Making Locals Jaded

Banff's Sunshine Village resort SLAPPs TGR, skiers snarl

Once upon a time Sunshine Village, near Banff, was best known for things like snow and skiing. Today, not so much. Photo: Ryan Creary

Once upon a time Sunshine Village, near Banff, was best known for things like snow and skiing. Today, not so much. Photo: Ryan Creary

By Hans Ludwig

There’s a saying in the PR game that there’s no such thing as bad press, in which case Sunshine Village Ski & Snowboard Resort shouldn’t mind the publicity. But this evolving story features petulance, nepotism and the en mass firings of veteran ski patrollers, and the Scurfield family—owners of the resort, which is located within Banff National Park, in Alberta—is not pleased with the resulting fallout.

To recapitulate: In December, SSV’s on-mountain management butted heads with ownership over the disciplining of a young patroller who caught the owner’s son skiing in a closed area. Said head-butting then reportedly resulted in the firings of the mountain manager, the snow safety director, a senior patroller, and the head of lift operations. The patroller who caught Taylor Scurfield skiing on the wrong side of the rope was also fired later, which then led to a no-show protest from many other employees, followed by more firings on the hill, and more media attention, both on ski-centric web outlets and mainstream media like the Calgary Herald. (See 65,600 related Google siftings here.)

The sh*t always rolls downhill... at Sunshine Village. Photo: Ryan Creary

The sh*t always rolls downhill... at Sunshine Village. Photo: Ryan Creary

Sunshine Village’s reaction to the wrongful dismissal suit filed by the fired employees didn’t do much in the way of damage control: SSV claimed the firings weren’t triggered by the December incident, but rather a long pattern: “sexual harassment, dishonesty, fraud, soliciting gifts, conducting private business for profit at the ski resort, and insubordination,” according to a legal statement of defense filed by SSV in response to the lawsuit. But those earlier incidents cited things like a swimsuit calendar in a work area and a beer stash for patrol, things that sound more like a cobbled-together pile than a reason to fire senior employees who had been there for decades.

In a reply to the statement of defense, the fired SSV employees described those allegations as “recent inventions and fabrications,” and claimed that they had been routinely given raises and bonuses, which, if true, doesn’t exactly support SSV’s thesis that a 30-year veteran snow-safety manager had built a “culture of corruption, antagonism and intimidation.”

At any rate, the abrupt downsizing wasn’t too well-received among the ski community at large, where snow safety supervisors and senior patrollers tend to be highly respected. So bored and surly skiers in cubicles and coffee shops typed their reactions in the comments section of news articles, on Facebook pages, blogs, and on forums like the ones at TGR and Telemarktalk.

The comments, not surprisingly, included everything from angry muttering to outright scorn directed toward SSV and the Scurfield family. But if the Scurfield’s lawyers are to be believed, comments on TGR’s forum went far enough to constitute legally actionable libel.

And the chatter on TGR must have redlined the Google Alert system in the Sunshine PR department because a cease-and-desist letter from the resort’s lawyers was beamed in from Canada to TGR’s office next to the tram building in Jackson, Wyo. And it made the (not exactly big budget) management at TGR jumpy enough that they pulled the offending thread (which remains accessible on Google’s internet archive).

A C&D letter is not a lawsuit, but it’s a threat; even if TGR is within their rights, the cost of defending a prolonged suit could bankrupt a small company long before a court decision arrives. A number of states have adopted laws to protect defendants from lawsuits known as SLAPP’s—Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation—and designed to intimidate public criticism. But Wyoming is not one of those states. Hence the pulled thread (ironically, probably the only one in the history of the TGR forums to feature members actually defending patrollers for cracking down on out of bounds skiers).

“This is not the first time we have received a cease-and-desist and had to work through things,” says Todd Jones, founder of TGR. “However, Sunshine Village has money to burn and is willing to threaten people with lawsuits and spend money on them to get what they want. TGR cannot sustain a large lawsuit.”

