With “dream team” in place, Hermitage Club continues evolution
by Randy Capitani
Oct 10, 2017 | 8909 views | 0 0 comments | 135 135 recommendations | email to a friend | print
New Hermitage Club managers Robert Balewicz, Meridith Dennes, Kenneth Davis, and John Santaniello (from left) flank Hermitage Club president Jim Barnes, center.
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WILMINGTON- Six years into the rebuild of Haystack Mountain, the Hermitage Club continues to evolve in a number of ways. The mountain had been dormant for five years after the previous owner shut down the mountain and walked away from redevelopment plans for a private ski resort in 2007.

The first phase of that evolution involved the basics: reinvigorating the mountain’s aging chairlifts and bringing the trails back to skiable condition. Following that, a new chairlift and trails were added to connect the Hermitage Inn to the rest of Haystack. Then a new transfer lift connected the lower mountain with the upper mountain.

Three years ago, a new clubhouse was built near the same location as the previous upper base lodge, and in 2016 the club christened its flagship chairlift. The covered, heated, six-passenger Barnstormer lift whisks skiers from the clubhouse to the summit in less than 10 minutes. Snowmaking, grooming, and mountain amenities were also rebuilt, upgraded, and added along the way.

Now, Hermitage Club founder and president Jim Barnes has expanded the club’s management team to include a new director of marketing and public relations, in-house counsel, a managing director of real estate, and new director of hospitality.

“It’s all part of the continuing evolution of growth of the club,” said Barnes on Monday. “This is the third time I’ve built a startup company. You can’t put a dream team together on day one. This is all part of the natural progression for me.”

That “dream team” Barnes spoke of is now assembled and ready to bring additional professional experience and management to augment the current leadership of the Hermitage Club. Most have been on site for the past month or two, and are beginning to get their arms around the issues and opportunities for the Hermitage Club.

New to the club are Robert Balewicz, broker of record and managing director of Hermitage Club Realty LLC; Meridith Dennes, senior director of advertising, marketing, and public relations; Kenneth Davis, chief legal officer; and John Santaniello, managing director of hospitality.

For Balewicz, the move to the Hermitage Club is a logical progression of his 36-year career in real estate sales, development, and management.

“I love Vermont,” Balewicz said. “I had a ski home near Okemo, but now I’ll be moving here permanently.” He will oversee the Hermitage Club Realty company, which Barnes said was created to manage all of the on-site real estate sales and properties at the Club.

Barnes added that the Hermitage Deerfield Valley Real Estate company, which he has a partnership interest in, will continue to focus on “off campus” real estate sales.

Balewicz sees plenty of opportunity at the club, especially with the new Hotel Hermitage ready to launch. “It’s an eighth-share membership model,” he said. “Members will buy an eighth-share of the room, and when they’re here will have full access to the club’s amenities. Each room will have one dedicated membership.”

The private residence membership is a way to not overcrowd the mountain, according to Balewicz. He also noted the new hotel, when built, will add more on-mountain opportunities for weddings and large events. The club currently owns a number of properties in the valley, including the Inn at Sawmill Farm, the White House Inn, the Snowgoose Inn, and the Hermitage Inn.

Barnes said there will be no change in those properties when the new hotel is built. He hopes to begin construction of the new hotel in 2018, once a refinancing plan is secured that will pump $60 million into the club for construction, operations, and to “shore up our finances.”

Santaniello will be the man in charge of filling all of those hotel rooms. He is a ski industry and luxury hotel veteran, having spent time running properties in Keystone, Beaver Creek, and Steamboat Springs resorts in Colorado and the Mount Washington Hotel and Breton Woods ski area in New Hampshire.

“My priority is heads in beds,” said Santaniello. “I’m really focusing on occupancy. We have 93 units in six properties. That is 33,945 room nights to fill on a yearly basis.” He also noted he would be responsible for “just about everything” when it came to guest satisfaction and quality of products.

Santaniello also has ties to a well-know local icon of the ski industry, former Mount Snow managing director Chris Diamond. “ He’s a mentor, and a friend,” he said. “He hired me at Steamboat and I learned a lot about the business from him.”

Davis brings 20 years of legal experience with him to the new post of chief legal officer. He lives in Winhall and has a daughter enrolled at Stratton Mountain School. When asked what he thought about the Vermont legal system, he said he found it “absolutely exhilarating” and was having an enjoyable experience understanding the variety of issues facing the club and getting to know people.

Davis is also heavily involved in an equity conversion push currently taking place with some club members. They are being asked to convert their membership, which includes the possibility of payback from the club should they decide to leave, into an ownership stake.

“The equity conversion process is a big focus by Jim,” said Davis. “It will allow the club to achieve its vision fully.” Davis is also involved in the club’s real estate transactions and said he is working on a number of minor permits to augment the club’s master plan permit, which was approved by the state earlier this year.

Dennes has been on the job since mid-August, and has rolled up her sleeves and gone to work trying to upgrade and improve on the club’s marketing initiatives. Chief among that is a redesigned website, slated to roll out next month.

Dennes, who grew up ski racing at Stratton and lives there now, has a background in investment banking and recently launched a number of websites for women. She says the club has room to improve on its branding and community relations. “We need to improve our external messaging,” Dennes said. “We offer a tremendous value, especially in our new Phase II development. We need to improve our brand consistency so that people feel they will get a consistent experience. That message has to be delivered. We also need to improve our relations with the community.”

One other thing that Barnes mentioned during the discussion is that Mount Snow will no longer be tapping into Mirror Lake for snowmaking water. With Mount Snow’s West Lake project slated to come on line this winter, Haystack will have full access its own pond.

“That is 40 million gallons,” said Barnes. “That will really help our snowmaking. We opened at Thanksgiving last year, which was a real bonus to our members. We hope to do that again.”

With 40 million additional gallons of water in the bank, restructured financing on the horizon, and the expanded management team in place, Barnes has millions of reasons to be optimistic about the future of the Hermitage Club.
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