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Green Mountains’ majesty

Courtesy Stoweflake Resort

Think Stowe, the quintessential Vermont ski village, and chances are you think snow. But Stowe and the rest of the Green Mountains region is no one-season wonder. When the white stuff melts and the mountains emerge, those emerald peaks can cast a powerful spell.

Warm-weather Vermont is, in a word, “magical,” said Barbara Tiffany, a group sales representative for Sugarbush Resort in Warren, Vt.

“I had skied here for 12 years, but I had never been here in the summer,” said Tiffany. “I came here one summer and moved here that October.”

Resorts originally built for skiers are today, for the most part, four-season destinations, enjoying a stream of visitors instead of weathering seasonal ebbs and flows. With the shift comes more warm-weather activities and an enhanced setting for year-round small meetings.

“We have always been a meeting destination,” said Ronda Berns, executive director of the Vermont Convention Bureau. “I think a lot of people think of Vermont for skiing, but our venues for summer are incredible.”

Among those venues are an established, accredited conference center; an alpine-style village with 50,000 square feet of meeting space that includes a performing arts center; and a new conference facility that emulates traditional Vermont architecture. Many meeting spaces make the best of a state famous for its vistas.

At the region’s newest player, Stowe Mountain Lodge, summertime guests can grab a lantern and a glass of champagne and ride a six-person gondola to Cliff House for dinner at the top of Mount Mansfield, the state’s tallest peak.

At Stoweflake Resort, a meeting space that is mostly glass, appropriately called the Atrium, “is like bringing the outside in,” said Scot Baraw, vice president of sales. “It’s a must-use room for smaller meetings.”

After-hours events in summertime Vermont also hold surprises, among them a skyward voyage in a tethered hot-air balloon, cocktail in hand; a picnic on a pond following a fly-fishing lesson; a battle on the court at a top-rated tennis center; a bull session around a fire pit, stars overhead; a naturalist-led search for edible fungi, followed by a feast; a rolling ride on mountain bike trails.

Not all cows and barns
Negative images and Vermont just don’t mix, but locals say visitors do tend to have a rather limited vision of their state.

“Farms, barns and cows” first come to mind, said Berns. “We still have all of those,” she said, crediting Vermont’s vigilant preservation efforts.

“But what we are trying to promote is the incredible sophistication that comes into play. We have first-class resorts that have been built with hotels comparable to any in Boston or other bigger cities.

“And here, you have the ability to walk out the back door of the meeting and see vistas that are beyond the imagination, and activities that sit at your doorstep.”

Those vistas brought two pieces of business to Sugarbush Resort recently. Gov. Peter Shumlin chose the resort’s Mountain View Room for the 1,200 guests at his recent inaugural ball after attending a Vermont Chamber of Commerce event there.

And a company in the midst of reinventing itself brought its 24 managers to the resort, where they moved themselves and their flip charts outdoors.

Four Diamonds sparkle
The Green Mountains region, from Manchester Village in the south to the Canadian border to the north, has four AAA Four-Diamond resorts: the Equinox, Stoweflake, Topnotch and the newest to earn the distinction, Stowe Mountain Lodge.

Golf, another important gauge, especially for corporate meetings, is also topflight. Stowe Mountain Lodge’s course, built into the side of Mount Mansfield, has been rated the top course in the Northeast by Condé Nast. Golf Week has ranked the four-year-old course at Jay Peak Resort the best in Vermont. Even resorts that lack their own course, such as Stoweflake, have alliances that make golf outings easy. Stoweflake guests get preferred tee times and direct billing from Stowe Country Club, across from the resort.

No bad perceptions, just misperceptions
Stoweflake is home to an International Association of Conference Centers (IACC)-accredited conference center, opened 18 years ago.

Stowe Mountain Lodge,which was the first resort to open in the state in 50 years when it opened a couple of years ago, has about 50,000 square feet of meeting space scattered about a village modeled on ski resorts in the West.

Said Baraw, “We don’t fight bad perceptions, we just fight different perceptions. People will say, ‘Oh my God, I love Stowe! I skied there as a kid.’ But they don’t associate us with professional conference centers and a high-end resort. More than 50 percent of what I do is for groups and conferences, even in the winter.”

There are about 14,000 guest rooms in the region, and a number of those rooms are in historic-homes-turned-small-inns that sit along handsome village streets. The ski trade also has spawned hundreds of mountainside condominiums and vacation homes.

Even today’s newest four-season resorts recognize that the traditional double-queen or king rooms aren’t the best fit for clientele. Many, like Sugarbush and Stowe Mountain, have built condo-style units with bedrooms that can be locked off and used independently, or lumped into one condo-style unit.

Stowe Mountain adds alpine angle
Three years ago, longtime ski mountain Stowe Mountain opened its alpine village, which was modeled after Beaver Creek, Jackson Hole and other Western ski resorts. The village concept was a first for the Northeast and has proved so popular that another 170 rooms were added to the original 139-room hotel in December.

