There are people who come to Lake Tahoe to become ski bums for the winter and end up staying for years. The resort area offers plenty of seasonal hospitality jobs, but it’s a bit harder to turn that winter job into a year-round career. A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people. Several Tahoe locals share their stories on how they built a career working in the ski industry.
Building on bumping chairs
Mt. Rose marketing director Mike Pierce moved to South Lake Tahoe more than 20 years ago after graduating from Texas Tech University.
“I knew if I didn’t take a year off to play and work at a ski resort then I would regret it later in life,” Pierce says.
After graduating, he considered going to Colorado, but since Texans were inundating the area he decided to go farther west. Posting up in South Lake Tahoe in summer 1991, Pierce started working at The Horizon Lake Tahoe (now Hard Rock Hotel and Casino) and got a job as a lift operator at Heavenly Ski Resort that winter.
“I wanted to be a ski instructor, but they charged you to try out and I didn’t have the money,” he says.
But working in rentals is the best ski resort job because you work in the morning and ski all afternoon, he says. “A lot of it is about getting on the mountain.”
“Being a liftie exposes you to that side of the business, but the bigger picture is to get into those management positions by getting into a related industry and getting connected.”
– Mike Pierce
He worked with international workers who always knew where the party was and he would ski down Gunbarrel six times a day. But after a season of juggling skiing, working and being a casino dealer at night, he decided that he needed to get a real job. He moved up the ranks within The Horizon, becoming its sales manager and selling adventure tours and ski packages. He did that for more than two years until he received a call from Mt. Rose about an open marketing director position. He drove over and had an on-the-spot interview. He was hired in April 1994 and has been at Mt. Rose since.
“Being a liftie exposes you to that side of the business, but the bigger picture is to get into those management positions by getting into a related industry and getting connected. A degree can qualify you for a certain role because it shows that you can start and finish something, but it’s really all about networking,” says Pierce.
When asked whether he’s going to be in the ski industry forever, Pierce replies, “A lifer? I chose to get into this for the lifestyle and will continue to roll with it. Every year is a little bit different; Mt. Rose has always shown potential and keeps growing. I’ve been fortunate to be involved in some big projects like putting in high-speed chair lifts, opening The Chutes — it keeps it intriguing. But I owe a lot to that marketing director at The Horizon. I was going to leave the area and he convinced me to stay.”
Taking the college route
Many people may think that Andrew Gauthier has a dream job, but he worked hard to get it. He attended Sierra Nevada College majoring in international business and Ski Business and Resort Management. After graduating summa cum laude, he moved to Switzerland to pursue a master’s in hospitality and marketing. When he received his master’s in business administration and came back to Tahoe, Gauthier was soon recruited by the Association of Freeskiing Professionals (AFP).
“Going to SNC you have all of the resources available to dive fully into the ski resort business.”
– Andrew Gauthier
As marketing and world tour manager for AFP, Gauthier was tasked with overseeing sponsorships, social media, event promotion, managing AFP-sanctioned judges and interns and event inventory logistics, among other tasks.
Gauthier’s position gave him exposure to events such as the X Games, Dew Tour and Nitro Circus, which led to becoming marketing and film tour manager for Teton Gravity Research.
“Going to SNC you have all of the resources available to dive fully into the ski resort business, if you choose to take advantage of them. Many students work at a ski resort and go to school; it’s the triple threat between networking, classes and experience. [SNC’s Ski Business and Resort Management program] is helpful for people who didn’t grow up in ski racing,” he says.
Path from the parking lot
Mike Bandelin grew up hiking and camping in Arizona, but when he heard about Lake Tahoe in 1984, he drove north and never looked back. On his first day in Incline Village, Ski Incline (now Diamond Peak Ski Resort) hired him as a parking lot attendant. Throughout the years, Bandelin moved up the ladder.
“I always wanted to learn how to powder ski,” Bandelin says, adding that it’s why he wanted to work at a ski resort in those early years. Today, his focus as Diamond Peak’s general manager is upgrading the resort’s master plan and turning those ideas into reality.
In 1986, former Ski Incline general manager Jürgen Wetzstein involved Bandelin in the design workshops to expand and enhance the upper mountain. Bandelin spent a full summer climbing the mountain and marking potential trails that are now considered iconic for their incredible views of Lake Tahoe.
“The population involved in the sport is dwindling, so it’s all about how to get more skiers, but also offering activities for non-skiers to be able to come up here and enjoy themselves.”
– Mike Bandelin
In the late 1980s, Bandelin helped put in a snowmaking system on the upper mountain and became assistant lift manager. In 1998, he was promoted to mountain manager and Ed Youmans served as general manager. Youmans left Diamond Peak in 2011 and through a couple more transitions, Bandelin was named interim general manager in November 2015 and the post became permanent in October 2016.
“The population involved in the sport is dwindling, so it’s all about how to get more skiers, but also offering activities for non-skiers to be able to come up here and enjoy themselves,” Bandelin says. Being involved in capital improvements over the years and figuring out ways to improve the resort’s sustainability has kept him interested in Diamond Peak.
“I just like to see everyone smiling and recreating,” Bandelin says.
Building a brand
Even though he has been a sponsored professional skier since the age of 14, Kyle Smaine never worked directly within the ski industry. He has been close to it his entire life because his father worked for several ski resorts including Bear Mountain, Heavenly and Sierra-at-Tahoe. Smaine simultaneously went to school at Sierra Nevada College while skiing professionally, graduating in May 2014.
“The change I notice the most since starting at SNC is acknowledging that being an athlete is like running a business.”
– Kyle Smaine
“The wonderful teachers and staff at the school worked with me to allow me to keep up with my course work while traveling to major events, including the qualifying events for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia,” says Smaine.
He added that being a professional athlete is like running a small business where the product is yourself.
“Success depends on much more than just performance. An athlete has to market himself; communicate with sponsors, coaches and event organizers; negotiate contracts with major corporations and plan trips to foreign countries. My education at SNC helped me improve or develop the skills I needed to be a more successful skier,” he says.
“The change I notice the most since starting at SNC is acknowledging that being an athlete is like running a business. By knowing that fact it makes it easier to separate myself and my skills from the act of building a brand and communicating that brand to businesses and audiences. That separation is hard, but it is easier as you grow up and become more educated.”
Now Smaine says that he can’t imagine doing anything else when he has the chance to ski every day for his career, but realizes that at some point the risk of injury will outweigh the reward.
“It is better to end a career on your own terms than to be forced into stopping because you physically aren’t capable of skiing anymore. I want to be able to enjoy it at least as much as I can in the first 25 years,” he says.