Vail's reservations policy sets precedent for ski areas

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Skiers and snowboarders at Vermont's Mount Snow will need to make reservations this season.
Skiers and snowboarders at Vermont's Mount Snow will need to make reservations this season. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Mount Snow

Vail Resorts' decision to require reservations for skiers this season could set a template for other U.S. ski operators to follow.

However, those operators have been slower to announce operational plans for the 2020-21 season.

"It creates some kind of certainty," said Nathan Rafferty, the CEO of Ski Utah, where Vail owns the Park City ski area. "It feels like everybody wants to know what this season is going to look like. We've been telling everybody we're skiing this winter. If it snows, we're going to ski. But it's going to look different than it has looked in the past."

In the Aug. 27 announcement, Vail said that it had set up a reservation portal for its 34 North American ski areas, a step made necessary as the company implements Covid-19 capacity constraints.

Holders of individual lift tickets will automatically reserve their mountain space at the time of purchase, while holders of Vail's Epic Pass and other pass products will have to reserve mountain space on the portal -- typically within a week of the ski day.

Pass holders, who in the past have always had the option of showing up at a mountain when they chose, will still enjoy some perks. Vail won't sell any daily lift tickets until Dec. 8, leaving mountains open only for pass holders from opening day until that time. In addition, pass holders will be able to reserve mountain space for up to seven different days of Vail's core Dec. 8 to April 4 ski season before the Dec. 8 start of sales of daily tickets. 

"For the vast majority of days during the season, we believe everyone who wants to get on our mountains will be able to," Vail CEO Rob Katz said. "However, we are not planning for the majority of days; we are planning for every day of the season."

Natalie Ooi, program director of the ski area management program at Colorado State University, said she believes Vail is being careful to put pass holders first.

"It's a lot easier to retain an existing pass holder than it is to get a new one," she said. "I think most ski areas are going to be focusing on their loyal customers."

How other major operators will manage crowds remains up in the air. Big players such as Alterra Mountain Co., Powdr Corp., Boyne Resorts and Aspen had yet to announce plans as of Sept. 1.

Ooi said she expects many other U.S. ski operators will require reservations. But not all of them.

"Some areas that never hit capacity might not have to do that," she said. "That could be a selling point for them."

Ski areas, under the watchful eye of local and state governments, must also decide what health safety measures they'll take in the coming season. 

A recently released National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) best practices blueprint suggests that face coverings be required in all areas where physical distancing cannot be achieved. Such policies likely would include lifts and lift lines as well as on-mountain lodges. The document also calls for daily wellness checks of all employees before shifts begin. 

Its suggestions are less stringent when it comes to management of lifts and lift lines. Lift lines, the NSAA said, have natural social distancing due to the length of skis and snowboards. Chairlifts, the organization notes, provide constant airflow. Still, the blueprint suggests that guests be asked to self-group, loading lifts with their traveling party.

"Lift attendants will not require guests to ride a chairlift with people they do not know," it said.

Vail's plan appears to adhere to these guidelines. The company will require face coverings throughout ski areas, including on the mountain. Separate parties can ride lifts together, but only if they are on opposite ends of four-seat or six-seat chairs with at least two empty seats in between.

In a recent interview with the Denver Post, Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory hinted at a less-stringent lift policy for his company's 15 mountains, saying that masks, combined with the outdoor elements and the short duration of lift rides, should make it safe for separate parties to sit together on full chairs.

Ski area food areas, which are often jam-packed, will also present a challenge.

Vail didn't specify how it will handle that issue, saying only that it will offer on-mountain dining, but with alterations for safety. 

In a recent email to customers, Colorado's Arapahoe Basin said restaurants, rental and retail services will be different this year and that "trademark, raucous social activities like apres ski" will be on hold. 

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