January traditionally has been hailed as “National Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month” in the ski industry.
But this month, that mantra is taking on a whole new persona. There will be challenges in the traditional learning process for sure, with lodge limitations and social distancing the norms at ski areas across the country. But the opportunity to get outdoors and free of some COVID restrictions also might lend to a number of new participants who might not have normally ventured to the slopes in the first place.
In order to get the lowdown on what to expect this season in terms of the ski school experience, we caught up with Matt Erickson, director of Sunday River’s SnowSports School, who remains confident that the Maine resort will still be able to deliver the same level of teaching this winter as it would during any other.
New England Ski Journal: How do you feel the first few weeks of the season have gone, thus far, at Sunday River?
Matt Erickson: Obviously, things are starting to ramp up now; it is that time of year. We are in different times, so our guests are told, no bags in the lodge, which is very common going around the ski industry this year. We do have capacities in all of our spaces, which are posted by the Maine ski area guidelines. But we feel, once you’re outside and skiing, it’s certainly a safer environment out there. We have great snow. We’ve made a ton of snow.
Some things that are different operationally, in terms of our (lesson) programming: We have limited all of our kids group program sizes to a maximum of five students per instructor (a Max 5 is what we’re calling it). On the adult lesson front, we have a Max 7.
NESJ: Have you seen any sort of noticeable dip in the amount of ski school reservations?
Erickson: No, the volume of reservations has been on par from what we normally see this time of year. Not any real decline. Everyone is trying to push online everything — online lessons, online rental equipment — and if we’re able to do that, it minimizes the amount of time individuals have to spend inside. So, we’re encouraging, on all fronts, as many reservations as possible.
NESJ: What are some of the major differences that visitors can expect when making a plan for lessons?
Erickson: Obviously, everyone is masked up. I think the public is used to that right now. As it relates to us, operationally, no bags in the lodge is somewhat of a challenge, but I say it’s kind of like learning to ski back when we were kids. We always used to boot up at the cars and walk to the resort. So, that’s been a bit of a change, I’d say, for the guests.
NESJ: How do the protocols change the full-day experience for children?
Erickson: We cut our day capacity for children in half, and we have set up our lunch facilities with socially distant seating. We’re using eight-foot banquet tables, where we’re only sitting two kids to a table. So, they’re effectively 7½ feet apart. Obviously, we wipe them down, clean chairs and tables. I mean, we kept things clean in the past, but now we’re kind of hypersensitive to that. For our seasonal programming (River Runners), we made the adjustment where we wanted to run straight through so they go for four hours without a lunch break.
NESJ: Do you worry that the restrictions will have any sort of long-term effect on the sport? As in, we’ll be a whole year behind in getting a group of skiers and riders out on the mountain?
Erickson: You know, I was afraid of that, to be honest. That was my fear. But I will say that, based on, particularly, this summer, to see the amount of interest in people hiking and participating in other outdoor recreation … people want to get out and do things. We have several great hiking trails around the area here in Bethel, and virtually every day you’d drive by this summer, all the trailheads were maxed out. So, you were getting people going out to hike just because they wanted to get out. I think we’re probably going to see a bit of that as it relates to learning to ski.
NESJ: What are the challenges in expressing the safety factors when taking a lesson at Sunday River? Or, does it seem more like visitors are ignorant of safety protocols?
Erickson: I would say I’m very impressed overall with the compliance of, obviously, masking and social distancing. From a lift standpoint — loading standpoint — we’ve created what we refer to as “ghost lines” in the lift line. People kind of naturally space themselves out in a lift line from tip to tail of a ski. That’s what is called roughly six feet. But the problem was, if you had two lines of four people right next to each other, then the spacing from left to right was a challenge. So, what we developed is what we refer to as ghost lanes in the lift lines, which creates that spaces between the two lines.
NESJ: What should potential students know, most importantly, before arriving, and how should they prepare?
Erickson: I think just being prepared. Gearing up as much as possible at your vehicle, which is kind of what most of the areas in the country are doing, encouraging preparation ahead of time and pretty much arriving to the base areas ready to ski. That’s the biggest change. The days of coming in and lounging in the lodge for 30 minutes and having a coffee with several hundred other people, those days are changed this year, for sure.
NESJ: On that note, how do you think some of those bitterly cold days in February are going to go? Do you see a lot of cancellations coming and people pushing off lessons until warmer days?
Erickson: It’s going to be a challenge because we haven’t had that weather yet. I can only speculate as to what will happen. My guess is that on those cold days you might see people ski for a couple of hours and then maybe be good with that. When it’s, say, 10 degrees and blowing 20 miles per hour, the days of skiing three runs and coming into the lodge for 20 minutes with a couple of hundred other people are not going to happen this year.
NESJ: How has the resort been handling the rental process?
Erickson: The rental process is going well. We have online rentals available and everyone is encouraged to book online to ensure that there is equipment available. We do have a capacity of inventory that, on really busy days, we do sell out. So, our messaging on our website is to encourage online reservations ahead of time. We also have a system in the rental shop — because I also manage the rental shop — which pretty much alleviates any extensive indoor time. We have their equipment all pre-set. All they need to do is come in, put the boot on, and out the door they go. Whereas, in the past, walk-in traffic was certainly more time inside for a customer to go through the process.
NESJ: How do you feel that Maine’s travel restrictions have been followed?
Erickson: Again, I’ll reflect to this summer and seeing the traffic this summer. You would see a lot of out-of-state car plates that were on the quarantine list for Maine. I’m sure some of them complied, but I’m not sure all of them did. I hope they do (follow them) because in order to put this thing behind us, we need to be responsible, we need to follow the science.
NESJ: What’s your greatest hope for the next few months of the season?
Erickson: My greatest hope is that people want to come and enjoy skiing and if they haven’t skied before to give the sport a try. We have a great learning facility, terrain-based learning that really makes the learning process a lot easier and a lot more enjoyable. We did it last year and had great success with terrain-based learning. My hope is that people want to come out and enjoy the outdoors. It’s beautiful up here.