Last summer, in the midst of the pandemic, ski resorts had no idea what to expect except masks, cleaning, social distancing, capacity limits, and a hard pause on weddings and group events. Surprisingly, despite all the uncertainties and restrictions, resorts had a strong 2020 summer that carried over right into the winter season.
“People wanted to come up to the mountains to enjoy the open and fresh air,” said Maren Franciosi, communications manager at Steamboat, Colo. “They felt safe here.”
Now, as vaccinations rise, infections decline, and restrictions ease, will people still flock to the mountains? The answer appears to be a resounding “Yes!”
“The demand is great for outdoor summer activities, just as we saw last year,” said Barb Green, president of Blue Mountain, Pa.
“We’re expecting a very good summer,” echoed Anna Cole, PR manager at Jackson Hole, Wyo. “Already we’re seeing our lodging numbers above the summer of 2019.”
“Our camps are filling up at an amazing rate. They could be sold out by the end of May, the soonest that has ever happened,” added Matt Peterson, VP of marketing and brand management at Boreal/Woodward Tahoe, Calif.
WEDDING BELLS, BIKES, AND SPLISH, SPLASH
Weddings and events pacing ahead. “We lost all our wedding and conference business last year. That is starting to come back in a big way,” said Tiana Anderson, marketing director at Crystal Mountain, Wash. “We’re expecting pre-pandemic numbers.”
With group size allowances back at full capacity (from a maximum of eight people last summer), Anderson said the sales team was pacing ahead of expectations, and that pace will likely continue. “We’re planning for a lot of last-minute weddings. Normally, bookings are a year in advance,” she said.
In addition to hiking, camping, disc golf, horseback riding, and gondola rides, Crystal has introduced glamping in 20 new luxury tents. The rental model is aimed at corporate retreats, weddings, and other groups of 20-50 people that will buy out the entire space for their group’s experience, with all meals and lawn activities included. Campers can also purchase add-ons, such as fly fishing, paddleboarding, yoga, wine tasting, and more. Crystal also has 66 RV sites.
Overall, Anderson said ticketed activities were down 25 percent last summer. “Things are starting to look a little bit more normal, although I’m not sure what normal looks like,” she said.
Giants Ridge, Minn., with two golf courses and the Midwest’s largest lift-serviced mountain biking trail network (18 miles), has a busy summer ahead with weddings and special events. “We couldn’t have them last year,” said Jaimie Niska, marketing director. “We’re booked every weekend from May to October. We still have opportunities for mid-week events.”
Blue Mountain, which added a new Segway tour and beginner high ropes course to its long list of summer activities, including mountain biking, hiking, zip lining, camping, glamping, and chairlift rides, is also seeing a big uptick in weddings and other group events.
Oktoberfest is back. Although Snowbird, Utah, is hosting weddings and conferences again, some other large events are off the schedule, including its Cool Air concert series and Father’s Day BBQ. But the resort’s famous Oktoberfest is back on the calendar.
“It’s one of our most popular events of the year and was greatly missed last summer,” said Sarah Sherman, Snowbird communications manager. “It’s been happening for almost as long as Snowbird has been open.”
Sherman said hotel and F&B operations will be open, but for the second year in a row Snowbird is not offering tram-accessed mountain biking. Jackson Hole is also not operating its tram again this summer, but is adding another lift for mountain biking.
Mountain bike offerings expand. Jackson Hole expanded its rental-bike fleet, but is not accepting bike reservations this season. “We had problems with people not showing up last year after reserving a bike,” Cole explained, so rentals are “first come, first served.”
Big Sky, Mont., is also expanding its lift capacity for mountain biking. Loon Mountain, N.H., reopened its Adventure Center (closed last summer) and expanded its mountain biking operation with new trails.
Nearly normal operations resume. Mt. Hood Skibowl, Ore., planned to open its summer operations June 11 despite numerous Covid-risk unknowns. Skibowl VP and general manager Mike Quinn said he hoped the resort will be edging back to normal operations by early- to mid-July.
“We had good demand last summer, strong demand through winter and expect the same for summer again this year,” said Quinn. Full or nearly normal operations will resume for mountain biking, the alpine slide, tree-top zip tours, and scenic chair rides, although high-touch areas like the resort’s indoor play structure may remain closed.
Waterparks reopen. Boyne Mountain’s Avalanche Bay waterpark reopened June 4 at 50 percent capacity, and will move to full capacity—along with the resort’s F&B, lodging, golf, mountain biking, fly fishing, and other activities—beginning July 1, when Michigan lifts all Covid restrictions. Last summer, the waterpark operated intermittently and was closed all winter. Weddings and corporate and group events are also back on the calendar.
“We’re starting to see pre-Covid demand and bookings,” said PR manager Erin Ernst.
Camp offerings shift. After canceling the first four camps (all snow camps) last summer because of Covid, Boreal/Woodward Tahoe decided to make the change permanent. The resort also switched to weeklong day camps instead of overnight camps.
“We made some big strategic decisions over the winter due to Covid in preparation for this summer,” said Peterson. Woodward Copper, Colo., will now take all the snow programs, and Woodward Pennsylvania will take all the cheer and gymnastics programs. “[Woodward Tahoe is] focused on skateboarding, mountain bike, and other sports,” said Peterson.
The switch to a day camp model has lowered the average age of participants from 11 to 9.5, and the number of female participants was up. This new model also allowed Woodward Tahoe to open camps up to the general public who can come any day and participate using a new subscription pass ($139 a month for a minimum of four months). “They can use the pass any day, log into a portal and book sessions they want to participate in,” said Peterson.
The changes have lowered the barrier for kids to come to Woodward. Peterson credited the pandemic for moving the resorts in that direction. “Covid helped us open up the aperture and bring Woodward to more people,” he said. “People are really responding.”
Covid-19 restrictions for guests and employees at resorts around the country continue to evolve depending on the jurisdiction.
“We’re in a bunch of unknowns right now,” said Skibowl’s Quinn. “We went from moderate risk to extreme risk to takeout-dining-only in restaurants [in mid-May]. We just lifted the mask mandate. The landscape is changing so rapidly you don’t know what you don’t know. Our exact Covid policies are yet to be ironed out.”
Most resorts said they will follow all CDC and state and local regulations regarding mask wearing and social distancing, although some of the emerging requirements can often be confusing.
Safety measures remain. “We’re still going to require masks if people are not vaccinated, but it’s a little early to answer how we are going to validate that,” said Anderson at Crystal. “Employees who are not vaccinated will also be asked to wear masks. The gondola is still going to be restricted to members of the same household.”
Sherman said Snowbird is still operating under its Operation Stay Safe protocols (increased sanitation measures, employees wearing face coverings, etc.). “We are also currently asking guests to wear face coverings whether they are vaccinated or not. At this time, we do not have a set date for these guidelines to end,” she said.
Loon in New Hampshire is also asking all guests 5 and up, whether vaccinated or not, to wear masks indoors and in certain circumstances outdoors. “Masks are not required in outdoor settings provided six feet of distance can be maintained,” said Louise Smith, communications manager.
Smith said gondola Skyride tickets will also be limited and available in time slots, and mountain biking lesson capacity will be limited to ensure social distancing.
Giants Ridge has a simple message: “Our staff wear masks; guests are not required to,” said Niska.
As summer in the mountains kicks off, easing restrictions and increased demand mean the months ahead will likely be busy. Here’s to a safe and successful summer from coast to coast.