Man of the Mountains

A background in law and politics and a love of the sport helped this enthusiast carve the perfect turn

vssa2951LEADParker Riehle’s law degree, knowledge of skiing, and family background in politics bring a chiseled perspective to his work as executive director of the Vermont Ski Areas Association, the industry’s lobbying and marketing trade association.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Parker Riehle is well suited to his position as president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association.

“I learned to ski at Stowe when I was 7,” he says. “I was lucky to live close to many great ski areas. At Cochran’s in Richmond I trained with my South Burlington High School ski team. I remember what a relief it was to race down Cochran’s slope after wrestling with the rope tow all the way up!”

That early skiing experience is only one facet of his background that prepared him for his job overseeing the association that promotes and protects the economic and recreational aspects of Vermont’s most important winter sports. He learned to be a team player in football and track and field competition, in high school and later at Hamilton College. His law degree, earned from Vermont Law School, prepared him for the governmental affairs duties with the association.

As trade organization president, Riehle oversees all aspects of the association, which represents Vermont’s alpine and Nordic ski areas in government affairs, marketing, and public relations. “Much of our success is due to the efforts of my talented staff,” he says. “Kathy Murphy and Neil Ryan get out all the promotions. Add Jen Butson’s strong journalism/media background, which makes good relations in the public affairs and program management areas, plus office manager Jessica Martin’s banking and customer service experience — which suits her role — and I have a great team.”

Speaking to VSAA members at the organization’s annual meeting at Stratton Mountain Resort in June, Riehle announced that, with below-average snowfall, below-average days of operation, and an economy still struggling to pull out of a major recession, the season’s numbers are a true testament to the ski industry’s resilience and its importance to Vermont’s economy.

At that same meeting, it was reported that during the 2009–2010 season, VSAA members recorded 4,125,082 skier visits to the state. A “skier visit” is a one person — skier or snowboarder — using one lift ticket on one day, including season pass holders.

Before Riehle joined VSAA, he was in private law practice and had done a stint as special assistant to then U.S. Rep. Peter Smith in Washington, D.C. “In 1988 I saw a classified ad for the VSAA director of governmental affairs,” he explains. “It was a total leap of faith but I was confident I would enjoy lobbying for the association at Montpelier.”

Parker Riehle was no stranger to the statehouse halls. As an eighth-grader, he was Gov. Richard Snelling’s executive page. His father, Ted, had championed the famous Billboard Bill through the Legislature in 1968 — a bill to ban billboard advertising from Vermont roadsides. Also, his oldest brother, Ted, and later Ted’s wife, Helen, both served terms in the Legislature.

Except for a two-year hiatus, during which he served on Gov. James Douglas’ senior staff as special assistant to the governor and deputy counsel, he continued the lobbying work for VSAA until he was promoted to his current position as president in 2006, succeeding David Dillon.

Riehle works closely with the VSAA directors, who represent some of Vermont’s best-known resorts: Peter Mackey, Middlebury Snow Bowl; Robert McEleney, Stowe Mountain Resort; Chris Nyberg, Killington Resort; Peter Oliver, Ole’s Cross Country Center; Win Smith, Sugarbush Resort; and Bill Stenger, Jay Peak Resort.

“Parker does a good job representing ski areas, and under his direction the organization itself is very well-run,” says Larry Williams, the owner of Bolton Valley Ski Area. “The work the VSAA does to represent Vermont ski areas in our state capital is very good. Having a voice in Montpelier is important, because ours is an industry that’s at risk in this present economy.”

The VSAA was founded 41 years ago by the late Joe Parkinson, general manager of the former Glen Ellen Ski Area, now part of the Sugarbush Corp. “Joe navigated the industry through the ongoing development of state policies that affected the industry, including land-use regulations, electric utility costs, tax laws, and water withdrawals for snowmaking,” says Riehle. “Joe’s legacy lives on; we will always remember him for his warmth, friendship, vision, and leadership.”

Conservation and the environment are important issues for the association. Riehle and his team have partnered with Efficiency Vermont to encourage the ski areas to employ energy conservation techniques to run chairlifts, snowmaking guns, water pumps, and air compressors.

At a recent annual meeting of the National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood, Colo., to which VSAA belongs, the Bolton Valley Ski Area was awarded a Silver Eagle for Excellence in Energy Conservation/Clean Energy. Bolton Valley is the second ski area in the country to erect a wind turbine to make energy to run the operation. The turbine is 121 feet tall and produces the equivalent of the electricity consumed by 40 to 45 Vermont households — about one-eighth of the area’s total energy needs.

Riehle’s staff takes a strong role in promoting programs and events at the various ski areas to make vacation time more interesting and varied for visitors and especially to encourage youths to learn to appreciate the winter sports that are a major part of Vermont life.

The state’s 10-year-old 5th Grade Passport Program and the Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month promotions each January are examples, according to Riehle. In the “Passport Program,” fifth-graders may ski or snowboard free three times at each participating ski area. Children who have no means to take lessons otherwise have an opportunity to learn the sport.

Another VSAA-sponsored activity organized for Vermont youths is the school visits program with Olympians. This year the association organized school visits and one statehouse children’s event with Olympic skiers Liz Stephen and Andy Newell. Visits reached 1,400-plus students in Wallingford, East Montpelier, Montpelier, Berlin, Williston, and Lyndonville.

State discount coupons were introduced in 2003-04 by the association, joining other states to promote the ski industry through a national program encouraging children and families to enjoy outdoor winter activities.

Another joint effort to help the VSAA tell Vermont’s ski industry story is the Ski Vermont Specialty Food Days in which the VSAA and the Vermont Maple Foundation promote local agriculture and food companies by offering samples at scheduled participating ski areas.

VSAA travels to trade shows and media events in Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, New York, Boston, London, and Dublin, says Riehle. “It’s fun to drop into major cities and watch the crowds get fired up about coming to Vermont’s mountains.”

Riehle majored in creative writing at Hamilton College. He wrote short stories, poetry, and the occasional play. “I haven’t yet tackled the Great American Novel,” he says with a chuckle, “but it remains a dream of mine to someday be able to do that.”

He calls himself the “default” editor-in-chief for the VSAA publications, although, he confesses, most of the copy work is produced by outside writers. Frequently in promotional materials, he uses snapshots that he’s taken on family skiing weekends.

“What makes a ski area successful,” according to Riehle, “is the skier’s experience at the end of the day. The promise there will be snow — man-made or natural — is another reason, plus the availability of good rental equipment and shorter side-cut skis that make easier skiing.”

Ever the promoter, Riehle easily slides each topic into his favorite subject. “Each ski area offers a different experience depending on what a visitor wants — nightlife, family getaway, or a spa experience,” he says, adding that often customers are loyal to a particular area, and this is good for repeat business.

Among those “repeat” ski area patrons are Riehle, his wife, Deidre, and their two children, Hunter and Ellie. “We get out on the slopes just about every weekend of the season. The rest of the year we are spectators at our children’s team sport activities, whether it’s football, baseball, soccer, or basketball. However, on winter weekends, skiing is our family time together.” •