When it comes to a pandemic, and the relentless spread of a dangerous virus, there are few silver linings.
But Vermont’s Reese Brown believes he can see one for nordic sports this winter. Brown, executive director of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, said “cross-country skiing could not be better suited for operation during this pandemic, since our skiers naturally social distance and spread out over the many miles trails. It’s also a great activity under these conditions, as it supports mental and physical well-being.”
“We in the cross-country ski industry feel our numbers will be up significantly this winter due to restrictions the pandemic has placed on people,” said Brown. “Although we will see a bump as a result of the challenges alpine skiing will face, our largest group will be those individuals and families that have been restricted in their normal activities and looking for something that’s fun.
“If you look at what has happened with cycling, hiking, running and paddling, we anticipate a similar increase in our business from those looking to get outside in a low-hassle, socially distanced activity,” he said. “We do feel it’s important for alpine skiing to happen this year, since it’s good for the entire industry, but there will be people that may not feel comfortable on a chairlift or gondola.”
Cross-country ski areas, of course, don’t have those. But they do boast the wide-open spaces we crave, not only to get out of the house, but also to enjoy the benefits of fresh air and exercise.
“When my father (Maine Ski Hall of Famer David Carter) started this business, his vision involved encouraging and creating opportunities for people to get outside and try cross-country skiing by initially creating a club, hosting Bill Koch ski events, and youth ski programs for local schools,” said Jessica “Jes” Carter, manager of Carter’s Cross Country Ski Center in Bethel, Maine. “If the silver lining of this pandemic is that people get outside more and try new winter activities like cross-country skiing, then we do feel that people will enjoy winter more.
“We are excited to help people get ready for skiing this winter and we realize that we will continually need to be problem-solvers when it comes to any challenges associated with COVID,” she said. “But we are prepared to help people and ensure their safety this winter in outdoor recreations, such as nordic skiing, snowshoeing and fat biking.”
Like Brown and Carter, Ellen Chandler, executive director of Jackson Ski Touring in New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley, predicted a brisk return to the trails, by locals and visitors alike.
“I do think that cross-country skiing will experience a resurgence,” said Chandler. “I have no worries about the casual cross-country skier who skis more this year — they’ll have fun and enjoy the new trailheads and additional terrain we’re working on.
“I’m hopeful that new skiers will take the time to take at least one lesson and rent good equipment, rather than just going out back on someone else’s old gear, where they might have a less positive experience,” she said.
Nick Mahood, recreational trails director at the Woodstock Inn’s Nordic Center in Vermont, said he anticipates challenges this winter because “we are busier than ever before.” Admittedly, it’s a good problem to have.
“I have no doubt, given the increased interest in summer outdoor recreation, that winter will be no different,” said Mahood. “This could be a season for cross-country skiing the likes of which we haven’t seen in three or four decades. I do think we may get spillover from alpine areas as people could potentially get frustrated with reservation systems, long lift lines, and capacity limits.”
However, nordic managers agree the sport’s “social element” will be curtailed, with most areas limiting gatherings in lodges and ski schools. Jackson Ski Touring produced a video — “Your Car is Your Lodge” — designed to show visitors how to gear up without leaving their vehicles.
“We are making a ‘ring’ around the lodge with signs saying ‘time to put your mask on’ — sort of like a rumble strip where you need to slow down on a highway — so no one forgets about masking up before getting into the lodge,” said Chandler, adding that ski school staff will be “resisting the urge to assist others with a ‘helping hand,’ both in lessons and in general.”
Still, the sting of last spring’s sudden conclusion to the ski season is still very much on the minds of nordic ski area operators. According to CCSAA’s Brown, “The pandemic challenges are very different than many of the other challenges facing cross-country ski areas. Having a virus that is little understood and unable to be seen is forcing operators to take a hard look at their operational strategy and adjust.”
“Since the virus began impacting the ski areas toward the end of the ski season, it has given the operators time to create new processes,” he said. “The industry association has taken a lead here, communicating with all the ski areas, and is working to ensure that cross-country ski areas are prepared for the upcoming season.”
Ski area operators said the abrupt spring shutdown, while a strain on the balance sheet, happened early enough to provide them a significant window to make adjustments.
“We realized that we would have to create multiple plans and have backup plans for the upcoming season,” said Carter. “We knew we had to make some changes and started engaging with organizations, such as CCSAA and our local chamber of commerce, to discuss some of these issues.
