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
“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.
Uncertainty has caused ski areas to offer an array of
discounts and guarantees on annual passes for the 2020-21 season. Read More
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
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
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
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
“We’re planning in a very opaque set of circumstances,”
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
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.