Gunstock's general manager, a captain of change, retiring at 70

Jan. 30—The day after a rain, snow and sleet storm, Gunstock Mountain Resort General Manager Tom Day is making the rounds.

Outside the lodge, a teenager, anonymous behind a helmet with goggles, asks Day to join him for an Instagram shot.

Inside the Gilford ski area's new slopeside restaurant, the Barrel Bar and Grille, which opened last month, a server looks up from drying spoons and forks. "How much more time do we have with you?" she asks. "You always come through smiling and make us feel good."

After 40 years in the ski industry and four years at Gunstock weathering politics and shepherding change, Day has announced that he's retiring.

A ski resort chief who starts dreaming about snow in August, he turns 70 next month. He intends to stay on through this ski season until a replacement can start.

"I've really liked being here," says Day, who looks younger than his seven decades. "It's bittersweet for sure. If I was 65, I'd be here five more years."

He is looking forward to travel with his wife and closest friends, including an upcoming daylong tour of Yellowstone National Park by snowmobile.

It's been an interesting ride.

In 1978, the Falmouth, Maine, native took a job as a lift attendant at Waterville Valley.

He spent several years in lift maintenance at Waterville — including dynamiting mountainside holes to put in chairlift supports. One spring, he rolled over in a logging skidder while towing gravel to shore up a chairlift on the trail 'True Grit.' He tried to jump out, but his pant leg got caught. The skidder tumbled over him again. The first roll crushed his shoulder and cracked five ribs. The second broke his nose and jaw.

A co-worker at the base shouted, "The skidder just rolled down the mountain! I don't know where Tom is."

"I was laying in the tall grass," he recalls. "They took me down in an ambulance and I recovered fine."

Day continued up the ranks, becoming Waterville Valley Resort's manager of everything that happens on snow, including the ski patrol, ski school, lifts, grooming and snowmaking. In 1997 he advanced to vice president and general manager, heading the major Northeast snow sports destination until 2010. That was the first time he retired.

Day and his wife bought a condo in Park City, Utah, a powder paradise, and Day worked for a ski resort insurance company, touring Western ski areas to ensure policy compliance. The big employee benefit: skiing for half a day after the inspection was done.

He returned to New Hampshire to manage the Hooksett travel centers on I-93, then took the top job at Gunstock in January 2020, two months before the pandemic shutdown.

Where's the money?

COVID-19 impacted resort operations for the next two years, bringing newcomers to winter sports, shapeshifting Gunstock's business model and making Day come up with ways to improve the customer experience.

"It seemed like there was a lot of potential, and there wasn't enough money to do what needed to get done," he said. He summoned an eager, outcome-bent staff to "put the pedal to the metal."

"I'm very good at making money," he said, sitting in an office he confesses to not liking to spend time in. As an outdoor guy, he exudes surplus energy that almost seems to buzz. His jacket, helmet and ski boots stand ready by the door. A desk sign reads, "TODAY IS A GOOD DAY." The flip side says, "NOPE, NOT TODAY." A wall sign made by a since-retired marketing head, says, "I'm Here to Crush Dreams."

Since taking the helm four years ago, Day has trained his eye on the bottom line and steered Gunstock away from more than a decade of yearly $1 million loans.

"Why aren't we making our own money to operate?" he asked when he checked out the books. "The idea before was to have a lot of skiers who buy more hamburgers. You can have less skiers and make more money."

His strategy was to elevate the recreation experience: no crowded base lodges or time-eating, frustrating lines at ticket counters, chairlifts or ski and boot rentals. No long walks between locations.

Change and more change

In summer 2022, two Gunstock commissioners challenged his management, insisting on commission control of a Belknap County-owned and operated asset. At a meeting packed with Gunstock supporters, Day resigned and senior staff members quit with him. The resort shut down for two weeks.

When the two commissioners resigned, Day and his senior managers went back on board.

Discounted lift tickets are now history, though Belknap County residents still enjoy favorable rates. Today, almost all lift tickets are sold online in advance, and sales are capped when Gunstock could become too crowded.

Changing climate patterns still provide a challenge, prompting the resort to make as much snow as possible when temperatures are cold (15 degrees and below), he said.

$12M in improvements

Some $12 million in improvements have been made in the past four years, including $6 million worth in 2023. "We haven't borrowed a dime for it," Day said, and "Everyone's commented that it's much more comfortable."

It's a far cry from the community ski hill hatched in 1937 during the Great Depression as a construction project by the Works Progress Administration.

A porch-style roof outside the ticket office has ceiling heaters "so people don't feel like they're standing in the parking lot."

The new restaurant, Barrel Bar and Grille, with a central bar and 270-degree views, opened Dec. 10. "People love sitting here because there's so much to look at," he said.

Making an expensive sport feel more streamlined, comfortable and inviting has been his business achievement.

His signature is on a lot that will remain at Gunstock — including a requirement that staffers wear name tags.

"If you don't have a name tag on, how is someone going to send an email about how nice you are?" Day said.

rbaker@unionleader.com