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Les Otten

Hall of Fame Class of 2023

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Resort developer Les Otten had a profound impact on the entire industry as an innovator and visionary. He parlayed a college gig as a ski instructor to build a career in the industry, eventually owning nine ski areas and building American Ski Company into a publicly traded resort leader. Otten’s hallmark was finding ways to do things better. He innovated teaching techniques to make sport entry easier, focused on quality for snowmaking, and was one of the first to recognize the benefits of shaped skis. Never satisfied with the status quo, his pioneering efforts transformed the industry of today.

Otten grew up in New Jersey. While at Ithaca College, he and friends started planning to develop a ski area in New York’s Finger Lakes region. While the project didn’t move forward, it launched Otten on his career path.

His first industry job was joining Killington’s management training program in 1971, learning the basics of resort management. He left for Sunday River in 1972, moving up to general manager a year later at the age of just 23. In 1980, he acquired the resort.

As a new ski area owner, Otten invested aggressively in resort expansion with lifts and snowmaking. In what would become a signature for Otten, he invested heavily in lodging, refining interval real estate ownership, and later building some of the finest resort hotels. By 1988, skier days had increased by 1,000%, with Sunday River growing to become the number two resort in New England by 1991.

In 1994, he opened the Jordan Grand Resort Hotel. His pioneering of quarter shares and fractionals brought real estate ownership at a ski resort to a broader range of people, a model later emulated by major hotel brands.

With the success of Sunday River, he began to acquire other resorts, the next being New Hampshire’s Attitash Bear Peak in 1994. Two years later, the acquisition of S-K-I Ltd. brought Vermont’s Killington, Mount Snow, and Haystack; New Hampshire’s Waterville Valley, and Mt. Cranmore; as well as Maine’s Sugarloaf, into the fold. He invested heavily in the Vermont resorts, upgrading mountain infrastructure and opening the Killington Grand Summit hotel.

Ironically, a decade before the multi-resort growth of Vail Resorts and Alterra, he was forced by the U.S. Justice Department to divest some of his holdings, selling off Waterville Valley and Cranmore, and then acquiring Vermont’s Pico. He pushed on, launching a 1998 IPO to form American Skiing Company. Expansion continued with the purchase of Colorado’s Steamboat and Heavenly Valley in Lake Tahoe, along with Utah’s Wolf Mountain, which became The Canyons. Grand Summit hotels opened in all three resorts.

At its peak, American Skiing Company included xx resorts literally coast-to-coast, with xx flagship Grand Summit hotels. The Ski America pass was one of the first to offer skiers and riders the opportunity to travel from resort-to-resort across the country.

As a ski instructor himself, one of Otten’s trademarks was innovation in bringing new skiers and riders to the sport. He created programs like Guaranteed Learn to Ski (GLTS) and Perfect Turn. He invested heavily in shaped skis with Elan in the mid-90s. As a savvy marketer, he pioneered live snow reports on radio and TV, as well as being an early adopter of internet marketing.

On the mountain, he pioneered ways to improve snowmaking quality and maximize efficiency. He established a new standard for snow grooming by expanding fleets, implementing slow tilling, and utilizing GIS technology to evaluate snow depths. Otten was an early adopter of direct-to-lift passes, creating a better experience for guests and more efficient operations.

During his career, Otten served as president of the New England Ski Areas Council and Ski Maine. He received the Sherman Adams Award from the National Ski Areas Association and was inducted into the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. He was co-founder of Maine Adaptive Sports & Recreation.

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