These Businesses Make the Mountains Work
Chris Fellows and his family just returned from a weeklong trip to Canada's Whistler ski resort, and in January he's off to the Alps of St. Anton, Austria. This summer, he'll switch to the Southern Hemisphere where ski conditions at Portillo, in the Chilean Andes, should be excellent.
Sporting expeditions to exotic alpine destinations are all in a day's work for Mr. Fellows, founder and owner of North American Ski Training Center in Truckee, Calif. The company offers intensive instruction to skiers who are discriminating and well-heeled -- each will pay $3,900 for the Austrian trip. Mr. Fellows often accompanies groups of 15 to 25 students to the 15 or so ski resorts in North and South America and Europe where he offers instruction.
He started the company nine years ago so he could remain in Truckee, a historic mile-high town near the renowned ski resorts ringing Lake Tahoe, and keep doing the work that he loved. Teaching skiing, his career for more than a decade at the time, paid little and inevitably would have led to a desk job as a supervisor, he explains. "This way I've got the best of both worlds," he says. "It freed me up to do what I do best, which is to teach, coach and train people."
Mountain towns are full of people who have started businesses so they could live in a place they love and do work they particularly enjoy. While some are like Mr. Fellows, who has lived and worked in alpine communities his entire career, most high-altitude lifestyle entrepreneurs are refugees from flatland jobs and homes. "People have a dream," explains Joe Keck, director of the Fort Lewis Small Business Development center in Durango, Colo. "They move here for quality of life, but quality jobs here are very limited."
Outsiders typically arrive flush with the proceeds of selling a flatlands home and, finding few jobs beyond low-paid service work, such as waiting tables, decide to invest their hoard in a small business that will, hopefully, earn them a living. It's not easy, however, notes Mr. Keck. "There is kind of a revolving door of people coming in, having some money, starting a business on Main Street and, having lost that money a couple of years later, having to move on and find a real job," he says.
Taking a Powder
In addition to advising local businesses, Mr. Keck is an entrepreneur himself, having started several mountain businesses, including a Hallmark store still run by his wife in nearby Cortez. While alpine regions are beautiful and packed with all-season recreational opportunities, they're tough places to succeed in business, he says. Median incomes in mountain economies are generally lower than those in urban areas, making the markets smaller.
Towns like Durango and Truckee are also tourism-dependent, and tourists are notoriously unreliable props for businesses. A winter of poor snow or a summer of forest fires, like the summer of 2002, can keep enough visitors away that many marginal businesses fail.
Many entrepreneurs drawn into business to create the lifestyle they desire start enterprises related to tourism or recreation. Inns and motels, restaurants and bars, and ski- and bike-rental agencies are common ideas for former flatlanders, says Mr. Keck. Services, such as fly-fishing and mountaineering-guide operations, attract dedicated outdoorspeople -- although since the ski-area operators have their own ski schools, there are few independent instructors like Mr. Fellows.
Some, of course, are in more conventional businesses. Small construction firms, remodelers and artisans find a niche building and improving homes for people buying vacation residences. May Mantell is a graphic artist in Middlebury, Vt., who designs business cards, Web sites and other material for businesses located in the state's Green Mountains. Ms. Mantell moved to Vermont from California's Silicon Valley two years ago, but a job she had been promised didn't materialize. Since there was no employment that even remotely compared with her former job at a technology concern in Palo Alto, she started a one-person business, Leverage Design.
"I was kind of stunned," says Ms. Mantell. "I just kept looking around for other work and there was none." Though she'd never been interested in starting her own firm, Ms. Mantell began taking on projects and soon found herself with a small part-time business. She faced little competition, but her customers, mostly other small businesses, typically had limited design budgets. She eked out a living for a while waiting tables and working in a ski resort's childcare center before she was able to work as a designer full time.
"It was definitely a bit of an ego blow," Ms. Mantell says. It was somewhat more difficult for her given that she hadn't moved to Middlebury for the mountains, but for a boyfriend. "I developed my skills thinking I would be living in an urban area," she says. "I didn't move to Vermont to ski."
But for many high-altitude entrepreneurs, the romance is with the mountain lifestyle. Mr. Keck skis, mountain bikes, runs trails and kayaks. "I do it all," he says. "It's a tremendous quality of life."
Mr. Fellows agrees. While acknowledging that making a living as an alpine-ski-school owner requires energy, optimism and financial compromise, he sees little upside in becoming either a flatlander or an employee. "How do you quantify quality of life?" he asks. "To do what I'm doing and pay for it at retail, you'd have to be a billionaire."
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