“We’ve worked with these organizations and asked for clarification from the state of Maine around COVID guidelines for small businesses,” said Carter. “We have followed all protocols implemented and continue to collaborate with local and national organizations about how other ski areas plan to address challenges this year.”
At Waterville Valley Ski Resort in New Hampshire, Ian Cullison, director of the Adventure Center, said managing the traffic flow inside the center “will be the biggest challenge, especially on those bitter cold days. Thankfully we’ve been able to learn a lot during our summer operations and identify the best management practices that we can carry over into winter.”
“Giving people clear expectations and obvious visual cues have been extremely helpful in directing guests through our space safely. We will be asking that everyone wear a mask indoors and whenever social distancing is not possible outdoors,” said Cullison. “The biggest lesson we’ve learned this summer is that it’s important to establish clear expectations with guests. We’ve produced some creative signage to help all our visitors understand how to move through our spaces and participate in activities safely.
“The other lesson that is already a strength of the ski area world is adaptation,” he said. “If something isn’t quite working as well as it could, we make changes quickly and continue to fine-tune our process until we’re happy with it.”
Many of the adjustments that Carter and Cullison mentioned are being adopted throughout the Northeast. Mahood said the Woodstock Inn Nordic Center has “expanded our footprint within our existing building to fully utilize the entire building.”
“This should help to address capacity issues,” he said. “If we stay at previous years’ business levels, we’ll have no capacity issues. However, if we increase (numbers) as expected, we could have some capacity issues on really busy days.
“We are working on expanding outside seating areas to allow for overflow on busy days,” said Mahood. “These areas will have seating and heaters and firepits to provide warmth and ambiance.”
Woodstock’s contingency plan sounds similar to pandemic plans being adopted by regional alpine areas. That makes sense, say nordic officials, given the COVID-19 guidelines that health experts and government officials have established.
“For the upcoming ski season, our farm store will still be open as usual with the usual precautions, including a limited number of people in the building,” said Dixie Harris of Harris Farm Cross Country Skiing in Dayton, Maine. “Our goal is to keep skiers outside as much as possible.
“We’ve put a lot of thought into how this can be done,” she said. “We feel we’re well prepared for this ski season during the pandemic because, unlike most ski centers, we have already been dealing with these challenges at our farm store for the past seven months.”
At Harris Farm, the upstairs lodge will be closed for the season for dining and socializing, but open to renters who need equipment and to try on boots. The outdoor deck will remain open (with tables appropriately spaced), and the property will feature increased signage to guide visitors. Both retail sales and the rental process for skis and boots will reflect mandated precautions.
“We will encourage tailgating and dressing for skiing in vehicles,” said Harris. “Rental shop will be open as usual but the rental process will change. Rental forms will be either filled out online at home and brought to the counter, or filled out at an outside table at the ski center.
“Season-pass holders will sign in outside and not have to enter the building at all,” she said. “We’ll encourage retail sales to be made by appointment, and we’ll have plenty of signage outside for rentals, returns, store rules, et cetera.”
At Jackson Ski Touring, Chandler acknowledged that communication with guests will be critical, and “we’ll be counting on our skiers, more than half of whom are seasonal members, to work together so that we can have a vibrant ski season.” That message, she said, will be included in every email and supported by social media, online and print and broadcast advertising. Chandler has been holding Zoom meetings with her primary staff since late summer and plans to add base operations staff members who will “work on continuous cleaning, and we will enlist volunteers to help monitor (lodge) entryways on busy days.”
“Ski New Hampshire, the National Ski Areas Association and Cross Country Ski Areas Association have been great resources to us as operators in training and sharing operational ideas, including a session with New Zealand ski areas who explained how they managed during the early days of the pandemic,” she said.
With the information provided by those resources, and creative precautions and protocols already in place, nordic ski area operators are feeling positive about the upcoming season.
“We really are an industry of problem-solvers, and adaptation is our greatest strength,” said Waterville Valley’s Cullison. “I feel that we’re in an excellent position to make the most out of this situation and provide the public with a much needed commodity — fun.
“I think there are several strong indicators that support a bump this winter in cross-country skiing,” he said. “Bike sales and biking participation skyrocketed this summer, which shows a renewed interest in being outside and active.
“Right now, people are focused on choosing safe outdoor activities for their families, and cross-country is a great winter option. I really expect that we will see a lot of new skiers this winter. I’ve already had inquiries about purchasing skis in August, which almost never happens.”
Now all we need is snow.