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Jessica Sloma

Episode 60: Providing a Family-First Experience, with Jessica Sloma

In this episode, you will learn how Greek Peak Mountain Resort prioritizes providing a great experience for families from Jessica Sloma.

Jessica Sloma is Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Greek Peak Mountain Resort and she has been involved with the resort since 2008. When Jessica first came to Greek Peak, she was a partner in an advertising agency in New York and was brought onboard to rebrand Greek Peak for the grand opening of the Hope Lake Lodge and Cascades Indoor Waterpark. She eventually transitioned from the advertising world to work directly for the resort.

In 2015, the owners of Greek Peak purchased Toggenburg Mountain, a seasonal ski resort located outside of Syracuse, New York. This season Jessica, along with the Greek Peak executive team, have taken on the oversight of that property.

 

More on Jessica’s Background

Thank you for joining me Jessica.

Thank you for having me, Nicole.

I am really looking forward to our conversation. We are recording this in February. I think it’s about 23 degrees out today. It’s definitely timely, and we’re having a fabulous winter. I’m really looking forward to learning from you.

Before we dive in, I would like for you to share your story in your own words. I find that it gives so much more context to our conversation and for our listeners who are listening to our conversation today.

Sure. You did a great job summarizing. I have been involved with Greek Peak since 2008 and came onboard at a really exciting time when they were rebranding Greek Peak, the logo and there were just footers started at the hotel, so I saw the building of Hope Lake Lodge and Indoor Waterpark and the beautiful spa being built. I’ve been a part of many evolutions, and three years ago, I came on as an employee as V.P. and couldn’t be happier. It’s a great fit for me.

That’s awesome. I also happen to know that you’re passionate about skiing. As a matter of fact, in our pre-interview chat, you were saying how you were just out and came in from a run. Is that right?

I did. You know, we’ve started to incorporate early morning employee outings on the mountain, so our hill crew was kind enough to come in very early and open a couple of chair lifts for the employees today. It was just a beautiful powder day.

That’s awesome. Well, that’s fabulous. I’m really looking forward to hearing what you have to say on the two topics we like to focus on, on this show, which is creativity and collaboration. I find so often in travel and tourism, it’s hard to talk about one without talking about the other. So, I’ll really be looking forward to some of your insights.

 

Greek Peak has Something for Everyone

So, diving right in, we know that the tourism and hospitality industry is very competitive. You’re not only competing with other destination choices or other resort choices but also for the visitor’s precious time as we’re all, you know, time-starved in this day and age.

I’m wondering what you have done to stand out from the crowd.

You know, I thought a lot about that, and what we do very well is staying true to who we are, even as we’re faced with more competition coming onboard and then fairly close to the resort. What we do pretty well, in my opinion, is we’re a four seasons resort and we’re focused on families and being a fun environment and comfortable for families to come and enjoy their holiday.

“Greek Peak Mountain Resort is a four seasons resort. We're focused on families and being a fun environment and comfortable for families to come and enjoy their holiday.” - Jessica Sloma #WhyCollaborate #podcast Click To Tweet

Yeah, that’s great. Actually can you, let’s back up just for minute and have you share with our listeners a little bit about Greek Peak and how you are really that four season resort because I think that, that shift probably happened right around that 2008 period when you said, you know, you saw those footers in the ground and watched everything being built up. Can you talk a little bit about the property and how that four-season piece works?

Yes, Nicole. We’re actually celebrating our 60 year anniversary this year in 2008. Greek Peak Ski Resort has been around since 1958 and like you said, back in 2007-8, they were planning and building their next phase. With the weather patterns changing, you can’t really rely on Mother Nature. So we, at that point, looked at different avenues to become sustainable as a four seasons resort, those being the hotel and indoor waterpark and then a year later Greek Peak added their Adventure Center. That is actually a four seasons amenity. We’ve got the mountain coasters, zip lines, aerial rope course, we have two bang abouts, 20 lanes of tubing in the winter and team building.

Over the past six years, we’ve really evolved into a true four seasons resort that is something for everybody. When you come here, if mom and dad want to be in the spa, the kids can be in the waterpark. It’s a very safe environment.

That’s great. I’ve done the mountain coaster and it’s one of the coolest experiences ever, actually, just to be using gravity, right, to go down the mountain.

Yeah, it’s very safe. It’s hooked to the rails so the carts cannot come off the rail and you go up the mountain like you would on a roller coaster, and then you can control your speed as you glide through the mountain and down back to the Adventure Center. It’s really fun.

Yeah.

And it’s for all ages.

