Normally, it would have been a ski marketer's dream . . . big mountains, great snow, scenery to rival anywhere, more trails than a cattle drive, a town with more western flavor than old Bonanza reruns and enough wildlife to overcrowd a game preserve.
Whatever visiting skiers could have wanted in a western ski area, Jackson Hole had it. This was a soft sell to skiers, like knee-deep powder on a sunny day.But it didn't happen. Following Jackson Hole's opening in 1966, a lift line became anything over three skiers. Things were busy when lines got up to four and crowded at six.
That's the way marketing director Harry Baxter found things when he slipped behind his desk in Teton Village 15 years ago and began filling out change-of-address cards.
Asked to come from Sugarloaf, Vt., land of the rolling hills and a couple of bad snow years, west to a land of seemingly endless powder runs and mountains that never stopped climbing, didn't require much deliberation. About that long.
"But, I found out pretty darn fast that there were some problems, not the least of which was a poor image . . . People thought the area was nothing but cliffs and runs were too steep and difficult for them," he recalled.
Getting to Jackson in the winter was another problem, as skiers saw it. In those days, planes dropped them off in Idaho Falls and buses took them to Wyoming. It wasn't seen as a two-hour bus ride, Baxter recalled, but as a "whole 'nother state" away. It didn't sit well with prospective visitors.
So, the first thing he did was bend the flight patterns to the east. He worked, pleaded and begged air carriers to land in Jackson . . . and they did. From a start of one landing a week, it grew to a peak of 51 charter flights in a ski season.
Then, just when it looked like he had things airborne, airline deregulation grounded the program. From a peak of 203,000 lift tickets sold, things dropped off the following year to only a few regularly scheduled flights and slightly more than 141,000 tickets sold.
It was, admitted Baxter, "pretty frustrating."
Then, four years ago, he came up with a new plan. It was daring but simple. Jackson Hole, the ski area, and some local businesses guaranteed seats on all incoming flights. Those seats not occupied on incoming flights would be paid for by the group. The airlines couldn't lose, but Baxter could.
"That first year I was pretty nervous. I had nightmares of a plane coming in on a Tuesday with only 10 people aboard. I put it all on the line," he remembered, still with a worried smile.
The planes did come - four major carriers - and loaded with people. The first year was a big success and each year since has gotten better.
Last year the area, which handled but 89,100 skiers the first year Baxter arrived, did 246,576 skier days (one skier skiing one day counts as one skier day) last year.
And, if things continue, this year they'll have greeted 10 percent more skiers. Right now incoming flights are filling all the pillows (the commercial way of counting sleeping space instead of rooms). Translated, it means that Jackson Hole needs to come up with more rooms to keep up with marketing, which is surely a marketer's dream come true.
Baxter's message, it appears, has gotten out.
So have some of his ideas.
Like triathlons. His was the very first. At least no one can find one that is older. Last year's was the 14th annual. Baxter drew from his own interests an idea that would spotlight Jackson Hole.
He liked skiing (he was a former ski racer), pedaling (an occasional biker), and paddling (he was a three-time national canoe/kayak marathon champion), so he came up with the "Pole-Pedal-Paddle." He had the mountain (greatest vertical in the country), the bike route (through beautiful Wyoming rangeland), and the river (one of the most breathtaking sections of Snake River). Competitors ski off the mountain, bike to the river and paddle to the finish. A triathlon!
It took awhile, 15 years, but now it is a marketer's dream . . . rooms are full, the mountains are being skied, registers are ringing, people are biking and some are paddling, sometimes all in the same day.