F O U R S E A S O N S J A C K S O N H O L E
C O R Y C A R L S O N
The Regional Director of Marketing for Four Seasons Jackson Hole talks, skiing, Jackson hole and why he loves what he does.
Interview & Photos by John Russo
Q: How’s everything going in Jackson Hole?
A: Good, there’s a snowstorm so I decided to get off on the road and I’m already in stop-and-go traffic, but at least it’s a Tesla! Im ready to talk!
Q: Its always good to hear the story behind the talented people who are behind the scenes making things happen. I was so fascinated to hear a little about your story and how you came to work at Four Seasons Jackson Hole. I’m excited to hear more so please tell.
A: So I grew up in Minnesota and that’s not an area typically associated with ski racers, great skiers, ski products etc. But there was a little hill outside of Minneapolis called Buck Hill and it has produced nine Olympians and the most notable being Lindsay Vonn, who came out of that program. It’s amazing, there was a great Austrian coach named Erich Sailer that was there and that program, coupled with his coaching, really inspired a lot of talented kids to join a ski program there and that just led to one thing. I started performing at a high level, pretty soon it was at a national level and then I made the U.S. Ski Team in 1978 and skied my first World Cup that year, it was the same year that Ingomar Stenmark was the most notable name back then, was undefeated that year, and that is where it all started or me. So I was, prior to that traveling on a Roba Cup and then I skied nine years on the World Cup for the U.S. Team, I was mainly a slalom skier. So yeah, 1986 was my last year, I had a couple of big wins in Europe, on the European Cup Series, I won a race in Piancavallo Italy and won in Salzburg Austria at a ski area called Heline and those were my two big results. But the tour was incredible back then, we had big crowds that would come to the World Cup races, you were really well known as an Alpine skier, because there wasn’t other competing winter sports like we have today with the X-Games, Skier Cross, Snowboarding, big mountain skiing, what have you. So it was all about Alpine skiing back in the day and it was a fun environment to grow up in. And so 1986, I left the U.S. Ski Team and then went onto the professional tour at the time, it was a big budget, big prize money, over a million, network television with NBC and ESPN and a good circuit, seventeen events all over the world. And I did that for a few years, I actually was the President at the time of the professional Ski Racers association, so I was already kind of getting into marketing as the liaison between the athletes and the sponsors and the resorts. And hence I actually spent a lot of time on the marketing side, in fact that was my segway into the hotel business. Back in the day in the early 1990s, I actually got called to go to a sponsored event, one of our sponsor’s events was Chrysler-Plymouth at the time and you may recall Lee Iacocca, who was an icon, he had turned Chrysler around. And he had done a special high end invited dealer event at Beaver Creek. And I had never been to Beaver Creek, it was just when Beaver Creek opened. And I got the call to come and ski with their dealer and meet Lee and go to the breakfast and all of that. And I was staying at the Hyatt Beaver Creek at the time and I said this place is unbelievable, it’s so far removed from the time, it will never succeed, and of course that all changed. I actually asked for a meeting with the general manager and brought the director of sales in and I said guys I have an idea, why don’t I be your ski ambassador and ski with your VIPs, your guests, your journalists, etc, and in return all I want is room and board from Monday through Thursday, because I flew out on the circuit on the weekends. And I did that for four years and that is sort of what led me into a sales position with Hyatt and the Hyatt at Beaver Creek and I was there for many, many years. Transferred to Lake Tahoe and was the associate director of sales there, spent a lot of time. Left Hyatt and went to Squaw Valley for a couple of years and then I got headhunted for a position here in Jackson Hole ten years ago as director of marketing. And I now hold the regional role with five additional hotels. And all of that was done without a College education and all of it was done through skiing and my exposure and contacts through that industry.
Q: Now you are at Four Seasons in Jackson Hole. What keeps you there?