Yeah, that’s great. You’ve talked about how you’ve transitioned into this four-season resort and have that family focus so it’s a safe and a fun environment. Can you talk a little bit about some of the ways you kind of message that and sort of live that because, you said, and I thought that this was really, really good in terms of how you stand out from the crowd to stay true to who we are and being that focused on who are we? We’re this family destination. Can you expand on that just a little bit more?

Yes, so a lot of our patrons come from New York City, New Jersey, Philly, so they’re actually having to pass by some of the larger resorts and larger indoor waterparks in the Pocono region and soon to be in the Catskills region. That’s where we feel like we are, you know, kind of separating ourselves a little bit from the competition. We don’t have the newest waterpark. We’ve been around for a long time now. The saying in the industry is, no sooner as you launch your waterpark it almost becomes outdated because that industry changes so quickly. Our waterpark, for example, is 41,000 square feet. Some of the new waterparks that came onboard are 125,000 square feet. What we say is that younger, families can feel comfortable and relax and enjoy the waterpark and mom and dad can see their child throughout the waterpark and not worry about them getting lost or, you know, nervous and that type of thing.

Yeah, and I, being a mother of four children, I can definitely relate to that. You go to a waterpark and you think, those chairs on the side there by the pool look really comfy, but then you end up following your kid all over the place to make sure they don’t fall or slip.

That’s right.

I can absolutely appreciate that.

 

Greek Peak’s Improvements Under New Ownership

This next question about creativity actually has to do with the creative solutions that come from facing a challenge or a problem. You’ve already kind of eluded to one and I’m not sure if this is the one you had in mind to talk about, but can you share a time when, you know, when you faced some sort of a challenge and a kind of creative solution that came from that?

Well, I think when you have longevity like a 60-year resort, the company sees many evolutions, right, throughout that time period. Greek Peak has seen that. You had mentioned new ownership. The owners actually bought the property in 2013 and it was purchased by two local businessmen from the Elmira area. That was a big evolution because previous owners owned Greek Peak up until that point. That was challenging. I think it was challenging for the employees and the community, and I think it’s a testament to the resort and to the team. We’re like family. We stick together and get through the challenges and, I guess that would be our biggest challenge.

The community stuck by us and have seen major improvements since new ownership in 2013 and there have been big, big dollar investments into the property. It was definitely a challenge and during that time it was also a tough time economically, and the owners stayed true to what they said they were gonna do and made the investment that they said that they were going to make. I think it’s really paid off.

We were into a really great season with new product and new capital improvements that I can talk about as well. Just to give you some numbers to that, when the owners bought it in 2013, after the purchase they initially made improvements to the tune of five and a half million dollars. This season, through the summer into fall getting ready for the ’17-’18 ski season, they invested another $809,000 back into the resort.

That’s fabulous. I think that’s a really great story because 60 years is a long time. I actually like how you’ve taken this idea of longevity and how when you are that old of a company you do see so many evolutions and changes to the property, and in this case, the ownership. I certainly can imagine how challenging that was to change ownership, especially when you’re working in a family owned business and you all are part of the family and feel that way. I can imagine that.

Then for the new owners to step up and as you said to stay true to their word and follow through on the investments they said they were going make and then this next evolution made it even better I think is really awesome.

I would love it if you would expand on the types of investments and changes that have happened. I think that would be really useful for our listeners to understand and appreciate.

Sure. Early on, when they purchased Greek Peak back in 2013, they brought the first quad chairlift to central New York and enhanced the snowmaking and base area building. They built our flagship restaurant, Trax Pub and Grill, which is on the base of the mountain. Then they built a 6000 square foot deck that is adjacent to Trax Pub and Grill and goes right out to the base of the mountain, which is one of the largest outdoor decks in the area.

“Greek Peak brought the first quad chairlift to central New York in 2013 and enhanced the snowmaking and base area building.” - Jessica Sloma #WhyCollaborate #podcast Click To Tweet

Today the improvements continue with the goal to get the mountain open sooner and more trails available to our patrons. Over the summer, the Greek Peak hill crew replaced 750 feet of snowmaking pipe. We added 14 new snow guns and power fans. With that enhancement, we can increase our snow gun capacity by like 100, by 1000 gallons per minute of snow gun capacity.

I think our season pass holders and our avid skiers have really noticed that. You had mentioned before the interview started that you had read an article about us starting snowmaking in November this year and Mother Nature helped with that, but all of those improvements also made the decision to pull the trigger on snowmaking in mid-November a lot easier and it was a smarter decision.

