How Do You Have a Ski Season in a Pandemic?
When you love to snowboard as much as Rocky Freudenberg, the winter season ahead looked rather worrisome. Snow is always a gamble, but maybe less this year, a La Niña year, which could mean more powder-dumping storms for the northern Rockies and Cascades, where Mr. Freudenberg lives in Oregon. His worry hinged on the pandemic. Now, for the first time, many ski resorts big and small will require a reservation to ride the lifts — sometimes even if you own a season pass.
So, with Covid-19 concerns high on his mind, Mr. Freudenberg, who is 47 and single with flexible work hours, hatched a plan. Instead of buying a season pass to his local ski area, he spent about $1,000 on an Ikon Pass, which gives him seven days or more of lift tickets at each of the pass’s 44 participating resorts in North America and abroad.
Then he spent another $16,000 on a used motor home, a Gulf Stream, to which he added a waxing station and snowboard racks. Come January, he plans to take a 15-week, road-trip snow safari, bouncing between places like Crystal, Wash., and Mammoth Mountain, Calif., on a quest to log his usual 40-plus days of riding.
“I’ve always wanted to chase powder,” he says. “Now I’m also chasing what’s available.”
Mr. Freudenberg’s open-road strategy holds hard-bitten appeal, but with winter well on its way, and with more states imposing more restrictions as case numbers climb, even casual skiers and snowboarders from coast to coast must now rethink how to approach a season that will be like no other. From how we ride the lifts to where we sleep and what we eat, ski areas are taking unprecedented steps to minimize crowding and to curb opportunities for the virus to spread, all at a time when participation in outdoor adventure sports appears to be skyrocketing. Many of the changes may be temporary. Some may linger.
Either way, the winter holiday ski experience that emerges on the other side may never be quite the same.
“I’m way too optimistic in general, but I think everything will be OK,” says Jonny Moseley, the Olympic skier and podcaster who now works in marketing and content creation for outdoor and tourism industries. “I think we might see skiing going back to the way it was, with more parking lot action and fewer mob scenes. You’re also going to have to plan ahead and be patient and be prepared to chill.”
This year many places, particularly those in the unusually warm Northeast, have opted to open later than the usual pre-Thanksgiving target to allow nature more time to bring snow (or at least cold, snow-making temperatures) so that resorts can open with more terrain and better disperse their visitors. Wolf Creek in Colorado has already received enough snow to open 98 percent of its slopes.
Meanwhile, recent orders by governors and health officials in states like Michigan, Oregon and New Mexico to close museums, bars and sit-down dining in restaurants at least until early December will affect ski areas, too, with some skiers wondering whether more aggressive closures could be on the way. Taos in New Mexico already delayed its planned opening day to sometime beyond Nov. 26, while Oregon’s ski areas can still open as scheduled, at least for now, under an executive order announced on Nov. 13.
“They want to be safe,” says Olivia Rowan, publisher of Ski Area Management magazine. “They don’t want to end up in the news.”
The challenge: Focus on risk and adapt
There is indeed reason to hope, even if Americans must stick to American resorts, with no leisure travel permitted to Europe, Canada or even to Vermont without two weeks of quarantine or a week of quarantine plus testing for people coming to the state.
Participating in individual winter sports is relatively low risk, since humans aren’t very efficient virus vectors when zooming down mountains in fresh air while wearing goggles, gloves and long boards on their feet that force physical distancing. But then there are the lines, lodges and après spots where the odds of an infection change, and that’s after all the travel that’s often required to get to the destination.
Either way, the industry is hoping to avoid the misery of last March, when super spreader events rocked ski towns like Ischgl, Austria, and Sun Valley in Idaho. To address the pandemic’s risks and to discourage travel, 93 percent of American resorts shut down that month. The move cost them at least $2 billion in lost revenue, estimates Adrienne Saia Isaac, the director of marketing and communications at the National Ski Areas Association, which represents 320 of the country’s 470 ski areas across 37 states. Things rebounded over the summer, when ski areas reopened for mountain biking, hiking and zip lining, allowing managers to fine tune ways to protect employees and control crowds. The overarching idea now is basically an extension of what they learned: Focus on the risky choke points; ask everyone to adapt.
