The reality is, it’s going to take a lot of work to visit Vermont this winter.
The state’s success rate in batting COVID-19 won’t be lessened with the arrival of ski season, no matter the economic impact at stake. Vermont’s COVID-19 winter operations guidance, released in early November, required the state’s ski areas and resorts “to considerably alter” their business during the 2020-21 season. That not only means wearing masks and social distancing, but also demanding a 14-day quarantine before entering the state (or, seven days and a negative test), as well as contact tracing upon arrival at each traveler’s destination.
Entering its fourth season since being re-acquired by the DesLauriers family — a name synonymous with the Vermont ski scene — Bolton Valley is both prepared and concerned about what the pandemic restrictions will bring. We caught up with the resort’s president, Lindsay DesLauriers, to discuss the realities that come with the start of a ski season unlike any other.
New England Ski Journal: In early November, you shared a video that was an honest and forthcoming admission to how the season was going to look at Bolton Valley amidst the pandemic. What prompted the communication through social media?
Lindsay DesLauriers: Well, one, we just have to get the information out to everybody. It’s one thing to put an FAQ or something on the website, but so much of it is so different that it feels like you want to have something more personal also. It felt a little risky just to talk about some of the financial part of it. Everybody knows that we are all trying to make it be safe. It’s not just ski areas, but every business is making decisions to try and protect the safety. But I feel like there hasn’t been a lot of daylight shed on the decisions that are being driven by the survivability side of it. For us at Bolton, one of our core values is really to be accessible, and by accessible, trying to stay at an affordable price point for people.
We’re really connected with our community, so that means trying to find ways for people to get up here. We have a lot of discount programs that we have with community partners, and as we look at this year and we prepare to limit the number of skiers who are up here, our reality is that we still have to make money. Right now, the way our business model is — and this is changing over time — we’re growing into a more robust summer business and that will totally change our model — but right now we are in this situation where we earn all our revenue in the winter and then we have to survive on that. So it just felt like we needed to give people a heads-up that not only are things going to be outside, but also, if you’re a community partner who has had a long-standing relationship with us, we may not be able to do the same things this year that we can do in other years.
It felt like we needed to give people warning, not just that the services are going to be outside, but that we have to be really conscious about our price points this year.
NESJ: What was the reaction like from the Bolton Valley community?
DesLauriers: Looking at the video before we published it, I was really nervous. I was like, “I don’t know, it seems so doom and gloom. Is this going to come across well? Maybe we need to be more encouraging or something.” But we decided to put it out and, actually, the response from the community was so supportive. It made me feel really, really good reading the comments and seeing what people were saying about it. I think what it taught me was that people pretty much knew it, and they appreciated that we were trying to be transparent about it.
NESJ: How do you get the message across to skiers from Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, et cetera, that definitive quarantine regulations are in place? And how do you plan to control the skier who ignores those measures and shows up anyway?
DesLauriers: For people who are coming in from out-of-state and are staying at our hotel, we are actually implementing a policy where every reservation that is taken, we review it when it comes in. If they are from a fly-in state, we are calling them immediately to get clarity on their plans, because you can’t meet the quarantine requirements if you’re flying in. If they’re from a drive-in state, we’re individually calling them about 10 days before their scheduled check-in to have a personal conversation with them to understand what their plans are. Are they currently in the 14-day quarantine? If not, to inform them that they can do the seven-day quarantine with a test before they get here, and to make sure that they are meeting those requirements, and give them a chance to cancel if they can’t meet those requirements.
In terms of the day skier, every ski area in Vermont is requiring the day skier to sign an affirmation that they’ve met the quarantine requirements and that they’re in compliance. That’s required by the (Vermont Governor Phil) Scott administration. We were actually already planning to do that anyway. At the point of sale, at the point where they buy our services, we have the opportunity to provide that information and make sure that they attest that they’re in compliance.
NESJ: What are the challenges and realities of contract tracing every visitor to Bolton Valley this winter?
DesLauriers: We’re fortunate in that we have the RFID ticketing technology. So, as far as the skiers are concerned, we have all their information from the point of sale and their information is connected to their season pass or lift ticket. So, we know who’s skiing on the mountain through the use of that technology. In terms of the base lodge — it will be a little more rudimentary than this super-technological RFID — we will ask people when coming into base lodge if they’ll sign their name and put contact information. Like all ski areas on busy days, we have a 30-minute window. We’ll keep those records. We’ve been doing contact tracing through the tavern all summer, and we’ll continue to do that just like all restaurants in the state.
NESJ: Vermont has the strictest — and most successful — rules for interstate travel. What was the hope from a ski industry perspective about the state’s winter operations guidance?
