|Special touches like the strolling entertainment provided for diners at the Stoney Creek Bar & Grill by the restaurant’s Manager, Steve Kohrherr (above), now complement the settings and scenery that also come with no extra charge at all Wintergreen venues.|
The Virginia property is rebounding, helped by dining venues that match the region’s rich variety of entertainment options.
If you’re the type who likes to have a trail laid out for you to help you follow a particular interest, the Blue Ridge Mountain region of western Virginia provides well-planned and well-preserved paths for pursuing just about any passion. If you’re looking to take a special kind of walk, the region offers plenty of spots where you can step onto the famed Appalachian Trail and set out for either Maine or Georgia. If scenic drives are more your style, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive offer miles of curving, tree-canopied roads and unspoiled overlooks. And if you want your excursion to include a little wine or song, you can follow special routes that lead through Virginia’s growing assortment of vineyards, or make stops on the famed Crooked Road that highlights the region’s rich heritage of bluegrass and mountain music.
• Property Name/Location: Wintergreen Resort, Wintergreen, Va.
*for 1st Q of FY 2011, July-Sept. 20
Since the 1970s, many travelers seeking to combine and enjoy all of the opportunities for recreation and relaxation in the region have made their way to Wintergreen Resort, located in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The resort grew up around the planned community of Wintergreen, Va., starting in 1975 with a ski area and eventually growing to include a meeting and conference center, two acclaimed golf courses, a nationally recognized tennis facility, the Wintergarden Spa, and many other activity-based and lifestyle amenities.
Wintergreen is the only four-season resort in the U.S. owned and operated entirely by its membership (through Wintergreen Partners, or WPI, which represents 1,700 property owners in the community). But that didn’t insulate the property from facing, and suffering from, the same challenges that confronted the entire resort industry at the end of the new millennium’s first decade.
Wintergreen, in fact, was hit by more than the general economic malaise that cut into the guest and conference revenues needed, along with member dues, to support the resort’s operations. Two unseasonably warm winters, in 2006-07 and 2007-08, caused fees to dip precipitously during those ski seasons.
Additionally, Wintergreen fell prey, like many properties, to overambitious expansion plans that collided with the faltering economy, leading to default on a $10 million debt tied to a new hotel project (now on a back burner).
In 2008 and 2009, WPI took two important steps to get the resort headed back in the right direction. It asked members to help retire the debt, and 400 owners, recognizing how their property values were tied to the success of the resort, stepped up to contribute to a campaign that raised sufficient capital to settle the bank obligation.
Secondly, WPI brought in Hank Thiess, a 25-year veteran of the destination resort and recreation industry, from Durango (Colo.) Mountain Resort to be Wintergreen’s new General Manager.
Working closely with Vice President of Sales and Marketing Dana Quillen, Thiess immediately began to get the Wintergreen Resort team refocused on aggressively promoting the property as a unique, four-season destination that can offer easy access to an entirely different world for guests from Washington, D.C., Richmond, and other population centers within a few hours’ drive.
At the same time, Theiss and his staff took a hard look at how all of the resort’s departments could tighten operations and upgrade offers without sacrificing quality or compromising service, so that greater value could be offered to guests.
The payoffs from these efforts are reflected by the fact that while overall revenues at the resort have held relatively steady in the past three fiscal years (from $34 million in FY 2008, to $32.5 million in FY 2009, to $34.5 in FY 2010, which ended this past June), operating cash flow has soared from under $1 million in FY 2008 to over $4 million in the most recently completed period.
And while all departments have made solid contributions to the resort’s improved fiscal health, some of the most notable improvement has come from how Wintergreen’s food and beverage operation has been reshaped and redirected.
Growing Up Together
Lynn Tyler first came to Wintergreen as a college student in the late 1970s, drawn by the opportunity to learn to ski at what was then a brand-new resort while working as a waitress in what was then its only restaurant, The Copper Mine.
Thirty years later, Tyler has advanced to the position of Vice President of Food & Beverage, and that one restaurant has become the flagship for a $5.3 million F&B operation that includes four year-round dining outlets and four seasonal ones.
The Copper Mine itself has undergone significant transformations since it was first established—and the most recent changes reflect how F&B is playing an important role in Wintergreen’s resurgence.
