SAM Magazine—Boulder, Colo., Nov. 3, 2020—American skiers and riders are willing to make several accommodations to the novel coronavirus when they hit the slopes this winter, according to a survey of more than 20,000 downhillers conducted in September by RRC Associates. Knowing how guests are prepared to modify their routines, and understanding their level of acceptance for different COVID-19 management steps, helps ski area managers and marketers predict the steps and processes that will require the greatest attention to guest education.
Most snowsports enthusiasts are ready to adapt to pandemic-related changes. They plan to wear a face covering around the base area and while riding lifts, to make an online appointment to rent equipment, and to eat lunch at their car or outside. They plan to spend less time indoors generally, and in retail, rental, and dining areas in particular. They are generally OK with longer lift lines due to unrelated parties not riding together on chairlifts; they are evenly split on whether or not they are comfortable with the idea of riding the chairlift with strangers.
Skiing midweek will be more common, with nearly half of survey respondents saying they are more likely to ski midweek this winter. That will help spread skier visits out across the week and could alleviate some weekend crowding. Changes to school formats—in-person, online, and hybrid—could move the needle on mid-week visits in either direction, though, and resorts should monitor school schedules and formats closely.
Roughly one-third of skiers and riders are also changing how they travel. Of those, 5 percent said they would drive to the same destination they would normally fly to; respondents in this group said they were willing to drive 870 miles on average to reach their destination. Another 13 percent said they would switch to a closer destination (within 350 miles, on average) and drive rather than fly.
“Skiers and riders continue to show that they’ll do what it takes to get out on the hill. ... This level of flexibility and resilience among snowsports enthusiasts is impressive, even during a pandemic,” said Jesse True from the Insights Collective.
The willingness to remain flexible means skiers and riders are very receptive to receiving up-to-the-minute text message updates from resorts, such as those made at Australian resort Thredbo last summer concerning wind holds and other weather-related impacts, said David Belin, director of consulting services for RRC Associates. Email and resort or town apps are also good ways to communicate current information and changes.
“This continual use of technology to manage the visitor experience in an effort to provide a seamless experience will become a standard going forward for destinations,” said Carl Ribaudo, president of SMG Consulting and a member of the Insights Collective.
Less Popular Changes
But not all skiers and riders plan to change their behavior in all aspects of their visit, and some don't anticipate any changes at all. Nearly half (47 percent) said they will travel by the same mode as in the past; 19 percent were unsure of how they would travel.
Some snowsport school plans run counter to participant preferences. For example, most skiers (65 percent) plan to enroll children in weekend ski lessons and not midweek, and would prefer full-day lessons to half-day (64 percent). Further, carpooling will be less popular than in the past, and that could strain resort parking infrastructure.
Overall, skiers and riders are likely to increase their off-mountain sporting activities by only a little. While 27 percent said they would do more off-mountain activities, 17 percent said they would do less off-mountain. Most skiers and riders are not planning to add snowshoeing, backcountry, or snowmobiling to their off-mountain activities.
For those visitors who do plan to find adventure off-mountain, "resort areas can help to show them how to access and safely participate in those alternate activities," said Belin.
Of course, more non-skiing visitors are likely to show up looking for outdoor activities this winter. Belin noted that 96 percent of survey respondents feel they can safely take part in dispersed outdoor recreation. This high level of comfort should mean robust demand from non-downhilling visitors for activities such as ice skating and Nordic skiing.
“Resorts and resort towns will need to have plans in place to accommodate this additional demand for alternate activities and to manage capacity appropriately,” said Barb Carpenter of the Insights Collective. “Communication with visitors about the availability and safety of alternate activities will be key to ensuring a good guest experience.”
Concerns for the Winter
One of the biggest concerns of both visitors and locals alike is whether ski resorts will be able to stay open all winter. About two-thirds of visitors and locals indicated that they were worried that, as happened last March, resorts could be forced to close abruptly.
Local residents are most concerned over whether guests will follow health and safety protocols, and related to that, the arrival of visitors from major cities and virus hot spots. Understandably, the overall health and safety of the community is also a major concern, along with the potential impact of COVID-19 on the local economy.
Lodging options could be squeezed this season, too. While the majority of second homeowners plan to use and rent their second homes as usual, about one in five said they plan to reserve their home more for themselves or for friends/family. That could reduce the short-term rental inventory in some resort towns. And that's important, as survey respondents said they are slightly more comfortable with rent-by-owner lodging than with a traditional hotel, citing safety, cleanliness and the ability to make and eat meals more easily.
The Big Picture
These national-level survey results indicate that resort managers should anticipate a positive ski season, albeit quite different than the past, and that safety, cleanliness, communication, and flexibility will be critical to that success.
"The big picture is that skiers are planning to get out this winter," Belin said. "They are researching and booking, showing strong trip-planning behavior. If resorts can stay open, they will do well."
Report by Rick Kahl, Editor, SAM Magazine