“Build it and they will come”
The famous line from Field of Dreams is a common business myth, but in Searchmont Resort’s history, the theory had value – family value.
Searchmont Resort began as a small ski hill with a double chair, T-bar and Poma lift. While great to ski, it lacked snowmaking equipment and the facilities to make it a true destination resort.
Ski Magazine ad, 1973
In the fall of 1985, The Water Tower Inn’s Proprietor, JJ Hilsinger, learned the resort was not going to open for the season. Recognizing the blow this could be for the tourism industry, Hilsinger convinced nine other investors to commit $10,000 each, and was thus able to operate the ski hill for the season. They even turned a small profit.
The following year, JJ and his investor group further committed funds, and acquired government grants with an ambitious business plan. Over the next few years, new trails were cut (see map below), expanding the varied terrain. Access to the new terrain was enhanced with a triple lift and later a quad chairlift. The installation of hill-wide snowmaking helped buffer the ski season. In addition, Hilsinger built chalets and condos for overnight accommodations, world-class cross-country ski trails and even installed a tubing hill in the late 90s. These improvements elevated the small local ski area from a “hill” to a “resort” – The Mountains of the Midwest.
Hilsinger always had a mind for showman-like hospitality and marketing. With the resort improvements in place, he marketed heavily to bus groups and his staff provided memorable greetings, banging pots and shouting “welcome” as guests stepped of the bus. Events such as the Mardi Gras-style Carnivale, which ran every Spring and featured silly competitions such as the Dummy Race, the Jelly Jump and the Slush Cup, drew large crowds from the local area and as far away as Detroit.
By the mid-90s, the resort generated 100,000 skier visits per year.
However, Hilsinger understood that to remain viable and to truly drive tourism, Searchmont needed to become a four-season destination – a place where families could enjoy the beautiful Algoma outdoors.
Inspired by a trip to Club Med, JJ invested in circus equipment, including a flying trapeze, trampoline and Spanish Web. He hired a former Club Med circus employee to train his staff and formed a summer children’s circus camp. Investments in other summer activities, such as mountain biking, hiking, canoeing and an on-site pool contributed to Searchmont’s summer appeal.
Despite many unique marketing efforts (see video above), Searchmont’s summer business struggled. In 2000, with changes in government, all government loans were recalled. Hilsinger no longer had the capital to continue operations and the resort went into receivership in August.
Since, the resort experienced a variety of owners and operators, none of which were ever able to get the resort to its former glory. In 2018, Searchmont was purchased by Wisconsin Resorts Inc., a firm with a history of ski hill operation success since 1958. For the first time since 2000, significant investment is flowing into the resort. New trails are being cut (slated to open in 2021), and new, powerful snowmaking equipment was installed. The addition of two new belt lifts made the beginner area incredibly accessible for first-time and young skiers. Updates to the existing lodge include a beautiful new restaurant, the Kiln.
The skiing at Searchmont remains second to none in Ontario. Twenty-one runs and 700ft of vertical offer varied and exciting terrain. With an average snowfall of 336cm (132in), skiers enjoy quality conditions for longer. It’s hard to believe this winter gem is just 30 minutes from Sault Ste. Marie.
Ski Packages available: learn more.