Millions of Americans would love to bust out of pandemic isolation and go skiing.
The $20 billion U.S. ski and snowboard industry hopes the coronavirus lets them.
Lockdowns starting in March wiped out spring break, the second-most lucrative period of the season, and with it an estimated $2 billion from industry revenue. The most profitable time is Christmas vacation, coming soon, and the resurgence of Covid-19 has slope operators nervous that another shot at decent earnings will be lost at a time when pent-up demand is reaching a bursting point.
“It’s just going to be a very different year for all of us, an interesting year, a stressful year,” said Jeff Hanle, vice president of communications for Aspen Skiing Co., which owns the Aspen Snowmass resort in Colorado. “People are very excited to be outside, to be up on the hill.”
With wide distribution of a vaccine still months away, different mountains have different reasons to worry. Aspen Snowmass, which caters to the jet set with more than 350 trails on four peaks, expects to lose 80% of its international business as pandemic travel restrictions remain in force. At smaller, family-owned slopes, such as Minnesota’s Lutsen Mountains and Nub’s Nob in Michigan, the challenge is more to keep customers and staff safe while they gear up, take breaks and refuel with chili and hot chocolate.
Ski-in, ski-out accommodations can alleviate crowding in public spaces, and Lutsen Mountains, overlooking Lake Superior, can take advantage of that, according to Marketing Director Jim Vick. The resort is encouraging overnight guests who are staying trailside to use their rooms as their own private day lodges, freeing up space in the lodge for day guests. Nub’s Nob is asking visitors to eat and drink outside and to boot up at their cars.
Rules vary at different locations. The California side of Lake Tahoe is closed to overnight guests due to Covid-19 restrictions while the Nevada side remains open. Some resorts have instituted reservation systems to limit the number of skiers, which, of course, cuts into revenue. And the National Ski Areas Association is urging skiers to ride chairlifts and gondolas only with people they know.
More than 51 million visitors hit American slopes last year, according to the NSAA. That was on pace for the fourth-best season since counting started in the 1970s — were it not for the March shutdowns.
Sales for 2020-2021 look promising. Nub’s Nob, in the northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, says it’s sold 10% more season passes than last year, after 2019 sales topped 2018 by 10%, according to General Manager Ben Doornbos. Vail Resorts Inc., which operates 37 resorts and ski areas, including the chic Colorado destination for which it’s named, said unit sales were up about 20% from last season.
“The safety of our guests, employees and communities continues to be our top priority,” Chief Executive Officer Robert Katz told investors.
That priority has led many ski areas to hire more workers for tasks related to the virus, such as to enforce social distancing and speed up ticket processing to prevent crowding. Some resorts take on employees from out of the area and provide them housing. That became more complicated with Covid-19.
Lockdowns also affect businesses that cluster around ski areas, such as gear shops, motels, shuttle services, liquor stores and restaurants.
“If the ski resort sneezes, the community catches the cold,” said Dave Byrd, the NSAA’s director of risk and regulatory affairs.
North Shore Winery sits down Ski Hill Road from the Lutsen Mountains resort. In March, when the pandemic first shuttered the tasting room, Manager Jayden Corliss said the business was just trying to keep the heat and lights on. Now, the winery is encouraging online sales, hosting virtual live music nights and promoting its wine club in an effort to offset lost business onsite.
“There’s no way to really make up the sales we’re losing in the tasting room, but we want to keep our staff employed as much as possible, keep our customers happy and really just keep North Shore Winery feeling like the same business that it’s always been,” Corliss said.
Ski-area operators are planning to stay nimble as public-health conditions change. John Burton, marketing director at Timberline Lodge and Ski Area on Oregon’s Mt. Hood, said planning more than a few weeks at a time is impossible.
“We’ve been trying to get ahead of it, and plan and plan and get the details out, and we’ve figured out that that’s a pretty futile effort,” he said.
In a season where just about everything will be different, skiers can take comfort that the sport itself will remain the same.
“When you point your skis downhill and start moving, that’s what’s going to be the same,” Aspen’s Hanle said. “That rush and that feel.”
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