One Friday this past February, as I sat in my apartment in Denver, I decided to go skiing at Winter Park Resort.
There was nothing unusual about that: Winter Park is only about 90 minutes away, so it’s been easy for me to make a last-minute decision to ski there.
But this year that decision, even when coupled with my Ikon season pass, didn’t guarantee me a day on the slopes. I first had to make an online reservation.
The reservation successfully secured, my skiing companion and I headed out the next day, and after some runs, we decided to have lunch on the slopes. But unlike my experiences in previous years, we didn’t bring our food to a table inside a crowded lodge, or even to a seat on the outside deck.
Instead, we headed for a table that had been positioned beyond the deck, on the snow, where social distancing could be achieved.
Skiers across the country this year experienced similar adjustments — and more — to their ski routines as resorts scrambled to improvise and innovate in order to operate safely and within Covid-19 regulations.
Now, as this ski season winds down, industry insiders say some of those changes are likely here to stay.
“Every ski area in the United States has had to reinvent their guest experience this year because of Covid,” said Hugh Reynolds, vice president of marketing and sales at Snow Operating, which owns the Mountain Creek ski area and the indoor Big Snow American Dream, both in New Jersey. Snow Operating also provides consulting to other ski areas about the guest experience.
“For the resorts we work with, we’ve been encouraging them to look at this as an opportunity,” Reynolds added. “There have been things they’ve wanted to do, but have been reluctant to pull the trigger on.”
Reservation requirements, capacity limits, pop-up dining arrangements and suspensions of walk-up ticket sales are among the most visible and ubiquitous changes that ski areas implemented this year. But they are far from the only ones.
Some mountains, such as Wachusett in Massachusetts and Blue Mountain in Pennsylvania, sold four-hour passes this year rather than the usual daylong pass, in part to spread crowds more evenly through the day.
Ski areas around the country also have made substantial tech upgrades, enabling not only mountain reservation systems, but also improving apps to allow for on-mountain dining reservations, food pickup orders and much more.
At equipment rental centers, resorts implemented advanced booking systems that require customers to show up within a set window of time for fitting.
Ski schools, meanwhile, became more flexible, with some adding options shorter than the usual half-day or full-day lessons, said Natalie Ooi, program director of the ski area management program at Colorado State University. Ski schools were also more open to doing ski or snowboard lessons for an entire family, even if skill levels varied among family members. And some instructors began meeting students at various points on the mountain, along with the usual base location.
Ooi said many of these changes, especially those relating to advanced bookings, have altered skier behavior. And they’ve also resulted in ski areas becoming more efficient. All of the changes, she said, could last over the longer term, at least at some resorts and to some degree.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a need for reservations across the board like we’re seeing this season,” Ooi said, commenting a couple weeks before Vail Resorts announced that reservations won’t be required next season. “But it’s possible that ski areas could implement reservation systems for peak days. Because the systems are in place now, you can say, ‘If you want to ski Presidents Day or MLK weekend, that requires reservations.’”
Rusty Gregory, CEO of Alterra Mountain Co., which owns or operates 15 ski resorts, said the innovations from this year won’t be the last changes skiers will see, either. Rather, they set the stage for even more developments going forward.
“I think you’ll see a tremendous amount of experimentation with the innovation and application of technology to the guest experience next year,” Gregory said.
Prior to this year, Blue Mountain, located about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia, sold one daily pass product, good for eight hours of the mountain’s 12-hour ski day.
But this year, Blue Mountain also sold three different four-hour passes at lower prices. One required customers to start their day before noon; another allowed for a start between noon and 3 p.m.; and the third required customers to begin their day after 3 p.m., stretching into night skiing.
Without pandemic guidance requiring changes, it’s unlikely that would have happened so soon, for “no particular reason other than there wasn’t much of a need,” said Ashley Seier, Blue Mountain’s head of marketing.
But the passes have been a success, she said. They’ve been popular with guests and have also helped reduce the logjam of morning arrivals that is typical at a ski mountain.
Blue Mountain plans to keep selling the four-hour passes next year.
And that’s not the only change the ski area plans to continue.