DesLauriers: Through the Ski Areas Association, we’ve been in discussions with the administration, talking about what the guidelines would look like for months. So, very little of what came out was a surprise to us. Given the recent spike (in early November, Vermont saw its highest number of cases since April), they did make some last-minute changes.
I do think there’s a really serious feeling amongst all of the presidents and GMs that we really do not want to be a vector for this virus. It is so important for us all from a business perspective that we have a winter. Losing the winter would be very devastating. So we are highly motivated to operate safely and to make sure that ski areas are not the site of a super-spreader event. So, our motives are to be in really good alignment with the administration. It’s not an adversarial relationship at all, it’s really cooperative. And it’s good to be given guidelines, too, because you’re not out there as an individual ski area by yourself saying, “Oh, you can’t boot up in the base lodge.” It’s so much easier to say the state is requiring these things. For there to be that consistency through all the ski areas, it standardizes the skier’s experience and that’s better for each individual ski area, too.
NESJ: Have you decided to do any sort of reservation policies in order to manage capacity with season-pass holders, Indy Pass holders, and day tickets?
DesLauriers: I think the refrain for the whole winter is, if it’s not working, then we’re going to have to change it. Everything is subject to change this year, but our plan right now is really not to limit our season-pass holders. We want our season-pass holders to be able to ski whenever they want, according to whatever pass they have. We did implement a blackout pass and we took our unrestricted passes off the market, so in that way we are identifying the days when we would see the most crowding and are effectively reducing the amount of pass holders that we would see on those days. We only have one year of RFID data to go back to, but it’s very instructive to us to see what percentage of pass holders are skiing on these days. So, we can extrapolate some best guesses about the number of season-pass holders that we’ll have on any given day. And then, we’re setting limits on our lift ticket sales. That’s how we’re going to control capacity. If you’re buying a lift ticket or redeeming an Indy Pass, you will have to do that, subject to capacity restrictions on our lift ticket.
NESJ: Bolton Valley’s backcountry program has been one of the more original and successful ventures in recent years. Now, the new backcountry leasing program has been a smashing success (Bolton Valley sold out of splitboards to lease for the season in less than a month). Was there a decided focus to invest more into backcountry avenues with the pandemic breeding uncertainty?
DesLauriers: We have been on a really strong growth trajectory with our backcountry program. My brother, Adam, runs that program and he’s constantly pushing its growth and coming up with new and creative ideas for it. I think he’s been thinking about it anyway, but our willingness to make an investment in that equipment — which is expensive, and nobody is doing that — was definitely bolstered by the demand that we’re seeing during the pandemic for backcountry skiing. That being said, it also felt risky because it’s not exactly a moment when you’re like, yeah, let’s spend a bunch of money on an untried program. It was nerve-racking but it totally worked out. My brother just has a great instinct for that.
NESJ: Are you surprised that more ski areas in the region haven’t instituted similar backcountry programs?
DesLauriers: No, because for two reasons. One, our sidecountry access and our access to the backcountry is so superlative. It really is kind of uniquely great. We’re really well-positioned to do that with our access to backcountry terrain, including beginner backcountry terrain. In-bounds in our nordic and backcountry center, we have 1,200 in-bounds acres of really great skiing. For developing a guiding and instruction program, we have in-bounds, patrolled terrain that we manage and maintain where we can do a lot of that instruction. Then, obviously, you can dive beyond that.
The other thing is, there’s not the same revenue potential in backcountry as there is in traditional alpine skiing. So, for a lot of the bigger ski areas, it’s just not a meaningful market. But for us, we’re so much smaller that it’s more meaningful to us. Also, I think the most compelling thing for us is that we really love backcountry skiing. One of the things about being a family operation is that we get to do the things that we’re passionate about. It’s just something that we love and we get to do it because we run a ski area.
NESJ: This will be the fourth winter since your family has retaken ownership of the resort. What was behind the impetus to purchase the place again, and how do you feel you’ve done as a group re-establishing the DesLauriers name?
DesLauriers: I feel great about it, actually. The impetus was my dad (Ralph, who helped establish Bolton Valley in 1966) and my younger brother, Evan, who were really focused on it at first. (Former owners) Larry (Williams) and Doug (Neddle) were ready to stop operating it and they reached out to my dad personally and said, “Hey, would you guys have any interest in it?” This place is really special to us and I think we’ve always, frankly, missed it. This is really our home, and I think it was an opportunity to come back home. And the place needed attention. For this place to be successful — and I think it has a ton of potential — it needs to be somebody’s life. You’ve got to love this place to make it work. There’s no separation between work and life for us right now, and that’s what it needs.
There aren’t many people in this world who have the opportunity to fight for their roots. We were offered that opportunity and took it.