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Bobby Murphy has seen the ski industry from virtually every perspective.
As a 10-year-old kid growing up playing hockey in Evanston, Ill., right outside of Chicago, but skiing weekends at Wilmot Mountain in Wisconsin and wondering what it was like to ski out west. As a freshman at the University of Iowa, at first focused on school but stumbling on a ski-club meeting where two instructors from Chestnut Mountain on the border of Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin showed up on a fateful recruiting mission. As an intern at Crested Butte, where he finally got a taste of Colorado powder on insanely steep terrain. As a rising-through-the ranks ski instructor, supervisor, manager and general manager at Crested Butte, Telluride, Keystone, Vail and Stowe, Vermont. And, finally, starting this season, as chief operating officer of Beaver Creek.
But the perspective he values the most, now that he’s COO of one of Colorado’s great ski mountains, is the view from on the snow, with a paying customer right behind him on the run, in the lift line or sitting down to dine with him at an on-mountain restaurant. Once a ski instructor, always a ski instructor, no matter the greatly expanded duties of running an entire ski mountain.
“I look at it as I have a guest with me, even though I don’t, but I did for so many years teaching skiing,” Murphy said. “So that’s how I look at grooming. That’s how I look at things such as maze design, people loading lifts, opening closed terrain, how we make snow, where we make snow. Bringing back the high expectations that people have around culinary. I take a very guest-centric approach to operations for sure.”
Murphy says you hear it all as an instructor navigating the mountain with guests, and the good instructors are the ones who are both empathetic and responsive.
“You get a different perspective when you’re always out on the mountain with a guest, and then some of those frustrations that happen, you can alleviate them,” he says. “That’s the one thing, as a COO and even when I was a ski school director, my most important role is to eliminate or fix frustrations or pinch points or difficult situations. So that’s the approach I take now.”
It’s an approach the 54-year-old husband and father of two fashioned from decades of service in the ski industry, starting with those weekend instructing gigs at Chestnut Mountain Resort when he fell hard for that recruiting pitch by those two instructors when he was a college freshman.
“It’s funny because I remember them saying, ‘You get a season pass, we get you a uniform, and there’s a triple bunkbed dorm where you can all stay for the weekend.’ I didn’t even know if I was getting paid at the end of the conversation, but I knew I was committed to being an instructor, and they were going to train me to ski better and be a ski teacher,” Murphy recalls.
At the end of that freshman year of ski instructing and going to school, Murphy went into his college advisor’s office his sophomore year and asked how the University of Iowa could help him be a ski school director someday. After recovering from their initial shock, the advisor advised a commercial recreation degree, where most of Murphy’s classmates were eyeing internships at Disneyworld or with municipal recreation centers. Murphy put together a senior-year internship at Crested Butte in the rugged Elk Mountains of Colorado.
This past fall, back in Vail as the newly anointed COO of Beaver Creek, Murphy attended the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Vail’s Cheryl Jensen and former Aspen and Crested Butte executive John Norton, among others. A legendary industry innovator, Norton pioneered the extreme skiing movement as an unlikely marketing tool at Crested Butte in the 1980s.
“It was funny to hear all the stories, especially everything that John did, all the crazy stuff,” Murphy says. “The U.S. Extreme Skiing Championships started when I was in my first year. And so here I am, 22 years old, this intern. They’re getting me up on the mountain to put up banners and to forerun the course. Some of the experiences I had in Crested Butte were pretty cool as an intern, and it’s one of those things where I was raising my hand for everything, like, ‘I’ll do that.’”
That spirit led Murphy to meeting his wife Jenny, who was living in nearby Aspen, and after starting as an intern in 1991, then a paid instructor, obtaining both certifications and motivation through the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA), and working his way up to manager of the adult ski school by 2001, the couple decided to head southwest: “[Jenny] was looking around town going, how come everything closes at nine? This place is a ghost town. Let’s go somewhere more fun,” Murphy recalls. “So we picked up and moved to Telluride.”
There he worked for former Vail exec Chris Ryman, whose Booth Creek Ski Holdings was running Telluride for Japanese businessman Joe Morita at the time. “That was a super-motivating time as well, because Chris Ryman was a national team member in PSIA,” Murphy says. “I looked up to him and all the things he did in Vail. Chris used to be the ski school director, the COO, all the things that I aspired to be someday.”
