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Saturday, January 18, 2020

Mountain for rent: $4,500 a day

Tucked between bigger and wealthier Catskills ski resorts, Plattekill has come up with a business plan that just might save it: The family mountain is available for rent for $4,500 a day.

By: New York Times | Published: January 6, 2019 10:07:54 am
Mountain for Rent: ,500 a Day The lodge at Plattekill Mountain, a family-owned ski resort, has not changed much since the 1950s, in Roxbury, N.Y (Piotr Redlinski/The New York Times)

Written by Alyson Krueger

Plattekill Mountain, a family-owned ski resort in Roxbury, New York, has 38 runs and two rustic chair lifts.

Nicknamed Platty by locals, the mountain has a three-level utilitarian lodge with a wraparound porch and wood-burning stoves from the 1970s. Little about the building has changed, except the floor is now made of wood instead of hay, and the bar serves seasonal craft beer. Vintage sleds and skis decorate the walls.

Outside is some of the East Coast’s most difficult skiing. It is a local destination for off-piste trails. “Advanced and expert skiers will love Plattekill,” said a post on the website Ultimate Ski, which goes on to describe the mountain as having some of “the most rugged terrain in the Catskills,” where visitors have the rare option of skiing within trees.

Veronica Brock, a real estate broker who lives in Paramus, New Jersey, has been skiing at Plattekill for about a decade. She’s noticed that more of these backcountry trails have opened. “The mountain has gotten bigger with off-piste trails opening,” she said.

Mountain for Rent: $4,500 a Day Skiers at Plattekill Mountain, a family-owned ski resort with 38 runs and two rustic ski lifts, in Roxbury, N.Y (Piotr Redlinski/The New York Times)

Or, as Troy Kasmarcik, an 18-year-old snowboarder from Norwich, New York, put it: “This mountain is pretty sick.” He tried Plattekill for the first time this winter. “It has a lot of jumps,” he said. “A lot of mountains don’t have them, but this has one right after the other.”

Plattekill can feel like a fairy tale, said Scott Brandi, president of the Ski Areas of New York, a trade group. “It’s a throwback experience while offering state-of-the-art snow making, grooming, and a cozy lodge where everyone seems to know each other,” he said.

But the real fairy tale here is that Plattekill Mountain has managed to stay open.

About a three-hour drive from New York City, Plattekill is owned by Laszlo and Danielle Vajtay. The couple, who had grown up skiing in the same circles, started dating around 1988, when they were instructors at Plattekill. They were both working day jobs, he as a packaging engineer in New Jersey, and she as a marketing manager for a perfume company in New York City. Every weekend they would reunite at the mountain.

In 1992, Plattekill went into foreclosure. The previous owners had defaulted on a loan after pouring money into an unsuccessful real estate project. That, along with not making enough snow, was their downfall, Laszlo Vajtay said. He and his future wife decided to buy the mountain, with the help of loans from the Small Business Administration and a few loyal ski families. “We were tired of living for the weekends,” said Laszlo Vajtay, who was 30 at the time. Danielle Vajtay was 22.

Operating a ski mountain anywhere is a daunting task. To make money, you must keep the mountain open, no matter the weather.

Mountain for Rent: $4,500 a Day Plattekill, in turn, has branded itself as an intimate, old-fashioned resort for expert skiers and families alike. (Piotr Redlinski/The New York Times)

Plattekill also has some competition in the form of its well-financed, larger neighbors. Hunter is owned by the publicly traded company Peak Resorts, and Belleayre is owned and operated by New York state. Recently, taxes paid for a new gondola at Belleayre. An additional $9.1 million has been allocated to expand its base lodge.

Plattekill is also remote. “You have to drive by Belleayre to get to us if you’re coming from downstate,” said Danielle Vajtay. “That’s a huge hurdle for us.” Driving along Route 28 in the Catskills, once you pass Belleayre, with its prominent signage, you have to continue along for several more miles before switching to a small, slow, winding road that leads to a dumpy, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turnoff. It’s hard to imagine anything at the end of the road, let alone a ski resort.

But 25 years later, the scrappy, indie mountain is thriving.

