Move over, Covid. You are not the no. 1 worry facing ski resort operators this season. Despite the resurgence of the Delta variant, ski area operators have a Covid strategy in hand, and after last season, feel confident they can handle most any situation. There’s still plenty to worry about, though: staffing shortages, weather, snow, border closures, wildfires, climate change, getting that quad chairlift in ...
“You name it, I always worry,” said Geoff Hatheway, president at Magic Mountain, Vt., speaking a truth shared by resort leaders everywhere.
About Covid ... Even though Covid is not the top worry this year, it is still high on the list.
“We created a playbook last year, and were able to respond to every challenge,” said Mary Kate Buckley, president of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Wyo. “I expect we’ll be challenged again this season, but we have a lot of confidence after last year.”
“We were beat up so much last year, had to pivot so much, I think everyone is steeled up and ready to adjust to whatever comes,” agreed Jeff Kohnstamm, president and area operator at Timberline Lodge, Ore.
There’s not so much tension, stress. We’ll all do the right thing. Quite frankly, we’re a bit over all the 2020-21 issues. We want to get back to being hospitable, operating a ski area.”
In Michigan, Ben Doornbos, GM at Nub’s Nob, said the pandemic brought the state’s ski resorts together to come up with a Covid strategy. “It went quite well. This year, I don’t think I’m worried about how we’ll operate,” he said. “The thing I’m worried about is the uncertainty. Will it be a full-on Covid year like last year, or back to normal? If it’s too relaxed, will we have outbreaks we didn’t have last year? It’s different from last year, but in some ways more of the same. My largest concern is for staff outbreaks.”
“It was tough last year, but we pulled it off,” said Dave Riley, COO at Sunshine Village, Alberta. “I’m quite proud. Ski areas are not necessarily built for what we went through. And it was not much fun for staff, who had to become mask enforcers, focus on distancing. It was quite new and challenging. It would be wonderful to get back to having fun, doing what we do best, skiing and snowboarding.”
THE LIST OF WOES
But having fun and operating a ski area comes with its own worries. Here’s what’s concerning some operators heading into their second pandemic season:
Wildfires. At Sugar Bowl, Calif., not surprisingly, the main worry is fire and the dwindling water table. “Where is the next fire going to appear? It’s only a matter of time. That keeps me up at night,” said VP of operations Jenna Prescott.
Staffing. Right after fire is staffing. “We’ve got roughly 15 neighboring resorts around us, not counting all of the other businesses, all fighting for staff,” Prescott said.
She’s not alone. Almost everyone expressed worry over finding enough staff, especially for F&B. “We’ve had a huge staffing shortage all summer long,” Kohnstamm said. “We had to close three restaurants all summer because of no staff.”
“Our number one challenge is staffing, especially hospitality,” added Mike Quinn, VP and GM at Mt. Hood Skibowl, Ore. “Covid is not as much a concern. We have procedures in place.”
Ditto at Shawnee Mountain, Pa. “We have an amazing core staff, but it’s harder and harder to fill in the seasonal business every year,” said Rachel Wyckoff, marketing director. “Covid is always a concern, but we’re staying abreast of local health guidelines, paying attention to government recommendations, and are ready to adapt.”
Doornbos also pointed to issues with staffing, and said the resort will have to raise wages to attract employees, which in turn will mean higher prices.
Housing. To help recruitment, Sugar Bowl is increasing pay and adjusting employee housing. “Increasing pay is not a surprise to anyone,” Prescott said. “I was at a conference recently and at least two dozen people must have asked me what we were going to pay lift operators this year. We may also reduce the number of people in our housing units to make our housing more attractive.”
Border closures. Riley, like many Canadian and northern U.S. resort operators, worries about when the border will finally open freely. “I think we’ll be very busy locally, regionally, in-country. But the cross border is a real obstacle,” he said. (At press time, reciprocal travel between the U.S. and Canada was set to resume in November.)
Riley said Americans make up 20 percent of Sunshine Village’s guests. They also stay longer and spend more. “It’s an important market for us,” he noted.
Staffing is a worry, but he said recruiting is going surprisingly well. “Our biggest concern is F&B, back of the house. Other departments are looking really good, better than expected, to be honest.”
VIEWS FROM COAST TO COAST
Other worries. At Eldora, Colo., president and GM Brent Tregaskis worries about Covid and staffing, “followed by snow, followed by governmental influences you can’t control setting new rules, changing the rules already in place.”
Despite four great snow years out of the last five, Lonie Glieberman, GM at Mount Bohemia, Mich., worries about the weather and climate change. Bohemia does not make snow or groom. “Weather has the biggest impact on our business,” said Glieberman.
“We’ll get employees. We’re doing aggressive recruiting. I also think Covid will peter out by early November and will be much more manageable because of the vaccines,” he said. “Our big picture worry is climate change.”
At Mad River Glen, Vt., GM Matt Lillard also worries about climate change.
Lillard said Covid also “still weighs on us. We’re tired of being people’s moral compass. Everybody had questions. ‘What is a quarantine?’ ‘How can we stretch the rules?’ Asking questions we can’t answer.”
Vermont imposed some of the toughest travel restrictions in the country last winter, and Lillard hopes there will be no more this winter. But if there are not, ironically, he worries even more about meeting demand.
“It’s been two years since we’ve had a really busy day, we had to restrict numbers so much. I worry about handling crowds, numbers. All indications are people are really excited about the season,” Lillard said.
No matter how many worries they face, ski resort operators are notoriously optimistic. And this upcoming ski season, despite all the lingering Covid uncertainties, is no exception.
Great expectations. “We’re always excited at the beginning of a new season,” said Wyckoff at Shawnee. “People want to be outside. We’re optimistic.“
“We’re really excited for a great season,” added Jeff Courtemanche, GM at Craigleith Ski Club in Ontario. “Demand has never been higher. We have a waiting list to join our club.”
Others also report sky-high demand.
“I’m excited about all the new people, lapsed people we saw coming into the sport last year,” said Doornbos. “The trend is continuing this year with early pass sales. I think people are eager to ski and learn new ways to enjoy the outdoors. I don’t see that going away.”
“We had a great season last year, and look forward to offering guests another great one this year,” said JHMR’s Buckley. “We have two world-class events scheduled, expanded our snowmaking, extended glading, added some safety features. We’re ready to welcome everybody back and provide a great experience.”
A forecasted cooler and wetter La Niña winter also has Western resorts excited.
So does getting back to basics. At Timberline, that means dusting off the master plan and re-starting the process to connect to the neighboring resort the area purchased five years ago.
“We want to show our intent, get public involvement, all that stuff is exciting. It’s not easy, but we’re looking forward to it, turning the page,” Kohnstamm said.
At Sugar Bowl, Prescott is eager to welcome her new number two—Greg Bretz, director of mountain operations. “He is so well rounded, both hard and soft skills. I’m looking forward to this partnership.”
Getting the band back together. Riley is also looking forward to getting the team back together and “focusing on what we do best: operating a ski resort. Last year there was so much focus on mitigation. It’s nice to focus again on service, having fun.”
Lillard agreed: “We’re excited to welcome everybody back and take the operations and lessons we learned from Covid and move forward.” Those lessons include limiting ticket and pass sales to provide a better experience, and spreading out F&B with more options.
“It’s really exciting taking lessons like those and carrying on. It’s going to be a great season and a lot of fun,” he said.