SAM Magazine—Jan. 7, 2021, Ludlow, Vt.—This holiday period didn’t break any visitation records, but demand across the country was solid, even as conditions varied wildly from region to region. For many North American resorts, this was also the first major test of their Covid-related policies, with mask compliance overall pretty good, though some areas have had to crackdown.
In Utah, demand was solid but snow was well below average, said Ski Utah’s Nathan Rafferty. While a few resorts, like Snowbird and Alta, were open wall-to-wall, many in the state were dealing with limited terrain. Natural snowfall was in short supply, but temps were cold. Resorts like Park City and Deer Valley were able to keep guests sliding on manmade snow.
Mask compliance has been a major focus of Utah’s resorts, said Rafferty, noting that compliance is happening but takes effort. The Covid-related messaging is sinking in, though, particularly when it comes to the “your car is your base lodge” line. As a result, guests spent less on food and beverage than expected.
Still, the holiday period has Rafferty optimistic about the rest of the season. “Christmas is a really good stress test, and I think Utah’s resorts passed with flying colors,” he said.
The situation in Colorado was similar, with limited snow but high demand. CSCUSA’s Melanie Mills noted that most member resorts reported visitation that met or exceed their expectations given Covid constraints. Parking lots full of out-of-state plates suggested that earlier predictions about an expanded drive market were accurate.
A handful of Colorado areas saw softer numbers than anticipated, though. Mills speculated that industry efforts encouraging visitors to avoid peak periods may be the cause.
Skier visits and revenue were down for the period at Powderhorn, Colo., said Vern Greco of Pacific Group Resorts (PGR). The resort relied on its new snowmaking to make up for a lack of natural snow, and guests enjoyed bluebird skies and warmer temps over the holiday.
The mild weather was a boon for outdoor grab and go dining, said Mills. And solid mask compliance was supported by staff frequently reminding guests to keep their noses covered.
Mt. Hood Meadows, Ore., is increasing the consequences for non-mask compliance post-holiday. Some guests had to be removed from the mountain over the vacation period for failure to comply and subsequent hostile behavior toward staff.
Going forward, violators will receive a warning and have their ticket/pass information recorded. Polite guests will be allowed to go with just that warning. Hostile guests will be suspended for at least two weeks. Offenders will need to meet with the department of public safety manager before their passes can be reactivated.
Kim Clark, GM of Bluewood, Wash., also noted that mask compliance was tough this period. “No matter how many signs and reminders, it is still a challenge,” he said. A large chunk of the ski area’s guests come from neighboring Idaho, a mask-optional state, so mask compliance required continuous guest education.
Bluewood had a successful December, with visits up 70 percent on its five-year average for the month. The holiday period was up 40 percent on the five-year average, and a whopping 160 percent year-over-year, a result of pent up demand, said Clark.
In California, stay-at-home orders meant lodging was only available for essential travelers, not skiers. Ski California president Michael Reitzell said that, as a result, Tahoe ski areas closer to Nevada, where accommodation was available, saw higher visitation than other California destination resorts. Ski areas in drive markets saw little drop off in visitation, other than self-imposed capacity restrictions.
Some timely snow boosted the overall visitation numbers a bit, although the state is still working with below average snowfall. Ancillary services, including ski school, rental, and F&B, were all lower than expected, even taking Covid modifications into consideration. Reitzell saw two reasons for this: “The stay-at-home order likely had an effect on those services. The core skier with little need for ancillary services was more prevalent,” he said.
Showdown, Mont., got a bit of a late start this season due to lack of snow, opening Dec. 18 instead of Dec. 11. The resort is well on its way to catching up, though, said marketing director Avery Patrick. Lift ticket and pass sales are up significantly, but F&B is down. The ski area is focused now on adapting Covid policies as needed, conducting daily reviews to create a safe environment for guests and staff.
Unlike many other regions, the entire Pacific Northwest rang in the new year with a serious storm cycle. The ferocity of the storm, which dropped snow from northern California to B.C., forced several Vancouver-area resorts to shut down on Saturday, Jan. 2. Mount Seymour and Grouse Mountain were among those closed. Whistler Blackcombissued an extreme weather warning and kept a number of lifts offline.
The snow created precarious conditions in the backcountry. A rider at Mt. Washington, B.C., who decided to head off piste despite clear advisories from the resort and from Avalanche Canada, was caught in an out of bounds avalanche without a transceiver, shovel, or probe—and survived.