This year, Blue Mountain capped capacity at 60%. That limit, said Seier, has improved the guest experience while also increasing demand. One result is that the ski area, which uses dynamic pricing for its tickets, has been able to improve ticket yields, with same-day Saturday tickets typically selling for $109, compared with $39 at the beginning of the sale period.
“Without Covid, I don’t think we ever would have limited capacity, as crazy as that sounds,” Seier said. “Last year, Martin Luther King Day and Presidents Day were crazy. This year it was a different experience. It almost felt like a typical Friday on the mountain.”
Blue Mountain will keep the capacity cap next year, she said, and management is considering keeping it long-term.
Mountain Creek is also thinking about making its capacity cap permanent, Reynolds said. Weekend caps, he explained, played a part in the New Jersey ski area consistently doubling its customers on weekdays compared with previous years.
“If you were asking me today if that’s going to be a long-term strategy for us, I would say yes,” Reynolds said of the cap. He expects some other ski areas to do the same.
Seier and Reynolds also said their respective mountains will do away with in-person ticket sales. Doing so this year has allowed Snow Mountain to staff more efficiently, Reynolds said.
The on-mountain eating experience, too, may never return to the pre-pandemic status quo. With many on-mountain lodges around the country closed or operating with capacity sharply limited by governments for all or much of this season, ski areas have taken a number of steps to adapt. Resorts have added food trucks and other grab-and-go venues in parking lots or at mountain bases. At Steamboat Resort in Colorado, a snowcat was turned into an on-mountain pizza delivery truck called Pizza Ranger.
Mountains have also dispersed seating areas, some with temporary shelters for colder weather, away from the lodges. An especially creative adaptation, made by the town of Telluride, Colo., in conjunction with the eponymous ski resort, saw refurbished gondola cars, complete with heating and tables, placed near ski lifts and in other parts of town.
Vail and Squaw Valley are among the resorts that have offered on-mountain dining reservations, bookable via their apps. Resorts have also added takeout order capability into apps.
Gregory said the pressure for ski areas to do away with jam-packed on-mountain cafeterias will last beyond the Covid-19 pandemic. Guests, he added, will also push for resorts to bring the service and food at resort lodges up to standards they are accustomed to off the mountain.
“When we get too many people in the building, it is not a good experience for anybody,” Gregory said. “Allocating space and volume, thinking through that, that’s here to stay.”
One solution to overcrowded food halls is to build more square footage, Gregory added, but technology could also play a role in crowd management. For example, purposeful reductions in lift-line capacity in a busy area could be used to push people to less-crowded parts of the mountain. Reservations could also be required in order to dine during certain hours, perhaps coupled with surge pricing to help manage demand.
Indeed, the pandemic pushed technological solutions into ski areas so effectively that it will likely ease the way for future refinements.
Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Mountain Resort app upgrades are representative of the type that ski areas made this year in order to address various operational challenges caused by the pandemic. The JH Insider app’s parking availability function was enhanced to counter an increase in the portion of visitors driving to the mountain this year versus using public transportation, chief brand officer Tyler LaMotte said.
With the mountain having to limit the capacity of its aerial tram to 25% of normal, tram wait time information was also added to the app. So were tools for making dining reservations, seeing availability at mountain lodges and reserving day tickets.
“Some of these were already on our radar and were accelerated,” LaMotte said.
Gregory foresees Alterra using the technology platforms it established this year as a starting point for more innovations in coming ski seasons. One idea on the table is to allow reservations for a mountain’s primary gondola or lift. Such reservations, Gregory said, wouldn’t be required but would work similarly to a Disney FastPass, enabling patrons to avoid lines.
Gregory also wants to move toward on-demand ski or snowboard lesson reservations via the app. For example, he said, imagine a skier who decides while on the mountain that she’d like to improve her mogul skiing. The lesson could be lined up via Alterra’s Ikon app, or the resort’s app, and the instructor and student could meet mid-mountain via geolocation.
He said Alterra might implement that capability on a prototype basis as soon as next year.
“There is this dawning in the industry about how much better we can be and how we can focus through the pandemic and beyond,” Gregory said.