Going Above & Beyond: Director Stephen Helfenbein on His Vision for Sun Valley's Ski & Ride School
"In retrospect, this was ridiculous for so many reasons." Sun Valley's new Director of the Ski & Ride School, Stephen Helfenbein, was leading a group of first-time skiers in the early days of his career. It was the holiday season in Aspen, and the rope tow line was getting long. "Instead of having my students wait, I skated up the hill, towing them behind me." Now, 30 years into his career in instruction, this isn't necessarily the move Stephen would pull. Still, when he reflects on this moment from the past, he recognizes how it fits into the larger picture of how he operates. "I now recognize it as a commitment to prioritize the guest experience and to go above and beyond what others are willing to do."
A Destination for Learners: The Secret to Achieving a World-Class Ski & Ride School
While his own memories of first learning to ski at five years of age are fuzzy—"I know it involved a T-bar and tears," he says—Stephen has always lived with mountains in his backyard. Born in Aspen and raised in Carbondale, CO, he spent the last 27 years living near and working in Utah's Wasatch Mountains. And while he's only recently traded the Wasatch Front for central Idaho's beautiful Sawtooth Mountains, he's had a soft spot for Sun Valley since he first visited in 2009, immediately recognizing the "unique characteristics and vibe" immediately.
The resort's distinct environment is crucial to his vision for the Ski and Ride School. "Dollar Mountain is the best place to learn to ski in the country." It's unique, especially for beginners, because "the progression from the large and open flat learning area to intermediate terrain is unsurpassed." And, with this incredible terrain to teach on, he believes Sun Valley is "the destination resort for people looking to get their start in skiing and riding."
Unbridled Access: Connecting Guests with the "Sun Valley Feeling"
Beyond the award-winning terrain, Stephen also notes that the people truly make Sun Valley special. "This place is already so distinctive and full of so many great people," he says, "...the combination of the place and people give the visitor an unmistakable feeling. My vision is to optimize that feeling and to make sure our guests can access it." Access is important in many respects, especially access to more learning opportunities. This season, Stephen says, "All group lesson products will return to Dollar and Baldy. We haven't done this for the last three winters. So, we're excited [to bring back this opportunity for our guests]." He also notes that first-timer skiers and riders can participate in an all-inclusive multi-day camp, perfect for getting acclimated to the sport.
Shoulder to Shoulder: A Commitment to People-Centered Work
For Stephen, the future of the Ski and Ride School is bright. As we get closer and closer to opening day, he feels excited about everything the new season will bring. "The list of things I'm excited about is long. I'm most excited to get to know the instructors and see them in action." Stephen says, "I've spent all summer looking at documents with names and numbers and hearing anecdotes about people I've never met. I can visualize what this place must be like during peak season, but it's hard to know how that will feel until I know the people I will be working shoulder to shoulder with."
People—whether guests, staff members, or the community—are at the heart of Stephen's work and the work he plans to do with his team at Sun Valley. In fact, he sees the people as the true Sun Valley difference. "It seems like people that move here adapt to the place rather than trying to change it. That's hard to come by in today's mountain communities." And, while he loves our mountains and the "steep, fall line skiing" that's hard to find elsewhere, his ideal day on the hill ends with the people he loves most. "Whenever I get the chance," he says, "I like to end the day surrounded by friends and family."
With a strong community and stellar mountains, Stephen is ready to get to work, knowing that long results are key. "We've built a new leadership team in the school, and they are dedicated to operational excellence. There will be immediate positive impacts," he notes, "but I can't wait to see the benefits this will produce for our staff and guests in [the forthcoming seasons]."