“These small ski areas survive by knowing who they are and creating niches for themselves,” Brandi said. With around 50 ski mountains operating in New York state, many differentiate themselves by offering a certain expertise. Mount Peter, for example, a humble mountain in Warwick, New York, has branded itself as a perfect place for families, offering free lessons for beginners. “It knows who it is and caters to its strengths,” he said.

Plattekill, in turn, has branded itself as an intimate, old-fashioned resort for expert skiers and families alike. Most important, however, it has been able to guarantee income on the slower weekdays, by becoming a private mountain of sorts. Four days a week, it puts itself up for rent. Any group can have exclusive access to it for just a few thousand dollars a day.

In their early years as owners, the Vajtays were obsessed with two things that were not always compatible: making snow and avoiding debt. In the summer, they opened up the mountain for camping, music festivals and mountain biking. They took what they earned and invested it into snow-making equipment.

Mountain for Rent: $4,500 a Day State-of-the-art snowmakers at Plattekill Mountain, a family-owned ski resort with 38 runs and two rustic ski lifts, in Roxbury, N.Y (Piotr Redlinski/The New York Times)

Eventually, a new business idea came from Plattekill’s regular skiers, who visited the mountain every time it snowed, even when it wasn’t open. (The mountain was and is only open to the public Fridays through Sundays.) This became so common that the Vajtays decided to open the mountain, regardless of the day, following a major snowfall. Typically, about 500 paying customers would show up for the event, called Powderdaize.

Powderdaize led to another idea: renting out the entire mountain to groups. Some Plattekill regulars so enjoyed the quiet setting of the last-minute weekday openings that they intimated to Danielle Vajtay how great it would be to have a “power day” to themselves, she recalled. The couple knew of a few members-only mountains in the United States but these were fancy, expensive resorts like the Yellowstone Club in Montana and the Hermitage Club in Vermont. Why not rent out their humble little mountain?

In 2008, they started to do just that, charging $2,500 a day for exclusive use of Plattekill Monday through Thursday. (The price has since increased to $4,500.) Clients have ranged from corporations, like Citigroup, to religious organizations. Every year since 2010, Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations from New Jersey and New York have met there once a year.

Brock, the organizer for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, said that 100 people signed up for the first trip. By 2018, 532 people were skiing the mountain, with another 400 participants socializing in the lodge.

Mountain for Rent: $4,500 a Day Laszlo and Danielle Vajtay, former ski instructors who own the Plattekill Mountain resort in Roxbury N.Y., with guests at the lodge (Piotr Redlinski/The New York Times)

So far this season, more than 50 percent of private rental days have been booked, Laszlo Vajtay said. The $4,500 covers the lifts, labor, electricity and overhead. Plattekill then makes money on rentals, food and drink, and snow tubing. “It’s a way for us to open the doors, staff up, and know that we will not lose any money,” he said.

Locals can feel a bit shut out sometimes, when private rentals conflict with Powderdaize. Recently the Vajtays have had to play down the event because of the conflict. “Now that we’ve started marketing mountain rentals people are booking,” Danielle Vajtay said. “So if we have a snowstorm, and it’s a snowstorm and a powder day, that day is booked. There isn’t anything we can do.”

The Vajtays are trying to honor the community that has historically kept the mountain running; they intend to keep the resort as small and as affordable as possible. They are even open to bartering with locals, it seems.

When Dennis Slauson, a regular who lives about 15 minutes away, helped them shovel the deck one morning, the Vajtays turned the lift on him for him. “It’s the best feeling,” he said. “There is nobody here.”

Mountain for Rent: $4,500 a Day Skiers on their way up Plattekill Mountain (Piotr Redlinski/The New York Times)

Slauson probably felt more like a private renter than Bart Lehmann, a Syracuse-based engineer who has rented Plattekill three times, did. The last time his group was there, he recalled that even though skiers could have spread out and seen no one else, they ended up skiing as a flock. “One trail was packed,” he said, “and every other one was empty.”

He remembered children in the group diving off the top wooden deck into snow banks. “The owners were like, Whatever you want to do, go ahead, go for it,” said Lehmann. “It was surreal. We enjoyed the heck out of it.”

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