Many of the new requirements in place will feel old hat by now: Wear a face covering inside, on lifts, in gondolas and whenever you can’t maintain your distance, and control the number of people allowed inside buildings. Those alone will change the feel of resorts. Mount Hood Meadows in Oregon will let guests ride lifts alone if they want, while scores of other areas, like Wyoming’s Grand Targhee and Wisconsin’s Granite Peak, are following industry “Ski Well. Be Well” guidelines and won’t force anyone to ride lifts with strangers. At Jackson Hole, Wyo., the tram will carry 25 visitors at a time, down from 100, meaning lines could be longer.
Base-area businesses at Copper in Colorado might set up pop-up spaces outside to sell last minute lip balm and neck gaiters. You may see more people using services like Black Tie Skis to have rental equipment delivered directly to their doors. Gone are the free champagne, powder doughnuts and hot chocolate at Steamboat in Colorado, but the resort’s Taco Beast, a snow-traveling food truck with bulldozer-style tank treads, will still be rumbling around offering elk chorizo specialties al fresco.
“Après is probably going to look very different,” Ms. Isaac adds. Those big bashes with go-go dancers and D.J.s at Lake Tahoe’s Heavenly are certainly on hold for now, but even smaller venues with live music, like the Volcanic Theatre Pub in Bend, Ore., or just about any venue at a Vail property, may feel like shells of their former selves.
“In good conscience we couldn’t see how we could run a bar,” says Jamie Storrs, a senior communications manager for Vail Resorts’ Eastern region.
Instead, visitors should expect to see resorts like Snowbasin in Utah, and Alterra’s Sugarbush in Vermont, offering outdoor warming yurts and cabanas, while places like Wachusett Mountain in Massachusetts will place heated benches outside like those used by NFL teams. In Mountain Village, near Telluride, Colo., you can dine, isolated from others, in refurbished gondola cars, but you’ll need a reservation to get a table in the lodge at Diamond Peak in Nevada. Everywhere you’ll likely see more people eating and gathering with friends in parking lots, where they may also see more rigs like Mr. Freudenberg’s.
Blacksford, an airport R.V. rental company, is expanding in Denver and other ski cities this winter, thanks in part to more demand for self-contained ski trips, while an R.V. Industry Association report shows sales are up 4.5 percent this year, with 2021 sales likely to grow more than 19 percent, “the best annual total on measurable record,” the forecast notes.
Tickets and passes
The biggest change, however, will be how many ski areas plan to restrict daily lift ticket sales as a way to manage crowds before they arrive.
Visitors from Stowe in Vermont to The Summit at Snoqualmie in Washington, must now purchase or reserve tickets in advance, including at all 34 North American areas covered by the Epic Pass, as well as many of those on the Ikon and Mountain Collective passes. The process means pass holders can reserve dates online, which activates the pass accordingly and allows them to go straight to the lifts. That’ll make skiing on holidays and weekends more competitive. In the case of Vail Resorts, which set a companywide policy, Epic pass owners can hold no more than seven days of lift reservations at any given time for dates during holiday peak times, but they can hold as many reservations for nonpeak days as they like.
At least one ski area, Mount Bachelor in Oregon, will require reservations to park a vehicle, but not for lift tickets, while plenty of other areas, like Sunday River in Maine, Big Sky in Montana and Sun Valley in Idaho, will require no reservations at all.
For those areas with a reservation system in place, exactly how many people will be allowed to get tickets on any given day remains a bit of a mystery because most ski resorts tend to keep visitation numbers under wraps or reveal them later in earnings reports. Go online to reserve a ticket at, say, Park City Mountain Resort, in Utah, which you should do as far in advance as you can at any resort, and you’ll see if tickets are available, but not how many are left.
