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First Indoor Snow Mountain In North America Opens At New Jersey’s American Dream Mall
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The 1,000-foot slope at Big Snow is serviced by a four-chair lift and is divided into two slopes. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
East Rutherford, N.J. — Angel Williams is headed to Breckenridge for her first ski vacation this winter, and she wants to be prepared.
“I’m working out,” the New Yorker says as she steps into the lift at Big Snow, North America’s first indoor ski resort, located in a huge new shopping center minutes from her home.
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“My plan is to ride every weekend until it’s time to go to Breckenridge,” she says, her snowboard swinging from the four-seat Doppelmeier chairlift above a 1,000-foot snow-covered slope. “Then I won’t have to spend all my time at Bunny Hill. Maybe I can go to peak 9 which I hear is amazing. It’s the first time I’ve gone snowboarding on consecutive days. I think I’m getting better.”
Angel Williams of New York rides the lift at Big Snow Indoor Ski Area, where she practices snowboarding for an upcoming trip to Breckenridge. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
Big Snow founder Joe Hessian hopes that by overcoming some of the critical challenges facing skiing — such as long trips to remote mountains, expensive access and a steep learning curve — he’s found the key to a resort industry that needs new skiers. They faded from the sport to prosper as the older generation. And these new skiers should look different than the outgoing skiers. Of the roughly 9.5 million Americans who ski, nearly three-quarters are white, according to a recent participant survey by trade group Snowsports Industries America.
“Who else is doing more to develop the sport?” Hessian says he is among hundreds of first-time skiers and snowboarders looking for their first moments on the snow. “Anyone who wants to support this topic should visit us here and see this variety.”
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While indoor skiing is common in Europe, this is the first ski lodge in North America, where the quiet lowlands are dotted with failed attempts at indoor winter sports.
A proposed $215 million indoor ski resort near Dallas expected more than 2 million visitors a year before breaking ground in 2015. A similar dream died at the same time in South Florida. Concept plans for a $1 billion Las Vegas water park and ski resort are entering their 14th year. Investors are considering an indoor ski hill in Texas.
Hesson opened Big Snow Ski Resort at the American Dream Mall in New Jersey in early December. Since then, it hosts around 2,000 skiers every day. If momentum continues, Hess expects more than 500,000 skiers to visit in the first year. Most pay $70, which includes all clothing and ski equipment, time with instructors and two hours on the slopes.
He has his iPhone running SnowCloud, the e-commerce software his company Snow Operating created to manage all ski resort retail and online sales, access and lift management for the company’s 55 customers.
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Joe Hesson’s team at Big Snow created SnowCloud, a software platform that guides skiers through the process of fitting and renting skis. The program is used at Nickelodeon Universe and DreamWorks Waterpark at the American Dream Mall. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
“You want to see why everyone in the ski resort industry should see us,” he says, flipping through a list of hourly skier slots that are all sold out. “The response has been incredible.
Every hour, a stream of visitors who register online — some in t-shirts and flip flops and almost all first-time skiers — hold up their phones to be scanned by Big Snow workers. Visitors receive high-frequency wristbands with RFID chips that include their name, height, weight, shoe size and skiing ability. Within minutes, they’ve watched a hilarious orientation video, stowed their gear in free lockers, donned helmets, jackets and ski pants, put on boots and skis or snowboards, and arrived at the 180,000-square-foot, air-conditioned ski slope.
“This was our goal from the beginning. How do you design processes to be more efficient? How do we make it less pragmatic and more experiential?” says Ession.
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Most ski resorts are designed and built by skiers who have spent their lives on the snow, Hesson says.
“These hardcore skiers are what make our industry our industry, but the beginners seem to have been forgotten,” he says. “We’re lucky that standing on top of a mountain is a spiritual experience, because if it wasn’t, people would never come back.”
Joe Hesson started snow operations in Boulder in 2012. Last month, it opened North America’s first indoor ski resort, Big Snow, at the American Dream Mall in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
Last year, Hessian and his on-snow partners — wife Haley O’Brien, brother Patrick Hessian and longtime friend Scott Baldassano — became the fourth owners since 2010 of Mountain Creek Ski Area in northwest New Jersey. Hesson’s first job at age 14 was parking at Mountain Creek, and he worked there for more than 18 years, serving as the resort’s general manager, before moving to Colorado in 2012 to start snowmaking.
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The idea behind Snow Operating is to help resorts improve their guest experience, with a focus on first-time guests. The Hessian team has developed innovative strategies for teaching skiing and snowboarding using the terrain.
A small pit helps beginners understand how to spin. The slopes on gentle slopes lead first-time visitors to their first slopes. Since 2014, Hesson has implemented a snow “ground learning program” operating at major resorts such as Killington, Whistler Blackcomb, Aspen Snowmass, Telluride and Taos. Today, the company works with 55 resorts and helps design experiences that help turn first-time guests into lifelong skiers.
The owners of Big Snow have launched a terrain-based learning program that uses features such as turns to help novice skiers learn the basics of skiing. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
Hesson’s last seven years of work culminated in Big Snow. For first-time visitors, there are a pair of magic carpet lifts and an elevator that goes 16 stories to the top of a steeper slope with several jumps and rails. The ice is sharp and cold in a room with a temperature of 28 degrees.
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Hundreds of skiers are on the ice from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The snow cannons on the rafters blow up a fresh layer of snow each night, but snow that hasn’t frozen, seen sunlight, or baked in high temperatures is carved, not frozen.
Hession only opened a month ago, so it’s not a swampy New Jersey summer, but Mountain Creek pays about $3.5 million a year in electricity. Big Snow’s annual electric bill will be about $1 million, Hesson says.
“And we have more and more ski visitors here. So our kilowatt per skier visit is much lower than a typical ski resort,” he says.
Big Snow has 180 employees, and 100 of them are year-round, full-time employees with benefits. Almost all of its employees have never worked in skiing. This is intentional.
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“The bias of a person working at a ski resort confuses them about how the place works. We do not operate the ski area. We run it like a theme park,” he says, clicking into his walkie-talkie and telling the front staff that the boot fitting station is no longer full and they can let another wave of visitors through the system. “Every way we run is a routine . Unlike a ski resort.’
Tom Foley, head of business operations and analytics at Intopia, says a destination like Big Snow is sure to break down the perceived cost barrier that keeps skiing from reaching a wider demographic.
Big Snow’s 180,000-square-foot indoor ski slope features a four-person fixed-handle lift that ascends 16 stories up a 1,000-foot slope. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
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“It’s an experience that doesn’t require you to go to a scary place like a 10,000-foot-high rocky mountain,” he says. “By allowing you to bypass this threat, it removes a barrier that is more fundamental to human nature than cost barriers.”
Foley, a longtime student of the growth and challenges of resort tourism, questions the long-term viability of indoor skiing with an emphasis on educating and pushing skiers.
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