Thought was given to how to adjust for Stowe Mountain’s varied audiences. The best example is its ski mountain’s base camp. By winter, it is a hangout for skiers with places to store gear and have a snack. Come warm weather, the lockers and concession stands, all on rollers, can disappear, opening up 20,000 square feet of space for trade shows and other large gatherings.

At Jay Peak in Jay, new owners have brought more offerings to the ski slope since they bought it three years ago.

A two-phase expansion, which will cost $180 million, is under way, and within the next year, in a series of openings, the resort will add dedicated conference space, the 176-room Hotel Jay and a massive indoor water park, the first in this part of New England.

“We are making it more of an encompassing year-around place,” said Rob Hodgkins, director of sales for Jay Peak.

At Sugarbush, new buildings replicate sugarhouses, round barns, farmhouses and other structures of rural Vermont.

“The development is in keeping with the valley in which we are located,” said Candice White, vice president of marketing. ”You feel like you are living the Vermont experience when you are here.”

The resort’s newest accommodation, Clay Brook, is a mix of standard rooms and two- to five-bedroom condominiums. Its 64 units include a total of 100 individual bedrooms.

The new Gatehouse meeting space, where the governor held his ball, replaces a former conference center that was little more than a large room with movable walls.

In addition to its Robert Trent Jones golf course, Sugarbush has a disc golf course that blends sport, scenery and exercise.

“Guests can ride up the ski lift and then play down the mountain, shooting the disc into the wire baskets on poles that are the ‘holes,’” said Tiffany.

In the summertime, resort naturalists can lead groups through the woods, teaching them to find mushrooms. The fungi found later become part of a feast.

Don’t have to look far for local businesses
Many of Vermont’s businesses, including its resorts, remain small locally owned businesses. In Stowe, the best-known resort of that description is the Trapp Family Lodge, run by the Von Trapp family of “Sound of Music” fame.

The Von Trapp’s holdings are a vast 2,500 acres, crisscrossed by 30 miles of mountain biking trails, an addition that is drawing biking groups.

The Von Trapps continue to own and run the resort and its 96-room lodge and 100 guest houses, and among the younger generation is Sam Von Trapp, who has returned to the business and is energizing the established property with new ideas. He has created a guided history tour to tell the true story of his ancestors’  escape from the Nazis and arrival in America.
“People want to hear the true story; we try not to be Disney World for ‘The Sound of Music,’” said Andrew Cournoyer, sales manager.

About 10 years ago, a wing of meeting rooms was added, and like the rest of the resort, the meeting space is not typical. The 1,500-square-foot Mozart Room, for example, has a cathedral ceiling interrupted by chandeliers, a patio on one side, a balcony on the other and plenty of natural light.

New additions, like the bike trails and a brewery, have implications for meetings. The resort’s full fleet of bikes and its well-trained guides can lead rides after giving riders some tips at the resort’s skills park. The resort’s beer — three variations of German lager — can be served at parties in the lodge’s new biergarten, an uncovered space with the same 360-degree views that guests enjoy from just about any vantage point.

Small lodge, big reputation
Although it is among the smallest resorts, with its 68-room lodge and 40 vacation homes, Topnotch has a long history, having opened in 1959 at the base of Mount Mansfield.

Today, it is part of the Preferred Hotels and Resorts Collection and one of Travel and Leisure’s World’s Best Hotels. Despite its long history, most of the resort’s facilities were built in the last seven to 15 years.

The summer meeting pattern at Topnotch might be continental breakfast in the morning, followed by business, followed by getting “most of the people out and doing other things,” said Aaron Black, general manager.

At Topnotch, that could include time to unwind at a 30-room spa that was among the first in the area when its first incarnation opened in 1987; it has been ranked among the top 10 resort spas, and Condé Nast readers said it was the top spa in terms of service.

The resort’s tennis academy, with 10 outdoor and four indoor courts, is the spa’s equal, ranked in the nation’s Top 10 by Tennis magazine.

Stoweflake is another longtime family operation. Baraw’s grandparents started the business in 1963 when they began adding guest rooms to a family ski cottage. The business is still very much a family affair.

“My Uncle Chuck is the company president; his daughter Sheri is the general manager,” said Baraw, vice president of sales.

Baraw’s father, Stu, is also involved; he and his brother Chuck and a son-in-law are all qualified balloon pilots who are known for giving meetings a little lift.

They will bring the resort’s two balloons to cocktail parties on the resort’s lawn. During the party, three guests at a time can go up 100 feet in the tethered balloons with one of the pilots.

“You are at 100 feet, way above the roof lines and the tree lines with a spectacular view of the Green Mountains in the valley of Vermont’s highest peak, Mount Mansfield,” said Baraw.

Passengers’ reactions to their short but steep flights echo those of meeting attendees who experience summertime Vermont.

“The groups go crazy for it,” said Baraw.