Yeah, that’s really great. You know, those kinds of improvements are things that the general public might not see or understand. You know, the Trax Pub and Grill and the 6000 square foot deck and the quad chair, these are all very visible, right, and you know that they’re there, but the snowmaking is the kind of behind the scenes addition that really makes the skiing experience a good one.

Exactly.

It’s also so important. I think that’s fantastic. I also think it’s interesting that you introduced the first quad chairlift in central New York because I can see how that plays right into who you are and that family-friendly atmosphere and really does support your values and your positioning in the marketplace. I think that’s awesome.

Yes, thank you.

Looking into the future, are there any projects that you’re particularly excited about that you can share with our listeners?

Yeah. The executive team always sits down and we’re always looking for ways to improve. I also oversee our group sales and that has increased significantly over the last three years. Our weddings and multi-day conferences and meetings have doubled over the years…weddings in particular. We just last week sat down and brainstormed our wedding business and the improvements we can make to enhance our wedding experience for our brides and grooms. That could be different venues so we dabbled in mountaintop weddings, but also asked ourselves how we could enhance that experience for our guests. It’s very diverse, so you can choose from a mountaintop wedding or your traditional ballroom or lakeside wedding. We have Hope Lake Lodge, which is just adjacent to the hotel. It’s a great setting for brides to chose various venue sites. So it’s fun.

Absolutely. A mountaintop wedding, that sounds really unique. I’ve never been to a mountaintop wedding before.

They take the chairlift up.

That would be so fun.

It’s pretty neat. We’re always looking at ways to improve our snowmaking, so that would be part of it. Our Terrain Park, this year, we’ve invested some time in money in developing a park crew led by a park manager. Those are some of the ways we improved. Year over year we’ve increased our trail capacity for our downhill lift access mountain bike.

Oh, Nicole, this is pretty interesting too. So, after ski season in the spring, we flipped our hill over to downhill lift access mountain biking. You can rent bikes. We partner with a company out of Syracuse called Advanced Cyclery for our bikes. You buy the chairlift up, you attach the bike and then you ride the trail system down. We started three years ago with three trails and we’re up to 16 downhill mountain bike trails. So that’s pretty exciting as well.

Yeah, that’s really exciting. That’s really awesome. I like that you offer the bike rentals as well, so someone who doesn’t have the right gear can still have the experience. That’s great.

Yes, absolutely. Obviously, we’re dedicated to and catering to young families. There are cross-country trails that are around the lake or you can go all the way up to a double black diamond, which is pretty intense.

I could imagine. I think I might stay around the lake, but I know some people that would love to do that double black diamond.

Good. Yup. Something for everyone.

That’s right. That’s fabulous. Well, that all sounds really great and actually, again, just kind of re-enforces your evolution into this four-season resort and adding that biking, another reason to come. Also, it’s utilizing the assets that you have, which is this beautiful mountain and these wonderful trails and utilizing them more year round. I think that’s just really exciting stuff.

 

How the Mountains in NY Help Each Other Succeed

Switching gears now, I do also like to focus on collaboration on the show. We find that it happens so often in travel and tourism with what I like to call coopetition, where perceived competitors come together to collaborate on programs or packages, you know, to create something that’s bigger than what they can do on their own.

Do you have an example of a time when a collaboration maybe between competitors has worked for you?

Not with a direct competitor, I wouldn’t say, but we believe in transparency and collaboration too. Our President, Wes Kryger, sits on the board of ISKINY, which is the Ski Area Association of New York. I sit on the board with Cortland County Convention and Visitors Bureau. One of my reservations managers sits on the Innkeepers, which are all of the local hotels in Cortland. I think that speaks to the collaboration. A lot of times as we are building our group sales, we have a 150 room capacity, and after that, we roll over those rooms to the local hotels. We do collaborate with them throughout the year, the other hotels in Cortland County. It’s proven to be a great benefit for them and us, as well as our guests. It works out well in that capacity.

Those are really good examples. With the Ski Area Association of New York, those would be other ski areas throughout the state of New York. They are or could be competitors because a family who might be choosing a vacation could go to any one of those ski areas. The point is, first you need to, as New York state, right, get New York as a ski destination on everyone’s minds.

You’re right.

And then it’s which ski area are we going to. Going back to what we started with, which is in order to really stand out from the crowd, because otherwise, a visitor might be looking at Vermont. Or they might even be looking at Utah or Colorado or somewhere that’s not New York. Is that right?