A: So it’s just an extraordinary place. I’ve had the good fortune, fun little tidbit, my last year at World Cup in 1986, I actually put my skis on in 21 countries in one calendar year. So I’ve been around, (laughs) and I’ve seen a lot of resorts. And they are all wonderful but in terms of what keeps me in Jackson Hole is the fact that this a very, very special place and you know it. It’s on the cusp of wilderness landscape, but it has all of the high end amenities that you would want and couples that with that seclusion. And it’s really attractive, it’s a bucket list place for a lot of people, it’s highly affluent, but at the same time it has a real community, it’s a small town, just ten thousand year round residents. We are far removed from everything, but we have everything. It’s a really unique destination and I think that’s what keeps me here, because there’s just so much to do on a year round basis. We have the national parks, all the different recreations, some of it unique to the destination with the fly fishing, the wildlife, safaris, the climbing, it’s a unique place for sure.
Q: So how do you think the Four Seasons addition has changed the community. What has it brought to the community that you can see?
A: Yeah, it turned it on a dime. So not this December, but a year from now, in 2023, Four Seasons will turn 20 years old. And so think about what that meant to a small community that had a global luxury brand like Four Seasons come in. 20 years ago Four Seasons wasn’t that big, it was probably, I don’t even know, maybe 25, 30 hotels. So the brand was really small, it really grew in the last 10 years. And what it did for Jackson Hole is it really put it on the map. Yellowstone has always been a draw for the area, globally, it’s an iconic national treasure and that was a draw. But that in itself did not put Jackson Hole on the map, it really was the growth of the town and the community and the ski area. Over the last 20 years it really propelled Jackson Hole to this next best destination, you can liken it a little bit to Aspen, how Aspen became the place to be, the trend 30 years ago or 40 years ago even.
Q: And what do you think the resort is doing well ? Meaning as opposed to Aspen, Deer Valley, why should I go to Jackson Hole?
A: So I think Jackson Hole as a destination has the benefit of some learnings that I think some other destinations wish they could go back on and growth and expansion is a big one. Jackson Hole can only grow so much just given the footprint of the area, only three percent roughly of the entire landscape around us could ever be developed, it’s all national park, conservation land trusts, affluent families and ranches that just aren’t going to be split up or developed. So with that by default Jackson Hole is going to stay a little bit smaller. And with that, the draw for locals to live here is really all about the landscape, the activities, the recreation and most importantly the wildlife and the diversity here, we are stewards of this bigger footprint right? And I think that’s a mindset that the community has been able to adopt and react early to now in this explosive popularity of the destination, with the Travel and Tourism Board, which I sit on as the chair. We are engaging George Washington University and the International Institute of Tourism to actually develop a destination management plan for us over the next year and recommendation of how to behave as a tourist destination. And what is the area doing, well exactly that, we are tackling employee housing, so we are not going the route of other destinations, we are having a true community, where you are having locals and true locals living there alongside of the affluence that is here. The mountain resort is not going the way of the bigger corporations like the old resorts, the independently owned ski resort was the only major resort that continued with lift ticket capacities, not because of COVID this year, but because they wanted to improve the skier experience and be able to command higher lift ticket prices etc, but back that up with true customer service. There were no lift lines to speak of during the Christmas time period, there haven’t been any lift lines in the last few weeks and on the weekends, and that’s the real testimony to even the business community recognizing that volume is not the important driver here, it’s the quality of life and the experience at Jackson Hole. And so I think we’re really lucky here to be trending in this popularity, but have the capacity to have learned from other destinations and put things into place right now that will save us years from now unchecked.
Q: And how do you think hotels, specifically your hotels, stay relevant in such a competitive market when properties are popping up like Montage, Big Sky, existing properties like The Little Nell in Aspen and the Montage in Deer Valley. How do you guys stay ahead of the game to draw that clientele to you?
A: So the one lucky thing that we have going for us with Four Seasons is we know our customer, we know our customer very well. We only do one thing and that’s luxury. We’re not like other brands that have different scale services, limited services, different levels of portfolio etc, ours is just one thing. And so we really know our customer. And our customer tells us how to behave and act and what’s important to them. And so through the insights of our customer, we react very closely. For us right now here in Jackson, we continuously look at ways to elevate the experience. Our guests are accustomed to being able to do anything and how they want and whatnot. For us it’s to be able to surprise them with offerings and programming and little touches and amenities that delight and surprise even the most discerning traveler. And so that is how we stay ahead of the competition, is always reinventing, elevating, owning experiences and such. A good example is our fly fishing tours, in the Summer we have guides and the same thing with wildlife safaris, we run an astronomy program with stargazing here in these big, deep, dark skies of Wyoming and it’s just on and on of those types of offerings that not everybody has.