Mt. Washington generally enjoyed a solid vacation period. Total revenue for the holiday was up, said PGR’s Greco, but big revenue centers like F&B suffered.
In the next province over, Canyon Ski Resort, Alberta, sold out Dec. 30 and Dec. 31. The ski area’s tubing park was also busy, selling out on Dec. 31.
Powder Ridge, Minn., saw high demand over the holiday. Per the Governor’s orders, the ski area’s chalet was closed for indoor seating, but guests adapted well to the restrictions, said marketing director Shelby Hedtke. Moderate weather over the Christmas break made the outdoor-only seating highly viable.
The ski area also saw more beginners than it had ever seen before, said Hedtke. “It was amazing to see individuals who may have never thought about skiing before give the sport a try!”
Lutsen Mountains, Minn., finished the holiday period slightly below its long-term average. Director of sales and marketing Jim Vick attributed that in part to self-imposed capacity restrictions and no day traffic from Thunder Bay, Canada. However, a strong start to the season has Lutsen ahead of its five-year average, season to date, thanks to increased weekday visitation.
Vick noted the mask compliance at the resort was very good, and guests were well prepared to use their cars as their base lodges.
Traffic was steady through the holiday at Cascade Mountain, Wis., which sold out every day from Dec. 26 to Jan. 3. Cascade had favorable snowmaking temps and operated with roughly three quarters of its terrain open.
Covid policy enforcement went fairly smoothly, said director of marketing Evan Walz, noting that, “99 percent of the time, when I have to ask someone to pull their mask up, it is simply because the person forgot, and they are quick to correct it.” Walz also noted that capacity limits at Cascade had the positive effect of shorter lift lines.
Granite Peak, Wis., was 95 percent open for the holiday week with almost 100 percent manmade snow, although it did receive 1” for Christmas, said GM Greg Fisher. Thanks to that aggressive snowmaking and good holiday weather, visits were up substantially YOY, said Fisher. Advanced lift tickets sold out from Dec. 29 – Jan. 2.
Mild, 30-degree temps made it easier to keep guests outside. In anticipation of this season, Granite installed a 40’ x 60’ tent and new patio-style heaters.
Guests were generally compliant with mask wearing, with some reinforcement required at the chalet and lift lines. Fisher noted that some Covid policies, like advance purchase tickets and no bags in the base lodge, have had positive impacts and will probably stick around in the future.
Business was strong and weather was ideal over the holiday period at Sugar Mountain, N.C., said VP Kim Jochl. The ski area sold out some days over the holiday week for the first time ever thanks to capacity limitations.
At Wintergreen, Va., snowmaking hours and production were the lowest in five years, limiting terrain availability. Skier days and revenue were down for the holiday year-over-year.
Wisp Resort, Md., enjoyed mostly favorable weather for the entire holiday period and was ahead of the previous year in skier days and revenue. F&B was the hardest hit revenue center, which holds true across the enterprise, noted PRG’s Greco.
Seven Springs, Laurel Mountain, and Hidden Valley, a cohort of Pennsylvania resorts, saw solid demand and snowfall over the Christmas vacation. “We were sold out of lift tickets for four days across all three resorts,” said marketing director Alex Moser. The region also experienced its largest Christmas snowfall in 85 years, making up for a warm early season. Indoor dining was shut down from Dec. 12 to Jan. 4, and the resorts also capped their lodging.
Blue Mountain in Pennsylvania also has a successful holiday despite a late start with a twenty-five percent increase in visitation among skiers and snow tubers. Their biggest challenges remains food and beverage operations, which are prohibited inside. A pivot to outdoor options, including food trucks, has kept guests happy.
Visits at Ski Butternut, Mass., were down slightly due to significant capacity limits, but the ski area sold out just about every day with mostly decent weather, said director of marketing Dillon Mahon. An 18” dump of snow the week before the holiday was followed by a rain storm on Christmas that washed it all away. Butternut managed to get back up to 19 of 22 trails open and is expecting to be 100 percent open in the next few days.
Butternut instituted reservation-only time slots for tubing with great success, allowing more people to tube and providing a better guest experience, said Mahon. F&B, lodging, lessons, and rentals all took a hit over the holiday, though.
The snow and subsequent rain that fell in Massachusetts also hit Vermont. Okemo Mountain saw 44” ahead of the holiday, the most in Vermont, but much of that was washed away by Christmas. Snowmaking temps and a few follow-up dustings allowed the ski area to resurface.
