Doug Houck, general manager of Blue Knob All Seasons Resort, is prepared for the two questions asked of him most frequently.
They are: What is life like in your offseason and how many hours do you work in the winter?
Answers: 1) There is no offseason, a misconception because Blue Knob offers more than skiing; 2) "I won't say because you won't believe me."
Blue Knob General Manager Doug Houck operates one of the resort’s groomers, which prepares the snow surface for skiing last week as flurries were flying.
Suffice to say Houck's busiest time is still at its peak after last week's blast of winter, which put an exclamation point on what he's calling "a banner year."
Houck has served as GM of Blue Knob for five years and believes the resort is turning the corner toward offering year-round recreation. He also knows Blue Knob is, and likely will always be, known for its challenging ski slopes.
The Huntingdon native took time to chat with the Mirror's Neil Rudel for a Monday Spotlight Q&A.
Mirror: What's the biggest challenge you face as general manager of a ski resort?
Houck: My friends still ask me what I do for the other eight months of the year. About a third of my job is devoted to running the ski area, and the other two-thirds pertain to running the rest of the resort - the food and beverage and lodging and wedding and engagements and the golf course. The biggest challenge is the weather.
Mirror: How much snow does Blue Knob normally have to make, and what is entailed in that process?
Houck: This winter, we converted over 60 million gallons of water into snow. It's a major expense, but it's a necessity in the industry, especially in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Mirror: How has this ski season shaped up compared to previous years?
Houck: We're having a banner year as far as ticket sales. A lot of it is weather-dependent. We had a good start this year, then a couple meltdowns that we had to recover from. Last year, as far as our skiing product, was really good. We had good snowmaking, good conditions. The problem was people didn't get snow in their yard so our sales were off. This year we've had nice snowstorms and good conditions, and our business is up because we rely on word of mouth.
Mirror: How much time do you spend preparing the slopes for customers?
Houck: We have a grooming schedule that runs every night. That schedule is weather-dependent. When we've had good snow and good conditions (like last week), we'll spend 10 to 14 hours per night grooming. If it gets warm during the day, or rain, or icy conditions, we'll put in anywhere from 16 to 20 hours - from the time we close to the next day, we'll have both groomers out there 10 hours or a total grooming time of 20 hours.
Mirror: Is the tubing park busy?
Houck: Yes. Tubing is one of those things where there's a non-skill level. Our market for tubing is a much larger market because everybody can tube.
Mirror: What type of weather do you hate most in the winter?
Houck: Freezing rain. When we get freezing rain, it's really difficult to prepare the surface for that day and the next day.
Mirror: How many hours a week are you on the job in the winter?
Houck: I won't say because you won't believe me. Put it this way: I don't sleep much at all. It's nice if I can work eight or 10 hours a day.
Mirror: What do you do after the ski season ends?
Houck: We're preparing the golf course and doing maintenance on the equipment. That usually starts before the ski area actually closes. Then we get everything from the ski season - chairlifts, snowmaking equipment - put away and prepped, cleaned and stored for the summer. There's a postseason regimen to get them ready for the next year. After a long winter, my wife and I usually go to Florida for a week or so of fishing, which is a nice break. And when we get back, it's time to get the golf course ready.
Mirror: The Route 66 chairlift broke down this winter. What will be involved in its repair?
Houck: We're not sure if we're going to repair it or not. We have an appointment with the chairlift manufacturer to see if repair is an option. There's probably five different options - replacing both chairs with one chair and then taking the one chair out and putting it in a new location on the mountain. Another option is to remove the chair that needs to be repaired, repair it and move it to another location and the third main option is to repair that lift and have what we've had before - two triple-chairs and two-double chairs. [But] we have adequate lift service for the entire mountain. We haven't missed that chair at all. We still have enough capacity to service everyone.
Mirror: How are you working to make Blue Knob more of a year-round resort?
Houck: We finally got there. When I took over five years ago and looked at the numbers, the first thing that stood out was our lack of our summer business really financially drained the business we did in the winter. The biggest challenge was to make our summer business profitable, and last year we were finally able to do that.
Mirror: Any developments on the golf course?
Houck: We put together a three-year plan. There's been a noticeable change in the golf course, and that's to increase the quality of our product. The first three years we probably removed 80 trees. We opened up the green and tee-box complexes that had not been trimmed for years to allow light to get on the greens and tees to get better air flow. We have another 15-20 trees we want to take out to widen the fairways that still don't get a lot of light. We're also going to do all of our bunkers this year, which is a major project. Whether it's skiing or golf, we want to send people away feeling we have a really good product.
Mirror: Are you a good skier?
Houck: Yes. I taught in the [Blue Knob] ski school for 14 years, and I ran our ski racing program for four-five years.