So, let’s start with the question that’s on everyone’s mind: What exactly can we expect for the 2020-21 ski and snowboarding season?
The novel coronavirus has presented all of us, from season-pass holders to day-trippers, with an enormous curve ball, and it’s anybody’s guess just how things will play out during the winter. After all, no one could have foreseen the sudden end to the 2019-20 ski season last spring.
Those shutdowns, of course, made perfect sense, given the sudden and grim spread of COVID-19. New England ski areas and resorts erred on the side of caution, and for that alone, they should all be commended.
But that begs the question: Will 2020-21 be any different? Have ski areas learned enough to conduct business without putting visitors and employees at risk?
Regardless of what politicians and business owners might say, the people who are really in the know — the medical and scientific community — admit that COVID-19 continues to mutate, and continues to baffle the best minds. But there’s no doubt that, from a business perspective, New England ski area owners and officials want to open. That’s understandable, given the financial investment required to run a modern-day ski operation. And those ski operations have a long history of confronting, and overcoming, adversity.
“We’re used to unexpected circumstances, since New England weather isn’t exactly predictable,” said Brian Norton, vice president of operations at Loon Mountain Resort in New Hampshire. “What makes this winter so challenging is the unknown that the pandemic presents. Sure, bad weather can certainly impact someone’s experience on any given day, but it’s very unlikely to impact their entire winter.
“This winter, the challenges are compounded,” said Norton. “We need to rethink every piece, every department, across the resort. The good news is that there is so much information out there helping guide us.”
“The power of positive thinking” appears to be the operative phrase for the 2020-21 season.
“We’re very optimistic about the winter season,” said Ethan Austin, director of marketing for Sugarloaf Resort in Maine. “It’s clear that our guests are excited to come back and get out on the mountain, and our staff is very motivated and committed to providing a safe experience.
“Sugarloafers are an incredibly passionate group, and we’re confident that they’ll take the new guidelines seriously so that they don’t have to face a possibility of not being able to ski or ride,” said Austin.
Those sentiments — reflecting the loyalty of Northeast skiers and riders across the region — were echoed by area ski officials. Molly Mahar, president of Ski Vermont, said ski areas have “shown time and again that we have the ingenuity, creativity and expertise to bounce back from all sorts of adversity — from an untimely thaw to a nationwide economic recession — and this situation presents us with yet another opportunity to do so.”
Mahar stressed that the ski industry is very competitive but is also very collaborative, both at the state and the national level. The industry within Vermont and across the country, she said, “has been working together to identify best practices and share what’s working and what isn’t.”
“Vermont’s ski areas have always had to stay nimble and adapt, but the COVID-19 pandemic certainly qualifies as unprecedented,” she said. “COVID causes some different challenges from weather, which is the primary variable we deal with, but fortunately we know so much more now about the virus and how it is spread than we did when the ski areas abruptly shut down last March.
“That knowledge, along with information from the CDC (federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the Vermont Department of Health has allowed us to create guidance for ski areas to operate this winter in a way that can minimize COVID transmission and keep guests and employees healthy,” said Mahar. “The good news is that people spend the majority of their time at a ski area outdoors. But, of course, there is also an indoor element, and this aspect will be different and access to indoor spaces will be limited this winter.”
Normally, the wide-open spaces of the great outdoors would appear to be the perfect antidote to the COVID-19, providing fresh air, sunshine and plenty of room for proper social distancing. The problem, said Kris Blomback, longtime general manager of Pats Peak Ski Area in New Hampshire, is the “funnel effect.”
“You can have thousands of people spread out over your terrain, but eventually those folks need to go to the bathroom, eat lunch, interact with guest relations,” said Blomback. “It’s those areas that we have had to mitigate.”
Similarly, Loon’s Norton said “we plan to use our exterior space to our advantage.”
“We will likely open terrain in a different sequence,” he said. “We’ll have an increased focus — more than normal — on getting more terrain and lodges open faster than ever before. I think we’re set up for success here with our team, and our continued snowmaking upgrades that allows to maximize our efficiency.”
Additionally, ski areas are implementing a number of protective measures to keep their employees and their customers safe. Blomback said Pats Peak is making changes to its bathrooms. “We’ve purchased additional bathroom capacity and we plan on placing them throughout the parking lot, where we are encouraging people to use their car as a ‘personal base lodge,’ ” he said. In food service, he said, Pats has “created a ‘to-go’ window and tripled the amount of outdoor seating, and in ticketing, “We’ve spent thousands on making our online process as smooth as possible and redemption of ticketing can now be done through kiosks.”
