As ski resorts around the country slowly reopened for summer, there was both good news and bad news.
First, the bad news: There were no conferences, reunions, weddings, concerts, festivals, group events— “the lion’s share of summer business” at most ski resorts, said Mike Quinn, VP and general manager at Mt. Hood Ski Bowl, Ore.
The closure of the Canadian border impacted many northern resorts. “That has been a gut punch,” said JJ Toland, communications director at Jay Peak, Vt. “Our summer business, specifically golf, breaks 70/30, Canadian/U.S.”
Mandatory quarantines for travelers proved another hurdle for resorts that rely on out-of-state guests. “Ohio is a big market for us,” said Jane Eshbaugh, marketing director at Holiday Valley, N.Y. “But coming here, they had to quarantine for two weeks, which made it challenging.”
Now, the good news: Despite all the hurdles, resorts were busier than expected over the summer. Many saw bumps in leisure travel and new first-time visitors.Resorts learned they could operate in the middle of a pandemic.
“We’re seeing pretty significant business from all over,” said Anna Cole, PR director at Jackson Hole, Wyo. “More demand than we expected.”
“Our leisure travel is actually up,” said Sammie Lukaskiewicz, PR director at Crystal Mountain, Mich.
Shanty Creek, Mich., with four golf courses, two hotels, several condos, hiking, biking, and many water activities at nearby lakes, had to stop taking reservations early in July. “We’ve been extremely busy,” said Lindsay Southwell, PR director. “We’ve been full every weekend since the governor opened up northern Michigan. We lost all our conference and wedding business, but thankfully we made gains with people wanting to come up north.”
Writing a New Manual
It was a summer unlike any other in the mountains. “We basically had to write a new manual on how to operate,” said Cole. “We’re learning as we go.”
Cleanliness was chapter one. Most resorts kept rooms vacant for 24 hours between guests, which also helped meet limited capacity requirements. Jay Peak rested rooms 36 hours before even sending in the housekeeping staff, then another 36 hours before allowing new guests in.
Jackson Hole cleaned gondola cabins with fogging guns every night. Mt. Hood Ski Bowl, which bought 30 portable and stationary ultraviolet cleaning machines, sent alpine slide sleds through an ultraviolet tunnel after every use, while chairlifts went through UV light cleaning at the top of the bullwheel.
“We’re testing and trying all kinds of things,” Quinn said.
Hand sanitizer stations, chemical spray disinfectants, and antimicrobial cleansers were everywhere.
Staffing needs also changed as resorts assigned more employees to constantly wipe down high-touch surfaces and monitor capacity limits at pools and other popular attractions. Most resorts kept indoor pools, with lower capacity limits, closed. Waterparks also took a hit.
“Our outdoor pools had a 50 percent capacity limit, but indoor pools could have only 25 percent, which for us was seven,” said Southwell at Shanty Creek. “So we chose not to open them. It just wasn’t worth it. As it was, we had to put additional staff at the outdoor pools to enforce those occupancy requirements. The executive staff also pitched in. People were understanding for the most part, but it was frustrating.”
Limiting capacity. Because of capacity limits and a desire to cut down on face-to-face interactions, most resorts went to all online reservations for individual attractions. Resorts that ran summer chairlift and gondola operations allowed only family and friend groups to ride together. Mountain bikers had to load their own bikes onto chairs. Golfers had to ride carts solo. Floor signage kept people six feet apart. Staff—both indoor and out—had to wear masks. Guests had to wear masks indoors, and many wore them outdoors as well.
Spa guests at Crystal Mountain had to wear masks, and therapists wore face shields and gloves. “We can’t be cautious enough,” Lukaskiewicz said, noting the task force created to guide reopening was named “Crystal Clean.”
Resorts reported little pushback from guests over mask requirements.
Like many resorts, Purgatory, Colo., closed many of its close-contact attractions that required harnessing or extensive post-use cleaning—things like bungee jumps, zip lines, climbing walls, summer tubing, bouncy houses, etc.
“This has not suppressed demand much, if at all,” said GM Dave Rathbun. “Retail sales and mountain bike rentals are up modestly from last summer. We also increased our outdoor seating for food and beverage, which has been a big hit with guests.”
For most resorts, food and beverage presented the most challenges because of capacity limits, especially indoors.
“We’re definitely seeing the highest impact of the pandemic on our food and beverage operation,” said Brandy Young, controller at Bryce, Va. “There’s been a decrease in the bar and our restaurants. We had to create a new business model, and offer takeout and indoor and outdoor seating, all with new guidelines. Guests are hesitant to come indoors.” »
Lessons for Winter
While summer business has been encouraging, winter makes or breaks most resorts. What insights did they gain?
Pent-up demand for the outdoors. “I think the biggest lesson is that people really want to come to places they love and get outside,” said Eshbaugh, noting that Holiday Valley saw more guest diversity and a lot of first-time visitors from eastern New York.
Many think staycations will be the norm this winter as people continue to shy away from air travel. This bodes well for rubber tire resorts.
Shuttle bus blues. One operation resorts are worried about, however, are their shuttle buses that carry guests between parking lots, lodges, and base facilities. “We have limited parking. We have encouraged guests to take public transportation, but they may not be comfortable doing that,” said Cole at Jackson Hole. “What is the right capacity to keep staff and guests safe and provide a good experience? We’re starting to brainstorm that now.”
Distancing and sanitizing. Southwell anticipates “no more singles lines” as resorts continue to load chairs and gondolas with only family and close friend groups, and more lift ticket kiosks around the base to cut down on face-to-face interactions.
At Crystal, Lukaskiewicz said fewer hand sanitizing stations will be needed outdoors in winter, since guests will be wearing gloves and mittens, and skis can help guests socially distance while standing in line. All resorts said they will continue to require online reservations.
Low-touch rentals. “Rentals may be the same as the bike park,” said Young at Bryce. “We moved to all online, pre-booking with the bike park to limit customers in the building, get them out quicker, keep the flow going. Customers have to pick up their own equipment, social distance. We are considering that for rentals. Book all online, pick up their own equipment, having a quicker process, limit people in the rental shop.”
The F&B challenge. Young said food and beverage will remain the biggest hurdle. “Capacity is a problem. We’ll have to get creative and see what type of outside eats we can provide.”
Quinn agreed that F&B will be a challenge. “How to spread people out? We’re trying to get creative, different satellite food stations, maybe bring in some food trucks.”
Guest communications. Quinn said communicating with guests will be critical. “Our ability to communicate with guests—what is expected of them and what they can expect—is going to be very important, whether it’s onsite signage, social media. We need to use all our different channels.”
Next, the big test: winter ops. All agreed the summer has been a good test run for the upcoming winter season. But for all the optimism and insights gained, resort operators know the real proving ground lies ahead.