20 Questions: A winter business looks to future

Sydney Schaefer/NNY Business Tim McAtee, owner of Dry Hill Ski Area, sits on a chairlift on the property.

Tim McAtee has been involved in the ski industry for over 30 years, owning and operating Dry Hill Ski Area in Watertown. NNY Business sat down with McAtee to talk about the impacts on the community, business strength and growth, and the future of Dry Hill Ski Resort. 

NNYB: How did dry Hill Ski Area originate, and when?   

MCATEE: It was founded back in 1960; there was a group of businessmen that got together, and I believe they incorporated in 1960. Prior to that, my understanding is a farmer was running a rope tow off the back of his tractor up here, but officially, it’s 1960.   

NNYB: What was your background in before you started here at Dry Hill?   

MCATEE: My stepfather owned the Plaza Sports Center on Washington Street across from the high school.  And he brought me into work on bindings in the backroom when I was 14 and 15 to help pay for my first car. So, I’ve been actually in the ski business since I was 14 years old.   

NNYB: Why did you choose to get into the outdoor recreation business?   

MCATEE: Well, I think really the fact that I got initiated, you know through family because it was a family-owned business and he (my dad) was a partner up here at one point at the ski area, too. So, it kind of just went hand in hand to get involved. The area had gone bankrupt over and over and over. I don’t think anyone really had it more than two, three or four years at a time for almost a 20-year stretch. And when it went under the last time, myself and three other guys got involved to reopen it and that was back in 1982.   

NNYB: When Dry Hill first opened in 1960, or thereafter, what was offered? Meaning: how many trails how many lifts?   

MCATEE: The T-bar went in in the early 1962, I think 1963 timeframe, and the chairlift came two or three years after that. Back then, I believe all there was a face in the wagon trail because I put in most of the trails here since then. Probably one of the reasons that the ski area exists is Hall Ski Lift Company was stationed here and this was our headquarter’s in Watertown. And then the 1950s, Hall Ski Lift was the largest manufacturer of ski lifts in the country. And there are still hundreds of them running all over the world and in North America right now, and they were headquartered right here. So, like our chairlift is actually a demo where not everything’s the same because Vick Hall, who’s the owner at one point, planned on putting an airstrip in here and flying people in to look at his lifts and see what different things that were available.    

NNYB: How many trails and lifts do you have now and is that growing?   

MCATEE: We’ve kind of reached the point where we don’t have any property to expand onto, but we have seven trails, two lifts at T-bar and a chair and we also put in a tubing Hill, I think back in 1998. We added the tubing, so we have three lifts, but one of them services our tubing.   

NNYB: Is owning a ski resort an easy business to start and get off the ground and continue running, and why?   

MCATEE: If I knew then, what I know now, I don’t know if I would have gotten involved in it. It is a challenge, there’s no question, but that’s one of the things I like about it is the challenge. Your goals are always the same every year: to get your train open, get your lifts running, you know, be fully operational. But because of the weather and other unforeseen things, the path to those goals are always different. So that’s what makes it interesting and a challenge. Being weather-dependent, obviously, is an issue. And it’s not so much really the weather, it’s more timing of the weather. For example, right now we’re in a pattern where our storms are coming in on the weekends, and you know that’s not really the option you want. You want your weather to come in, beginning, middle of the week and the weekends to be free for people to travel and get here. So, the timing has a lot more to do with it sometimes than the actual weather.   

NNYB: What are some elements of owning a ski resort that have changed over the years?   

MCATEE: When I started, the only way you could get down the ski slope was on two skis. In the midst of that snowboarding became very popular. And we actually were one of the few areas that allowed snowboarding back when Jake Burton started Burton snowboards, and we were the original Burton snowboard dealer. I wish I would have foreseen the growth because I wasn’t able to hang on to our dealer contract. Basically, what was happening is that first, if you even bought one or two of their boards you are happy. After they got growing, you had to buy 12 of their boards. Well, we’re only selling five or six boards a year. So, to buy 12 every year didn’t make sense. And so, I let that go and we decided not to be a dealer. In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t done that. I wish I would have hung on because snowboarding got huge. Now on the other side of that though, as snowboarding was taking business away from the ski companies, ski companies were realizing “Oh, there’s a problem.” And a while back they retooled their factories to come out with shape parabolic skis, which has really changed skiing completely. It’s made the learning curve so much shorter and so much easier and actually skiing is so much easier now because it’s less fatiguing. People can spend more time on the hill, they’ve turned up the tips on the skis for twin tips. So now you basically have a snowboard on each foot with the binding and releases and the ski businesses got smart and made a change when they had to. And now we see the trend going back to lots more skiers versus snowboarders.   

NNYB: Do your ticket prices change depending on the season? Meaning: if there is a good snow season and demand is high, do you move your prices determined on that?   