When she first began to work at The Copper Mine, Tyler reports, it was “everything to everyone, offering everything from hamburger to filet.” As the resort developed, The Copper Mine was repositioned as its fine-dining, white-tablecloth restaurant. Eventually, Tyler says, it “morphed into a high-end, prime beef steakhouse,” with entrees between $25 and $40.
“That’s when the bottom fell out,” Tyler continues. The price of prime beef went “out of sight” at the same time the resort’s members and guests made it clear they were seeking different dining experiences and greater value. Wintergreen first tried to keep The Copper Mine viable by staying with a steakhouse concept that featured choice cuts. Eventually, though, it became clear, Tyler says, that “the model wasn’t working.”
That prompted a full reassessment of the entire mix of F&B options at Wintergreen, starting with its most established brand. Tyler didn’t want to abandon the Copper Mine image, because it did have historical significance not only as the resort’s first restaurant, but also for the property itself (it actually sits on top of what was once a mine location). Another huge influencing factor was that there was no budget for any sort of major makeover. “I only had $50,000 to work with, for everything that would go into the retheming,” Tyler says.
The cost-conscious strategy that eventually emerged was to retain the Copper Mine name, but add Bistro to the end of it. And inside, a new Mediterranean-themed menu emphasizing tapas presentations would be offered, in a redesigned setting that sought to achieve maximum impact from the expenditures that could be made.
“Before, everything was beige, beige, beige; overall it was a very dated look,” Tyler says. “We introduced Mediterranean colors—terra cotta reds and greens—and made changes such as going from very traditional china to more trendy shapes.”
|VP Food & Beverage Lynn Tyler (above left) leads a team that blends the experience of 25-year resort veteran Mike Miles (above right), Executive Chef of Copper Mine Bistro, with new talent like Josh Tomson (opposite), Executive Chef of Devils Grill.|
Of course, what was being served would prove to be even more critical. “We wanted it to become a place where everyone in the family could get a really nice meal, but it would be much different than a typical Italian restaurant,” Tyler says. “And also a place where the family could eat more than once a weekend while they were here, without breaking the bank.”
The answer was to combine sophisticated dishes for adults such as salmon puttanesca with parmesan orzo and asparagus (pictured, opposite page; recipe available with the online version of this article at clubandresortbusiness.com) with flatbread pizzas and other kid-friendly options (the complete new menu for the Copper Mine Bistro, and other Wintergreen outlets, can also be viewed with the online version of this article).
How have Wintergreen diners responded to the change? “The big story is that it worked,” Tyler reports. “We hit it right on the money. We opened the rethemed [Copper Mine] last December, and through the end of [fiscal year 2010] this June, we were over $50,000 ahead of budget and well ahead of the previous year’s cover counts.”
At the same time the Copper Mine was being rethemed, Wintergreen didn’t forsake the need to keep a higher-end dining option in the mix. It also introduced changes at the Devils Grill restaurant in the clubhouse of the Devils Knob golf course, a scenic Ellis Maples-design that sits at the highest elevation (3,850 ft.) of any course in Virginia.
A new Executive Chef, Josh Tomson, came to Devils Grill this fall and has introduced new menus (which can also be viewed with the online version of this article) featuring traditional favorites like grilled pork chops and international fare such as togarashi-seared tuna and roasted garlic tortellaci.
The one constant for all dishes on the new Devils Grill menu is the emphasis on farm-to-table freshness. “It’s not easy to make [farm-to-table] work when you have to get things delivered to the top of a mountain, especially in winter,” Tyler notes, “but Josh has already developed a fantastic network of farms and purveyors. The reaction has been tremendous to how he can serve things like trout on the same night after it was caught in a nearby stream that morning.”
The same scrutiny to find new ways to introduce excitement while enhancing quality and value has been conducted for all of Wintergreen’s outlets—including the high-volume, fast-service ones, designed to keep skiers fueled up, that can do as much as $10,000 in revenues for a three-day weekend.
For all of the dining options now in the mix at Wintergreen, Tyler says, the basic approach is the same: “Give [diners] something really nice and different, and more than what they could get at home—even if they’re members and already live here. No matter how busy things get or how casual or family-oriented the atmosphere might be, that doesn’t mean you have to only offer the same old fast food.”
F&B Outlets at Wintergreen Resort
• Copper Mine Bistro
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