In New Hampshire, ski resorts large and small are reshaping their operating plans in all departments to prepare for the coming winter season, following guidelines put out by the Governor’s Reopening Economic Task Force.
There are some differences from resort to resort, but many more similarities. Some resorts are requiring reservations from everyone — season-pass holders and day-ticket purchasers alike — others are being more liberal in their requirements, allowing season-pass holders to come any time but requiring day tickets to be purchased in advance online.
The purpose is twofold. It eliminates contact at the ticket window and allows the resort to keep track of, and limit, the number of tickets being sold on a given day, without having to turn away customers who are already onsite.
The common denominator is to ensure the safety of guests and staff. Ski school lessons, like day-ticket sales, will require advance purchase online and classes will be smaller than in previous years. Rentals also must be reserved online, with social distancing practiced at the pickup area.
Lodges and food and beverage service will see the biggest changes. Guests are requested to change in their vehicles and leave all their bags there. Most base lodges will be open, but with limited, socially distanced seating. Outdoor heaters will be added, and people can order food on their phones, pick up inside or at a take-out window and return to their car or one of the outdoor seating areas. Cashless transactions are preferred for all purchases. Masks are required everywhere, except when skiing or riding down the slopes. “Your car is your locker room and base lodge” and “Know before you go” is the mantra for this winter.
We spoke with several of the smaller, independent ski areas in the state to see how they are planning to handle things and what their outlook is for the season.
Kris Blombeck, general manager of Pats Peak in Henniker, was quite upbeat about the coming season and confident that the resort is doing its part to ensure a good and safe experience for its guests. He does emphasize, however, that it’s a two-way street. Skiers and riders have their responsibilities also.
The resort operates from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and aims to keep capacity between 1,500 to 2,000 skiers at one time, at least for now. This includes season-pass holders and day tickets. Day tickets will be sold only online, in advance. For the time being, season-pass holders will not need a reservation, but this could change on peak days. Also, capacity can change with the weather. On a sunny 40-degree day when guests can stay outside longer, are comfortable having lunch outdoors and don’t need to come in frequently to warm up, Pats can accommodate more people than on a windy 15-degree day.
Snowsports School operations at Pats will retain as much of its programming as possible with some inevitable changes, keeping health and safety of the staff as well as guests in mind. The only lessons for the youngest kids will be a private lesson with a parent or guardian. Regular lessons will only be with families or groups that have come to the area together — no mixing with strangers — so it will be more like a “private group lesson.” Pats also will offer its Bears Club program, with morning and afternoon sessions, but no lunch. The kids will meet only on snow and must be picked up for lunch even if doing both sessions. All Snowsports School programs must be booked online in advance.
Pats Peak always has done a large business in after-school programs in conjunction with many area schools. This season likely will see a reduction in numbers.
“Some schools haven’t made a decision yet,” said Blomback. “And there may be days when we have to cancel due to bad weather. We don’t want the kids hanging out in the lodge, so there may be more cancellations than usual. We want to provide a safe, enjoyable experience.”
Students will have dedicated sections in the lodge to change and go outside quickly to prevent groups gathering and mixing.
Blomback added, “We have spent a lot of time and resources on planning for this season. We have had to reinvent how we do business. We are trying to keep most of our programming while operating as safely as we can. We are following the statewide guidelines to present our best product. Time will tell how successful we are.”
One such guideline being adopted everywhere is loading lifts with only family members or groups that have traveled to the area together, which of course reduces lift capacity. However, with ticket sales reduced also, Blomback expects lift lines will not be any longer than usual. As for keeping those in line 6 feet apart, guests’ skis do that quite well. Tips to tails in line is about that distance in most cases. Also, only every other lane in the maze will be used. “Ghost lanes” will be left empty. “We have a big uphill capacity,” Blomback said. “We don’t anticipate any longer than usual lift lines.”