SLAPP suits have become an increasingly common way for powerful organizations like McDonald’s, Nationwide Title, and the Church of Scientology to silence critics, but SSV should get the credit for bringing this dubious innovation to the ski world. Sunshine may have a case: If they can provide convincing evidence that there has been deliberate or reckless falsehoods posted on the TGR forums. But that’s a pretty high bar to clear, legally speaking, despite the fact that deliberate and reckless falsehoods are what passes for friendly small talk among forum members (before they move on to the mom jokes).

Still, this will be a cold comfort to the staff of TGR if they all have to get jobs in the rental shop at Teton Village Sports next winter. Jones notes another irony: “Our audience is made up of Sunshine Village’s potential customers. This is the targeted group they need to be communicating with. Instead they are attempting to silence them and buy their way out of their issues.”

From Jones’ perspective, “Most major corporations now face the same issue where people talk negatively about their products. This is the new reality. We take heat all the time from people for things we do. People rip on our films. They put us down for changes we make to the site. This is the reality. You can create website or blog in less than 15 minutes. Every website in the world has the same potential voice and traffic as any other site. You can’t contain the general public’s opinion anymore.”

While Sunshine did manage to get the offending TGR thread pulled, it was hardly the damage control the resort was looking for, as the move simply re-ignited the issue in other locations on the net. Actually, supporters of the fired employees went on the offensive, launching a website, sunshinevillagewatch.com, and Facebook pages to back the patroller’s cause. At this point, it’s probably not possible to send enough cease-and-desist letters to shut down the public conversation on the net, and the threats have given the story a new life with the press.

TGR has told Powder.com that they plan “to defend the site’s right to host this content via our attorney.” Let’s hope they succeed. Not because the content of one forum thread is vital to the situation at Sunshine, but because, as Jones says, “If anyone with a lawyer friend can write a cease-and-desist letter and suppress public opinion, then we will lose one of the great places for freedom of speech and expression in the snow industry.”

In the bigger picture Sunshine is just another ski resort, but we’re all screwed if we can’t talk and type freely about companies that actually affect our lives, like, say, the one that just spilled billions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Or Halliburton, or Goldman Sachs, or Citigroup. And if every media outlet and web hosting service had to sanitize controversial “content” to stay in business, the Jaded Local would have to go back to cranking rental bindings too.

In the interest of ski-journalistic ethics, it’s worth noting that the Scurfields may well be getting the short end of the stick here. Maybe all the firings were justified, maybe there were damaging falsehoods on TGR. But there’s no denying that they’ve just about fallen all over themselves to look as bad as possible. Ironically, someone in the upper management at Sunshine Village seems to be taking Jones’ advice: Sunshine is currently advertising for a PR/Social Media position. But I think I’d rather crank rental bindings.

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  • AR6

    “Sunshine may have a case: If they can provide convincing evidence that there has been deliberate or reckless falsehoods posted on the TGR forums.”

    I don’t even believe this much is true… I’m from Calgary and don’t know a whole heck of a lot about this area of the law in the U.S. but I seem to recall a federal law that prevents the website from being held liable for content posted thereon by its users. Even just at common law I imagine they would at least have to show that TGR itself participated to some degree in actively promoting any such falsehoods. In reality, though, this is precisely what it appears to be – an attempt to silence critics by bullying and threatening, and ultimately, given how counterproductive it was, a really, really bad idea.

    All of that being said, SSV doesn’t quite get credit for bringing these kinds of tactics into this industry. The Kiss lawsuit over the Line Anthem graphic that resulted in a whole run of skis essentially being warehoused is a good example. The WME vs. Level 1 lawsuit that began over Refresh almost two years ago now was the first large-scale incident of bad PR resulting from a similar decision, made exclusively by people in freeskiing, that I can recall.

    Subsequently, there was a misunderstanding where the European arm of a large ski company (as the matter is water under the bridge I won’t post which) sent a cease and desist letter to a smaller core ski company that does business through TGR and Newschoolers demanding that a ski’s name be changed, which led to a similar outcry on those websites until everything was sorted out.