MCATEE: The pricing isn’t really based on the weather as much as right now it’s based on New York state. With the minimum wage increasing every single year we have to be very creative on how and where are you raise your prices and where and how you cut your expenses. You know, so far, I’ve been able to find a happy medium to keep us going, but it is is a challenge. We have 50 to 60 employees, and a lot of them are at minimum wage. Every time that takes a jump, it’s a pretty sizable hit here on our annual payroll.   

NNYB: Weather patterns seem to be changing from year-to-year. How has this affected business for you over the last five years?   

MCATEE: Well, I agree they have been changing. One of the biggest things I see, it seems like winter starts a little bit later but then goes longer. A lot of times we’re lingering into April and it’s still snowing. The one thing that I see is different now  is we tended to get a four-or five-six-week period that it was winter at some point and then when it was going to start when it’s going to end, but almost always got it and now we don’t seem to get that anymore. You know you get a couple of weeks at a time and then you get a warmup a couple weeks at a time. What we’ve done is, and I’m sure a lot of people heard about our snowmaking pump house that burned down last December as well, that was devastating at the time – But the silver lining there is actually the pump and motor system we have now is way more efficient. We’re making way more snow, better quality snow, faster. So, for us that’s been a real plus, because our recovery time is as much quicker and it’s not costing as much. That’s been a big positive.    

NNYB: How did the community rally around you when that disaster happened?    

MCATEE: It was overwhelming. I still am even almost speechless. Sometimes how many people reach out and how many people cared, it was amazing. I never expected it.   

NNYB: How do you compensate for winters that do not have enough snowfall? Meaning: I know you make snow, but what does Dry Hill do to compensate for those off years?   

MCATEE: Usually the trend is in a five-year period. You’ll have three years that are kind of breakeven, you’ll have one bad year, one good year, and in the long run it all usually evens out. The biggest thing we fight is we can keep things in really good shape here with snowmaking and grooming, people don’t understand that at all. You know, they don’t understand man-made snow, how durable it is how much different it is from natural snow. The thing we can’t do is put snow in their yards. Because so many people look out their window and they see their green grass and they just don’t give us a second thought, even though things could be wonderful here. And I’ve just learned that a lot of times my decisions on opening/closing are not even based on what’s happening here at the ski hill. It’s based on the perceptions of my customers and what they might think is here.   

NNYB: When you begin to prepare for opening, when do you start getting ready?   

MCATEE: People don’t understand this either, but we start right after Labor Day. I mow the slopes all summer and there’s maintenance to do and bills roll in and emails that come in offseason. Basically, we’re right at it right after Labor Day. And, you know, my favorite time of the year up here is prepping the ski hill. I mean, when the leaves are turning, and the wildlife is everywhere, it’s just, it’s wonderful.   

NNYB: What have you done to ensure the Dry Hill is busy regardless of the snow season? Meaning: do you host any events?   

MCATEE: We do a lot of corporate events. We don’t have any offseason activities right now. I think that that needs to happen eventually. And I’m hoping whoever is going to be interested in taking over the ski hill and keeping it operated will do that. I’m kind of getting at the end of my run; this is 38 years for me and it can’t go on forever, even though it’s been a good gig. But I’m hoping that maybe some younger folks a little more energetic in the beginning of operations will maybe see the opportunity to turn around more year-round. I think the biggest thing I’ve done to help with the success is when we put in the tubing, I’m not so sure we’d be here without it, because the tubing is something anyone can do. There’s no instruction, all you have to do is dress appropriately for the weather and go have fun. Alot of times the adults have more fun, I think, than the kids do over there. So, we’ve learned, and it’s kind of interesting to watch, in the beginning of the season that the lift line at the chair is long, but as we’re open for a while and people get their fill of it, that line shortens. And now as spring is coming and everyone’s got cabin fever and the tubing line increases and as you get a nice sunny day here, people just want to get outside and do something. It can be pretty packed over there, fortunately.   

NNYB: What other elements of entertainment does Dry Hill offer to guests in terms of music, etc.?   

MCATEE: Well, we used to do more. You know, the bar business, bar scene, is really not there anymore, for obvious reasons. You know, people don’t want to drink and drive. So, it’s really hard to invest your money here. And I actually like to look at as I run a ski hill and the bar is just a side business. We do get a nice afternoon crowd on Saturdays and Sundays, but as far as the entertainment side of it, it doesn’t work for us here. If we have snow and we’re open, we’re busy enough anyway.   

NNYB: Dry Hill began to offer tubing a few years ago, just as you said. How did that idea come about, to offer this as an option to guests?   