When asked if people will turn out for snowsports this winter, and how enthusiastic they are, he replied, “If it’s anything like mountain biking was this summer … the business will be there. People are very enthusiastic and can’t wait for the season to get started. And season-pass sales were strong this fall. My prediction for this winter is as optimistic as you can be with a pandemic occurring.”
Blomback summed it up this way: “We have reimagined our whole experience from the website and other online platforms to the parking lot, rental shop spacing and lodge limitations. We’ve added outside food and bar service, set up wind blocks on our deck and brought in outdoor heaters as well as portable toilets, which will be at the base of the lifts.
“The season is going to be a dance. We are doing our part to make everything as safe as possible. Our dance partner, the skiers and riders, must do their part as well. It takes two to tango.”
Jay Gamble, general manager of Ragged Mountain, said on peak days at Ragged, generally about 10 in a season, the overall capacity will be controlled by limiting day tickets. At this point, season-pass holders will have priority and be able to ski or ride without a reservation, but that could change. Day tickets will be sold only in advance, online, and if guests arrive at the resort without a ticket, they will not be able to purchase one. In fact, there is no guarantee that there will be tickets available online at any given time. Once tickets are sold out, that’s it. More will not be available.
How do lessons figure into the overall numbers of guests? That’s pretty simple. All lessons are by advance reservations and, according to Gamble, the procedure is, “Before you book a lesson, purchase a ticket online.” Rentals and lift tickets come as a package and must be reserved online as well.
Ski school programs will continue this winter with some modifications. Ragged’s popular Bebe Wood Free Learn to Ski and Snowboard program will be held, but only Monday through Thursday on non-holiday weeks. Children’s lessons will be given for ages 7 and older. For kids younger than 7, there will be private lessons only, and a parent must be involved. All ski school programs will be at half capacity. Currently, Ragged’s racing program is scheduled to continue.
For Ragged, hiring enough staff is a challenge. Some departments, such as custodial, will need more employees to deal efficiently with stringent sanitizing regulations, while others, such as ski school and ticket sales, will need less due to online sales and perhaps fewer classes. For the food service and lodge side of things, the base lodge will limit capacity and encourage guests to spend no more than 30 minutes indoors.
Après ski will be non-existent at Ragged. All entertainment has been canceled and guests will be asked not to congregate anywhere. The bar will be open for table service only and guests will be asked to spend no more than 30 minutes at a table. There will not be much more seating added outdoors, as the staff wants to discourage people from gathering and hanging out.
“This winter will be all about skiing and riding,” said Gamble. “No long lunches, no après ski, just arrive, enjoy the slopes and then go home.”
When asked for a prediction for the upcoming season, Gamble added, “This winter will require flexibility, cooperation and adaptability on everyone’s part to be successful. It will be all about being outside on the slopes, not about being inside.”
At Gunstock, general manager Tom Day said it is especially important for resorts to communicate what will be the new normal for this winter. He’s concerned that people will think it is the same as always, but that’s hardly the case.
“Know before you go,” Day said. “This winter will be very different.”
Gunstock season-pass holders will not need reservations and day tickets will be sold online. Gunstock along with the other resorts that are part of Ski New Hampshire have been communicating weekly to try to ensure a consistent message. The resort will be making other changes in addition to limiting ticket sales. To eat in the lodge, which will be serving a limited menu, reservations must be made for a 30- to 45-minute time block. And guests are asked to consider their car their personal locker. Gear may not be stored in the lodge. Other eating options include a to-go window, where food ordered online through an app, can be picked up. There will be picnic tables placed around the base area. Two food trucks will be set up in the parking lot along with portable heated bathrooms so guests won’t necessarily need to go into the lodge.
Day said that if customers mask up and follow the guidelines that are in place, they should be able to have an enjoyable experience. Being in the base area and on the lifts will be different. But once you’re off the lift, the actual skiing and riding experience will be the same and just as enjoyable.
“People want to get themselves and the kids outside and recreate,” said Day. “I think it will be a great winter. There will be challenges to running the resort the way we have to. But we’ll make the best of it to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for our guests.”