Director of Skier Service, John Guay oversees the entire Deer Valley Ski School, the resort ski rental operations, children’s center and lift ticket sales. So, if you are a skier and are about to enjoy Deer Valley Resort, you will appreciate the many services that John has developed and polished over a period of 33 years!
JF: What did you do before joining Deer Valley Resort?
John Guay: I was in snow ski school supervisor at nearby Park West, today known as Canyons. I began there on the first of January 1975. At that time, the ski school director was short staffed and asked me if I wanted to teach skiing.
JF: Did you take the job?
John Guay: Yes, I gave it a try and that’s how I got involved. I begin by teaching groups of kids coming from Salt Lake City, I joined PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America), went through my certification process and ended up as a supervisor there.
JF: How was business during these early years?
John Guay: Quite different from today. The teaching quality had room for improvement. I remember teaching up to 25 kids in one class! We also had some peculiar habits; the lodge and the slopes at the resort were taken over by the staff to the point that, some days, there wasn’t much space left for the guests. We were all thinking about skiing and obviously didn’t focus much on ski guests.
JF: How did you make the transition from Park West to Deer Valley?
John Guay: As a ski school supervisor, I enjoyed working with instructors and loved my position. Yet, at the same time, this small resort had a lot of financial challenges. This is about the time when we began to hear about Deer Valley Resort coming to the area and bringing a new dimension in professionalism and service.
JF: What did you decide to do?
John Guay: I figured that if I wanted to stay in the ski industry and start a stable career, I needed to take the jump. I applied for a position with Deer Valley to find out what this new resort was all about.
JF: Did you see Deer Valley as a diamond in the rough?
John Guay: I think so; part of it was the consistency of work and the chance of being associated with a professional company. In addition, we also experienced some tough drought years in the late seventies and snowmaking was barely beginning. A little resort like Park West had very limited snowmaking infrastructure and the rumor about Deer Valley was all about modern chairlifts, snowmaking and grooming, so these possibilities alone had a huge appeal on me.
JF: Can you share with us how your first interview with Deer Valley went?
John Guay: Sure; I applied for a supervisor position. We met at Silver Lake in the spring of 1981. There was no lodge yet, so we met in a small cabin, I believe it was a real estate sales office for the Silver Lake Village. We met Stein Eriksen and some other people. We all went on the mountain where a great number of trails had already been cut. It was immediately apparent to me that all the runs had been laid out really well, you didn’t traverse much as all the trails were cut into the fall line. This was really impressive. It was also at the end of a great snow year and skiing that day was fabulous; I remember following Stein on a brand new mountain where nobody had been before!
JF: What happened after that first visit?
John Guay: I started in November of 1981. It took a while until we knew who was going to be head of the ski school. Sal Raio, a coach of the PSIA demonstration team, got the director position. When I met Sal, he offered me a job of supervisor. There would be two of us overseeing a staff of 24 instructors. He gave me the initial task of creating a weekly schedule that I had to prepare in one month. The group of instructors Sal had put together was hugely experienced and this created a tremendous challenge for me to earn the trust of such an impressive team.
JF: In this early years, was the concept of superior guest service already part of the Deer Valley’s culture?
John Guay: Yes. It started with that initial interview with Stein the spring before I was hired. Already, the idea that the mountain was for the guests stood as a central principle. Later that first season, Edgar Stern, Deer Valley Resort’s founder, explained a number of concepts during our early training sessions. It started with the anticipation that guests have before they even get to a resort, then their experience when they reach the place, the importance of a friendly and professional staff to greet them, the pristine beauty of manicured slopes up above, and so on.
JF: So, from the get go, Edgar Stern’s vision was already guest-centered.
John Guay: Absolutely! Edgar Stern always stressed that the guests expect people that are friendly, attentive, always ready to help and answer questions. A ski vacation is a major endeavor and when guests reach their destination, they’re pretty much frazzled and need to be well cared for.
JF: I can appreciate the importance of feeling welcomed.
John Guay: But that wasn’t all; there was also the importance of well groomed runs, which was kind of a revolutionary idea back in 1981; then of course, came the the cuisine, having nice restaurants could make a tremendous difference, because back in these days, food quality at ski resorts was poor. Finally there were ancillary concerns like attention to details, like having coffee always at the right temperature, picking up papers around the resort and the like.
JF: How did the staff buy into that culture?
John Guay: Well, it took some time. At first, there was some fall-out, it wasn’t without some challenges. Communicating that vision was tough, but for those of us who stayed with it, the effort was well worth it. And this probably explains why over the years, we’ve reached a tremendous employee retention rate.
