If you ask CEO Jeff Koffman who he's looking forward to meeting on the slopes this season at Mountain Creek, he has a very specific customer in mind out of the more than 700,000 annual visitors.
“Anyone who loves the outdoors; who wants to connect with nature; and who wants to lead an active lifestyle,” he said.
Mountain Creek, the four-season recreation and leisure resort in Vernon, has been employing up to 1,400 seasonal workers in the “memory-creation business” for 50 years, Koffman said.
The Koffman family has helped invest more than $30 million into the resort over the last five years, including new lodging, a snow tubing center and the installation of coasters and the world’s tallest and only double-looping waterslide.
Now, the resort, which boasts 167 skiable acres on four mountain peaks; Action Park, New Jersey’s largest outdoor thrill and waterpark; downhill mountain bike riding with more than 40 custom built trails; and guided zip line tours 1,040 feet above a mountaintop lake, is getting another makeover.
One that may amount to as much as $100 million.
“I had been the chairman of S&S Worldwide, the largest manufacturer of roller coasters at the time,” Koffman said. “I got to see what was going on in the world of theming and attractions. I’ve been able to take a lot of that information and apply it to Mountain Creek.”
NJBIZ sat down with Koffman to see just what one of New Jersey’s most beloved vacation spots has in store.
Company: Mountain Creek
Hometown: Currently residing in New York City; actively seeking residence in Vernon.
School ties: University of Pennsylvania (bachelor’s in international relations); Harvard University (owner/president management program)
When you brag about Jersey to people from out of state, you say: If you can make it in New Jersey, you can make it anywhere.
Giants, Jets, Yankees, Mets: Jets and Mets — adversity makes us stronger.
Favorite restaurant: The Hawk’s Nest in the Red Tail Lodge (at Mountain Creek) on a snowy winter’s eve.
Passion: I am a voracious reader. … I love (Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s) ‘Don Quixote.’ … I’m always searching for windmills.
What you wanted to be when you were 6: I wanted to be Willy Wonka. I wanted to drink the chocolate river and lick the candy-filled walls. … When I look at the resort and the environment I want to create, I think, we could do that here. We could create a whole magical world here. I guess that’s the free-spirit dreamer in me.
Something about you your co-workers don’t know: I used to be a nationally-ranked tennis player in college.
NJBIZ: Let’s start by talking about your family’s long history with Mountain Creek.
Jeff Koffman: My father was an owner of (what was originally) Great Gorge back in the mid-1970s for a period of time. He wound up selling to another family, and we got back into it in 2010 when we bought it from Intrawest.
NJBIZ: Your family was one of four partners at that time. How and why did you become the sole owners of the resort this past June?
JK: We saw a tremendous opportunity to build the resort, and (due to) differences of opinions, philosophies and motivations for how to do so with the other partners in the ownership group, we decided to buy them out. It’s a lot easier to get things done when you have 100 percent ownership.
NJBIZ: You’ve said that your family prides itself on the way it does business. How, then, is it approaching Mountain Creek and its future?
JK: We’re new here. We’re creating relationships so the town and state can get to know us. We’ve already created a lot of credibility. We pay our taxes and bills on time, which previous resort ownership had been known for being more lax with. We do what we say and we say what we do. That’s the way our family was raised. We’re committed to investing our family’s capital into this property to help us realize the resort’s potential. And we have the experience in bringing (other funding sources) together to make these plans a reality. Our employees are happy, too. We’ve matched 401(k) plans and brought in better health benefits at lower costs. We have to get people to trust us — credibility is everything.
NJBIZ: How would you compare working with the state of New Jersey to other states’ business environments?
JK: You have to work within the system that you’re given. Do I wish we could get things done quicker? Absolutely. Any businessman would say that. But I respect the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs — they’re here to make sure that we operate in a safe, protected environment. Entrepreneurship is always tempered by regulatory environments. Getting things to move forward always takes a little bit longer than desired. We have all these great plans; I’d love to get them done as soon as possible.
NJBIZ: Plans? What plans?
JK: When we have the signoffs from the regulatory and government agencies, we’ll share. I am passionate about it and wish I could tell you the details now. But for a variety of reasons, historically, a lot of promises were made and never delivered here. I am highly aware of that — but we are different.
NJBIZ: OK, OK. More talk for another time. What can you tell me without getting specific?
JK: We’re designing several new attractions, which would warrant investments as large as $100 million. The one thing I can tell you is that we are not going to build an indoor water park here. There had been discussions, and the town council had created a pilot program — but we are a nature-driven resort.
NJBIZ: What is it that you want to accomplish with these new attractions?
JK: We are leaning toward an era in that we will want to disconnect. Technology is important, but we want to be able to offer families the ability to immerse themselves in non-tech environments for a day or two. So, we think, what kinds of things can we offer so that families can come here to bond and create memories by disconnecting? The reports I’ve seen say that millennials want to disconnect, but can’t. We, of course, have to incorporate some technology into our resort as to not alienate markets. But we ask, how can we do it within the concept of what we’re trying to do here, which is, create an unconnected nature-driven environment? Do we really need Wi-Fi on the mountain in order to use Instagram?
NJBIZ: What investments, if not heavily tech-related, have you been making into the resort?
JK: We want to upgrade our facilities to world-class standards. Maintenance had been somewhat neglected over the last few years, so we’ve been busy fixing buildings, repainting and refreshing. We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on new floorings and updating bathrooms. We need to reflect my family’s philosophy in creating resorts you want to come to, and we can’t have that if it doesn’t look or feel right. So, we’ve been spending seven-figure money every year on repairs and maintenance. We also have approvals for 1,500 (additional) units, and additional land that we have options on or that we will acquire. Lastly, we’ve updated the fleet with new snowmobiles, buses and transportation vehicles, and made a tremendous investment in snowmaking capacity by buying new compressors and snow guns so we can open quicker.
NJBIZ: Climate change can’t be doing you any favors.
JK: We pray for the right weather for the right season. We prefer snow in winter and sunshine in summer. Having all that sun over Thanksgiving was not a lot of fun. Our season pass holders want us to be open, and so do we. Our largest revenue concentration is in January through March, and then again in June through August with the water park season. We’d like to increase revenue in the fall and spring by attracting people to the mountain with various outdoor activities. So we’ve invested more money into our marketing budgets; we’re hiring digital marketing managers. We want to target our customers better over longer time periods.
NJBIZ: What can the state of New Jersey do to help make that happen?
JK: Our proximity to 30 million people makes (Vernon) a highly desirable location. The frustrating part is that we need more and more people to come here, and the tourism board of New Jersey needs to help us make that happen via promotion. When I fly into JFK, it’s unbelievable, all the (information) that the state provides on Saratoga to Hunter Mountain to Broadway to Saranac Lake. I wish New Jersey would do more to promote our state for those flying into Newark. It’s beautiful here, too. We need to tell our story better.
NJBIZ: Do you have a specific goal in mind of how many customers you’d like to see next season?
JK: If we do our job well, our numbers will take care of themselves. We’re more about executing our plan for fun things that people will want to do — the numbers will come. We’re certain that what we’re trying to do will drive additional traffic and we’re focused on responsibly executing those plans so people want to keep coming back. There is enough here to keep me busy, to keep my kids busy, to keep my grandchildren busy — we’re looking at this as a long-term family asset. For the first time in years, I wake up in the morning excited to develop and implement the plans we have for this place to make it even better.
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