Fulton County

‘A dream of mine’: Couple gains speed in second season owning Caroga Lake’s Royal Mountain

Left: Skiers and snowboarders take to the slopes at Royal Mountain last week. PETER R. BARBER Right: The owners of Royal Mountain Ski Area, Jake Tennis, right, holds daughter Hadley, 3, with his wife Brooke, holding daughter Kennedy, 1, in November. ERICA MILLER

Left: Skiers and snowboarders take to the slopes at Royal Mountain last week. PETER R. BARBER Right: The owners of Royal Mountain Ski Area, Jake Tennis, right, holds daughter Hadley, 3, with his wife Brooke, holding daughter Kennedy, 1, in November. ERICA MILLER

For Jake Tennis this is the second year of living his dream. 

Tennis, who is 35, has been working at Royal Mountain Ski Area, tucked just inside the Adirondack Park about 10 miles north of Johnstown, since he was a teenager parking cars in the lot. 

“And when I was 17, I said ‘I’d like to buy this place someday.’ It’s always been a dream of mine,” Tennis said. “The [former] owner [Jim Blaise] said, hey, you gotta get your engineering degree, you gotta become a professional engineer. It’s going to help you someday in the future.”

So that’s exactly what Tennis did. He commuted to SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, continuing to work at Royal to pay for gas, and earned his degree in civil engineering in 2010. Then, in October of 2020, the time finally came for Tennis to purchase Royal, as Blaise was ready to retire

Now, Tennis and his wife, Brooke Tennis, 30, are in their second winter of operation. They’ve been able to make several improvements after a successful first season during the pandemic – when interest in winter sports increased nationwide – but most importantly they’ve been able to help Royal retain its family-first atmosphere, in part, by making their own family a regular part of the business. 

Snowmaking difference 

Tennis said their first winter at Royal was stronger than expected because skiing and riding were activities people could safely do during the pandemic. “It allowed people to get outside, whereas they couldn’t go and do other things,” he said. 

Increased volume was a common theme at the country’s 462 ski areas, including 49 in New York state, according  to the National Ski Areas Association. Northeast ski areas saw an estimated 12.252 million visitors last season compared with 11.488 million the year before, while Rocky Mountain areas hosted an estimated 22.638 million visitors compared with 20.107 the year prior.

The strong winter helped enable Royal to provide tangible upgrades ahead of this ski season. Tennis, who also works part-time as a civil engineer with C.T. Male Associates, has put his engineering background to good use as the owner at Royal.

Some of the biggest changes for this winter are improved snowmaking. The ski area added a half-mile of new snowmaking pipe and improved the snowmaking system to allow for more efficient water distribution to more locations on the mountain, Tennis said. In addition, three new SMI super polecat snowguns can make snow at higher temperatures, because they are mounted more than 14 feet above existing trays, giving particles more hang time to allow them to freeze, Tennis explained.

The system lets Royal start making snow at about 27 degrees, down from 29, and keep making snow even if the temperatures never dip into the teens, which is desirable. Tennis said the updated system has allowed the mountain to get in more than 250 hours of snowmaking already this season, even though there have been less than 20 hours of ideal snowmaking conditions.

“Looking back at our log, we actually made the majority of our snow above 20 degrees this year,” Tennis said. “The big takeaway is that we already have a really good snowmaking system, but we want to make sure that we can make snow on more parts of the mountain earlier, and with less limitations.” 

With the new snowmaking, Royal was able to welcome skiers and riders on December 4 and, despite warm temperatures so far this winter, the mountain has 85% of its terrain covered by snowmaking already open, according to Tennis.

“We’re open with phenomenal coverage,” Tennis said. 

A ‘little hill’ that ‘skis big’

Of course, Royal doesn’t exactly have a ton of terrain that needs to be covered with snow. With 40 skiable acres, 12 alpine trails, five glades and a vertical drop of just 575 feet, there’s no denying that Royal is a small ski area. 

And yet? 

“The place skis big,” said New York City-based writer Stuart Winchester, of The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast. “A serious skier can go to Royal and not have to compete for that terrain, and come away feeling challenged and tired. I think it’s a really nice little hill.” 

Winchester said Royal provides an authentic skiing experience that isn’t clouded by a quest for prestige. 

“What is less obvious is that they provide an alternative experience for skiers who are willing to sacrifice brand recognition or social media clout for the pure experience of skiing,” he said. “They tend to have fewer, if any, lift lines and they tend to have a much more resonant atmosphere as far as a feeling of being part of a local experience. They create a more distinct sense of place.” 

Locals like to say if you can ski Royal, you can ski anywhere. Just ask Michael Albanese, 64, a Gloversville attorney who has been skiing at Royal since he was a boy using bear-trap bindings and wooden poles.

Albanese said he skis bigger resorts like Killington and Whiteface Mountain during the week, but on the weekends he runs laps on Royal, Challenge and other trails at the Fulton County ski area. 

“It’s as tough a terrain as any you get on any big mountain,” Albanese said. 

