Five minutes with Bridget Legnavsky at Sugar Bowl Resort, USA
“Way, way too much snow”.
That’s how Bridget Legnavsky describes her first season at Sugar Bowl resort, in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s a statement that would probably prompt her former colleagues, at Cardrona Alpine Resort, to play the world’s smallest violin.
More than 20 metres of the white stuff fell during the winter.
“I mean, it sounds great, doesn’t it,” Legnavsky says. “But when you think about skiing, you only need a certain amount of snow to ski on, right. You don’t need 20 metres under your feet.
“So, this season was really tough, it was almost a crisis, like dealing with a constant flood. We’re in the process of a resort development plan, for the gondola base area, and just the thinking that has to go into how to handle 20m of snow - where are you going to blow it, where are you going to put it, and the costs.
“We need a whole team of people to clear the roads, car parks, doorways, and then when it melts in the summer, you find out how much is broken underneath, the decks, roofs, chimneys. It’s outrageous.”
After 30 years in Wānaka snowsports industry, including as GM at Cardrona from 2014, and a stint as RealNZ’s chief experience officer, Legnavsky swapped NZ for the US in September last year, becoming president and CEO of Sugar Bowl.
Sugar Bowl was California’s first ski resort, established in 1939 by famous Austrian skiing champion Hannes Schroll. He was partly bankrolled by Walt Disney, after whom one of the peaks is named. It became a popular party and ski spot for Hollywood stars, including Marilyn Monroe and Errol Flynn, who’d stay in its modernist lodge.
There are now 200 homes in the village, which is completely snowbound in winter, and the homeowners also own the resort itself. The only way in or out is the gondola or by foot. It is one of the last independent resorts in the US, about twice the size of Cardrona, with 1000 hectares and 15 chairlifts, and a ‘comfortable carrying capacity’ of 5500 guests per day.
“The mandate for me was really simple, and quite inspirational, which is why I took the job,” Legnavsky says.
“It is to make sure Sugar Bowl remains relevant, current and cool, based on what makes it unique, which is its character-filled independence, so that the villagers, their families, season pass holders and day pass holders want to keep coming.
“It’s a competitive environment in the US, with Epic owning so many of the resorts and Alterra the rest. We don’t have the horsepower they have, so need a really capable team.”
Legnavsky has spent the first nine months in the job building out that team, recruiting and promoting. “I just love the team I’m working with. We’re on fire and heading down the track of rebrand and a massive resort development.”
There have also been regular trips into San Francisco for meetings with the board and also investors.
“There’s an incredibly intelligent group of people down in the Bay Area, who you get to spend time with, which was quite attractive for me in terms of my own growth, learning and this part of my career.”
Legnavsky has found the business world in the US as a whole to be more political than the transparent, independent New Zealand business culture.
“In New Zealand, you make your rules, stick to them, you don’t bend them, that’s how we are as a culture. So, when you come into the US, you start that way, but you have to think about all the nuances. I’ve never been in an environment where every nuance, no matter how little it seems, is really relevant, and really important to consider in your decision making.”
The work culture is also different. “People work all the time, seven days a week, and only take two to three weeks off a year. And you’re always on call. With this high-performing board environment, over-communication is the expectation and everything is super action-orientated.”
Asked if she’s thought about applying for the RealNZ top job, recently vacated by Stephen England-Hall, Legnavsky doesn’t give a direct ‘no’, but says she plans to see out the Sugar Bowl project, which could take three to five years.
She misses Wānaka “like crazy” she says, and does plan to return this year - “we’ll spin around the ski resorts looking for staff to come up and work for us in winter.”