Hidden Valley reaps the benefits of its partnership with Seven Springs

Anyone who has hired a contractor for a major home improvement project can appreciate the challenges Seven Springs faced when it decided to upgrade -- on a tight deadline -- Hidden Valley's cafeteria, rental shop and Clock Tower restaurant.

Seven Springs bought Hidden Valley, its longtime competitor, on Oct. 1. It told its general contractor, Dave Matthews, that he had about two months to get it all done, plus a few smaller projects, before the opening of the 2013-14 snow sports season.

"We had 56 days," said Hidden Valley general manager Mike Mohr, referring to the time he and his employees -- and Mr. Matthews -- had from the time the work started until Nov. 29, the day Hidden Valley welcomed its first winter guests. "It was a team effort all the way around."

The improvements and resulting price increases have generated positive and negative comments. More on those in a minute.

For the most part, Mr. Matthews and his crew finished in the time allotted. There were a few callbacks, as there would be for projects of that scope, but the resort was ready when the first skiers and snowboarders clomped through the doors in their sturdy footwear.

They saw that the old cafeteria had been replaced by The Filling Station, an oak, pine and faux fieldstone food-service area that offers hot and cold items and a variety of beverages. The name fits, sort of, because the resort's slopes and trails are named after automobiles.

Seven Springs decision to purchase Hidden Valley was "a very positive move," said Hank Parke, whose parents, George and Helen Parke, founded Hidden Valley in the late 1950s. "Seven Springs knows what they're doing, no doubt about that."

Some Hidden Valley homeowners and season passholders applauded the purchase; others were leery. They recalled the "big plans" announced by the Buncher Co. of Pittsburgh, the resort's former owner, soon after it bought the resort in 2007. Buncher's plans sank when the economy tanked in 2008.

When this season's first guests arrived on Nov. 29, they praised the improvements to the rental shop, a former rabbit warren for visitors and employees alike. Guests now enter from the plaza level, sign up for equipment at self-entry stations, pay and then are fitted for boots, skis and snowboards.

But its electronic self-entry stations and the cash registers at The Filling Station one floor above crashed frequently in the early going and still misbehave. It's been frustrating for customers and employees. It is hoped that a fiber-optic line, which will link both systems to Seven Springs, will eliminate the glitches and gremlins. It was to be installed Friday.

Resort homeowners and longtime guests welcomed the changes at the Clock Tower restaurant -- new carpet, tables, chairs and linens -- as well as its new food and wine menus. But there have been complaints about prices.

Although some meals do cost more, Alex Moser, Seven Springs marketing director, said 20 of the 26 entrees "are under $12."

Kevin and Nick Langlois, father and son from Jefferson Hills, came into the base lodge on a rainy Tuesday last month, wrung out their soggy gloves and sat down for a hot lunch from The Filling Station. Kevin said the food was "a little on the cold side," but the quality was "OK."

Nick, 20, a student at California University of Pennsylvania, liked the "new setup" of The Filling Station. "It is much better than [a Subway franchise that] was previously in there."

Kevin said he had no problems renting skis, boots and poles, found the slopes and trails in "surprisingly" good condition considering the rain, and enjoyed having the terrain virtually to themselves.

Hidden Valley markets itself to families like the Himmels of O'Hara, who have been skiing there for six years with their three daughters -- an 11-year-old and 12-year-old twins.

"This year's experience has been good overall," Amy Himmel said. "We were disappointed in the increases in lift ticket costs, but we did take advantage of their six-ticket passes, which do save money. We also took advantage of the fourth-/fifth-grade [Pennsylvania Ski Areas Association] pass for one eligible child.

"Our biggest criticism of the new ownership is with the food costs and understaffing of the food lines," she said. "The food is ridiculously costly for the amount provided. Thank goodness they still allow you to bring food into the lodge. If they ever change that policy, we would be very disappointed.

"We also had an issue with them allowing the lift lines to get way too long on Sunday, Jan. 19, during the holiday weekend. They started to clear snow [from the seats] of the second triple chair at 10:15 a.m. and didn't have it open until almost 11 a.m., allowing the lines to get ridiculous."

Rick of the North Hills asked for anonymity because he doesn't want to experience any "repercussions" for voicing his complaints. He said he has been to Hidden Valley six times this season and believes there is a "clear direction in all operations towards profit over service.

"This is highly discouraging for a place that has always been known as 'family-friendly,' " he said.

He cited the resort's decision to eliminate junior pricing for youths 13 to 17, a move that now requires them to buy adult lift tickets. "This is a big hit in the wallet for anyone with a couple of teenagers in their family," he said.

And he also doesn't see anything "family friendly" about the prices at The Filling Station, where a slice of pizza starts at $5.95 and a bowl of macaroni and cheese costs $8.95.

He also questioned management's decision to repeatedly wait until 11 a.m. before starting the second of the side-by-side Sunrise/Sunset triple chairlifts, regardless of how long the line for the first triple chair gets.

He said lift line management, usually done with ropes and an attendant, has been absent "unless someone from the volunteer ski patrol decides to step in and tries to control things."

Seeing one or two people riding on a four-person lift "over and over again," while hundreds are waiting to board, "is enormously frustrating."

He said management also shouldn't wait until 11 a.m. to start the tow rope that serves the terrain park, especially on weekends. If it starts when the resort opens at 9 a.m., it reduces the number of people waiting in the chairlift lines to get back up the hill to reach the terrain park.

Guests have complained to employees that snowmaking equipment is being operated in the terrain parks instead of being used to open more trails.

During a conference call Wednesday afternoon regarding complaints I had emailed to them the previous week, Mr. Moser and Seven Springs communications manager Anna Weltz said they considered some complaints to be valid, others not so much.

Mr. Moser said management responded immediately "to address some early issues" with the quality of snowmaking and grooming. He said people have approached him when he was away from the office to vent their frustrations about the self-entry stations in the rental shop.

He said he heard about the "sticker shock" some guests experienced when they first saw the prices at The Filling Station and the Clock Tower restaurant. "I think the quality of the food is better than what was [at both places] before," he said.

"We need to be able to react faster," he added, referring to opening additional chairlifts in response to long lines at other lifts.

He said management will use social media to communicate better with its guests at Hidden Valley. Chili and soup were available for the first time at the North Summit warm-up building last weekend, but it didn't sell well because guests didn't know about it.

Mr. Moser said the resort will continue its emphasis on training employees to "higher levels of standards and service."

"I think we have been very sensitive to the current culture here at Hidden Valley," he said, referring to resort homeowners. "They have been instrumental in guiding us, and they have been a joy to work with."

Lawrence Walsh writes about recreational snow sports for the Post-Gazette.

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