Norton said Loon is “looking at new foot-traffic flows in our lodges and adding temporary structures to spread people out more.” At Sunday River, Steve Boulanger, vice president of mountain operations, said plans for the upcoming season include increasing “lodge and restaurant access by utilizing 46,000 square feet of conference space in our slopeside hotels as additional seating for booting up and eating.”
“We will also restrict bags from lodges, provide direct access to restrooms from outside without having to pass through a lodge, and we are implementing a reservation system for food and beverage outlets,” he said.
There will be more signage as well. This past summer, Waterville Valley introduced a sign campaign with the resort’s moose mascot, reminding guests of the importance of wearing masks, washing their hands, social distancing, practicing “safe sneeze and cough etiquette,” and staying home if they feel sick.
However, the Waterville Valley campaign emphasized another crucial component of the COVID response — patience. That applies to staff members and visitors. The pandemic has people on edge, and officials are reminding everyone to take a deep breath.
“Ski areas are working very hard to keep guests, employees and their local communities healthy, and we ask that skiers and snowboarders do their part and have patience with necessary processes, as well as employees who will be helping guests to follow the rules for their own and other people’s health and safety,” said Mahar.
Another big factor to a successful season will be the efforts taken before anyone even arrives at the hill, and the response of visitors to those efforts.
“It will be crucial that all of our staff, guests and neighbors in the community buy in to all of the new safety protocols this winter,” said Sugarloaf’s Austin. “We have an ‘All In’ campaign that we will be messaging throughout the winter that emphasizes the importance of everyone being ‘all in’ when it comes to safe behaviors.
“We are focusing heavily on pre-arrival messages for any lodging guests and lift ticket purchasers, to ensure that they are aware of our new guidelines before they arrive, and installing lots of signage around the resort to help reinforce those guidelines once they’re here,” he said.
The online and social media component of the pandemic response will be ubiquitous, said officials, enabling them to effectively notify visitors of updated COVID-19 policies and guidelines, and any subsequent changes.
“We are using social media, a COVID communications hub on our website, and email messaging to communicate with our guests before they arrive at the resort,” said Sunday River’s Boulanger. “Our communications director has also done several walk-throughs with news stations in Maine to highlight the changes expected for this winter within the lodges, and is prepared to continue to do these types of interviews throughout the season.
“When guests arrive to the resort, there will be easy access to the COVID communications hub through our app and from our Mountain Report, and there will be ample signage to direct and remind them of the changes and expectations,” he said. “Our team members will also be trained and positioned to answer questions.”
In ski area parking lots, visitors likely will find more portable bathrooms and other amenities normally found in the base area.
“We are looking at adding additional food areas and food trucks,” said Pats Peak’s Blomback. “We are trying to improve the ‘tailgate’ experience as much as possible. We’re looking into the possibility of maybe renting out portable pop-up tents, fire pits, et cetera.”
In an effort to minimize hands-on interactions, most ski areas are offering online purchase portals, and providing “contactless” transaction windows. Bonnie MacPherson, communications manager for Vail Resorts properties Okemo in Vermont and Mount Sunapee and Crotched Mountain in New Hampshire, said the pandemic has required resorts “to reimagine many aspects of ski vacation experience and to plan accordingly, from initial contact when guests are making a reservation — we have made investments to assure a positive experience when purchasing a pass or making a reservation, including managing the load of potential visitors to our websites — to the arrival process, mountain access, base lodge access, dining, lodging, departure and others.”
A concerted effort also is being made to limit the numbers on the hill. Rusty Gregory, chief executive officer of the Colorado-based Alterra Mountain Company — which includes Stratton and Sugarbush in Vermont, and Mont Tremblanc in Quebec — said the company’s pandemic response “starts with controlling resort visitation levels to avoid overcrowding.”
“We are prioritizing access for season-pass holders and will tightly regulate the number of daily lift tickets that will be available by advance purchase only,” said Gregory. “To this end, walk-up window sales will be eliminated, and the sale of most undated lift ticket products will be discontinued until further notice.”
Some resorts that belong to larger enterprises — such as Vail Resorts, Alterra and Boyne Resorts — are leveraging those arrangements to take advantage of economies of scale. However, several ski resort officials have indicated that lift ticket prices may be increasing in order to allow capping numbers and recoup that lost volume.
