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September 2020

Proactive Evolution

A plan for organizing and directing staff efforts to make COVID adaptations.

Written by Claire Humber | 0 comment

In our recent conversations with mountain resort operators, we at SE Group hear two things over and over:

1. “We know we are going to have to comply with regulations this winter, but we don’t want the regulators calling the shots—they don’t understand our business.”

2. “Our team is maxed out and stressed out—and in some cases just ‘out’ [i.e., working remotely]. We need to find a simple and efficient way of figuring all of this out.”

These conversations produced two big takeaways:

1. The need to understand how operational adjustments will impact resort capacities, which will allow for proactive discussions with regulators in their language—as in, “This is how many people we’ll have here, and here’s why that works.”

2. The need for a simple, efficient planning process.

In short: first we need to know the numbers (the foundation); and second, we need a solid process for planning and implementation.


There have been a lot of conversations about the potential impacts that social distancing protocols may have on lift capacity: How many people can we have on a chair, in a gondola cabin, in a tram? Equally, there are concerns about adjustments that will have to be made to food venue seating, rental shops, restrooms, and other indoor spaces. Together, these adjustments will affect your area’s capacity. Understanding them is an important part of the planning process, as it tells us how many guests we can accommodate during the day.

The balancing act. Ideally, your overall resort capacity reflects a balance between all the individual capacities—lifts, lodge, F&B seating, parking—and how your guest population moves between each of these areas during the day. While your resort capacity is typically in line with your lift capacity (on-mountain), if there is an imbalance between capacities in the different areas of the resort, the overall capacity can be limited by the area with the lowest capacity (F&B or parking, perhaps). For example, if your lift, lodge, and F&B seating capacities are all 2,000, but you can only get 1,000 people in your parking lots and there is no other way to get guests to your area, then your overall capacity would be limited to that.

In our pandemic reality, where additional capacity limitations are likely to be imposed, we need to get creative. To maximize visitation, it will be important to understand the limiting factors, and look for solutions that can raise capacity to the greatest degree possible.


Now to the planning process, or how you and your team can create your plan. In this process, you’ll identify, manage, and accomplish specific projects that will allow you to operate successfully for the coming season and will benefit the resort over the long term.

This last point is a big one, and has become a consistent theme in the SAM Huddles. In the spirit of “never waste a good crisis,” we have an opportunity to reevaluate how we did things in the past, fix things that didn’t work very well, make changes that can improve our guest experience, and factor in flexibility and resiliency to protect against future shocks.

Acknowledging that this is an exercise above and beyond everyone’s “to-do” list, we suggest breaking down the process into a number of steps. This allows a couple of things to happen:

You can schedule shorter planning “sessions” and focus on one step at a time.

The team will have a little “pause and reflect” time to think about what’s been discussed and consider additional ideas or things that may have been overlooked.

We break the process down into four main steps.

1. THE STARTING POINT: HOW DID WE DO IT BEFORE? Walk through your guest sequencing—what spaces are used, how services are offered including existing programs (when and where they occurred and typical volumes of business), and how these processes are communicated to guests.

When you’re talking about your “old normal,” include a discussion about what makes your area unique. Why do your guests choose you? What are your differentiators? That way, you can hang on to your “special sauce” as you make changes.

Also, dust off your “wish list” and discuss those nagging issues you’ve always wanted to resolve. Now is the time to figure out how to resolve them.

2. THE RULES: WHAT HAS CHANGED OR IS INFLUENCING CHANGE? And more importantly, how do these new factors affect how we used to do things?

For each experience within the guest sequence, talk about the factors influencing change—social distancing, hygiene, health scans, waivers—and how the experience must be modified in response. Regulations are a moving target, so you’ll need to discuss and examine how the best- and worst-case scenarios will play out, which will allow you to build in some resiliency for the coming season.

Dealing with regulations. As part of this conversation, too, identify the “points of disagreement” between what you see regulators doing in your marketplace vs. what you think you and your team can achieve. This understanding will be useful when you present your plan to regulators.

In addition to the regulatory issues, include a conversation about actual and perceived impediments to success, whether it’s budget, staffing, culture, or all of the above. All are important considerations.

Again, in the spirit of “don’t waste a good crisis,” as you talk about points of modification, ask the questions:

What are the challenges we faced doing it this way?

What do we wish we could do differently?

If we must “blow it up,” are there things we might like to change?

3. THE IDEAS: WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT? Time to get creative and explore potential opportunities and challenges around all of the identified points of modification. Include your bigger-picture questions, too. Can we correct past issues? Can we make the experience better moving forward? This additional enquiry elevates your planning process and the resulting experience beyond just addressing regulation, and you’ll end up with a more strategic plan.

We categorize the ideas that come out of this brainstorming within the context of a four-part response:

React to the current reality, with the future in mind.

Refine what has not worked all along.

Reinvent—think defense (follow the regulations) and offense (proactive improvements).

Renew loyalty and customer experience.

This might seem abstract, but it provides a framework for organizing your conversations, and is useful when you start thinking about setting priorities.

We strongly recommend looking beyond our industry for ideas and inspiration. Given the inherently global nature of a pandemic, all industries everywhere are innovating—use this to your advantage.

And lastly, don’t forget to give yourself some “pause and reflect” time while you’re doing this brainstorming. Don’t get married to your first ideas. You can’t rush the creative process!

4. IMPLEMENTATION STRATEGY: WHAT TO FOCUS ON FIRST (SECOND, THIRD, ETC.), AND HOW TO GET IT DONE. A little project management 101: end the process with an action plan to get ’er dun!

Once you settle on your plan, consider priorities for implementation. Typically, these will fall into a series of “buckets” that begin to dictate staging and timing:

Must dos (compliance and risk management).

Low-hanging fruit.


Building blocks to enhance and enable key improvements (anything from culture to hiring to the adoption of new technologies).

Strategic initiatives and new offerings.

And lastly, once you have an overall plan in place, put together an action plan to move into implementation: Build the teams, assign the tasks, set a schedule, and hold everyone accountable. This is a must-win situation, after all.


More than 250 mountain resort operators listened intently to part one of the “Buckle Up” SAM Huddle on July 27, titled, “Operations: Practical Solutions for a Strange Winter Ahead.” The discussion was led by Claire Humber of SE Group with Bull Stockwell Allen’s John Ashworth and Regina Connell. Useful, insightful, and actionable are some of the many adjectives one could use to describe the ideas and information that was shared.

Given how valuable the content is, and that some of it is visual, we asked our co-hosts to put their presentation into print, so we could share it here in the pages of SAM. You can also listen to the conversation on PodSAM, our podcast channel.

Since you’re here, though, buckle up! The next few pages will help you set your plans and inspire new ideas for the strange winter ahead.