NORTHFIELD — The conventional wisdom for modern ski mountains is to bolster the revenue from the bread-and-butter winter sport by offering myriad additional attractions and pursuits in order to draw crowds with a broad range of interests.
It’s by following exactly the opposite strategy that Mark Hayes, who bought the shuttered Highland Ski Area in 2003, has found consistent and growing success. Hayes completely did away with skiing and instead used the slopes, woods and ski lift to create Highland Mountain Bike Park, which has become a Mecca-like destination for people interested in mountain biking.
Highland Mountain Bike Park threw a party on Saturday to mark 50 years, to the date, since the property first opened as a ski area. Hayes said he hoped people would come with memories of skiing there, and he wanted to show them that the same passionate, community-oriented spirit that launched the ski hill was alive and well in mountain-biking guise.
Hayes grew up in Massachusetts, where he helped his family start and run a fiber optics company from 1988 until they sold it in 2000.
“We all took our shares of that company and did our own thing with it. My thing was to buy the old, run-down Highland Ski Area,” Hayes said Tuesday, sitting in his office, which looks out over the former ski hill, now covered with jumps and other features for downhill cycling.
Hayes had a vision to create something that didn’t exist nearby at the time: a park that would give mountain biking enthusiasts lift access to miles of engineered trails, with options for everyone from cautious beginners to thrill-seeking experts.
There’s good reason no such thing existed. It would require someone with a significant amount of capital to make it a reality. It took Hayes more than two years of trail building and other improvements before the facility was ready to welcome its first paying visitor. It took someone with passion for the sport, who understood what mountain bikers wanted and who had enough faith in their enthusiasm that the investment would pay off. It took, in short, someone just like Hayes.
Although the sport has changed at Highland since it opened 50 years ago, Hayes asserts that the management style and guest experience are similar to those that created the fond memories that the estimated 300 visitors to the weekend’s party described.
The Highlands Ski Area, according to newenglandskihistory.com, was started by the Elliott family on Northfield’s Bean Hill. When it formally opened on Feb. 2, 1969, it offered two T-bars, two rope tows and six miles of trails, and was marketed as a family-run operation that welcomed families of skiers.
The Elliotts were able to make some moderate developments to the facility but, by the mid-1980s, an ownership group with an eye toward modernization took over. The debt-fueled investments didn’t pay off fast enough, though, and the ski area was sold at auction in 1990. It was auctioned again in October of 1995, and never again opened for skiing.
A short time later, some mountain bikers started building trails at Whistler Blackcomb Resort in British Columbia, Canada. Hayes, who was interested in mountain bike riding and racing, visited and was impressed by the modern trail-building approach. Instead of just clearing trails through the woods, the trails were engineered in the same way that ski trails might be. Corners were banked, and jumps had landing areas at an appropriate angle for a softer landing.
Hayes said it was his experience at Whistler – which came just prior to the sale of his family’s company – that inspired his purchase of Highland.
As he built his company, Hayes looked for one common trait among his employees: someone who rides. That has helped his staff understand the experience that their guests are looking for, and it helps to promote rapport among and between riders and employees.
“Here, we’re just a bunch of friends running a company,” Hayes said. “We’re just a mountain bike brand. You’re not conflicting with other interests. You make friends here because you’re all into the same thing.”
The trails and the atmosphere have found a following. In 2006, Highland Mountain Bike Park’s first year, Hayes counted 1,600 rider visits.
“We do that almost in a weekend now,” he said. Last year, Highland had 30,000 rider visits, from 12,000 individual riders.
“We do two things very well. We build trails and we teach people how to ride them,” he said.
Highland has 25 trails, which range in length from its easiest, which takes two miles to descend the 600-foot slope, to its steepest, which does the same descent in three-quarters of a mile.
Mountain biking can be an intimidating sport, Hayes admitted. His vision, from the beginning, was to make the sport accessible, so people curious about the sport could come to Highland, rent a bike and try out some easy trails, then come back and try something a little more daring.
“If we build it, and make it accessible to the masses, it will pay for itself. Which it has,” said Hayes.
There’s more to the operation than just selling lift tickets, though. Highland has a tavern, cross-country biking trails that are free to the public, a skating pond, an indoor training facility for those who want to learn aerial control and tricks, and overnight camps.
Hayes doesn’t want to pin his business to fat-tire biking, a growing sub-genre of mountain biking featuring bikes with huge, balloon-like tires that can ride on groomed snow. He said that would be too weather-dependent. Still, he is co-hosting the Winter Woolly 2019 fat bike festival on Feb. 16 which, if the weather is favorable, could draw 500 riders, he said.
A broader vision
Hayes and his staff invited the public from the greater Northfield area because he wanted those neighbors who aren’t mountain bikers to see what’s been growing on Ski Area road, and because he wants to make a point to those neighbors about what else could develop in the Tilton-Northfield-Franklin area.
Highland already attracts young people with enough income to afford bikes that cost several thousand dollars and with enough time to travel to parks to ride them from across New England. The New England Mountain Bike Association has developed miles of riding in Northfield and surrounding towns, and Hayes would like to see if his trails could connect with that larger network.
Nearby, in Franklin, an effort is already underway to create the first whitewater paddling park east of the Mississippi River. In Tilton, a brewery has established itself as a destination for those seeking unusual and interesting IPAs — which whitewater paddlers and mountain bikers seem to have been born with a thirst for. There’s talk of another brewery opening in Franklin, too.
“It’s fun, getting people involved,” Hayes said about the 50th anniversary party. “It’s also educating people in town about what’s going on. We have an opportunity here with recreation.”
Hayes said the area could soon become an “outdoor recreation mecca” that draws enough visitors to support a wide range of other hospitality businesses — inns, restaurants, cafés.
“The potential is huge. There’s 5 million people within an 85-mile radius of this town,” Hayes said.
Jared Reynolds, community and economic development field specialist with the Merrimack County office of UNH Extension, said Highland is a “big asset” for Northfield.
“One thing is that it brings in additional visitors," Reynolds said.
Several hundred, sometimes close to 2,000, people will come to Northfield for mountain biking. The challenge is now for Northfield to take advantage of that by offering restaurants, coffee shops and retail options that will appeal to Highland visitors.
“That’s what keeps the money in that area,” Reynolds said.
There’s another benefit to the region: providing a boost to the quality of life. Businesses, such as manufacturers, that have nothing to do with outdoor recreation can still benefit because having nearby opportunities for outdoor adventure will make it easier to recruit and retain talented young employees.
“That makes that area a more attractive place to live,” Reynolds said. “North of Northfield is struggling a bit to attract people, to keep young people.”