MCATEE: Well a friend of mine who owns actually even a smaller ski area than ours down in Syracuse, put it in and we’re friends and he said, “Oh, you got to do this! You got the perfect Hill!” But that perfect hill actually used to be our beginner area. And when I took out the beginner area, put in tubing, I had a lot of people not happy with me, especially my ski school people going, “This is crazy. This is stupid. It’ll never work.” And now they all agree that’s a good thing I put it in. The other thing that it allows us to do is open up to entertain more organizations, because not everybody skis and snowboards. But when you throw the tubing in there, that’s why we get a lot of corporate events now, because there’s something for everyone to do. So, it’s been a lot easier to market Dry Hill to businesses and organizations.    

NNYB: Would you almost say that the tubing over time has become more popular than people coming here just to ski or snowboard?    

MCATEE: I’ve had some of my staff go, “We should just turn it into an entire tubing Hill.” I think because anyone can do it. Skiing, you have to invest in equipment and, unfortunately, there’s no ski shops around anymore. We used to support two of them, now we have none of them. If you go to Kingston or Syracuse for equipment or online, most people have to take lessons and the gear is expensive. Tubing is relatively inexpensive, needs nothing, no training, even though we do joke about doing tubing instruction a lot. But because of that nature, there’s a larger audience to offer it to; it can be anyone where skiing and snowboarding is 10% or less of the general population.   

NNYB: What happens to the Hill during the summer months?   

MCATEE: Pretty much sits here. And like I said, I mow and do maintenance and all that. It’s actually my favorite time of the year too, because it’s peaceful, it’s quiet, the wildlife is unbelievable. The view is incredible. It’s a wonderful time of the year. Like I said earlier, it’d be nice to do some events and I think some younger people, more enthusiastic and more into it, I think that would work for them. And I’m hoping that the end result, that’s what happens.   

NNYB: How has your approach to marketing shifted over the years with growing trends in social media and online marketing?  

MCATEE: It shifted drastically. I mean, at one point there was one newspaper, one TV station, maybe a radio station or two. I mean, it was pretty easy to go advertise and hit everyone. Now there’s so many options and so many radio stations. But basically, we’ve gone, not entirely, but mostly, to social media. I mean, it’s hard to beat Facebook, because I think we have over 6,000 followers right now, which is, you know, big. And you’re targeting the people who are interested in what you’re offering. And it’s easy to grow those customers and people you’re getting your information to, and it’s relatively inexpensive to get your message out. So it has changed drastically, I still do some paper and TV advertising, but it’s more minimal, because, like I said, only 10 percent of the people look at that are even going to care, you know, and then of that 10 percent how many people are actually going to come take advantage of it? But on Facebook, you actually get feedback, and who looked at it, and who shared it and who liked it. It is a lot easier to gauge how successful you’re being.   

NNYB: As a winter destination for many in Watertown and surrounding areas, what would you say the culture of skiing and snowboarding is in our region?   

MCATEE: I think very good. If we get the right weather at the right time, we have a really good following. I mean, this weekend we were packed. I mean, we were really packed, it was very busy. If things line up, like I said locally, there’s a very good line. And we also pull a lot from Canada, southern Canada. We’re one of the closest areas to the Kingston, Brockville area, and we accept their money at par for lift tickets, rentals and lessons. So, by doing that, we’re actually cheaper than their next closest is Canadian ski area. On Saturdays and Sundays we do really good Canadian business. I think our prices are reasonable; yes, we’re smaller, but our prices are reasonable compared to a lot of other places. And there aren’t too many communities that can go skiing, snowboarding and tubing within 15 to 20 minutes, a half an hour way. Most people who are skiing are waking up at dawn, driving three or four hours skiing for seven hours and making a two- or three-hour drive back to their home. That’s what skiing is for a lot of people. I’m not sure that people here appreciate how they can be here at five o’clock, ski for three hours, and be home, you know.  

NNYB: Looking down the road at another decade, what do you think about the future of owning a ski resort?  

MCATEE: Well, like I said, I’ve obviously been able to do this for 30 years; it’s a viable business. And it’s a very fun business too. The people that you work with and meet are very fun. I think with as long as you’re keeping your snowmaking system up to speed and efficient, I think we’ve proven that there are enough customers in the area to support the operation. Like I said, I’m looking to probably sell after this season, I’m going to start marketing the ski area to try to find the right people who are willing to try to continue the operation. I’ve been here 38 years and I have to retire sometime. I’m hoping that there’ll be someone in the community a group or individual who will find keeping the ski area open, and operating it, a value because I think it’s a huge asset to the community. It really has a really cool story and history. A couple years ago, I had a couple here with the Fort Drum military, and they came to me and they said, “We’ve decided to move here and stay, and your ski area is one of the reasons that we’re doing it is because we so appreciate having this so close to where we live.” So I thought, you know, that was really something I’ve never forgotten.  

~Interview conducted by Holly Boname. Edited for clarity and length to fit this space.