For the operators of Oglebay, a 72-hole facility in the northern West Virginia panhandle city of Wheeling, embracing winter has provided a competitive labor advantage. The crew spent the waning stages of 2017 converting the practice range into four snow tubing runs.
The addition of tubing increases recreational opportunities and revenue-generating possibilities while allowing superintendent Nick Janovich to offer more year-round positions. Now approaching 30 full-time, year-round workers, Oglebay’s crew is responsible for preparing, maintaining and operating tubing and ski/snowboard areas from mid-November until mid-March.
The tubing runs opened Jan. 4 after a frantic construction and testing process that, at times, flustered Janovich and his crew. Discussions about adding tubing intensified last summer, but snow was needed to fortify written plans. The crew tweaked the slope – and tweaked again – once it started snowing in December.
“That was frustrating from my standpoint because we felt we were a little bit slow because it was snowing and we were making snow, but we didn’t have it going because we were testing and testing,” Janovich says. “There’s really nothing we could have done about that. We couldn’t do anything in August.”
Oglebay has supported skiing for decades, with the park’s most recent version of the sport commencing in 2004 following a public fundraising effort to obtain modern machinery and equipment. When the golf season ends Nov. 15, the crew immediately shifts to winter sports mode. Approval to begin the tubing construction arrived Dec. 1, and Janovich’s team hustled to build runs and make snow on practice range turf. Grades and slopes must be precise to halt momentum at the end of runs, thus resulting in a 12-foot base in some areas.
The testing process included turf ingenuity. Realizing customers of all sizes enjoy tubing, the crew placed fertilizer bags in tubes to determine how different weights handled runs. “We really wanted that consistency and control,” Janovich says, “and we wanted to know what our thresholds are.”
Janovich concedes the slope is “not perfect,” adding that closures are sometimes necessary when runs become too fast or temperatures rise into the 40s or 50s. But tubing has generated a winter buzz for Oglebay. The runs can accommodate 30 tubers and waiting lists are common. The slope was constructed to easily expand to six lanes and this year’s demand suggests the additional lanes will debut next winter.
Five or six employees are needed to operate and oversee the area during tubing hours, which usually don’t begin until late afternoon. The ski area has similar hours and requires at least two or three employees to operate the lift. Plus, Oglebay runs three snow-making shifts – 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. – that require two employees each. Employees are also needed to operate Snowcats, which are used for grooming, throughout the day. Add it up, and as many as 20 maintenance team members could be working on a busy winter day.
Winter work forces employees to use different skills. The solitary of 70-day degree days doesn’t exist during winter shifts. Operating a lift, unlike riding a mower, yields frequent interaction with customers. Staff burnout, Janovich says, is a bigger issue during the ski and tubing season than the golfing months.
“The summer is not a big deal,” he adds. “People like what they do. People like skiing – it keeps them working. But when you are out there and it’s 15 degrees and you’re running a lift for eight hours, it’s tough. There’s definitely an emotion there to overcome.”
Besides providing a steady income, winter work includes the fulfillment of seeing satisfied customers. Not many crews can boast they brought a new activity to a 90-year-old park. And not many cold-weather golf facilities can offer almost every prospective maintenance employee a year-round position.
“I think you’re going to have to find ways to make it a year-round thing,” Janovich says. “This was an outlet for us to keep staff on year-round, bring in a little bit of revenue, albeit not a lot, but enough to justify keeping people on. We’re super competitive now. There are golf courses in our area … Yeah, they are going to work people for nine months and then lay them off for three months. That’s not us.”
Guy Cipriano is GCI’s senior editor.