‘Keep Alive and Survive’: Ski Resorts Brace for a Pandemic Season

OLYMPIC VALLEY, California – A crowd of skiers recently zigzagged down the slopes at Squaw Valley Ski Resort. Couples and families wandered through the resort’s village, which was decked out in golden Christmas lights and frosted with snow.

It looked like the beginning of a happy season. On closer inspection, however, it turned out to be anything but that.

The patios in the restaurant were almost empty when masked workers with lime green disinfectant sprayers on their backs were swept through. This was part of the $ 1 million Squaw Valley spent on disinfecting equipment and other security measures. At the ski lifts, sparse groups waited in socially distant rows. The resort felt “so dead,” said one skier, Sabrina Nottingham, in part because it kept ticket sales to less than 50 percent of the norm.

Squaw Valley, a marquee for winter sports enthusiasts, is one of many ski resorts across the country preparing for an unpredictable season. Resorts have been forced to rethink how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, and with vaccines still rolling out, they have made a variety of changes in places like Aspen, Colorado. Park City, Utah; Taos Ski Valley, NM; and Killington, Vt. Many place visitor restrictions and require ticket reservations; New Mexico has limited resorts to 25 percent of capacity.

The resorts are also minimizing personal interactions by installing kiosks for ticket collection, creating space between people for ski lifts and gondolas, requiring masks, limiting the number of people on an elevator at one time, and closing down indoor dining in some places.

While the pandemic has dealt a severe blow to the entire travel industry, ski resorts could have a disproportionate impact this winter due to their short business window. The ski industry had already suffered a blow back in the spring when the pandemic broke out and many ski resorts were forced to close prematurely, resulting in $ 2 billion in losses and laying off or vacation days for thousands of employees, according to the National Ski Areas Association trade group . The industry recorded the lowest number of visits since the 2011/12 season at 51 million, the association said.

Now resorts like Squaw Valley are setting their expectations low for the new ski season.

“I don’t think anyone in the industry is aiming for the best year ever,” said Ron Cohen, president of Squaw Valley and neighboring Alpine Meadows, who laid off 2,000 seasonal workers in the spring. “We want to keep our businesses so that after the end of Covid we have the opportunity not to suffer so much damage that we may not be able to get up.”

Mike Pierce, a spokesman for Mount Rose Ski Tahoe, a resort in western Nevada, said the attitude was “just to maintain and survive the status quo.” He declined to provide financial data but said, “If we break even it will almost be counted as a success.”

Even before the pandemic, the ski industry tried to arouse interest in the sport. According to the National Ski Association, the number of skiers has stagnated over the past decade. Adrienne Isaac, a spokeswoman for the trade group, said the resorts had tried to make skiing and snowboarding more accessible to newbies but had come to terms with the perception that it was mostly aimed at the rich and white. Climate change continues to affect snowfall, which can result in shorter seasons.

How the ski resorts develop this winter will have a domino effect on the tax revenue of the state economy. In New Mexico, the shortened ski season last winter and this spring generated $ 41 million in taxes, but George Brooks, the executive director of the state ski association, said he expected no more than 40 percent of that number in the coming months .

Vail Resorts, the world’s largest ski company with 37 ski resorts around the world, including 34 in the U.S., reported in a December 10th call for profit that it lost $ 153 million from August to October, more than the loss of 106 , $ 5 million in the US same time a year ago. Rob Katz, managing director of Vail Resorts, said season pass sales increased by about 20 percent, but he expects fewer visitors and less sales this winter than previous seasons.

At smaller resorts, the pain may not be as severe. Diamond Peak Ski Resort in Incline Village, Nevada announced that it was about $ 1 million ahead of projections after the spring shutdown. Mike Bandelin, the resort’s general manager, said smaller resorts often operate at a loss in the last few weeks of the season, so closing early actually saved money.

Many resorts said they still expected some die-hard skiers and powderhounds to show up this winter, along with locals and those who have moved to second homes nearby. At the Winter Park Resort west of Denver, a swarm of eager skiers crowded the lift lines this month’s opening weekend. The resort was quick to take action to allow more distance, said Jen Miller, a spokeswoman.

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Dec. Dec. 23, 2020 at 8:59 p.m. ET

But the visitors who won’t come, said the ski resorts and other ski experts, are most likely casual skiers and those who travel from long distances.

“We’re going to lose the mom and pop who want to raise their kids,” said Mr. Brooks.

In Colorado, the Aspen Skiing Company, which operates four ski resorts, has had stable business since reopening Nov. 25, but will miss the 20 percent of its annual visitors from other countries, said a spokesman, Jeff Hanle. He said Aspen may also see fewer travelers out of state, especially if they live in places where they will need to isolate on their return.

“You have to be a pretty committed skier to say, ‘I’m going to ski and I know when I go home I’ll have to quarantine,” he said.

Even if the resorts survive the winter, smaller businesses that rely on skiers to get into town – like restaurants, hotels, and retail stores – may not be as lucky.

At Stratton Mountain Resort in Stratton, Vt., An Irish pub called Mulligan’s has laid off half of its staff. Since visitors to Vermont, which sources 80 percent of its ski traffic from other states, must be quarantined for a week or two before they can go anywhere, Mulligan’s owner Tom Rose expects up to a 60 percent loss of his normal winter sales.

“We survived Hurricane Irene. Our sales took a real leap after September 11th. We made it through the great recession, ”said Rose. But “this pandemic is by far the worst.”

There are some bright spots. Backcountry skiing or ski touring – which often involve climbing remote, snow-capped mountain ranges – is booming. According to the NPD Group, backcountry equipment sales increased 76 percent from August to October year over year.

“The Covid environment, which favors socially distant outdoor recreational activities, as well as the restrictions in place in the ski resorts have increased interest in ski touring this season,” said Eric Henderson, spokesman for Snowsports Industries America trade group.

Those who have The trips to the resorts said they were glad they made the effort. Recently in Squaw Valley, Ms. Nottingham, 21, who was visiting with fellow California Polytechnic State University students in San Luis Obispo, said that although the resort was quiet, the experience “felt safer than going to a grocery store, because it’s everyone’s all covered up anyway. “

Squaw Valley, which opened in 1949 and hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics, has seen significant changes in recent years. In 2010 it was bought by a private equity group called KSL Capital Partners and merged with neighboring Alpine Meadows the following year. Together, the two resorts span 6,000 acres, most of them in the Lake Tahoe region, and have 42 lifts and more than 270 trails.

In August, Squaw Valley announced that it would change its name by 2021, as “Squaw” is considered a racist and sexist term for Native American women.

But nothing the resort has been through can match the chaos of the pandemic, Cohen said. While refusing to disclose the financials for Squaw and Alpine, he described the spring’s losses as “devastating” and said the resorts are “operating on lower profit margins” and generating weaker sales this winter.

The disruption became doubly apparent this month when a new stay at home order went into effect in the region, forcing resorts to cancel hotel stays and adding another wrinkle to potential visitors.

For ski resorts, the mantra right now is “stay alive and survive,” said Cohen.

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