I’m just back from the local pub, a heavenly spot with 42 amazing draft beers on tap, dished out by a bartender that is so smokin‘ hot that I wonder the grass doesn’t burst into flames under his feet as he walks. And I know it doesn’t, because he lives in my ‘hood, so I get to see him walk all the time. Not only does he look like a freakin’ movie star, but he’s nice, and he has the same taste in beer that I do (so when he’s on, I just ask for whatever he’d be drinking if he were off), and he is an A+ snowboarder…and he rides on my hill up in Vermont. One of the happiest coincidences of my existence here is that I share a Home Mountain with this dude. And it’s not just me, even my guy considers him to be super hot…there are some Absolute Truths.
Speaking of my Home Mountain, I want to spend some time talking about a concept whose meaning has become nearly lost in the last 10 to 15 years: Enlightened Self-Interest. The realization that often, doing the Right Thing for the Right Reasons also confers the collateral benefits of advancing your self-interest. We lost the meaning of this concept right about the time that uninsured, underpaid blue collar workers conceived the notion that they ought to vote for the Republicans – who were, at the time, unapologetic about the fact that they were the Party Of The (Super) Rich. There is no point at all, economically, where the interests of the super-wealthy who control that party – or did, until they got the Bright Idea to start using the religious right – are convergent with the interest of anyone who lives in, near, or who has even seen a trailer park.
Enlightened Self-Interest. This concept also got lost right around the time that corporations decided it was a good idea to lay off large sectors of their work-force – otherwise known as the “customer base” – and ship jobs out to foreign countries – otherwise known as “not the customer base” – in order to reap cost savings, which were then passed on strictly to the top management of the company instead of percolating into the product prices. So, yeah. The company’s ability to actually sell things – a fundamental source of the profits – depends on the availability of a significant pool of customers in the market, but those customers won’t have any money to buy stuff if they don’t have a paycheck, which of course, they don’t after they are laid off, thus significantly reducing the customer base…and the profits.
This is basic, nonpartisan economics, people, and it’s been understood, in pretty much these exact terms, for millenia. You cut your costs by laying off a ton of people, there will not be anyone left to buy your product. The potential devastation of this process is known colloquially by economists as the “death spiral”.
The other facet of this unfortunate situation involves taxes, which are used – among other things – to pay for the infrastructure that is necessary to ship goods from Point A to Point B. And it is, believe me, necessary. I got into a pointless argument with some dimbulb on Facebook – a professional janitor – who advanced the argument that Roads Are Not Necessary, and pointed at the development of the country as “evidence” for this. Right before I wrote the entire exercise off as a waste of my time, I reminded him that even ox-carts and mules require some kind of road. I almost – not totally, but almost – wish I remembered the name of this jackass so I could turn him in to the Vermonters as someone who considered that there’s no value to using tax dollars to build, maintain, and repair roads.
So now the two cards I wanted to play are out on the table: Vermont, and enlightened self-interest.
Let’s put these two things together in the context of something that is Near and Dear to my heart: snow reporting.
Anyone who skis knows that the only two pieces of information that you actually require first thing on any given morning are 1) the short-term weather forecast (because that will determine what you wear and when you go) and 2) the Snow Report (because that tells you whether there’s any point in going – and also, which pair of skis you need to bring to the hill).
The weather forecast comes more or less from the National Weather Service, and while it is subject to significant uncertainty in the data and its interpretation, I don’t think anyone involved has an incentive to “spin” it.
The Snow Report is a different matter. Here’s how it works: the snow is on the mountain. It may have been provided by Mother Nature by falling from a cloud, or it may have been provided by the Resort Operator in a process involving something called a “snow cannon” or a “snow gun”. The distinction is important – typically, skiers prefer Mother Nature’s bounty, but when that is not forthcoming, are more than happy to go for the man-made stuff. It does make a difference in consistency…but once it is speckled all over the slope, you move into different, more complicated terrain: Snow Conditions.
It is the condition of the snow that is the make-or-break. Powder is generally considered to be the Gold Standard. Right behind that, “corn” (found only in the spring, but worthy of bronzing and hanging over the mantle when you do). Then, as with the mythical Eskimo, skiers have fifty different words for snow…many of which actually mean “ice”. Frozen granular, hard pack, ice, and loose granular are common terms. Then, the Dreaded “variable” conditions, which is extremely bad news for anyone who was looking for a nice, relaxing ski. I ski in New England, an area that is noted for turning out supremely skilled technical skiers…because our primary surface for most of the winter isn’t snow, it’s some kind of ice.
