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Squaw Valley's CEO, Andy Wirth, Looks Forward to New Era

Winter is back. Snow has returned to the Sierras with a vengeance—the mountains are expected to be blasted with 3 to 5 feet by Friday. All that new-fallen powder has got the Bay Area thinking skiing, and us turning our attention once again to Squaw Valley, which changed management this season after being owned by the founding Cushing family for nearly 60 years. 

Squaw was sold to Denver-based private equity firm KSL Capital Partners in November, with a promise to spend more than $50 million in resort and mountain enhancements. And Squaw's new CEO, Andy Wirth, has hit the ground running, looking to overhaul everything from culinary services to lift lines to the ski-school program.

Earlier this month, Wirth's team held what he calls a "design bake-off," inviting three mountain engineering and planning firms to compete for the bid to re-engineer the resort. The firms SE Group, International Alpine Design, and Ecosign all presented plans for re-sculpting the mountain's runs and amenities. The winner will be announced in the next two weeks, and they're aiming to have full redesign plans in place by this fall.

"The resort is 60 years old," says Wirth. "And with that, there's the benefit of its heritage. But also with that comes the challenge that many things need replacement. Squaw hasn't kept up with other resorts." Wirth plans to look at pulling and realigning lifts and also re-envisioning High Camp, which he admits "doesn't function all that well right now." He's also looking to re-visit the location of terrain parks, possibly add features at the bottom of the mountain, and re-focus the resort on grooming (they've already purchased six new Snowcats this season).

"The mountain is spectacular," says Wirth, "it's just not been necessarily optimally managed, capitalized, and marketed." Towards that end, Wirth hired Julie Maurer, former VP of regional marketing at Vail Resorts, to helm Squaw's branding efforts. By the end of the 2011 season, they'll have completed almost 3,500 on-site surveys (many conducted on the lifts) with the goal of improving the customer experience. "Service is a huge area of focus," says Wirth. "I'm looking to improve everything from the experience in the parking lot to the facilities." And they've already made headway. Last year, the resort guest service ratings were in the low 20s, percentage-wise. This year, they're ranking in the top 20 percent.

The grand vision? To make Squaw Valley a destination for skiing families and to improve the intermediate experience. While this seems to run counter to Squaw's reputation as an advanced mountain, Wirth assures us they'll maintain the challenging terrain. "The difficulty average of Squaw will always be two to three notches above other resorts," he says. "I'm looking to develop Squaw's ski school into one of the most renowned in the business to draw more families and intermediate skiers." Earlier this month, the resort appointed Dee Byrne as director of snowsports school and race programs. Byrne joins the team from Aspen/Snowmass and previously served for eight years as the director of the Vail Snowsports School in Colorado.

Wirth also acknowledges the headache that Highway 80 can pose for vacationers from the Bay Area. He's been kicking around an idea to join forces with North Star to extend a train service from Truckee (which is now serviced by Amtrak) to the mountains.  "I'm imagining two or three cars for skiers, with ski movies playing and a ski tuner available on the cars." We're sure that'll be even more of a draw for the Polar Express

Check back over the coming weeks as more details about Squaw's future plans surface, and if you're headed up to the mountains this weekend, enjoy that snow.