Kim Mayhew turned Solitude into a trendsetter among ski areas. She’s leaving with no regrets.

One of the few women at the helm of a U.S. ski resort, she initiated paid parking to reduce traffic in Big Cottonwood Canyon

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Solitude's Kim Mayhew, one of the few female general managers, is retiring after 40+ years in the Utah ski industry.

Stacks of transportation studies dating back 40 years were filed among the items Kim Mayhew found in the office she took over as Solitude’s new chief operating officer in 2015. What they told her could just as easily have been discovered during a weekend drive up Big Cottonwood Canyon, which could take between 30 minutes and three hours:

1) Too many cars were crowding into the canyon, and 2) no one was doing much about it.

Not one to hide behind tradition, Mayhew in 2019 greenlighted a plan to rid Solitude of what skiers and snowboarders had long viewed as one of their basic rights: free parking. Though options for reduced-cost and even free passage to the resort were built into the plan — through carpooling and the provision of a Ski Bus pass for season passholders — the brazen policy received a blizzard of blowback. Yet in the two seasons since, paid parking has begun to catch on nationwide with resorts and their patrons, who see it as a sound environmental and business decision.

Considering its audacity and its enduring impact, it seems fitting that paid parking will likely stand as the hallmark of Mayhew’s time at the helm of Solitude — a tenure that will end with her retirement this season.

“Change is something that you either thrive on it or you’re afraid of it. I think I thrive on it,” Mayhew recently told The Salt Lake Tribune. “… My nature is I’m very solution-driven. I see a situation and I get with the right people — and I’ve got great people here — and being able to, within a situation, come up with solutions. So it’s been a wonderful journey.”

Mayhew could have come up with any number of excuses to put off confronting the thorny congestion issue, just as her predecessors had. Prior to her hire at Solitude, she had no experience as a president or COO of any company. Her track to the top itself was unusual in that it included more years in the ski school than upper management. And she already was under the spotlight as one of only about 10 women operating one of the 470 ski resorts in the United States, and the only one in Utah.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers walk from the mountain to the parking lot at Solitude Mountain Resort, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. Solitude implemented a paid parking lot at the beginning of this ski season.

Yet in her six years at Solitude, Mayhew established herself as a leader in the ski industry. She serves on the board of directors for the National Ski Areas Association and helped amend its bylaws and direct discussions on how it can meet the needs of the next generation of industry leaders. In 2018 she became the second female to chair the Utah Ski & Snowboard Association board of directors, following the trail blazed by Park City Mountain’s Jenni Smith. As part and parcel of her job as Solitude’s COO, she also serves on more than a dozen local boards and committees.

At the same time, Mayhew cares for Solitude like a gardener cares for a prize rose bush. If she sees litter in a walkway, she’ll pick it up. If the parking staff needs extra help directing traffic on busy weekends, she’ll pull on her parka and greet her guests with a smile. And this season, if someone refuses to wear a mask in a lift line, she’s the one tasked with asking the offender to leave the property.

Mayhew’s colleagues have heralded her for her big-picture vision for Solitude and for her ability to connect with her employees and shepherd them through three ownership changes in six years. They also applaud how she set herself up as a role model for what they see as a wave of more diverse leaders entering the ski business.

Kelly Pawlak, the president of the National Ski Areas Association, said Mayhew is “an all-star of leading by example.”

“If she’s going to do something, she does it well,” Pawlak said. “When you think about Solitude, it’s not an easy resort to run. There are so many challenges, whether it be their watershed, or the avalanche safety and mitigation, snow making, transportation and parking challenges. But you would never know that, … because she always shows up with a can-do, positive attitude.”

Mayhew planned to work at Solitude at least until she was 65, but she long ago made a pact to retire at the same time as her husband. So when he accepted early retirement from his job as a professor at Weber State earlier this year, Mayhew, 64, had to stay true to her word.

Still, Mayhew’s journey to ski industry executive and influencer is ending less unexpectedly than it began.

Rising up after the breakdown

Standing along a New Hampshire highway next to the VW Bug that had broken down while shuttling her to a dental hygienist job about which she felt intensely apathetic, Mayhew began to question what she was doing with her life. Six months later, in the spring of 1980, she and her husband quit their jobs and began traveling west in search of snow. They eventually landed in Utah, where Mayhew began working as a ski instructor at Sundance Resort. Two years later, she relocated to the fledgling Deer Valley Resort in Park City.

