Hitting the slopes still popular even with apres-ski sidelined

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Maine’s Sugarloaf is among the ski areas that have added temporary warming structures to increase lodge capacity.
Maine’s Sugarloaf is among the ski areas that have added temporary warming structures to increase lodge capacity. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sugarloaf

Meals in parking lots. Evolving rules regarding reservations. And forget about apres-ski activities.

The 2020-21 ski season has already proven to be different and complicated for patrons and resorts alike. But even with the winter surge of Covid-19 transmission rates, mountains are drawing sizable crowds.

"I've really found that everyone is just excited to be outside," said Katie Ertl, senior vice president of mountain operations for the four ski areas that comprise Aspen Snowmass. "They are really grateful that we're spinning the lifts. That they have something that gets them out of their Covid routine."

At Aspen, strong crowds in early December buoyed by the local drive market were expected to give way to a weaker than usual holiday period, with the drop caused by weak bookings from the fly market, said director of public relations Jeff Hanle. 

Other ski areas can expect a similar pattern, with heavy local interest filling voids from distant feeder markets. At Colorado's Monarch, for example, season pass sales had equaled last season's record total by early December, said head of marketing Dan Bender. At Sugar Bowl in the Lake Tahoe area, management suspended season pass sales in early September so that it could still sell daily lift passes while also cutting the total numbers of skiers on the mountain, said executive director of marketing and sales Jon Slaughter.

And at Winter Park in Colorado, crowds were so large after the season began on Dec. 3 that just 12 days later the resort reversed its policy of not requiring pass holders to have reservations. 

Indeed, the reservation requirements in place at many mountains for pass holders, as well as for single- and multiday lift tickets holders, have already proven to be one of many ways that skiing will be different and more complicated this year than in the past. 

Long lift and gondola lines like this one forced Colorado's Winter Park to require pass holders to make reservations, reversing its initial no-reservation policy.
Long lift and gondola lines like this one forced Colorado's Winter Park to require pass holders to make reservations, reversing its initial no-reservation policy. Photo Credit: TW photo by Robert Silk

Once Winter Park went to the reservation system, availability for Ikon Pass holders on most weekends during the season was gone within minutes. Those who don't have passes are also out of luck, since the resort stopped selling day passes in the fall. 

Vail Resorts, which requires reservations across its portfolio of 34 North American ski areas, has also struggled to adapt. 

In a Dec. 11 email to pass holders, CEO Rob Katz promised to improve long wait times at call centers, which came as customers sought clarification on new Vail and Epic Pass policies.

"Despite doubling our staffing and introducing new online chat functionality and other features, our infrastructure was ultimately not designed to handle the volume," Katz wrote. "It is a huge miss on our part, especially for a company that tries to be an out-front leader within our industry."

On the mountain, perhaps the most consequential difference skiers are experiencing this year is the elimination or reduction of on-mountain dining. In the major California ski markets, dining of any sort was closed on-mountain for most of December due to a state-issued mandate. 

"We've been educating guests that this year would be a good year to consider your car [to be] your lodge in many ways," said Michael Reitzell, president of Ski California.

At ski areas in other parts of the country, on-mountain dining has been limited either to outdoor areas or is allowed indoors at much-reduced capacity, depending upon local restrictions.

Similar limitations extend into the remainder of ski towns, which means that skiers and boarders are having to go without the apres-ski drinking and socializing that is such a major part of many enthusiasts' day.

"It is making for a different pace," Aspen's Ertl said, putting a positive face on the change. "We are of the mindset that we're going back to the good old days, where it is about skiing and being outdoors."

More urgently, the closure or partial closure of on-mountain lodges has left skiers with far fewer options for warming up on days that are especially cold or when storms suddenly turn comfortable blue-sky days frigid.

Ertl said that at Aspen, management spent long hours planning for such contingencies. One response is that the company has added five large tents spread across its four ski areas. As of Dec. 28, indoor dining was still allowed at Aspen with 25% capacity, but if that is shut down, those tents will remain open for warming only.

Alternatively, Monarch plans to allow people into its lodge even if dining must be closed, but capacity will be limited, and the resort might also limit the time each guest can remain there, Bender said.

Resorts are also putting an emphasis on informing customers ahead of an expected bad weather day.

"We will have dynamic, stormy weather this weekend, and with limited access to indoor spaces, it is important that you are prepared to stay warm throughout your day," Squaw Valley tweeted ahead of a mid-December storm. The tweet included a link to the resort's primer page on keeping warm.

Resorts are also anticipating that many customers will opt for shorter ski days this year. With this in mind, Aspen eliminated full-day ski lessons for the 2020-21 season.

"We've encouraged people to consider the length of their day," Ertl said. 

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