Once it does open, Taos Ski Valley, in lock step with New Mexican law, has set a specific limit at no more than 25 percent of the maximum lift capacity per hour, so a bit fewer than 5,000 people per hour on the busiest of days, according to the resort’s figures. How many people that translates into in total on any given day, however, can change hourly depending on weather, how many lifts are running and available terrain. For now, New Mexico requires a two-week quarantine for anyone arriving from a “high-risk” state, which as of November 16, means every state save Vermont.
Lodging and reservations
Lodging may feel a bit different, too, though properties everywhere have been following county and state guidelines for months now with more rigorous cleaning, limited seating in restaurants and asking guests to wear masks in public areas where they can’t keep their distance. A soak in the rooftop hot tub at Hotel Jackson in Jackson, Wyo., will be by reservation only. There will be no seats by the fire at The Inn at Solitude in Utah, but walk 20 paces and you’ll find outdoor fire pits at the Thirsty Squirrel pub instead.
The big lesson here: Research where you plan to go well ahead of time and make sure any reservations you make for rooms include reservations for lift tickets, if required. Check back often as rules can be quite fluid.
“We want to be able to operate with thoughtfulness, sensitivity and compliance, but also be practical, because we can’t operate with heavy restrictions,” says Scott Brandi, president of Ski Areas New York, a group that represents the most ski areas of any state in the country at 50. “We’ve all been hit hard, but when you really dig into it, the community understands what needs to be done.”
Mr. Storrs, the Vail Resorts communications manager, says the reservation system will be in place only for as long as the pandemic requires it. “People got worried when we said ‘reservations’ and ‘capacity,’ but we are still standing by the fact that on the majority of the days we are going to be able to ski everyone who wants to ski and ride,” he says.
And while the habit of waking up on a bluebird powder day and darting off for some spontaneous laps may be more complicated for many this year, there are advantages to the new reservation systems, too. “People who can read weather forecasts are going to like this,” he adds. “The untracked stashes may stick around a little longer.”
Some changes may become permanent
In many ways, the pandemic has only accelerated changes that were already happening. Instead of walking up to windows to buy a day ticket, rent skis and book a lesson, we may soon see more resorts adding airport-style check-in kiosks, like the “Axess Pickup Box 600s” going in this year at British Columbia’s Big White, Colorado’s Aspen Snowmass and Pennsylvania’s Blue Mountain.
Adrian Ballinger, a mountain guide and the owner of Alpenglow Expeditions in Olympic Valley, Calif., has watched interest rise over the past five years in backcountry skiing, where there are no lifts, but now interest is soaring, with more than 200 people signed up for his safety courses months in advance instead of the usual dozen or so students for this time of year.
If retailers could offer insight based on what people are buying, it’d be that we’ll see more beginners, more fat bikers and more cross country skiers out there, too, as people continue the summer trend of looking for any excuse to play outside and purchase the equipment to do it.
At the very least, few people think the pandemic will translate into empty ski areas, not even at places like Cimarron, a small, private ski area in Colorado that has seen membership applications double in recent months. The opposite may be true. “We’ve all been trained,” says Ms. Rowan of Ski Area Management Magazine. “If there’s a perceived high demand, you better run out and get your toilet paper.”
For Carrie Proudfit, a public information officer in Orlando, Fla., this season will be all about family. Instead of renting out their slope-side condo in Deer Valley, Utah, as frequently as she and her husband, Randy, might in a normal year, they’ll spend eight weeks there themselves, working remotely and skiing the bunny slopes with their young daughter, Emma, instead of putting her in ski school for the day while Mom and Dad rip around the glades on their own.
“We were going to go crush it this year, just full-speed ahead,” Ms. Proudfit says. “We’ve been asked to pivot so much in 2020, and this is no different. We thought we’d make some lemonade out of the lemons and make this season great.”
Tim Neville, a correspondent for Outside magazine, has reported on skiing from Kosovo to North Korea.
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