From the start she was something of a pioneer. Men made up 65% of ski school staff at that time, she said, but she knew the impact a woman could make. In an entire childhood spent on the slopes, she’d had only one female instructor, a Swiss woman named Heidi. Heidi ignited in the 12-year-old Mayhew a fascination for the sport her other coaches could not.

Twenty years later, Mayhew parlayed that interest into becoming Deer Valley’s first female supervisor. Yet unlike Pawlak, who became the general manager of Vermont’s Mount Snow in 2005 and is now the first female to head the national association of ski areas, Mayhew said she never saw herself running a resort.

“We moved out here very purposefully to be ski bums and then never moved back. So I never wanted anything else,” Mayhew said. “I think what happens with me is I got involved getting certified, teaching other instructors, supervising growing programs. It’s sort of like the snowball that kind of happened. And I was always looking for the next fun thing with the passion that I already have for the sport of skiing. So it just sort of evolved.

“I never would have dreamed, if somebody told me 40 years ago I’d be sitting here right now talking to you about my 40 years and I’m sitting here as the president, COO of a ski resort, I would have gone, ‘Whaaa??!!’”

Mayhew may have not seen herself on that path, but Deer Valley COO Bob Wheaton did. After Mayhew had spent 19 winters in the Deer Valley ski school and summers working odd jobs around the resort, Wheaton, who himself had risen up from being the ski area’s maintenance manager, tapped her to be his human resources director. When she pointed out she did not have an HR degree, he replied, “No, but you have a degree in Deer Valley.”

With her affinity for people, she fell into the job naturally. It was the same story in 2015 when the owners of Deer Valley purchased Solitude from the DeSeelhorst family and Wheaton again turned to Mayhew, this time to step up as the general manager.

“I’ve been a no regrets kind of person,” she said she remembers thinking. “I don’t want to be sitting in that armchair when I’m 80 years old and thinking, ‘What if I’d done that?’”

Mayhew said she realized immediately that Solitude had its own personality and made it known she had no intention of making it just a replica of Deer Valley. She said she loves the family-friendly atmosphere there, its European flavor and that despite being one of the smaller resorts, at 1,200 acres of terrain, “it skis big.”

Raelene Davis, Ski Utah’s COO and vice president of marketing, said Mayhew has brought out the best in Solitude.

“She’s a woman who isn’t afraid to speak up and, and take charge,” Davis said. “And I think she brought Solitude into a new era. She really took it to the next level.”

The resort has changed hands two more times since Mayhew first took over operations. Each new owner kept her in her post, which speaks to her capabilities, Pawlak said. The most recent of those transitions came in 2018 when a young Alterra Mountain Company made Solitude its 13th ski area and brought a corporate structure to the formerly mom-and-pop resort. Alterra also put Solitude on its multi-resort Ikon pass starting in the 2018-19 season.

Mayhew admits that transition initially made her nervous. Now, however, she said she appreciates the money Alterra has invested in capital improvements at the resort and the way the Ikon pass has made snowboarding and skiing generally more affordable. She also has enjoyed being able to bounce ideas off other resort operators who aren’t competitors, a tool that proved especially beneficial over the past year.

Pay it forward

When Mayhew implemented paid parking at Solitude, she believed it could be the most rocky period in her time as COO. But she said last season’s sudden end — in which she had to lay off or furlough many of her employees — and the challenge of operating this season under the threat of COVID-19 contagion and shutdowns have been far harder on her.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Abbigail Nelson pays for parking at the kiosk at Solitude Mountain Resort, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. Solitude implemented a paid parking lot at the beginning of this ski season.

Mayhew said the experience reminded her of 9/11 in the way it shook the industry and life in general. It ultimately changed how she thinks about success. She has always put the well-being of her employees front and center, she said, but this year it felt even more important.

“I think this one became as close to life and death as an operator you can come by,” she said. She added, “By being open, we were inviting a lot of people at the exact same time to come and visit us. It had to be right.”

By her colleagues’ standards, Mayhew has been an overwhelming success as an operator. And just like her parking program’s effects on the environment, they say her impact as a role model for women wanting a bigger role in the ski industry won’t truly be seen for years.

“It’s going to leave a big hole just because she’s a big personality to replace,” Pawlak said of Mayhew’s retirement. “But I’m encouraged. I really, truly believe that we’re just starting this journey on diversity.

Mayhew said interviews for her position have begun and that she will stay on as Solitude’s COO until a replacement has been named.