    This sort of thing does rear its ugly head once in a while. The real question is why no one seems to be learning any LESSONS from it, given that the results are invariably disastrous.

  • http://SunshinearticleinPowdermag. dmac

    Thanks for this article, sadly it only tells the sordid story of Sunshines lack of appreciation for its cleints/guests, the lawsuits fly like bugs from them in the end costing everyone money.
    This whole issue was stupid, flat out.
    For the first time in over 20years of pass buying at Sunshine, family and personal, I did not buy one for 2011 – 12, I may day ski there, for some powder, but I could not support the attitude of Sunshine management any longer, funny because when Ralph Scurfield senior ran the place it was about customers and satisfaction, now its all about the money.

  • Mike

    Epic Ski was also SLAPPed with a C&D for a thread on their forums also.

  • JT

    Sunshine also sent a C&D to the forums at EpicSki.com

  • Craig McArthur

    I think it should be noted that it is not just web traffic that the Scurfields are concerned about. One of those fired during this debacle was let go specificly for speaking to the press. That would be me.Since I have not joined the lawsuit aginst the hill and the Scurfields thankfully I don’t have to listen to my own lawyer telling me to shut it either.

  • andrew

    Props to Power mag for standing up and publishing something about this. Seems almost all of the bigger magazines in the industry won’t print anything relating to the SSV firings. And props to TGR for putting the thread back and standing up for themselves.

  • Chris Mueller

    Thank you for such a great article Powder!! Nice to see that you have not succumbed to the heavy cash laden hand of Sunshine Village. This article got you a subsciption renewal!

  • Charles Gildart

    You are the skier and working man’s hero for publishing this article. Thank you for “doing the right thing”.

  • http://tomwintermedia.com Tom Winter

    It is hard to imagine in this day and age that Sunshine could get so much wrong, so consistently. Of course, this won’t ultimately change their business model and people will still vacation there, but how could a brand like that screw up so badly?

    Management and ownership seems completely out of touch with the new digital media reality. This new landscape alone would have suggested prudence in dealing with the offense of skiing in a closure by the owner’s son. But to throw gasoline on the fire with every action that they’ve done since the original incident? Totally clueless.

    Regardless, I’ll use Sunshine as an example of what not to do when working with my ski industry clients. They’ve created a great case study on how to utterly fail when it comes to digital media and media + public relations (and much else, as well). Nice work, guys!

  • ptor

    Never mind the bad corporate behaviour, the most blatant thing about this is just bad parenting!!! Would the Scurfields have had a different reaction if their son was killed from his error in judgement?

  • http://www.mountainridersalliance.com/ Jamie Schectman

    As was shown by the overturning of Egypt, social media is a force to be reckon with.

    The only reason I can figure they chose to continually incite the masseshas to due with their legal defense strategy. By making sure everyone here’s about the controversial firings, they can argue that they can’t get a fair trial.

  • Ben Leoni

    Hans should be commended for explaining the legal aspects of this case. I’m a recent law school grad and know how difficult it can be to incorporate legal standards and burdens into clear, concise writing that everyone can understand. Especially something like defamation, which has roots in statutory law, common law, and the constitution.

    I think the first poster may be right, regarding the content of user comments, but i’m not sure.

    Nice work Powder and Hans. Great article.

  • Frankieknuckles

    DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?

    Sunshine Village is screwed now that Taylor Scurfield is running the show there. They could care less about sound policy enforcement, workers rights and staff morale, or public safety.

    Join me in boycotting this short-sighted and disgraceful ownership, by saying “I will never ski SSV again”.

  • Mike Van Horne

    Thanks to Powder for having the stones (and potential lawyers fees apparently) to publish this article. SSV should be ashamed for such ridiculous business practices and obviously reckless endangerment of its guests. This will bite them where they live: the bank. Rest assured all that have been so grievously effected by this spoiled child, Taylor Scurfield. Karma is a bitch Scurfields….

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