Asking people to board a helicopter so they can access a 7,000-plus foot high mountain on skis is bold. Asking them to also pay several thousands of dollars for that experience could classify a business owner as crazy. But, there are thrill seekers willing to pay for big money for the adrenaline rush and those that realize the business opportunity in providing the thrill. Scott Raynor is one of those people. Raynor capitalized on his zeal for heliskiing, off-trail downhill skiing that is accessed by a helicopter instead of a ski lift, by opening Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, located at 35 miles outside of Valdez, Alaska.
He shares his story with FOX Business:
“When I bought the business in 2000 there were fewer heliskiing operations. But now our slice of the pie has been taken away from us, particularly with the growth of heliskiing operations in other parts of Alaska and Canada. This is my main source of income, but I also work as a guide in Chile and Greenland. As guides, our job is to take you to the back country, but to also make sure you come back in one piece.”
FBN: Tell us about your operations:
Raynor: I have a two-month operating season: March and April, but this is a full-time/year-round job. We used to operate in February and May too, but we realized that the potential for good weather wasn’t as strong during those months and we weren’t as full in the bookings. In 2006 we noticed that the four-month season wasn’t working because the overhead was much more than the revenue. During our season we have up to 15 employees, this includes guides, office staff and pilots. We lease two to three helicopters from North Star Trekking. The price of the lease includes the pilots who work under my direction.
FBN: What makes your business risky from an operational standpoint?
Raynor: Weather, the economy and a small niche of clientele who can afford to come to you. We cater to advanced and expert skiers. A private package for one week costs just over $67,000 for eight people and our individual packages cost just over $7,800. This includes the lodging, meals and skiing for seven days. Fuel is a big variable for us; it is quite expensive because we are in such a remote location and aviation fuel runs about a dollar more than traditional fuel. When I make my helicopter commitments and craft my budgets all I can do is guesstimate. Because of unflyable weather and poor snow stability, we fly 76% of the time. We are popular because the Chugach Mountains are so close to the ocean which provides us with incredible snowfalls, but that makes it challenging because of the storms that form.
FBN: What can someone who books a package with you expect?
Raynor: Typically, you book a reservation package that is seven days long. You arrive in Anchorage on Saturday and from there you can fly into Valdez or take the five-hour drive. That night we pick you up and host a “meet and great” to introduce you to our other clients and guides and to discuss the week ahead. Sunday is a slower day for us because we have a two-hour safety briefing about avalanche rescue techniques, safe mountain travel and what is expected of the guest. We also have an extensive helicopter safety briefing. We show you how to get in and out of the A-Star B2s, where the rescue equipment is and how to approach a helicopter. On Sunday we also look at personality types and ski levels. It gives us an opportunity to make sure the groupings are good. Then we start skiing. In a public ship we fly four groups of four, so 16 people in helicopter at once. In a private ship, it’s eight folks. The guides are with clients throughout the seven-day period. Guides set boundaries with guests and get a feeling for what the client wants. We ski for the rest of the week and the following Saturday the guests depart.
FBN: What do you look for in a client?
Raynor: We require that our clients be advanced to expert skiers. They would ski Black Diamonds at U.S. ski resorts and would have experience with deep powder skiing and variable conditions. It’s good if they've taken an avalanche course before. For our clients we suggest travel insurance. That covers medevac insurance, which is rarely needed, but smart to have.
FOX Business profiles thrill-seeking entrepreneurs who followed their extracurricular passions and launched risky businesses that generate big profits.