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Patrick O’Donnell – Getting back to basics

click to enlarge Patrick O'Donnell
  • Patrick O'Donnell

It’s a personal thing. Forget “stuff”. Forget “bigger is better”. The mountain tourism business, says Patrick O’Donnell, is all about turning people on — one guest at a time. It’s that simple, and that profound.

“It’s not about capital investments or bottom line or shareholder value even,” explains the recently retired boss of Aspen Ski Corp. “Sure, those things matter. But if we can’t get people to FEEL the magic of the mountains for themselves, we’re not going to be in business for long. Ultimately, our job is to help our guests make a personal connection with nature. If we can manage that, the rest will follow.”

O’Donnell certainly walks his talk. On the cusp of his 70 th birthday, he is still as active in the Colorado backcountry — mountain bike riding, paddling and snowboarding — as he’s ever been. And he’s just as much in love with the mountains as he was as a young climber four decades ago. “A former mentor of mine told me something a long time ago that really stuck with me,” he says. “Someone was talking about Europe and all these great cathedrals they’d visited and how much it defined the culture there. And he replied: ‘It’s true, we don’t have anything like that in America. What we do have, however, are national parks and mountains. Those are our cathedrals — natural-made and available to all of us. And we’d do well to cherish them.’”

O’Donnell stops speaking for a moment. Sighs. “So why are we spending so much energy on building ‘stuff’ that untimely de-sensitizes guests to our most important assets?”

Good question. And it comes from a reputable source too. A past president of Whistler Mountain (from 1991to 1993), O’Donnell boasts 40 years of in-the-trenches ski-exec experience. And he’s not afraid to call a spade a shovel. “Heck,” he says, “my first ski-related job was as assistant manager at Badger Pass in California’s Yosemite Park back in 1966. We had a couple of T-bars, a rickety old chair and no capital-development plan at all.” He laughs. “I thought that was the way the ski world would be forever.”

But things change. Today, he says, the mountain resort business has some serious soul-searching to do. “How could we have let things get this far?” he asks. “I look back at the history of our business and I see great vision and lots of positive energy. People like (Mammoth Mountain founder) Dave McCoy weren’t in it to get rich. Yes, they were looking to make a living, but they also wanted to share their passion for the mountains with others. This was a values-based business — and great values at that. But at some point, the thing started to get away from us...”

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