It also helps that the trails aren’t over-skied. Royal is only open on weekends and holiday breaks, meaning the snow stays fresher than heavily trafficked resorts, Tennis said. 

“You put energy in the snow and there’s a better chance of it turning into a hard pack and ice,” Tennis said. “We only ski weekends and holiday breaks, so it provides for a better skiing surface. We don’t get ice days.” 

Tennis said the ski area sells roughly a few hundred tickets on an average weekend day, which is in addition to however many season passholders show up. 

However, if Royal wants to grow its customer base, the ski area should consider finding ways to bring in more skiers, Winchester said. Midweek skiing – whether it’s an extra day or two, or opening up to midweek private rentals – as well as becoming part of a multi-mountain pass like the Indy Pass, would make Royal less obscure, Winchester suggested.   

“Royal has a lot of opportunities to grow its business beyond what it is today,” Winchester said. “I think being open more days would only strengthen their position in the community.” 

Family feel 

Thing is, the small-town, family-friendly feel at Royal is a big part of its charm. 

“That’s the unique character of Royal,” said Albanese, who was reached by phone on New Year’s Eve while at the ski area with his 42-year-old son, who also grew up skiing at Royal. “It’s generational. The camaraderie. The friendships that are built over years,” he said. “There are people that I’ve known for more than 40 years.”

In fact, Albanese said he remembers Tennis as a teenager working in the parking lot. Albanese’s wife used to bring Tennis cookies. 

“Jake [Tennis] knows the familial atmosphere of this place. He grew up with it,” Albanese said.  

Winchester, of The Storm Skiing Journal, thinks of Royal as being a well-kept local secret. 

“It’s like a secret of Johnstown, where local skiers, all they care about is hanging out with each other, not getting overwhelmed by the experience, not trying to impress anybody or get some sort of social media status, but just being part of that community, part of that day and that time,” he said. “Royal and places like it do a really great job of delivering that sort of unique ski experience.” 

Adrienne Saia Isaac, director of Marketing and Communications at the National Ski Areas Association, said smaller areas like Royal make up 55% of the 462 ski areas operating in the U.S. (She added that of the 37 states with ski areas, New York state has the most, with 49.) Yes, there’s big ones like Whiteface, Hunter and Gore. But there’s also smaller places like Maple Ski Ridge, Willard and West Mountain. And those areas help keep alpine sports alive, she said. 

“Smaller ski areas – especially those that are very involved with their local communities – are integral to getting folks into the sports of skiing and riding,” Isaac said. “It’s pretty rare to have your first ski or snowboard experience at a large destination resort; often you learn to love sliding on snow at a mountain close to home.”  

Family business

The Tennises are able to run a resort with a family feel, in part, because they are themselves a young family. To ease the burden, they spend many a night sleeping at the log cabin/office space at the ski area. They also split up the duties. Jake handles the outside operations, like overseeing the lifts and grooming – he is one of three groomers. And Brooke handles the inside responsibilities, like managing the cafeteria and ticket-sales staff. 

“We do two totally different jobs here,” Brooke said. “It can be hours, and I’ll realize I haven’t seen him all day.” 

They also share the childcare duties, although Brooke and her mother, Victoria Nellis, handle the bulk.   

On a given weekend day, Brooke may watch the girls, 3-year-old Hadley and 1-year-old Kennedy, while Jake makes sure the daily lift operations begin smoothly. Then Jake will take Hadley out skiing, while his wife or mother-in-law watches Kennedy. Plus, of the roughly 40 staff members, several are family, Jake said, meaning there is always someone around who can be trusted to look after little ones.  

Brooke, who is a registered nurse but left the field to help run Royal, said the extra family time is exactly why she supported the venture. 

“It’s worthwhile because I am with my family more. I was gone 12 hours a day, and now the kids are with me and they get to see Dad every day at work.”

Brooke said she’s always known that Jake wanted to run Royal – in fact she used to see him when he was a lift attendant and she’d be skiing with her family. But she wasn’t totally sure how it would all come together – or how it would work out once it did. 

“The first year there were a lot of unknowns,” Brooke said, explaining the pandemic and its restrictions posed additional challenges on top of taking over the business. “This year we’re ready. We feel much more prepared.” 

Jake said he’s added staff this winter to better distribute the workload, and he’s already anticipating another strong season. 

“I’m thinking there is a good chance we’re going to be busy if we don’t get too many restrictions,” he said. “Last year was good, and hopefully this year will be just as busy.”  

The success last year helps to make it easier for Jake to imagine future upgrades at Royal. Ask him what the ski area will look like in five or 10 years, and he’ll rattle off plans about more snowmaking, new chairlifts and updated grooming equipment – this is on top of the work Jim Blaise put in before selling. Who knows, maybe a decade down the line, a new lodge will be in order, Jake posited.

Brooke knows not to bet against her husband’s visions. After all, look at what happened with his dreams of buying Royal. 

“Jake has a ton of ideas,” Brooke said. “And if he says he is going to do something, he is going to do it.”

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite. 

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