The Snow Report is issued first thing in the morning by every resort, usually around 7am after the snow cats finish crawling over the hill to pamper the surface, and the resort staff take a spin to check out the conditions.
So here’s the game: if a resort reports skanky conditions, like ice, or variable, then people will stay away and not spend money, because that stuff is shitty to ski on. It’s also dangerous because you have to be a very skilled skier to handle it cleanly. If the resort has skanky conditions, but reports them as being more favorable, then people will come out and spend money. The drawback is that people will get injured because they’re skiing on a surface for which they aren’t prepared, and that they’ll be pissed off.
Now, if we assume that the Ski Trip is a one-off – that is, people come up for a single day of skiing, and that their repeat visits are randomly determined rather than being driven by beliefs about the place they are skiing, it makes a little sense to mis-report the conditions. That way, you do get people being injured and pissed off, but because you weren’t expecting them to come back anyway, it doesn’t matter so much if they hate you. You factor in some expected outlays on lawsuit settlements, and weigh those against the revenues that you collect because people come in when otherwise they’d have stayed away.
This is self-interested, but it’s not very enlightened, because ski trips are not one-offs. If they were, no one would ever buy a season pass. No one would book into the lodge for a week with the spouse and kids. And certainly, no one would ever buy a second home to shorten up the commute to the hill. And yet, all of these things are incredibly common, and in fact, they are the bread-and-butter for the industry.
We know what the cost to issuing an accurate Snow Report is: if the conditions suck, then the hill will be deserted. But what are the benefits? Decreased injury rates. Delivering a predictable experience (not consistent – just predictable). Customer loyalty from people who would rather be given the Truth and base their decisions on that rather than on some fantasy of the service provider. And – because this is an industry that relies heavily on repeat business – the increased customer loyalty is going to be directly related to future cash flows, over the near- and long-terms.
So we can lie, and get some kind of very short-term gain, or we can tell the truth, and potentially sacrifice the short-term gain yet reap an extended and protracted cash flow stream.
This, children, is Enlightened Self-Interest in action: telling the truth is right, lying is wrong, and in this case, doing the right thing also leads to long-term benefits.
And yet, you’d be surprised at how often this point gets missed. I’m thinking right now of the behavior of Okemo and Mount Snow on the weekend of February 4, 20011. Both resorts are in southern Vermont. Mount Snow is a good bit south of Okemo, and sometimes this can make a difference in what weather each receives. Friday the 4th was stunning – bluebird days, perfect conditions everywhere. Saturday the 5th was a different story – a vile winter storm blew through, not the kind that dumps loads of lovely fresh snow on the ground, but what I always think of as the New England Special: starts with snow, switches to sleet, and finishes off with a healthy couple inches of freezing rain to make an ice-storm over snow-covered roads.
These storms are the ultimate in winter suckitude. We hates them, my precious. We hates them if we stays at home, because they tend to knock out the power; we really hates them if we’re on a ski weekend, because the snow is nasssty and wet, and then it gets covered with nasssty nassssty ice. Typically, the lifts don’t work so well when the cables and the chairs are covered with three inches of ice, either, so this Saturday storm did a real Number on the local ski areas. And we were, in fact, off on a ski weekend, celebrating my husband’s birthday. We’d planned to take a sleigh ride, but they weren’t able to chip the ice off the horses in time. (kidding, the horses were in a barn)
Sunday morning dawned somewhat nicer, and – as our regular winter morning ritual dictated – we hit the ski area websites to collect the Snow Reports.
Now, my Home Mountain, Mount Snow, states explicitly on their website that they are totally committed to full fair and honest Snow Reporting. And they mean it…which is why on that Sunday morning, their Snow Report basically said ‘Don’t even come out. Our lifts are iced, the ski runs are iced, it’s going to take us ages just to get the lifts running, and when we do, you’re not going to like the conditions, so today looks like an awesome day to rent a video, go to the movies, or go bowling.’ This is a paraphrase, but I promise you, every piece of information in that sentence was in the Snow Report, and it was the main thrust of the Snow Report.
