Kevin Stickelman remembers his first visit to Las Vegas like it happened just last year … because it did. It was September 2010, and Stickelman’s bosses with Powdr Corp. wanted him to fly from his home in Bend, Ore., where he was director of guest experience at the Powdr-owned Mount Bachelor Ski Resort, to Las Vegas to tour another company property they wanted him to operate: the Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort in Lee Canyon.
As his plane descended and the desert came more into focus, Stickelman began to think he’d been sold a bill of goods. Then the plane landed, he walked outside and got blasted by the 110-degree heat. “I was wondering, ‘What am I getting myself into here?’” Stickelman hopped in a car with a Powdr executive and embarked on the one-hour drive to Mount Charleston. Eventually, the desert brush gave way to Joshua, pinyon and juniper trees, then ponderosas and firs. “Then we rounded that last corner, and I was like, ‘Man, this is a hidden gem, a giant just waiting to be awakened.’”
A month later, Stickelman returned as the ski resort’s president and general manager, and he did so with crystal-clear marching orders: oversee a massive, decadelong expansion aimed at turning an antiquated, little-used, lightly regarded ski area into a year-round playland that would attract upward of 250,000 visitors annually. Some 15 months later, the 33-year-old Kansas native and lifelong snowbird remains convinced his hidden gem will one day resemble a very visible Hope Diamond.
You’ve been here more than a year, long enough to know this community is full of skeptics. So what’s your response to those who say you’re crazy to think you can pull this off?
I think they’re in the minority. Our passionate people who have been coming here for decades see the same vision and possibility that I do. So I say stay on the fence and let us prove to you that we’re going to fulfill this.
What was your first impression of the resort when you got there?
It was aging, and I knew that. Since Powdr’s acquisition in 2003, there had been some investment in infrastructure and snowmaking and electrical systems. But there really hadn’t been much in the way of services, which is the world I came from. So to come up here and see the ski school and rental shop and our food-and-beverage operation at the time, I saw the opportunity right away where it really wouldn’t even cost that much money to make some pretty significant changes for our guests. … From that moment on, I really started putting together a game plan for summer 2011 for some capital to spend.
After your initial evaluation, what one or two issues topped your fix-it priority list?
No. 1 was to get our facilities and general appearance updated, so that when people came up here, at least it appeared that [the resort] was being kept up, because we hadn’t necessarily done that. So to bring everything up to par on a maintenance level was absolutely No. 1. And then No. 2, I also recognized that I needed to look for some additional support on the management side to come in and help me implement my vision for the place, and we’ve also done that.
Over the years, hard-core snowbirds have cited safety concerns such as poor snow quality and cramped space for shying away from the resort. Any of those criticisms justified?
Some of them definitely have been justified in the past. We’ve had a challenge … of having the most modern, up-to-date snow-grooming equipment that is available; in the past we’ve purchased used equipment that might be one or two generations old. But last year we purchased a brand-new Prinoth grooming machine, and we plan to do the same thing again next year. So our snow quality we’re absolutely committed to. And as far as our facilities go, we plan on some significant upgrades both in the buildings and also on the mountain with replacing these old chairlifts as soon as next summer. So you’ll start seeing some of the sexy projects happening as early as next year.
Your master plan includes adding 50 trails and 10 lifts, but as the resort grows, so will traffic problems, especially since there’s only so much space to make road improvements. How big of a concern is transportation?
Transportation is a tough one. We’ve had a bus program in place the last three years that will continue this season. That program has been growing substantially; last year we had about 2,000 people who rode the bus over the course of the winter. And we would love to see that grow to 10,000 to 15,000 over the next 10 years. Mass transit is definitely going to be a key to our future growth, both summer and winter. But also in our master plan is another pretty decent-size parking expansion up here on some existing areas that are currently used for parking lots. … With just those improvements we’ll be able to park cars for about 4,000 people per day, which is double our capacity now.
Assuming all the expansion plans are executed, what’s the desired end game for the resort? Could it become a mini Brian Head or Big Bear, or are your goals even greater than that?
I think our goal can be even greater than that. At the end of the day, I see us being a very solid, midsize resort—which is a ski area that does somewhere around 250,000-400,000 visits per year. I see us being one of the top five things to do when you come to Vegas in the wintertime, especially for families. Families come to Vegas, and they drive to the Hoover Dam and Valley of Fire and Red Rock, whatever that’s away from the Strip—I want us to be one of those types of activities that are on the must-do list.
Speaking of lists, what’s on your winter-sports bucket list?
I’ve never skied in Europe, and that’s something I would love to do, just to go experience the miles and miles and miles of trails and lifts they have there. There are some really cool places in France and Italy, but just to go experience that European ski vacation would be cool.