That is correct. Just one more thing to note is that the diversity of each New York State mountain is pretty unique as well. We’re lucky in the Syracuse central New York area to have four very close mountains together. One is our sister mountain, Toggenburg Mountain, which is on the east suburbs of Syracuse and Fabius, New York. That is a smaller mountain, so in the industry, it’s almost like a feeder mountain to a larger mountain like Greek Peak. Then, of course, after you ski Greek Peak, maybe you’re looking for a bigger mountain and you’re prepared to go into a Whiteface or a larger mountain. It’s good. We all work very well together and we all want each of us to succeed.

“Toggenburg Mountain is like a feeder mountain to a larger mountain like Greek Peak. After you ski Greek Peak, you might want a bigger mountain like Whiteface. We all work very well together. We all want each of us to succeed.” - Jessica Sloma Click To Tweet

You know, we go to not only the regional ski areas association meetings, but national. Our national NSAA is a great support and resource for all the mountains in the United States.

That’s great. I like what you said, each of us to succeed, right? It’s not that, you know, we’re not in it to put others out of business necessarily, we all want to get the business. The more business that we can bring in to the state the more there is for everyone.

I really like that idea too of the feeder mountain. Obviously, since I’m not in your role, I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but in terms of how, as your sister mountain, Toggenburg helps prepare skiers for coming over to Greek Peak and how Greek Peak might prepare skiers to go on to a bigger mountain as well.

I also want to back up and talk a little bit about the CVB and the Innkeepers Association because I want to make sure listeners picked up on that point. You know you used the example of using partners throughout the community for overflow rooms, specifically, once Hope Lake Lodge gets to capacity in meeting that overflow. Do you also work with other areas within your city or within Cortland and collaborate on packaging or cross promotion or anything like that?

Ah, yes. We have. We’ve worked with the downtown partnership for Cortland. So they did a grant two years ago that was Ski Cortland and we participated in that grant. I actually think three of the four mountains are in Cortland County. This year, for Ski Cortland, all of the four mountains, Greek Peak, Toggenburg, Song, and Labrador all participated in that. Downtown Cortland is looking to drive people to Cortland County for food and beverage, so they’ve been a great partner as well. The city of Cortland, we work with the chambers in the areas as well as the CVB’s.

It’s almost like it’s this kind of ecosystem, right? I’m familiar with Cortland, so you’re a large attraction for that part of New York state. But you can’t survive on your own island so to speak, so you’ve kind of got this ecosystem around you. You’ve got hotels for overflow rooms. You’ve got your relationship with downtown for the food and beverage and entertainment, and you’ve got relationships with the Chamber of Commerce and all of that. I think that’s a really good example and representation of what, you know, what can be done and how you collaborate and reach out to the community around you.

The colleges and universities, Cortland, SUNY Cortland, Cornell, they come to our ski programs and actually the PE programs. It’s an accredited program through their rec programs and they utilize Greek Peak. We definitely like to collaborate with our neighbors.

“The colleges and universities, Cortland, SUNY Cortland, Cornell, utilize Greek Peak through their rec programs. We definitely like to collaborate with our neighbors.” - Jessica Sloma #WhyCollaborate #podcast Click To Tweet

That’s great.

Can you talk a little bit more about Toggenburg? We talked about Greek Peak and you just mentioned them. But can you talk a little bit about what you’re doing with that mountain and kind of how it fits into the bigger and broader picture of what you are in terms of Greek Peak Resort?

Yes. The owners, John Meier and Mark Stermerman, bought Toggenburg I believe in 2015. It’s operated separately from Greek Peak, but the executive team does oversee the operation at Toggenburg. It’s a seasonal mountain. They have a really great loyal base on the east suburbs of Syracuse. We collaborate. Like I said, there’s the thought process of the feeder mountain. Toggenburg being a smaller mountain. I believe they’ve got 21 trails to our 55 trails.

We look at different ways that we can partner through races. One of the things that is coming up on the radar is our second Spartan Run that we’re holding at Greek Peak. That’s a great time for our season pass holders to maybe ski at Toggenburg Mountain that day if they don’t want to be hassled with the crowds and what not. We look at ways to collaborate with them throughout the year as well. It’s a good connection for us at Greek Peak to kind of connect that Syracuse and North Country market down to Cortland County as well.

Right. That’s a really good point too because you’re opening yourself up to a broader audience by having that property. I also liked what you just mentioned in terms of the example of the Spartan Run. In terms of enhancing your season pass holders experience by giving them another option when Greek Peak Mountain might be, you know, congested, right?

Yeah, absolutely.

That’s a great benefit.

