Ski operators expect serious challenges for 2020-21 season

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A busy lift line last season at Stowe in Vermont. Ski operators will be working to avoid overcrowding when they reopen for business. Photo Credit: Trevor Crist

The March onset of the Covid-19 crisis in the U.S. came late enough in the ski season that it has thus far merely bruised, rather than deeply wounded, the ski industry here.

But as they prepare for the 2020-21 season, ski operators and the towns and businesses that support them face a mountain of complications.

“It’s a little mind-numbing,” said Rusty Gregory, CEO of Alterra Mountain Co.

Alterra, the company that issues the Ikon Pass and owns or operates 15 ski resorts, was dealt an approximately 15% revenue hit for the 2019-20 season due to the early shutdown, Gregory said.

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Tom Foley, senior vice president of business and analytics at Inntopia, whose DestiMetrics platform collects and analyzes lodging performance metrics in the destination ski industry, said losing the last four to five weeks of the ski season led to a 15.3% decline in lodging revenue in ski towns, which is likely reflected in supporting service industry businesses, such as restaurants and retailers. (Inntopia, like Travel Weekly, is owned by Northstar Travel Group.)

“In many destinations it’s going to look like kind of a bad snow year,” Foley said. “That’s built into budgets.”

He added that looking ahead to summer, mountain towns are facing a 50% decline in year-over-year revenue. 

Figures like that would make next year’s ski season crucial, especially to some smaller ski areas and to many small merchants, said Natalie Ooi, program director of the ski area management program at Colorado State University.

But with social distancing likely to still be the norm until a Covid-19 vaccine can be developed and mass-produced, the ski industry has begun to grapple with how it will be able to operate mountains both safely and profitably. 

In fact, the first glimpse into that future came in late April, when Mount Baldy, a small ski area in the mountains just east of the Los Angeles basin, reopened for two weeks to end its season. All skiers were greeted at their vehicles, where they were checked in by staff in 10-minute intervals, no more than four at a time. Vehicles were spaced at least three car-widths apart. Skiers rode lifts separately unless they were in the same party. Masks were required at all times.

Larger mountains -- such as Oregon’s Timberline Lodge, Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin and California’s Mammoth Mountain and Squaw Valley -- also harbor ambitions of reopening this year. If they do, the measures they implement will provide valuable lessons ahead of 2020-21. 

Alterra, the owner of Mammoth and Squaw Valley, has begun what Gregory calls a “massive contingency planning effort” for the coming year. 

He said the goal is to set certain baseline standards, which the individual Alterra resorts can work from to implement mountain-specific policies that address local regulatory requirements and their own unique circumstances. 

“We’re planning in a very opaque set of circumstances,” Gregory acknowledged. 

Alterra is looking at expanding its zero-touch technology capabilities. It is considering what a lift line should look like, how many people should be allowed into gondolas and on chairlifts and whether mountains will need daily capacity limits. The company is also considering how to manage dining operations, parking lots, equipment rentals and even whether restroom attendants will be required. 

Complications are manifest. For example, reducing the number of people per lift displaces skiers into lift lines. 

Ooi said she expects that at least in the early going next year, mountains across the industry will have to limit capacity. Some ski areas are also considering implementing designated skiing start times for customers, much like a golf tee time. 

But Ooi also noted that capacity limits could prove to be unnecessary if demand is depressed due to consumer health safety concerns and financial constraints caused by the virus. 

Meanwhile, capacity adjustments, said Foley, will extend beyond ski mountains to local lodging facilities, conference centers, restaurants and more. And broader logistics problems, said Ooi, will extend to the municipalities that run the local transit systems often used by skiers. New parking constraints, as vehicles are spaced farther apart, could also force traffic to spill out onto highways in some locations, causing traffic jams.  

Despite the myriad complications, Gregory said he is optimistic that there will be a 2020-21 ski season. And he’s still hoping there will be an opportunity for late spring reopenings.

“You’re not in the ski industry if you don’t believe in the impossible,” he said.

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