crystal since the company his father co-founded, Boyne Resorts, acquired the ski area March 31, 1997.

Twenty years later, Kircher traded his shares of Boyne for the company’s shares of Crystal. It’s something he says he’s wanted to do for several years.

Kircher has grown quite fond of Crystal over the years. He led the growth of the state’s largest ski area, which now has a gondola and year-round operations.

His wife, Kim, is a long-time member of the ski patrol and was named the patrol’s director last year.

Kircher said he’s excited about his new role and says owning the ski area apart from Boyne will allow him to spend more revenue on upgrades.

Rebuilding lifts, expanding snow-making and summer mountain bike trails are on the to-do list. A hotel and a second gondola might be too.

Shortly after he stepped out of the cable bindings on his old wooden skis, Kircher settled into his office and answered a few questions:

Q: What does this sale mean for skiers?

A: First of all, Crystal does very well in a good year and has more than enough resources to build out anything that it has in its master plan. We can keep this ski area in top shape and groom it really well.

We handed money, over the years, back to Boyne that came at the expense of doing projects here. That is no longer the case. The dollars that Crystal brings in will go back into the area. I’m not a high-profile living type of guy. I don’t take anything out of the company. It all goes back into bettering the operations that we’ve done.

Q: What’s the most important attribute of a ski resort owner?

A: You have to really love the sport, and you have to really be interested in the technologies of lifts and grooming. You want to be into it enough that you want to have the latest and greatest. You want to keep the area up-to-date and competitive and keep improving it.

Q: Upgrading snow-making is going to be the top priority before next season?

A: We need to have that. This year notwithstanding, I tell people we are taking snow (the revenue from a good year) and turning it into more snow in the future. We are reinvesting to insulate ourselves from those down years in a meaningful way.

The ($5 million) system we are going to put in is pretty cool. It is going to protect the lower part of the mountain from most bad snow years. We should have the lifts going by Thanksgiving and have good, consistent snow cover.

Q: Have you had to lean on Boyne in bad snow years like 2015?

A: We didn’t have to lean on anybody. It’s just a matter of staying a little conservative. Use your cash flow but don’t acquire a lot of debt. With snow-making, it limits the likelihood of having a 2015 event. It’s a game changer. Those seasons lurk out there kind of like a shark when you are surfing, and they strike sometimes. With snow-making, the worst case is kind of pulled off the table.

Q: Seasons passes are on sale right now for $695, $155 less than this time last year. Is that a result of this move?

A: Yes, it is a bit of result of this. In a good year, a season pass is something that leaves you on a fixed income. Tickets sold at the window are more top dollar, and you sell a lot of them on a really stellar year like this year. The opposite happens in a bad year. You have your pass sales and sometimes precious little through-the-window sales.

You have to decide how much of a layer of insulation you want to put into your sales. And the more season passes you sell, the thicker the layer of insulation. We found that if you want to sell more passes … then drop the price down. But we still left it at a price where we don’t sell too many. When you sell too many you lose control of your volume. You don’t have any measure of control of how many people show up.

Q: What upgrades can people expect in the future?

A: The snow-making this year and then rebuilding chairlifts in the beginning area (in 2018). When we do that, then every lift at Crystal Mountain will be 20 years or less old.

We have to increase the size of the summit house.

We’ve been talking about a second gondola from the base area up to Campbell Basin Lodge. Getting into night skiing. The hotel is probably one of the last things.

Q: What about mountain biking?

A: Yeah. A little bit on both sides: the mountain top and the Campbell side. That’s coming.

Q: The skiing is still good. Are you really closing Sunday afternoon (April 23)?

A: I wish we didn’t have to close, but people vote with their feet. If they kept skiing, we’d keep running. We are closing on a load of snow, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.