Vermont is the most popular New England ski destination, and the third busiest nationally. Last season, Vermont resorts saw 4.5 million skiers hit the slopes, a 10-year high.
With crowds, however, come frustrations. Call it the Disneyland Effect: long lift lines, packed runs, and jostling for space on warming benches, to name a few annoyances.
Jim Barnes, CEO and founder of the $75 million Hermitage Club, seeks to eliminate those downsides at his membership-based resort, the only high-end bastion of private powder in the east. The cost to belong to his 1,400-acre enclave in Southern Vermont’s Deerfield Valley: $65,000 per membership, plus $5,150 dues.
That steep price tag has not slowed Barnes’s growth. Since 2012, membership, which is capped at 1,500, has grown by 225%. The reason, Barnes says, is simple: “When you’re skiing with your family, you want to spend time on the slopes, not standing in lines. One mom told me, ‘you’ve taken the stress out of skiing.’”
Barnes’s strategy–charge fewer skiers a premium price for a premium experience–challenges the conventional ski management model, which relies on volume: the more skiers purchase lift tickets, the healthier the bottom line. This private powder model is more familiar out west, at membership-based resorts including the Yellowstone Club in Montana’s Rocky Mountains. Like the Yellowstone Club, the Hermitage Club packages skiing with fine dining, luxury lodging and year-round recreation (the Hermitage Club has an 18-hole Desmond Muirhead golf course).
Though Yellowstone has the edge when it comes to vertical drop, Barnes says the Hermitage Club, a 3.5-hour drive from New York City, provides something western resorts can’t: a deluxe experience close to home. “If you live in the east and you ski out west, it takes lots of time and money to get out there,” says Barnes. “Maybe you’ll go once or twice a year. The Hermitage Club is home base; you can easily get here on weekends.”
Though most members drive to the club, an increasing number are flying by private plane to the Deerfield Valley Airport, which Barnes purchased and renovated in 2013.
Barnes and his team designed the club, located in the towns of West Dover and Wilmington, to complement the small-town, historic flavor of the Deerfield Valley. After crossing a truss-and-lattice covered bridge at the club’s entrance, families encounter a Currier & Ives-style campus with a 1842 country inn (a former farmhouse), rosy-cheeked children skating on a pond, and couples gliding over the snow in horse-drawn sleigh. There are high-octane pleasures, too: snowmobiling on the mountain after dark, traveling to a mountaintop cabin by Sno-Cat for oysters and champagne by the fire, feasting on lobster by candlelight in a dining room adorned with Michel Delacroix paintings (the club owns one of the world’s largest collection of the French artist’s works), and decamping to the 5,000-bottle wine cellar for tastings.
Thus far, 250 families from as far away as Delaware have signed on, and Barnes expects the number to double by next year. The club’s $1 million marketing campaign includes billboards on Interstate 91, the major highway leading to Vermont from New York and Connecticut, showing a solo skier and the tagline “Fresh Corduroy at 3 p.m. Really?”–a reference to the club’s practice of grooming all 55 trails all day. Word of mouth also helps. Memberships come with guest passes. “When members bring their friends and see what we’re about, the place sells itself,” Barnes says.
Barnes, whose previous companies, Oakleaf Waste Management and FM Facility Maintenance, have combined annual revenues exceeding $1 billion, focused on launching the Hermitage Club after acquiring the Hermitage Inn, at the base of Haystack Mountain, in 2007 for $1.6 million. At the time, the 3,200-foot mountain, closed since 2009, was for sale, having gone through several ownership changes since 2001.
In 2011, Barnes, who believed the time was right to introduce a high-end membership model, bought Haystack Mountain and the adjacent golf course for $6.2 million and launched the Hermitage Club. Barnes’s master plan for the club includes more than 100 deluxe on-mountain and off-mountain homes, a $15 million hotel, and a $3 million airport expansion to accommodate the majority of the private jet aircraft fleet. A $21 million 80,000-square-foot Club House, scheduled to open in November, has 14 spa and treatment rooms, a movie theater, and an edit suite for GoPro helmet cams, where skiers and boarders can edit footage they’ve recorded on runs and post it on social media. At present, the club has sold more than 20 luxury homes and is currently taking reservations for 14 more in its premiere development, Stag’s Leap, where ski-in ski out residences overlooking the Deerfield Valley start at $1.8 million.
As is true in many resort towns, there’s a discrepancy between the incomes of tourists and local workers. Median household incomes in the towns of Wilmington and West Dover are $45,536 and $47,500 respectively, according to U.S. Census figures published in the Mount Snow Valley Economic and Demographic Prospectus. Second homes play a huge role in the local economy, accounting for 61.6% of homes in Wilmington and 80% in West Dover, according to the study, and the Valley deeply depends on the large disposable incomes of seasonal and weekend visitors.
Tourism in Wilmington was temporarily sidelined in 2011, when flash floods caused by Hurricane Irene wiped out 40 businesses with 120 employees in the town center, three miles from the resort. The town is rebounding, thanks in part to the Hermitage Club, which has added 300 full and part-time jobs to the local economy, contributed $30 million to the local tax base, sponsored charitable events (including one with Meryl Streep) to benefit The Wilmington Fund, and promoted the Deerfield Valley as a vacation destination.
“The biggest crop we need to cultivate here is tourism, and Jim Barnes is driving the thing,” says Peter Wallace, owner of Folly Foods, which opened in August in a Main Street building that was consumed by four feet of water during the Wilmington flood. “His members come to my coffee shop. I need them, we all need them.”
But not everyone is pumped about the privatization of Haystack Mountain, formerly a public ski area beloved in the ’70s by local families who viewed it as a low-key alternative to nearby resorts. “Hard for locals to get excited about something awesome and incredible, close enough to touch but they can’t afford,” a reader of the Brattleboro Reformer posted last month in the comments section under a story about the Hermitage Club. “Barne$ is just taking this area into the land of the rich,” posted another.
The Hermitage Club sells lift tickets to full-time Wilmington residents with a driver’s license for $85 daily. Barnes’s ambitions for the community extend far beyond the resort. He believes the Deerfield Valley could be a major arts and recreation hub on par with the likes of Telluride. “A few of us here imagine what the Valley can look like in five or 10 years, and Jim is one of them,” says Phil Gilpin, executive director of the ITVFest (Independent Television and Film Festival), now based in Dover after a seven-year-run in Los Angeles.
More than 1,000 visitors attended September’s ITVFest, which included a red carpet reception and screenings at the Hermitage Club. With foliage at its peak, producers, writers, executives and actors gathered at the resort to celebrate independently-produced TV shows, web series, and short films. “After years of negativity because of the flood and the economy, there’s new energy here,” Gilpin says. “The Hermitage Club is bringing in the top 1% of income earners from the big city, and they’re buying second homes and spending money in the community. There’s new energy here. Some are saying we’re Sundance East.”