Murphy rose to ski school director at Telluride, with Jenny giving birth to their two daughters, Ella and Anja, in Grand Junction – the nearest maternity ward at the time, 125 miles away. That far-flung locale and lack of proximity to relatives eventually led Murphy to accept an offer in 2008 from Pat Campbell at Keystone – his first gig with Vail Resorts, and at a time when the multi-resort, season-long Epic Pass was first being introduced. Although, as a side note, Wilmot, where Murphy first learned to ski, Crested Butte, where he first cut his teeth out west, and Telluride, are all now members of the VR family in one form or another – either owned by or on the Epic Pass. Murphy worked just two years at Keystone before longtime and now retired Vail exec Chris Jarnot brought him over Vail Pass as a senior director and ultimately vice president of skier services at Vail Mountain. That led to his first VP and GM job at Stowe in 2017.
“When I was hired, I was the only new person in Stowe. It was like Stowe, and here comes Bobby to run it. That was the first resort that we had acquired outside of Colorado and the west, the first East Coast resort, and it was exciting and challenging at the same time to be so far away physically from the core of our company, but also be very supported from afar,” Murphy says of the move. Eventually, others joined him, and VR acquired Okemo, Sunapee, (and Crested Butte) and ultimately the Peak Resorts ski areas to add to its East Coast quiver.
Interviewed in his new office in Beaver Creek Village, Murphy admits it’s a bit strange for his family reacquainting themselves to the Vail area after six years in Vermont. The 2022 McCoy Park expansion is new to Murphy, who feels its gladed, high-alpine runs have been a game-changer for beginner and intermediate skiers. While Beaver Creek has plenty of steeps, tree skiing runs, side country gates and legendary moguls for experts, Murphy wants to focus on grooming for all abilities.
“We have gold cats for a reason,” he says. “Some people would tell you that we do have some of the best grooming in the industry. How do we highlight that and how do we make sure that that is true and it’s coming to life on a daily basis? Grooming, particularly, has an opportunity to be highlighted here at Beaver Creek, because we should be known for it, given the history and given the opportunities and the terrain we have.”
Asked about his biggest challenges in his new role, Murphy points to long-term staffing and housing.
“The good news is that we are well staffed for this season — so much different than a couple years ago when staffing was a real concern [during COVID],” Murphy says. “At the same time, there continues to be affordability, housing, childcare, transportation challenges for our communities. And those definitely affect Beaver Creek. It’s maybe not that first-year, frontline [employee]. The real challenge is how do you create or retain a sustained path for that upcoming supervisor. Somebody like me when I was at Crested Butte — that attainable, affordable spot for that kind of up and coming professional in our industry, maybe with a young family.”
Murphy says the company supports Eagle County’s housing push, donated $450,000 over three years to the Vail Valley Foundation’s childcare initiative and $300,000 to Habitat for Humanity Vail Valley, whose board the late Beaver Creek legend Gary Shimanowitz served on.
“I won’t forget about Habitat because of Gary Shimanowitz and everything he brought to it with his passion,” Murphy says. “We just completed our second annual Gary Shimanowitz Build Week for Vail and Beaver Creek, where we went to Gypsum. Seeing the young families take their garbage out or seeing a police officer’s car in a driveway or seeing that teacher that’s going off to school, living in those houses that were built last summer. And we’re going to see the same thing next summer when we look at the houses we built this summer.”
And because of his background in working-class Evanston, not being able to afford family ski trips out west, Murphy is equally passionate about making sure everyone has the opportunity to get out on the mountain, no matter their background. He served for years on the board of SOS Outreach – a youth snowriding nonprofit that started in Vail. Finally, Murphy invites fair criticism and says he can handle those who have issues with Vail Resorts.
“I call it the grocery store test,” Murphy says. “Can you go to the grocery store after you make a decision? And if somebody says, ‘Hey, that’s BS what Vail Resorts did,’ do you have the courage or the leadership ability to step into a conversation to break that down? That’s what I’ve done all my career, and that’s what I’ll continue to do here at Beaver Creek and in the Vail Valley. It’s like give me the feedback, but make it about Beaver Creek. Don’t make it about Vail Resorts. Make it about us here, because I’m making those decisions.”
Murphy adds that we should all be trying to solve tough problems collectively.
“I think we can and we should. I’m committed to it, and that’s who I am too,” Murphy says. “If I can be part of the solution and bridge the gap or bring people together and in partnership and collaborate on things, I will, that’s my role really.”
Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared in the 2023-24 winter issue of Beaver Creek Magazine.