Between travel and quarantine requirements and the closure of the Canadian border, Vermont ski areas are expected to have seen a fraction of their typical visits. Holiday business in Vermont was forecasted to be off between 30 and 70 percent, said Ski Vermont’s Molly Mahar. The Governor is watching contact tracing data and using that to inform the tightening and loosening of restrictions in the state, which has some of the strictest guidelines in the country.
Strong season pass sales at Smugglers’ Notch, Vt., meant the resort found itself imposing limits on day tickets regularly throughout the holiday. Inconsistent temps and a lack of natural snowfall (the storm that dumped 44” at Okemo dropped just 4” at Smuggs’) left the resort with limited terrain and a more urgent need to manage volume.
Smuggs’ guests brought a positive attitude toward mask compliance, said communications director Mike Chait. Staff stationed at corrals and in base areas were around to enforce policies, but found guests were largely just in need of friendly reminders to help build new habits.
New Hampshire, which has more lax travel restrictions than neighboring Vermont, suffered from the same weather-related challenges as its twin state. “We lost 18 inches of snow in 8 hours” on Christmas Day, said McIntyre Ski Area GM Ross Boisvert. The ski area was still able to open Dec. 26, despite the less-than-ideal conditions.
However, during vacation week the mountain was up 42 percent in lesson reservations, 31 percent in lift ticket sales, and 32 percent in tubing. Tubing has sold out for nearly every session since it opened Dec. 27, said Boisvert. Food service was the only department down YOY, but only by a small margin. McIntyre reduced capacity in its lodge and shop but increased outdoor seating, investing in heat towers and custom fire pits.
Ragged Mountain, N.H., received 4 feet of snow just in time for the holiday and then closed, along with most New Hampshire areas, on Christmas Day due to high winds and heavy rain. “Literally, overnight, 4 feet of snow disappeared,” said PRG’s Greco. Skier days and revenue in all ancillary revenue centers were off significantly for the holiday, Greco reported.
Cranmore, N.H., also had to close Christmas Day due to weather, but aggressive early-season snowmaking meant it still had a base to resurface afterwards. Post-Christmas snowmaking temps and 6” of natural snow on Jan. 2 helped recover. The resort sold out of lift tickets in advance for most days of the holiday week, carefully managing inventory since passholders can ski or ride without a reservation.
Guests were mostly cooperative about following new Covid-related policies, said marketing director Becca Deschenes. Cranmore is focused on communicating with visitors ahead of arrival so there are no surprises, she said.
Sunday River, Maine, also closed Christmas Day as a result of the heavy rain and warm temps. Solid snowmaking windows throughout the week allowed the resort to resurface, and Sunday River saw 10” of natural snow at the tail end of the holiday period.
Visitation was down, but that was by design, said communications director Karolyn Castaldo. “We put a cap on the available lift tickets per day, and moved to an online-only policy for ticket sales shortly before the holiday period. This, combined with several blacked-out pass and ticket pack products, kept the slopes uncrowded for the holiday period, and allowed us to manage capacity.”
The mountain had a significant number of patrollers and mountain hosts out reminding guests to physically distance and put their masks on in lift lines. Sunday River also implemented a flagging system around the outside of the base lodges to indicate changes in traffic flow through the lodge.
In Quebec, the weather over the holiday presented a major challenge to ski areas. Poor weather conditions Dec. 24 and 25 forced virtually all resorts to shut down temporarily.
The return of cold temps and the arrival of the first snowfall ushered in the new year, though. Dec. 31 was the busiest day of the long holiday, reported Josee Cusson of the Quebec Ski Areas Association. Several Quebec ski areas were fully booked for the last weekend of the holiday break.
Ontario resorts were closed for the holiday period due to a province-wide lockdown that began Dec. 26. “It would have been a really good day had we been open,” said Paul Pinchbeck, president of the Canadian Ski Council, referring to New Year’s Day.
Despite a difficult Christmas, ski resort owners are betting on January and February to revive the season.
Across the pond, French resorts are also grappling with lockdowns and lost revenue. Domaines Skiables de France released a statement asking the government to commit to allowing resorts to reopen Jan. 7, per the initial agreement.
“At four weeks before the February holidays, the challenge is major to restart the stations, deprived of 80 percent of activity at Christmas. Domaines Skiables de France wishes to show by example that the health protocols in place are effective and that skiing is not a risky activity,” said Domaines Skiables de France’s Laurent Reynaud.