The calendar may be on the verge of turning to July, but it’s November and beyond that are the primary focus right now for the North American ski industry.
Even as many resorts have opened with limited summer attractions, those serve as merely a test-run for the winter season, when it remains to be seen what sorts of impacts the COVID-19 pandemic will have on 2020-21.
The goal, however, is a complete rebound from the premature end of the 2019-20 season.
Prior to the shutdown, the ski industry was on pace to hit its fourth-best season ever, according to the National Ski Areas Association, the trade group for ski area owners and operators. On track for 59.7 million skier visits, the season finished with only 51 million visits. That left it down almost 14 percent from last year.
The 2019-20 season was the lowest in terms of visitors since the historically-low snow season of 2011-12.
According to NSAA president and CEO Kelly Pawlak, missing spring break and other summer business will cost the ski industry well over $2 billion.
“Poor timing to say the least, but we have to acknowledge that the timing is also helpful because we’re able to look ahead,” Pawlak said this week during a conference call. “We’re able to launch a soft summer opening, so to speak, and learn from those experiences.”
Despite the quiet openings at many resorts this summer, including Vail’s portfolio of properties, some already have a more ambitious outlook for winter.
“We plan to be fully open,” Pat Campbell, Vail Resorts’ mountain division president said. “Even if demand is lower because people aren’t traveling as much, or they can’t travel as much, we know that if there’s one person on the mountain or 100 people on the mountain, they deserve the full resort experience.”
For an idea of how the season might work in the United States, ski industry folks are looking to the Southern Hemisphere, where the winter season has just begun. A ton of work has gone into a safe operating plan for the season-operating standards at Vail’s Australia resorts, Campbell said. “We’re doing everything we can to ensure social distancing and safe practices, and so far we’re seeing, in just the few days that we’ve been open, that people are ready for it and excited for what they love most about the experiences. That is being in the outdoors, being on a mountain, and enjoying a great on-snow experience.”
Australia is probably the best comparative for ski resorts in the U.S. and Canada to use in accordance with their own planning. As Rick Kahl, editor of Ski Area Management Magazine, pointed out, that country is somewhere in the middle on the drastic coronavirus scope. It isn’t New Zealand, where COVID-19 cases have been pretty much eradicated. Yet, at the other end of spectrum is South America, which may not see any skiing this year. Las Leñas has already closed for season. Portillo recently announced it will also be closed indefinitely with serious quarantines all over the country.
That’s not necessarily good news for skiers and riders, watching the United States see a concerning rise in the number COVID-19 cases.
“Australia is somewhere in middle,” Kahl said. “It’s what the U.S. is planning for: Limited capacity, social distancing, and all other kinds of usual mitigation methods.”
One thing that seems certain is that a reservation system, much like Arapahoe Basin used during its limited re-opening this past spring, will be an avenue for ski areas to use in order to implement crowd control at the resorts. Kahl pointed to Australia’s Thredbo Resort as an example of the drastic measures that could take place. The resort stopped selling all season pass sales and handed out refunds. “They knew they were going to be hit with a 50 percent capacity,” Kahl said. Thredbo offered only online reservations, now through Aug. 30 (In order to avoid a revolt, the resort offered season pass holders discount of 40-70 percent off the ticket rate). Some ticket-buyers waited up to eight hours to purchase tickets, and the resort is currently sold out through the end of August. “That’s a pretty amazing statement,” Kahl said.
It’s a possibility that something like that might work at a family-run ski area, but don’t expect a conglomerate like Vail to be turning its back on its Epic Pass customers. Even with possible operating constraints, Campbell said that Vail was committed to taking care of those who committed financially in advance.
“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that they get the value and service they expect for their pass,” she said.
The bottom line is that skiing is going to take some form of planning next season, whether that be making reservations weeks in advance, or using some vacation time to ski midweek when bookings will be lessened. The days of randomly deciding on a Saturday morning to pack up the car and take the family skiing might not exist in 2020-21.
Pawlak said that it was important to stress skiing’s outdoor benefits in a world fitting the pandemic. There’s plenty of room to spread out (the average ski area in the U.S. boasts some 1,000 skiable acres) making it perfect for social distancing. “Our guests will be concerned,” she said. “The majority of time you spend at a ski area is outside. Face coverings are part of our culture, which is going to help guest and employee compliance in that area a bit easier.”
The first signal in New England that might convey how normal our skiing and riding lives get to be might come in November. That’s when the annual snow expo (now Snowbound, presented by Snowsports Industries of America) is scheduled to take place Nov. 19-22 at the Hynes Convention Center.
According to SIA president Nick Sargent, it’s just too early to know right now how the shows in Boston and Denver will be affected. He is, however, concerned by looking overseas and noticing that Oktoberfest had been cancelled in Germany for the first time ever.
“We’re closely monitoring the situation in Boston and Denver with regards to large events and gatherings,” Sargent said, adding that they were waiting for governmental procedures to come in the next, few weeks.
The good news? While the rest of the country is watching their numbers increase, Massachusetts has been among the top states in terms of flattening the curve.
But the next few months in New England, and across the country, are going to be pivotal in figuring out how to get back out on the snow the way that we’re used to.