Resorts also are boosting their investment in preseason training, to ensure staff members are familiar with new safety protocols and better equipped to answer questions.
“Everything about this pandemic has been a learning experience,” said MacPherson. “We do have the advantage of having just gone through a winter season with our Australian resorts, and summer operations that included scenic chairlift rides at many Northeastern resorts, learning some best practices and protocols that will be integrated into our plan for our North American resorts this winter.”
Ski Vermont’s Mahar said resort staff should anticipate a more rigorous regimen of implementing and enforcing precautions. “We know a lot more now about how the virus is spread and that has helped immensely,” she said. “Bringing on-site employees back this summer allowed management and employees the ability to adjust and become more comfortable with new procedures.”
“Summer operations showed us that guests were great about doing their part to wear facial masks and following ski area directives,” said Mahar. “Additional training on things like daily health checks, proper use of PPE (personal protective equipment), distancing and other new policies and procedures is a very important part of keeping our employees healthy so they can help guests have the best experience possible and stay healthy.”
Boulanger said Sunday River is “working with our insurance carrier to create digital training content for our team. This will enable us to have fewer face-to-face exposure/interactions with our teams while delivering a consistent message.”
On the mountain, changes may include mandatory masks and longer lift lines necessitated by social distancing requirements. Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz said “guests will be required to wear face coverings to get on the mountain and in all parts of resort operations, including in lift lines and riding in lifts and gondolas.”
“To maintain physical distancing on our chairlifts and gondolas, we will only be seating related parties — guests skiing or riding together — or two singles on opposite sides of a four-person lift; two singles or two doubles on opposite sides of a six-person lift, or two singles on opposite sides of our larger gondola cabins,” said Katz.
Furthermore, ski patrols will employ “increased use of personal protective equipment when interacting with injured guests, health screenings for team members and injured guests, fewer patrollers in top houses” and more patrolling on the hill, he said.
One of the trickiest areas will be ski schools and after-school programs. Pats Peak’s Blomback, citing the evolving nature of the pandemic, said no firm decisions have been made prior to publication.
“We have plenty of options for all to consider, from the normal programming you’ve come to expect, to tailored programming that deals with individuals, schools that might want to do a field trip, and home-schooling,” Blomback wrote to season pass-holders.
Sunday River’s SnowSports School will establish “designated warming areas across the resort, capacity restrictions on lessons, online reservation system and reservation requirement for lessons,” said Boulanger. “Participants show up ready to ski, (with) seasonal programs starting the day from various locations to spread them out.”
Finally, resorts and ski areas have joined hands with government officials at every level, taking advantage and maximizing taxpayer resources.
“We’re working with government officials to monitor local, state and federal guidelines to help minimize the spread of COVID-19,” said MacPherson. “We’ll continue to work closely with all of our local community stakeholders to share the details of our winter plans.”
In New Hampshire, where Gov. Chris Sununu’s family is the majority owner of Waterville Valley, Ski New Hampshire president Jessyca Keeler said, “We’re currently working with members of the administration and the Department of Public Health to develop opening guidance for ski areas.”
Benjamin Wilcox, Cranmore Mountain’s president and general manager, served on the governor’s Emergency Relief & Recovery Stakeholder Committee. Taking an “all boats rise with the tide” approach, Wilcox and others noted the willingness of industry members to work together as a major benefit in dealing with a far-reaching pandemic.
“The National Ski Areas Association and Ski NH have been great resources during these challenging times,” said Wilcox. “Sharing challenges and best practices have been a priority so we can build consistency among operations.”
Likewise, Sugarloaf’s Austin said, “As a member of the Ski Maine Association, we have participated in several calls with state officials to review our plans and share thoughts on how ski areas can operate safely this winter.”
“In most cases we have good, clear guidelines from the state of Maine that dictate things like indoor building or shuttle capacity, so we will be operating in accordance with those,” he said.
All of which paints a picture of cautious optimism for New England ski areas. Some officials are even willing to go a step further, sounding positively bullish.
“I’m extremely optimistic that we can overcome these new challenges,” said Sunday River’s Boulanger. “It won’t be easy, but if we all do our best and do the right thing, we can overcome almost any challenge.
“I’m also optimistic that there is a strong desire from the New England market to ski this winter, based on interest in passes, lift tickets and lodging,” he said. “So if we can all do our part to stay safe and healthy, we’ll have a great winter.”
For up-to-date information on pandemic precautions, readers are encouraged to visit individual ski area websites.