Q: And are you the one that’s basically coming up with new and innovative things to do or programs, is that like a team effort or is that something you specialize in?
A: So it’s always a team effort, but I’m the driver of steering the discussions in new strategy. We just had two really great examples today, I was on the phone with our wildlife safari provider and we are going to launch a new program this Fall. And it’s gaining a lot of visibility right now because the Yellowstone wolves are declining and in fact, they counted 20 that were killed last year through hunters or through ranchers, etc. And that’s not good, I mean the wolf population is important to the eco system, right? So we are going to launch a day with the wolves, launch it in October when fire season is over, we are going to to take one of the lead pilots that flies in those really rough conditions, that is going to take guests from Jackson Hole to a little landing strip outside the east entrance of Yellowstone where they will be met by a biologist team that will take them into this incredible place where there’s this wolfpack and this den. And they can spend a day with the wolves and then come back. And we are going to tie that into an organization that is working to protect the wolves and the wolf population. And it’s just stuff like that, that elevates our relevance in the destination and to our guests that, we do things that they couldn’t do themselves necessarily or wouldn’t have the ability.
Q: And I think even with COVID now and even me personally, I want to do things outside. And I think that having things offered to me through the hotels that I stay at, is definitely a plus and it’s an incentive for me to go to these properties. So if you guys can help me think of things to do when I get to your place, whether it be snowmobiling or riding mountain bikes in the Spring or taking a hike to the lake or go river rafting, I want those things to be presented to me. I mean I really don’t want to have to think about it, I want to get there and be like Mr. Russo, you can do this, this, this and this and we are going to set everything up for you. And because the majority of the people coming there have the funds to do this, they want everything done for them. In my eyes that is what Four Seasons is known for.
A: It is, absolutely. It’s great. And then how about this one, this is the other one, we met with our fly fishing guide service, and we actually have custom handcrafted wooden boats, the Four Seasons does, that we utilize in our fly fishing. But we are going to launch a new arrival experience this Summer as we reopen the hotel from our renovation in the end of June. How about this, so for people up to four, we can use two boats, we meet you at the airport or for the jetsetter, at your private jet, we gather the luggage, it goes back to the hotel with one of the vehicles, the other vehicles takes you just ten minutes into the park on a private boat launch, where you board one or two boats and you float to the resort. And meanwhile you are fly fishing and everything, and we can do that for arrivals up to like two o’clock in the afternoon. And that is the majority of the arrivals coming into Jackson Hole in the Summer. And what a cool way, your luggage is up in your way, you just spent three hours in the river with eagles and moose and you arrive on a boat launch five or ten minutes from the hotel. And yeah, things like that are going to be game changers.
Q: I had such an amazing time at the property. I was only there for two days and I can’t wait to come back in the Springtime.I feel like the there is so much more to do, obviously it’s great to stay at the resort but when I go to a resorts like this or even the readers at Gio, they want to do adventures and now adventures are so important. I think coming up with fun, different, unique curated experiences is going to keep people coming back to Four Seasons Jackson Hole. It’s great that you are on that game and it’s a game that everyone has to stay up on, all the five star properties, to stay relevant, to stay basically in the game, and I think you guys are doing a great job.
A: Yeah, it all comes down to what I was just talking about, because everybody has got a great product, everybody’s got decent execution and delivery on staff, it really comes down to knowing your customer and delivering exceptional experiences, anticipating the needs and the wants and to be able to deliver things at a higher level than they would get if they were just coming into the destination on their own and trying to orchestrate it through another concierge or themselves. That’s the beauty of Four Seasons and upper luxury because the connections that we make with our guests are really deep.
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