Industry veteran leads Haystack resurgence
WILMINGTON — A week after closing on the bankruptcy sale of Hermitage Club assets, the group of members with the winning bid announced a ski industry veteran with local ties will be taking the helm at the private resort at Haystack Mountain.
"You know it's a whole different ball of wax, not just that it's private but that it's focused on what's important to the members, which is a great southern Vermont ski experience and good hospitality in their clubhouse," Bill Benneyan, executive director and general manager of the Hermitage Members Club, said in an interview.
Benneyan served as president and chief operating officer of Mountain Creek Resort in New Jersey for 24 years. He grew up in Greenfield, Mass., and lived in Brattleboro earlier in his career.
The club announced the hiring of Benneyan on Monday in a news release. He will run the non-profit private membership club in Wilmington — overseeing all management, operations and marketing.
"We are thrilled to have such an experienced ski industry executive with strong local area ties," Jason Gross, vice president of the club's board of directors, said in the release. "Bill's knowledge of all aspects of ski operations and governance of a nonproft, board-driven organization will be critical assets as we seek to establish The Hermitage Club as a thriving presence in The Deerfield Valley. He will be a critical driver of our efforts to prepare to open for the 2020-21 ski season. After being closed for over two years, we have a lot to do and we are excited to have Bill on board."
Benneyan will report to the board and work for the owners, of which there are currently 182. He said the club is not interested in the "non-core assets" such as the golf course and inns but he expects the properties will still be used by members when they are sold to different owners.
Benneyan anticipates that plans for a cluster of townhouses and some standalone homes near the resort will move forward through developers. He described such property as "really vital to the club membership."
"Because if you join the club, you need a place to stay and the profile of typical club members would buy a home," he said. "It's vital to the community because it provides jobs and there's planning around that coming. We need to see that followed through. It's just not going to be the Hermitage Members Club."
Regarding jobs at the club, Benneyan said it is too early to estimate how many will be needed. Staff will be looking at maintenance needs and budgeting in the coming weeks.
Former Hermitage owner Jim Barnes "had an audacious vision," Benneyan said. "You've got to respect that as a starting place and it doesn't serve myself and the future of the members club to dig too far into the past but my observation is: A developer with a big grand plan, it's easy to fall into a couple of bomb holes."
Benneyan said "synergy" must exist between sales and operations. He also stressed the importance of transparency.
"Clearly things got out of hand," he said. "There wasn't enough money coming in to pay the bills."
Benneyan anticipates local vendors and tradespeople will reach out about unpaid bills, and local municipalities may share some concerns. He said the club is "obligated to run a balanced, sustainable operation."
"They can't go bust, they default themselves," he said. "They're accountable to themselves but they're also accountable to the community."
The club has inherited an approximately $2.5 million debt for a bond for water infrastructure upgrades made to keep up with development at the Hermitage. That will be in the budget, Benneyan said.
In terms of recruiting new members, he believes that the club will "sell itself." The idea is to release information about membership plans soon.
Benneyan expects the program will be similar to the previous one. There was an initial fee to join then annual membership dues.
Coronavirus concerns also are on Benneyan's radar. He said many conversations in the outdoor and recreation industry are going on regarding guidelines and what will become best practices.
"We are a low density, limited membership, limited attendance group and so that gives us one step up maybe," he said.
Benneyan recalled a point when Intrawest took over ownership of Mountain Creek from a private family and development became a priority.
"The big model isn't always the most efficient model," he said. "Focus on the snow, focus on the consistence of service, focus on retaining your customers. I think that's the lesson for the Hermitage ... Big vision, big development — a lot of it got done and inefficient, wasteful spending sunk the ship."
Benneyan said the members now have a "pinpoint focus on what we are and what we want to be for ourselves: A great weekend experience, a great family experience and we don't pretend to be inn operators, real estate developers and airport owners."
Benneyan joined Mountain Creek in 1994 as president and general manager, and later championed the marketing and sales, ski school and racing program under Intrawest ownership. He led the launch of an all-terrain park resort, and produced music and lifestyle events.
"Benneyan has been recognized by his industry peers as an energetic and creative leader in the development of new revenue streams, improved guest retention and satisfaction programs, innovative marketing initiatives, and is a recipient of the Ski Area Management Magazine or 'SAMMY' Award," states the news release.
Benneyan started his career as a ski patroller at Berkshire East in Charlemont, Mass., at the age of 16. He knew the brothers who own that resort were advising the club members in the purchase of the Hermitage assets. He described always being intrigued by Haystack Mountain and becoming involved in talks about its future through the Berkshire East connection.
"These guys really pay attention," he said. "You pay attention to the details and that's what will create that sustainable model."
Benneyan commended Aaron Sherritt, mountain manager, and Bob Adams, head of lifts, for taking care of the assets during the bankruptcy process.
For about seven years after graduating from Colgate University, Benneyan lived with his wife Kari Kalleberg in Brattleboro. He served as executive director of the Cross-Country Ski Areas of America industry trade group, regional alpine director for United States Skiing and coach for the Burton Snowboards competition. He helped organize and run triathlons, Brattleboro Winter Carnival and the Grundig World Cup of Mountain Biking at Mount Snow in West Dover. He also participated in bicycle races with the Putney West Hill Shop team.
"I'm real excited to come back that way to my old hometown," he said. "It's just such a great place to live."
His mother, Joan Benneyan, lives in Brattleboro. Benneyan plans to live closer to Haystack. He said his wife has tolerated his ski-industry lifestyle.
"This is another adventure and I think she's looking forward to spending time in southern Vermont as much as I am — you know, return to the roots," he said. "I am very, very lucky. You don't have a long career in the industry without supportive family."
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at email@example.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.
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