Saturday, February 07, 2009

Great Trails. Difficult People.

I had to seriously revise this post. Some idiot thought it was about parking. Still, I like the raw frustration in it. And hey: no one has objected directly to me about it, just talked to someone else. Par for the course.

Working with the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation is like getting on the Tilt-A-Whirl: it seems like it should be fun, but long before the ride is over you're ready to puke and just want it to end.

All Nordic areas, particularly in the eastern USA, labor under various handicaps.

Corporately-owed areas like Bretton Woods and other networks attached to alpine areas often find themselves treated like useless appendages or even hemorrhoids by their corporate owners. Nordic never turns impressive dollars compared to lift-served sports, golf and land rape.

Small private areas hope they can find the right size for their niche to allow them to survive the stresses any small business faces, compounded by the similarity between operating a touring center and operating a small farm. You need the weather to cooperate so you can produce the crop. Then you need people hungry for it to show up and consume it before it shrivels.

In Jackson's case, the particular handicap is the management of the non-profit corporation by a board of directors, and the relationship the touring center has with the town from which it takes its name. They're big, with the appetite of any large organism, but held together by tenuous agreements and a never-ending battle against encroaching development as well as the usual whims of weather and fitness fads.

As a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation, the Foundation can only derive income from limited sources. In order to preserve its delicate balance with local business owners, it also has to be careful about how it introduces competitors into the local economy. Yet, as a big-time cross-country ski area it wants to be able to offer a high level of skier services to the vacationers and day trippers it ceaselessly trolls for with its marketing campaigns and relentless attempts to get inserted into the news hole of various print media.

Because a private service provider like the retail concessionaire has to be a separate entity, the Foundation has to coexist with an entirely independent business under its roof. We're all in the fun business. We all want to keep the sport of Nordic skiing alive and well, if not growing. But the diverse and secretive board, filtering its wishes through the persona of the executive director, has a great deal of difficulty managing this symbiosis.

As the retailer there for the past nine years, the shop I work for has operated under the critical observation of many sets of eyes. Because the board seems to relish its anonymity, they do not share with us who might be active on it from year to year. Only individual members of it might mention their status to qualify for a discount. In fact, I can find no readily accessible published list of the board. There's no easy link from their website, nor is it published in a sidebar in the newsletters piled on the front counter, as other non-profits frequently do.

If the foundation and its board dealt openly and cooperatively with their retail contractor, the touring center could be a great place to work. Instead, their management displayed a competitive and condescending attitude toward us from the outset. Whoever tries to fulfill the retail role will face the same critical scrutiny as they try to run their business in an enclosure reminiscent of a pony ride at a spoiled little girl's birthday party. In spite of this I personally did not start out with a negative attitude toward them. I'd heard stories over the years, but I was going to wait and see. Others in my organization either lost their patience early or never had any to begin with.

Jackson Ski Touring does a lot of things well. Unfortunately, this gives some in the organization and among its supporters the misconception that they can do no wrong. Only others can do wrong. These wrongs will usually not be pointed out in a constructive fashion.

A large number of extremely cool people ski at the facility. It's just the small number of whiners, snobs and stuffed shirts who make a poisonous atmosphere in which to work. Of course there are always difficult people among the transient visitors during any season as well, but that just goes with running an amusement park. Welcome to the Happiest Place on Earth! (smiley face). It's the local sneaks and snakes who create the insurmountable difficulty of unrealistic expectations.

This was my gut reaction to the news that The Board had finally decided to sever our retail arrangement. People can take it in a bad way as an affront and an attack or they can step back and analyze what they might be doing to inspire such feelings. Whether they intended it or not, some of their tactics amounted to psychological warfare. In the best psychological manipulation, the manipulator preserves deniability and the victim can never be sure what's intentional. That's what makes it effective. But it could also just be a lack of social and business skills on the part of the people originating it, in this case known and unknown players in Jackson.

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