New Breckenridge Ski Resort COO John Buhler talks leadership
When John Buhler first arrived to Breckenridge Ski Resort, the Bergenhof Restaurant was the only building at the Peak 8 base area.
In 1994, the resort’s Imperial Lift, connector gondola and Peak 6 terrain were years in the future.
Now, after some years away leading Keystone Resort, 54-year-old Buhler returned to Breckenridge in May to take the helm as COO.
The ski area has reached the boundaries of its U.S. Forest Service permit, so Vail Resorts’ future plans for Breckenridge will be enhancing the guest experience within those boundaries.
How to do that strategically will be on his mind over the next few months, Buhler said, as he re-engages in the Breckenridge community and familiarizes himself with what has changed.
IN HIS BLOOD
Originally from Pasadena, California, Buhler learned to ski at age 2, he said. His dad was a national ski patroller, a volunteer job in the 1960s and ’70s, and the family lived close to Mt. Baldy, the closest ski area to Los Angeles.
Buhler became a part-time ski instructor while studying liberal arts at Pasadena City College.
The industry was in his blood, but when he took that first instructor job, Buhler said, “I was like, ‘Oh my god. This was it.’”
He worked his way up the ski school ranks and became an instructor with the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA). Buhler also worked at Mountain High and Bear Mountain resorts in Southern California before moving to Breckenridge in 1994 at the age of 33.
At Breckenridge, he started as ski school manager and over the next 16 years he received several promotions and became director of skier services.
Then he followed in the footsteps of his predecessor Pat Campbell and became head of Keystone Resort from 2010-15.
As COO of Keystone, Buhler said, he oversaw the roughly 45 departments that make up the resort’s structure from lift operations and ski patrol to food services and road maintenance.
“I get excited by all of them,” he said.
In his five years at Keystone, he said he is most proud of unifying the resort and its surrounding independent businesses, property associations and other members of the community to focus on the guest experience.
“Nobody cares when you come to Keystone that you’re not part of Vail Resorts,” he said. “It was huge, and it worked really well.”
As an example, he described the community partners whose contributions helped create and beautify an entrance to Keystone.
Buhler said he’s also proud of the company’s success with Keystone’s family-centered brand and its attractions that appeal to children and parents including weekly fireworks, a snow fort and little red wagons for carting gear and small kids from the parking lot to the chairlift.
Now as COO of Breckenridge, Buhler said, Breck aims to have something for everyone with its large variety of terrain and ties to the town.
Buhler has been involved elsewhere in the Summit County community through his role on the board of directors of The Summit Foundation, and he has also served as a director of the Rocky Mountain region of the Professional Ski Instructors of America.
He said he’s happy that Vail Resorts encourages its top management to be different and take advantage of their own leadership styles and personalities.
“They’re very into pushing us to become better leaders,” he said.
FOCUSED ON FUN, TEAM FEELING
One of Breckenridge’s unique challenges and opportunities, Buhler said, will be in leading the way in the resort industry with expanded summer activities currently under Forest Service review.
“What we’re really good at is winter,” he said. “What we’re becoming good at is summer.”
More summer recreation and tourism will allow the ski area to make some seasonal jobs year-round, which he hopes will help alleviate some housing woes in the area.
Another challenge the resort faces is creating a team feeling and communicating consistently among its full-time, part-time and seasonal workers spread amongst its peaks and base areas.
“You’re only as good as your team,” Buhler said. “That’s the fun and excitement for me, is to create that.”
Breckenridge spokeswomen Kristen Petitt Stewart and Alysa Hetze said one of the first things they noticed about Buhler was the way he engaged with employees.
Buhler said he will focus on promoting a fun work culture that makes employees want to return every day.
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