Plan ahead, pack a lunch, and rev up the heater in your car. Skiing is going retro.
In order to operate under COVID-19 restrictions, ski areas are going back to the basics and putting the focus squarely on skiing and riding. No more hanging out in the base lodge. No more leisurely gourmet lunches. No more browsing through the retail shop or sipping a brew at the bar. It’s Porta-Potties, face masks, social distancing, and eating in your car.
“People used to coming in the base lodge and settling down for the day won’t be able to do that this winter,” says Rachel Wilkinson, marketing director at Shawnee Peak, Maine. “They can come in, warm up, grab a snack, and then we’ll be asking them to leave.”
“Access to our lodge will be very limited,” agrees Troy Hawks, sales and marketing director at Sunlight, Colo. “We will ask our guests to save room in the lodge for our youngest and oldest guests, and advise hipsters and families with older kids to consider their cars their base camp this season.”
Needed: Practical Solutions
Indoor facilities will bear the brunt of COVID capacity restrictions. Bars will be closed, so no bands or live music. Indoor food will be limited to snacks and grab-and-go items. There will be more outdoor food options, such as food trucks and grills, but choices will still be limited. Areas plan to provide more outdoor seating, portable bathrooms, tents, and heating elements. And guests will be encouraged to bring lunch and eat in their cars, as resorts struggle to adhere to strict indoor capacity limits.
Killington/Pico, Vt., president Mike Solimano says the resort has learned from hosting crowds of 30,000-plus at the Women’s World Cup the last three years that it’s not easy to accommodate large crowds in the cold.
“Nobody wants to go into a porta john when it’s 10 degrees out,” says Solimano. And, he says, at altitude tents can blow over easily. “You need solutions that are actually practical and don’t just look great on paper.”
This season, Killington is contemplating having employees with clickers at lodge entrances and exits, and some type of electronic board showing capacity in front of every lodge. The resort may also use gondola barns as warm-up hubs.
Magic Mountain, Vt., which sold a record number of season passes this year, will let guests reserve a 45-minute time slot in the lodge to eat. First come, first served. “We’ve also added additional eating areas outside, and we’re encouraging guests to use their cars as a mini base lodge,” says president Geoff Hatheway.
Sunday River, Maine, with all its conferences canceled or postponed, will utilize the 46,000 square feet of meeting rooms in its two hotels for additional warming and eating space. It will also implement an online food ordering system.
“You can order food from your phone, and get it delivered to whatever space you’re seated in,” says Karolyn Castaldo, communications director.
Big Sky, Mont., will use 8,000 square feet in its Yellowstone Conference Center as additional lodge space. “We don’t know if people will be able to purchase food there,” says Stacie Mesuda, PR manager. “We’re working on it.”
“Working on it” is the operational theme this season. The only constants this winter will be face coverings, social distancing, and riding lifts with family and close friends only. Everything else is subject to local solutions and sudden change. No matter how detailed their initial plans, resorts know they have to be flexible and able to respond quickly to any new outbreaks, guest snafus, or other unanticipated situations.
Many resorts, especially those on multiarea passes, are instituting some kind of reservation system. But for many others, it will be business as (almost) usual.
At Holiday Valley, N.Y., “We’re thinking we’ll be fine just doing what we’ve been doing—letting people come without signing up,” says Jane Eshbaugh, marketing director. Although, she adds, “we’ve got backup plans if we get a lot busier than we thought, especially over the holidays.”
Eshbaugh notes that Holiday Valley doesn’t typically sell a large number of season passes, and, with the Canadian border closed, sales are down a bit.
Jay Peak, Vt., with 50 percent of its business coming from Canada, is anticipating volume will be down by half. “Our expectation is that there will be plenty of room to spread out here at the mountain this year,” says general manager Steve Wright. Jay plans no restrictions on season passes or day tickets.
Similarly, even on the busiest days at Sunlight, visitation is typically below 50 percent capacity, says Hawks. “With this,” he notes, “we are not anticipating having to restrict access.”
Many Ways to Mitigate Crowding
Many other independent resorts will also operate as usual, with the exception of having no walkup ticket sales. Most resorts are urging day visitors to buy their tickets online, ahead of time.
One exception is Boyne-owned Sunday River, which will be open only for passholders, at least initially. “We don’t know when we’ll open for day tickets,” says Castaldo, but Ikon and Sunday River passholders will be able to come to the mountain sans reservations.
Big Sky, also Boyne-owned, isn’t requiring passholder reservations either, but will sell walkup tickets—though these may be limited. “We’re urging guests to secure access by purchasing day tickets online,” says Mesuda.
While Big Sky is hoping to avoid a reservation system, notes Mesuda, it will introduce Early Access, a program that allows guests to reserve lift access starting at 8 a.m., an hour before opening to all guests, to help alleviate early morning base area congestion. Early Access reservations will be limited in number, and must be purchased in advance online.
Jackson Hole, Wyo., will start lifts earlier than usual, at 8:30 a.m., and run them at higher speeds to mitigate early morning crowding in the base area. It will not have a reservation system for passes. To encourage advance purchase of day tickets, Jackson will offer a 10 percent discount on those purchased at least 14 days in advance, or 5 percent discount if the ticket is purchased at least 7 days in advance.
To avoid the need for a reservation system, Sugar Bowl, Calif., stopped selling season passes in early September. Jon Slaughter, executive director of marketing, says Sugar Bowl had already decided to limit daily lift tickets, but a surge in pass sales led the resort to hit the pause button on those as well.
“We can’t guarantee that we won’t need to introduce a reservation system for passholders at some point, because the coronavirus situation is constantly changing,” says Slaughter. “By limiting the number of passes we sell, our goal is to safely and comfortably accommodate all of our passholder guests each day this winter, without a need for them to reserve their visit days in advance.”
Alterra Mountain Company CEO Rusty Gregory says day tickets at its 15 resorts in the U.S. and Canada will be sold online only, and tightly monitored as it prioritizes season passholders.
Vail Resorts is requiring reservations, prioritizing Epic passholders. It will not sell day tickets until Dec. 8. Before then, passholders will get exclusive access to its open resorts, as long as they book up to 7 days in advance. They can also prebook up to 7 core-season days before Dec. 8. If passholders can’t get the days they want during the core season, which runs Dec. 8–April 4, and have not used their pass, they will be eligible for a refund.
POWDR-owned Copper and Eldora, Colo., and Killington/Pico, Vt., are planning to control access for all visitors, passholders included, through a parking reservation system, although at press time it was unclear exactly how the system will work.
“This is definitely going to be a more challenging season,” says Magic’s Hatheway. “But we’re all working hard to make it as safe and fun as possible.”