This has been a really great conversation. I just wanted to ask a few more questions before we wrap up. I’d like to hear your thoughts that you might have about how to work within a collaboration and how to manage expectations. We really try to share some best practices on this show with the listeners, so I like to hear from each of our guests your perspective on how you create a successful partnership and manage expectations. Do you have any thoughts around that to share with us?

I think a good example of recent and ongoing collaboration is when we brought Spartan to Cortland County and Greek Peak. Last year in March was the first Spartan Run, the first winter Spartan Run in the United States, and it was also the first in conjunction with an operating ski resort. It took a village. It took a lot of planning outside of Greek Peak and the Spartan Organization to make sure that this was a successful and safe day here in Cortland County. We’re in the midst of planning our second annual. It was very successful last year and they are coming back on March 10th for a run.

“Last year in March, Greek Peak held the first winter Spartan Run in the United States. It was also the first in conjunction with an operating ski resort.” - Jessica Sloma #WhyCollaborate #podcast Click To Tweet

For those in the audience that might not be familiar with Spartan, it’s a three and a half mile sprint or run, and within those three and a half miles there can be 20 to 22 obstacles. It’s an endurance run. It is so large that each race usually anticipates over 4000 racers. Then in addition to our hotel guests and our skiers, we were well over 5000 people on site at one time. We had to go through the different agencies in New York to file a Part 18, which is like a mass gathering permit and Spartan submits that because they are the event, but it’s in collaboration with Greek Peak, Greek Peak Ski Patrol, TLC and Event Medics. We send out notifications to the chambers locally and the CVB’s to make sure everybody is well aware that the Sheriff and State Police, to make sure that the flow of traffic is fast, and we bring in security. I think that is a great way to show the collaboration of Greek Peak and what we bring to the community.

We not only filled our hotel very early on, but we filled most of the hotels in Cortland. All of their dining facilities of food and beverage was full. People came from around the world. We had people here from Brazil and Germany, and of course, the United States. It’s a great time to showcase not only Greek Peak but Cortland County as well. They go out and travel and get into the community. I would say that is probably the best recent example of our collaboration with multi-agencies.

That’s a great example because it does take so many different people to be able to pull something like that off, and you started by talking about the government agencies that need to get involved because you’re talking about having a mass gathering. You have to have the emergency services in place. The police, etc. But then also working with the community and making sure that the restaurants and the accommodations are prepared to handle the group as well. I can see that as being a really great example.

So I have a question, does this all happen on the mountain or is it all around? Is it the mountain and then around you?

It happens on our property, so they utilize two of our black diamond trails. If you’re facing the mountain, it’s our two trails that are furthest right, and then that goes into our Adventure Center, which they basically take over for like a 13 day access period. So the course goes over there and then they go over or under 392 and they are on our property on our lodge side. It is contained to Greek Peak, but they really utilize the property.

Oh, wow. And they do this in March, so that’s got to be an interesting twist as well. Are they running, are they groomed trails?

No, it’s pretty challenging and narly. Last year, the two trails are the furthest of the double black diamond and racers are carrying sandbags up the headwall of our steepest mountain. It’s very challenging and the obstacles are tough. I mean just the weather alone. Last year, I think three days before March’s running it was 60 degrees and Spartan was looking at me like, “What is going on? We’re supposed to be here for a winter race. Everybody’s coming around the world for it.” Then it changed and I think it was nine degrees. It was deep packed snow and ice. It was quite challenging.

Wow. Yeah. It sounds it. That’s amazing.

People pay to put themselves through that. Can you believe it? It’s so cool.

No, I can’t. Well, I wouldn’t pay for it, but, you know. I’m impressed with those people.

You get a medal!

That is impressive.

It’s a lot of fun. They have a festival area. This year we’re planning more dedicated space and fun areas for our skiers. They don’t necessarily like their trails taken over either, so we try to make everybody happy and the community and the property and make it a very fun event.

Yeah.

There’s DJ’s and vendors and food and it’s quite a fun celebration.

That’s great. Well, this has been a really educational conversation for sure. I really appreciate all of the ideas and all of the sharing and the transparency that you have provided us on this interview. Do you have any final thoughts that you would like to share? Anything I didn’t ask you or something that you’d like to share before we say goodbye?

I don’t think so. I really appreciate the opportunity. I think for your listeners, stay tuned. Greek Peak is always looking to change and evolve and grow and stay relevant so definitely keep watch of Greek Peak and watch for all the fun changes with go through our next 10 years.

That’s great. And thank you very much for being with us today, Jessica.

 

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