Imagine you’re on a flight to Argentina for a summer training camp. There are 70 people on the trip, and you’re in charge of them all. Twenty-four hours before your flight, you receive news that Ushuaia has been completely rained out and there is no training space available. You can’t cancel the trip, so you need to make a split second change to the travel plans and fly to a new destination in South America — and you need to coordinate it all while you’re on the flight to Buenos Aires.
Are you panicking yet?
This is the exact scenario that Steve Utter, current alpine program director at Green Mountain Valley School (GMVS) found himself in a decade ago, but this veteran coach had a secret weapon: Derek Miller.
“Derek rebooked us, in part, while we were in the air,” Utter explains. “I didn’t get a lot of sleep on the airplane on the way down, but none of the kids even knew that we were going to make the switch, and when we were in the airport in Buenos Aires, I said ‘OK, there’s no snow. We’re going to another ski area.’ Derek made that possible. That was 100 percent Derek coordinating with the Argentinian airline.”
Miller, a longtime travel agent with Winter Park Travel, Inc., was able to switch flights for 70 people before the team landed in country, so they could seamlessly travel to their new destination. It’s the kind of feat that a coach likely couldn’t achieve without help behind the scenes.
Miller has embraced the unique niche of coordinating travel for ski teams and academies around the world in a career field that is largely dying out due to the internet.
“It’s an interesting niche that he has,” Utter says. “People genuinely appreciate how he adds value to the travel possibilities for our kids. He has people from all over the world that he books tickets for because their relationship with an academy or club. He’s great at what he does and he operates out of a little strip mall in Winter Park, the unassuming little office.”
Miller was not always a ski team travel guru, but things really picked up in the 1990s when Winter Park started hosting a lot of major ski events. His company’s location in Colorado put them at the center of the action, allowing the business to capitalize on the influx of ski teams to the area. From there, things snowballed.
“Coaches get together at coaches’ meetings and talk about their woes of travel and we come up as the least of their woes,” Miller jokes. “Word of mouth from coach to coach, I think, has been our biggest marketing tool.”
Over the years, he’s built an impressive client base including Burke Mountain Academy, Killington Mountain School, NYSEF, Ski & Snowboard Club Vail, Stratton Mountain School, Waterville Valley Academy, the Olympic Winter Institute of Australia, and a number of other clubs. Turns out ski teams may be the last demographic using travel agents, and for good reason. Even in a world where anyone can book through Orbitz, the personal relationships that Miller has with airlines are invaluable.
“You can’t really book for a group of 100 on LAN airlines, for example, using Orbitz,” Miller shares. “You have to go directly to the airline, and we have the contacts with the airlines that we have cultivated over the years that quickly get the information we need, the pricing we’re looking for. They know us. We know them, and there’s a trust relationship with the airlines that they don’t have to worry about, ‘Are they going to block 100 seats and then we get burned at the last minute because the whole thing falls apart?’”
Those relationships also allow Miller to work with coaches like Utter in uncertain situations.
“He has a really special ability to understand the needs—the sometimes contradictory needs—of alpine ski racing,” the GMVS coach explains. “Like you want to know with great certainty everything, but you have no idea when you want to go because there isn’t snow there yet or you don’t know how big your group is.”
Aside from the connections with airlines, Miller also helps relieve coaches of the challenges of managing travel and collecting payments for groups of up to 100 people. He manages the outreach to parents and—as Utter tells it—goes above and beyond to help teams save money on everything from flights to rental vans. This leaves coaches free to do what they do best: coach.
Over the years, the travel wizard has coordinated trips for many of the greats, going back to their days with clubs and academies across the country.
“It’s fun for me because I deal with these athletes when they are academy kids,” Miller explains. “We dealt with Bode when he was at CVA, Lindsey when she was over at Vail, Mikaela when she was at Burke. It’s fun to watch these kids become stars.”
The next time you win a medal, don’t forget to consider all the people who got you there. One of them might have been Derek Miller.