Just as surely as the morning sun will rise in the east, the winter-sports season will kick into action in November. That said, clouds of uncertainty, scudding on the winds of a pandemic, have resorts that offer tubing in search of operational adjustments to ensure a safe and profitable undertaking.
What sanitizing measures will be necessary? How will masking and spacing be enforced? How will food-and-beverage services be modified? With likely capacity restrictions, either voluntarily adopted or mandated by state or local ordinances, how can a resort generate black numbers on the bottom line?
Summer Fuels Optimism
Tubing operators should take some heart in anecdotal reports coming in from summer recreational enterprises—e.g., adventure parks, river-rafting companies, golf courses—that business survived COVID-19 just fine. In many cases, business actually boomed, as families in particular sought alternative summer activities, with youth sports leagues, summer camps, and other summer recreation shut down.
Mike Quinn, vice president and general manager at Mt. Hood Skibowl in Oregon, says that summer business, including tubing, was “on or ahead” of previous years’ numbers, and that the resort was pleasantly “surprised by the visitation.” That bodes well for the resort’s “Cosmic Tubing” operation (tubing jazzed up with music and a light show) this winter.
Rob Friedl, general manager of Ski Sunburst, with a 50-lane tubing facility in Wisconsin, says he was encouraged in hearing that local golf courses “were slammed. They’d seen nothing like it in 20 years.” Bill Pawson, owner and president of tube supplier Tube Pro says that “the river [tubing] business was through the roof.”
So, limitations enforced by the pandemic response don’t necessarily preordain a losing winter for 2020-21.
An Unsettled Situation
Still, operations will most assuredly not be the same. The exact nature of changes to be enacted is still unclear. “A lot of clients [tubing resorts] are waiting for legislation to determine step-by-step protocols,” Pawson notes. But tubing operations are a cash cow for many, so it pays to have a plan.
Kenny Hess, ski area general manager at Massanutten Resort in Virginia, anticipates that “we are going to struggle to meet demand,” given the reduced capacity of 25 percent he anticipates as a result of state restrictions and social distancing requirements. Massanutten got something of a test run with its summer tubing operations, but winter operations are of an order of magnitude higher—it runs two lanes in summer, versus 12 to 14 lanes in winter.
Hess says that Massanutten might limit the time of tubing sessions, shrinking from two hours to one and a half hours. Running more sessions would help make up the revenue loss of having fewer tubers per session. Another tactic might be to raise prices; at least one adventure park operator reported raising prices this summer—twice—and nobody blinked. “Price points need to be taken into consideration,” Quinn agrees.
Adapting to Restrictions
Reduced capacity, of course, is likely to be an issue only during peak periods. Many summer park operators reported a significant uptick in midweek business, and if tubing operators experience a similar surge, overall revenues won’t take a significant hit. Regardless of how many tubers are on site at any given time, certain operational modifications will have to be applied.
Start with ticket sales. Tubing operators are likely to follow the leads of summer park operators and ski resorts by moving all—or virtually all—sales online, reducing the person-to-person contact of on-site sales. “We’ll be selling tickets through a reservation model,” says Friedl, “and move away from the [onsite] free-for-all.” Quinn says that at Mt. Hood Skibowl, online transactions will come with a bar code that can be scanned with a phone and printed out at kiosks for validation.
Once guests are actually engaged in the activity, some measures will need to be taken to enforce social distancing requirements, possibly mandated by the state. Pawson notes that, given the cold-weather nature of winter tubing, guests will arrive “all bundled up,” wearing gloves, face masks and goggles just to stay warm. “People will come prepared,” Pawson predicts. That might help reduce the likelihood of virus transmission, but it is no absolution for operators from safety considerations in keeping guests properly spaced. Social distancing and masking.
Policing. With the shifting sands of state mandates, just how resorts will have to enforce masking and spacing will vary from state to state, and perhaps even from week to week. Even so, resorts are making plans.
Hess says that at Massanutten, he expects to have a host—“a kind of doorman”—to remind guests about spacing and masking. In contrast, Friedl anticipates employing something of a laissez-faire approach to it, expecting customers to take it upon themselves to practice safety measures “because we can’t police it.”
Policing may be less of an issue than some may fear, though. Summer operators reported that guests were overwhelmingly compliant with safety measures, such as masking, and were appreciative of resorts taking the necessary steps.
Of course, policing will be especially challenging at a tubing operation that can see as many as 1,000 guests at any one time. Still, Friedl expects to spray-paint spacing markings on Ski Sunburst’s two conveyor lifts to help distance tubers properly. Spacing marks on conveyor lifts aren’t new; Sam Geise of Geise Engineering says markings have been used pre-COVID “to keep people from bunching up at unloading.” Visual aids.
Indoor challenges. As with other aspects of winter resorts, spacing is expected to be particularly challenging in indoor settings: bathrooms, food-and beverage services, and refuges from the cold. That may be a lesser concern with tubing, since many visitors will not need to go indoors during a two-hour time slot, say.
Nonetheless, “It’s going to be the indoor-lodge piece that will be the big unknown,” says Tim Bruce, loss control consultant for Safehold Special Risk.
The go-to solution for many operators is to offer outdoor alternatives. More portalets, through-the-window grab-and-go food service, food trucks and carts, fire pits and heat lamps for outdoor warmth, and tents. Mary Beth Myers, director of sales for tube supplier Idaho Sewing for Sports, says several clients are eyeing tents, with seating areas divided by clear vinyl panels.
While fire pits are not a new concept for tubing operators, “they’ll be going strong this winter,” says Friedl, an opinion echoed by others. Quinn says that at Mt. Hood Skibowl, tubers will be urged ahead of time to bring their own lunches and be prepared to warm up in their cars.
Group transportation generally doesn’t fall under the purview of resort managers, but transportation concerns are likely to reduce group business. That said, if summer operations are a good model, the loss of large groups could be offset by the arrival of more smaller clusters, families in particular. In other words, a group of 40 schoolchildren in a bus might turn into several cars with families of four or more.
The last important piece of the COVID-19 puzzle is cleanliness, specifically sanitizing tubes. With guests arriving in full winter garb, chances of coronavirus transmission via surface contact are probably low. Nevertheless, tube cleaning will be expected, and a variety of cleaning solutions might work.
Hess says Massanutten used peroxide this summer, although he was looking for a better cold-weather solution. Meyers suggests Formula 409. Mt. Hood Skibowl will rely on UV lighting along with liquid disinfectants.
Regardless, operators ordering new tubes might consider vinyl-topped tubes rather than canvas-topped tubes, with the slicker surface being more easily cleaned.
As for the sanitizing process itself, Pawson suggests that some clients plan to increase their tube inventory, to maintain activity flow while a portion of the fleet is being cleaned. Hess, however, says that Massanutten will do more cleaning “on the spot,” as visibly active cleaning shows guests that the resort is serious about safety precautions.
In sum, operational modifications necessitated by the pandemic may lead to a few headaches and changes in the usual revenue stream.