Somewhere in the afternoon, they even posted this video to their Facebook page. You do need a FB account to see it, and if you’ve got one, it’s worth the one minute, ten seconds it takes to watch. It is…candid…in a way that one does not often see these days.
So what happened? Tons of people chose to take their advice and watch movies, go bowling, etc.
Contrast this with Okemo, who on the same morning issued a Snow Report that claimed their conditions were packed powder (a superior sort of surface upon which to ski). I was skeptical, given what Mount Snow had said, but the possibility did exist that Snow had been on the edge of the system and that the system had dumped actual snow north of them. The Okemo customer service people emitted a tremendous blast of sunshine and assured us that conditions were “GREAT!” So we decided to head north and go for it.
Briefly, Okemo had escaped some of the depradations of the storm, in that their lifts were not completely encased in inches of ice. But that’s as far as it goes. They had ice, and plenty of it, and had run the snow cats over this stuff repeatedly, generating what we know in the biz as “Death Cookies” – big damned clumps of snow-covered ice sitting on top of a hard-packed surface. If you think of over-inflating your road-bike tires the point of rock-hardness, then taking your bike over a corrugated dirt road that has was carved into deep pits by a demolition derby right after the last major rainfall…six months ago…and then sprinkled with a thick layer of crushed rock, you will have an idea of what it is like to ski on this surface. And those were the slopes that were in relatively good condition. The ones that weren’t involved what we call ”Boilerplate” – which you get when the snow has melted and frozen and melted and frozen and been groomed until it screams for mercy. It’s that same opaque, rock-hard crust that coats your driveway after it’s been plowed and melted and refrozen, rinse lather repeat. For those of you who don’t live in a region where you have to hire a snow plow for your driveway, lesser mortals would probably call this stuff “ice” and leave it at that.
The skiing that day was miserable. And clearly, I was not the only person who felt that way, or who was angered by the bogus Snow Report: by late afternoon, the vice-president of operations for Okemo issued a blanket apology for the quality of information in the Snow Report, and published it on Facebook and on the mountain’s home page.
Which company would you prefer to give your business to, if you planned to invest $600 in a season pass?
I have a high regard for the truth, and for people who tell the truth even when there are immediate negative consequences to doing so.
I also have a high regard for people who don’t prance about and make a lot of noise about reimbursements and contracts and liability and other rubbish like that when there is an emergency in progress and work to be done.
And so, then, I bring you Mount Snow once again: the hill is just north of the area to suffer the worst depredations from Irene. And on their home page, and Facebook, and everywhere they could, the exhorted people to stay away from the area in the aftermath. Why? Because having people come up to check on their second homes, or to inspect the damage, or even to try to lend a hand was going to have the primary effect of interfering with the work of the road crews and the travel of emergency vehicles. They sent the message loud and clear in every way they could: we love you, we want your help, but now is not the time. They cancelled a major function to which they’d already sold many tickets…because they felt that it wasn’t wise to load up the infrastructure. And quite right they were. It wasn’t.
I was thoroughly impressed by this behavior, because again, it was smart, and it was honest. Yes, they could have gained a few revenues…but at what cost?
Then I found out, recently, in this article from The Commons (a local paper in the area) about all of the things that Mount Snow was doing that they didn’t publicize. They opened the lodge to people who had been flooded out. They sent heavy equipment and operators – on hand thanks to the major replacement of one of the lifts – out into the community to effect necessary repairs to driveways…so that the town wouldn’t have to do that while it was trying to do 100 other vitally important things. They sent people down into the valley to help with the clean-up. And nowhere in there is a discussion of payments, or attempting to extract some kind of tax break, and they didn’t exploit it for public-relations purposes.
In my more optimistic moments, I ask myself why this cannot be the business model that we expect – and get – instead of our existing business model that features organizations as engines for graft, theft, and greed. Why do we have companies laying off thousands of workers and refusing to pass along costs savings to customers? All too often it appears that the primary purpose of a company is to line the pockets of its managers and a few of its shareholders…rather than to perform a function.
Nearly a hundred years ago, Congress granted the Rights of an individual to corporations – which is why they are up to their elbows in corrupting our democratic process. It’s a pity they didn’t also force the Responsibilities upon them too.