JF: Did these high expectations influence hiring?
John Guay: As I got involved with the hiring process, we followed a very strict approach. You had to have an in-person interview. We certainly looked at job-specific skills, in terms of teaching experience. Obviously, we knew that we could teach people how to ski better or how to become better teachers if they lacked a bit in these areas, but we realized that we couldn’t change a person. In other words, a person’s demeanor, personality and attitude had to offer the right fit for what we were trying to achieve.
Then there was also the family experience weighting heavily into Sal’s vision; we wanted people that were family friendly. At that point though, the industry’s approach, as far as instructing was concerned, was to get a foot in the door, get some teaching experience, starting with beginners and children, and then move on to experts and adults. But the reality is that most adults and experts don’t need ski lessons nearly as much as children and first-time skiers, so we needed instructors that were good at the whole package and were willing to teach kids and could be really good with them.
JF: Are you saying that you were looking for staff members that had empathy and could put themselves inside the ski boots of these new skiers?
John Guay: That’s exactly right; it’s easy for people who are just good skiers to lose track of that concept. We needed people that enjoyed working with first time skiers, that were patient, that didn’t move too fast, and that had great communication skills.
JF: How does Deer Valley Resort stands in terms of teaching culture?
John Guay: From the get go, we’ve always embraced the PSIA humanistic teaching philosophy by creating unique lesson plans tailored to the needs of our students.
In the late ’90s though, we began to compare our most successful instructors with the PSIA methodology. We found out that our best instructors didn’t operate in a linear fashion, but instead followed some basic themes in working with their students. We came away with a three-part teaching model. The first element was the relationship. Then came the activities and finally the supporting information that could take the form of visual aids or verbal comments.
JF: You weren’t just focused on skiing technique?
John Guay: That is correct; the mechanical aspects of skiing were only part of the process as we were pushing even more towards the development stages of our learners and we made certain that our staff embraced that approach and could influence generations of skiers season after season. Kids that once started with us are now bringing their own children.
JF: Does this mean that entire generations of skiers have become loyal customers?
John Guay: Yes, we’ve created a continued, natural cycle. While our clientele may sometime question the value of the money spent in ski school, we do strive to exceed their expectations. We know that if we do a great job taking care of our skiers, they’ll want to return and get more of that special time Deer Valley is able to supply. So part of our teaching philosophy is to learn how to turn a pair of skis and the other part is to create a fun and comfortable environment to the point where guests truly enjoy themselves, want to come back and and bring their own children into the process.
JF: Would you say that Deer Valley leads the way in terms of ski instruction?
John Guay: Deer Valley occupies a very unique position because of its unique ski-in, ski-out properties, its overall design and lay out as a resort, as well as the popularity of its programs and the volume of its activities. We, in fact, have a very hard time to meet the demand we’ve created. We recruit on a year-round basis, we hire and train people all the time and have become the largest ski school in the region. Surprisingly, this high volume of activity has enhanced the quality of our staff; they are not just instructors, they double as concierges and will do whatever it takes to satisfy our guests.
JF: Has this success had a synergistic effect on the entire resort?
John Guay: I think so; our training programs are designed to break down the individual “silos” that unavoidably prop up between divisions. We spare no effort to present a common face for Deer Valley and if a guest bumps into anyone working at the resort, whether it’s a lift operator, a customer service person or a food service employee, each one is trained to address that guest’s question or need and do whatever it takes to find the right answer or solution.
JF: Now, when you look into the future, how do you create new services?
John Guay: Over the years, we’ve never ceased to come up with innovative ideas. We tried moguls, telemark and parallel workshops, women specific programs and so on. Some programs have showed some staying power like our women programs or the Mahre Camps. More recently, we introduced Steeps and Stashes, a program that capitalizes on Deer Valley’s unique variety of terrain. We’re definitely looking at adding new products, yet a the same time, we don’t want to detract from our high-demand areas which always have been the lower ability zones and the new families with children.
JF: So after 33 years of exciting and nonstop developments, what in you views constitutes that Deer Valley Difference?
John Guay: First and foremost it is the quality of the guest experience. Hiring the right people and communicating that vision to all the staff, no matter what position they’re in is a crucial component in reaching that goal. We’re all here for that guest. The real vision is that when we are working, the mountain is there for our guests. When we are not working, we can be just like a guest and can go out and enjoy that same experience. But before anything, we want to take care of the guests that are here so they enjoy their experience!