Most operators approached the 2020-21 season with a singular goal: stay open. Now, after a year of record-breaking visitation for many, operators are heading into the 2021-22 season with the capacity to think more broadly.
Covid-19 upended our businesses. While some crave a return to normal in 2021-22, operators can also experiment with and formalize operational changes that will benefit guests and employees alike. Consider your old assumptions about the business; Covid protocols may have debunked some long-held ideas.
Let’s start with the big one: “Operational changes instigated by Covid-19 are temporary.” Well, not really—Covid forced a broad rethinking of resort operations, the guest experience, and use of space. As a result, ski areas are now more nimble, efficient, and streamlined than they were pre-pandemic. Many of those changes were already underway. Most are worth holding onto.
Let’s look at a few examples:
Assumption: “High touch” means high guest-staff contact.
Reality: Staff-customer interactions have their place. But the innovations that allowed guests to avoid food and beverage, ticket, and rental lines and access information like trail maps, lift status, and parking reservations via smartphone elevated the quality of the guest experience. In today’s world, high touch means high convenience for the guest, not low-value guest-employee facetime.
Perks of Change: At a time of widespread staffing shortages, the elimination of these service jobs is a boon. Employees can now shift to areas where they are most needed. For example, Mountain Creek, N.J., transitioned ticket window attendants into floating guest experience officers.
FOOD & BEVERAGE
Assumption: Guests prefer dining in- doors to outdoors or temporary structures.
Reality: When Covid-19 forced guests outside the lodge, they took to streamlined order-to-pickup processes, warm-up breaks under heat lamps, and gear-ups in the car. Indoor dining space will still be appreciated—especially in inclement weather—but operators should preserve and continue to iterate upon the alternative options they offered in 2020-21.
Perks of Change: Online ordering streamlined the F&B experience for guests and staff. Some operators expanded seating with temporary structures and outdoor dining at relatively little expense. Some even created new outdoor dining experiences. For example, Showdown, Mont., built fire rings and offered guests free s’mores. This was so successful that the area hired a full-time pit manager and plans to keep the rings for 2021-22.
Assumption: The rental process begins when a guest enters the rental shop.
Reality: As many resorts found last season, guests easily adjusted to reserving rental gear online and in advance.
Perks of Change: Advanced reservations streamline the day-of outfitting process. Often, guests can simply pick up and try on gear that has been pre-selected for them. Staff attention that once went to finding gear now goes to solve problems, provide upgrades, or fine-tune a boot fit.
Assumption: East Coast skiers need space in the lodge to store belongings.
Reality: East Coast skiers (and skiers elsewhere) can store stuff in their cars—or at least be separated from their bags. Covid protocols forced them to adapt last winter, and many visitors embraced the revised lot-to-lift experience.
Perks of Change: Operators report that guests appreciated clutter-free base lodges. Many of those operators are now looking for permanent solutions. Cannon Mountain, N.H., is adapting a space inside its lodge for paid bag storage ($2-$3 per bag, per day). Cannon is also removing shelves, hooks, and cubbies to provide more elbow room. Guests will be asked to limit their time inside, and either check their bags or bring them back out to their cars, leaving the lodge mess-free.
Assumption: Ski resorts inevitably have busy times and less busy times.
Reality: Holidays and weekends still drive resort business, but limited capacity (and flexible guest schedules) last winter increased midweek business, softening visitation peaks and valleys.
Perks of Change: Reservation systems allowed resorts to actively manage visitation and spread out business. Even if operators drop their reservation systems this year, careful programming and incentives can help distribute guest capacity across the week and season.
Prior to Covid, many of the changes explored here were already underway. In this sense, Covid was an accelerant. Rather than hitting the brakes, let’s keep our foot on the gas pedal. Ski areas will benefit from institutionalizing and continuing to iterate upon the changes they made last season. We can turn last year’s challenges into this season’s opportunities, cementing the trends that will define the future of guest service within the industry.