Until Pete Sonntag, a life-long skier, moved to the Wood River Valley last June to be the new general manager of Sun Valley Resort, he had never set foot here, though skiing Baldy was on his bucket list for several years. It has been a long, convoluted journey from upstate New York to Idaho for the 56-year-old Sonntag, but he brings impeccable credentials and a deep passion for skiing to his new job. After living here for a few months, Sonntag was asked, “What’s your favorite aspect of living here?” He replied, “Real mountain town, real mountain, real people, no BS.”
He grew up in upstate New York in a family of skiers (his father was a ski patrolman). “My brother and sister (10 and 8 years older than me) were very good skiers, but we only skied sporadically, roughly 10 days a year,” says Sonntag. “After high school, I went to one year of college in Buffalo, but I was immature, unfocused, and wasting my parents’ hard-earned savings. My dad suggested I go to Colorado and live with my brother, who by then was firmly entrenched in Eagle. My first job was working grounds maintenance at Beaver Creek Golf Club, and my winter job was rental tech at a shop in Vail. I skied 120 days that winter. I fell in love with skiing, big mountains and the people who loved it like I did.” After three years, the discipline and purpose he’d been lacking kicked in, and he made his way back east to pick up his studies.
He earned a degree in Economics at the University of Albany and taught skiing part time at West Mountain, an experience he says changed his life. “The ability to share my passion for skiing with others, help them improve their skills and see the effect it had on them was so fulfilling for me,” says Sonntag. “I felt like it was my calling in life.”
Shortly after Sonntag graduated, he packed up his car and moved back to Eagle where he continued summer golf maintenance work and became a full-time ski instructor at Beaver Creek. After eight years of this, he felt he was ready for a change, one that would push him to grow personally and professionally. With his wife Carol’s support, Sonntag pursued the MBA program at University of Vermont.
“During my time at UVM, I had to trade my skis for my studies, and while I’m proud of my MBA, I knew I wanted to take a more non-traditional path and go back to the ski industry,” says Sonntag. “My heart is in this business.”
Once again, with Carol’s full support after graduating with his MBA, Sonntag packed up and moved back to Eagle where he became the ski school supervisor. “I quickly realized an MBA can only offer so much when I was trying to schedule 500 instructors to work over the Christmas holidays. That was quite the Tetris puzzle!” remarks Sonntag while reflecting on this time.
With some well-timed mentoring, Sonntag has been lucky to have spent time at some incredible resorts and in some incredible roles that have ultimately landed him here, in Sun Valley. “From Beaver Creek to Copper Mountain, to Keystone, back to Beaver Creek, to Vail, to Heavenly, to Whistler Blackcomb, to a corporate office and then Sun Valley,” says Sonntag, “I’m grateful for all of it as it’s made me who I am.”
The Sonntags have three children: Katie, age 21; Wallace, age 19; and Charlotte, age 17. They are all avid skiers whose true passion is playing ice hockey. Katie is a senior hockey player at Union College in New York, Wallace is a freshman at Colorado State, and Charlotte is currently a senior at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Minnesota where she plays hockey, but she recently signed to continue her hockey and studies at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts next year.
Sonntag intends to ski as much as possible this winter. “I can’t be effective in my job if I don’t have a handle on what our guests are experiencing,” says Sonntag. “Getting on the mountain and around the resort allows me to connect directly with guests and see how our team is doing and thank them for their hard work. It’s an amazing thing to see this complex operation come together.”
As for the Sun Valley Resort’s future, Sonntag reflects, “One of the things that appealed to me about Sun Valley was the very unique character of the resort. It is truly a gem. In this day and age, I believe it’s our competitive advantage. We’re not like other resorts. And you can see by the SKI Magazine Reader’s Poll that our guests feel the same way, so we need to be careful about change. We’ll always work to get better and stay relevant but want to do it in a way that honors our heritage and stays true to what Earl and Carol Holding envisioned when they acquired the resort over four decades ago.”