‘Stay Alive and Survive’: Ski resorts set for a pandemic season

OLYMPIC VALLEY, California – A group of skiers recently zigzagged down the slopes of Squaw Valley Ski Resort. Couples and families roamed the resort’s village, which was decorated with golden Christmas lights and snow frost.

It felt like the beginning of a happy season. But closer inspection revealed that it was anything but.

The restaurant patios were almost empty as masked workers passed them with green disinfectant sprayers strapped to their backs, part of the $ 1 million that Squaw Valley spent on sanitation equipment and other security measures. On the cable cars, sparse groups waited in socially distant lines. The resort looked “so dead,” said a skier, Sabrina Nottingham, in part because she was limiting ticket sales to less than 50% of normal.

Squaw Valley, a famous destination for winter sports enthusiasts, is one of many ski resorts across the country that are gearing up for a highly unpredictable season. Forced to rethink how to operate in the coronavirus pandemic and with vaccines still in place, resorts have made a multitude of changes in places like Aspen, Colorado; Park City, Utah; Ski Valley of Taos, NM; and Killington, Vt. Many are setting restrictions on visitors and requiring ticket reservations; New Mexico has limited resorts to 25% capacity.

Resorts are also minimizing personal interactions by installing ticket kiosks, increasing the space between people in the line of cable cars and gondolas, requiring masks, limiting the number of people in an elevator at the same time and, in some places, closing internal meals.

Although the pandemic has taken a heavy hit on the entire travel industry, ski resorts may experience a disproportionate impact this winter because of their short business window. The ski industry was already hit in the spring when the pandemic struck and many resorts had to close earlier, leading to $ 2 billion in losses and causing layoffs or layoffs for thousands of employees, according to the National Ski Areas Association, a commercial group. The sector had the least number of visits, 51 million, since the 2011-12 season, the association said.

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

“I don’t think anyone in the business is wanting this to be 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 preserve our business so that, when Covid ends, we have the opportunity to not have suffered so much damage that we are unable to stand up.”

Mike Pierce, a spokesman for Mount Rose Ski Tahoe, a resort in western Nevada, said the mindset was “just maintain the status quo and survive”. He declined to provide any financial data, but said: “if we strike a balance, it is almost considered a success.”

Even before the pandemic, the ski industry was working to increase interest in the sport. The number of skiers has stagnated over the past decade, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Adrienne Isaac, a spokesman for the commercial group, said the resorts tried to make skiing and snowboarding more accessible to newcomers, but struggled with the perception that they cater mainly to the rich and white. Climate change also continues to affect snowfall, she said, which could lead to shorter seasons.

The performance of ski resorts this winter will have a domino effect on the tax revenues of state economies. In New Mexico, the ski season truncated last winter and this spring generated $ 41 million in taxes, but George Brooks, the executive director of the state’s ski association, said he expected no more than 40 percent of that number in the United States. coming months.

Vail Resorts, the world’s largest ski company with 37 resorts around the globe, including 34 in the United States, reported in a December 10 earnings call that it lost $ 153 million from August to October, greater than the loss of US $ 106.5 million in the same period a year ago. Rob Katz, chief executive of Vail Resorts, said season pass sales have increased by about 20 percent, but he expects fewer visitors and less revenue this winter than in previous seasons.

For smaller resorts, the pain may not be as severe. The Diamond Peak Ski Resort in Incline Village, Nevada, said it left about $ 1 million ahead of projections after the close of spring. Mike Bandelin, the resort’s general manager, said that smaller resorts usually operate at a loss in the final weeks of the season, so closing early really saves money.

Many resorts have said they still expect some die-hard skiers and snow dogs to show up this winter, along with locals and those who have moved to nearby second homes. At Winter Park Resort, west of Denver, a crowd of anxious skiers over this month’s opening weekend caused congestion on the cableway lines. The resort quickly enacted measures to allow for more spacing, said Jen Miller, a spokeswoman.

But visitors who will not come, said the resorts and other ski experts, are likely casual skiers and those who travel long distances.

“We’re going to lose the mom and dad who want to raise their children,” said Brooks.

In Colorado, the Aspen Skiing Company, which operates four ski areas, has had steady business since reopening on November 25, but will lose 20 percent of its annual visitors from other countries, said spokesman Jeff Hanle . He said Aspen may also see fewer out-of-state travelers, especially if they live in places where they will have to isolate themselves when they return.

“You have to be a very dedicated skier to say, ‘I’m going to ski and I know that when I get home I will have to be quarantined,'” he said.

Even if resorts survive the winter, smaller companies that rely on skiers coming to town – such as restaurants, hotels and retail stores – may not be so lucky.

At Stratton Mountain Resort in Stratton, Vt., An Irish pub called Mulligan’s dismissed half of its staff. Since visitors to Vermont, which receives 80% of its ski traffic from other states, need to be quarantined for a week or two before going anywhere, Mulligan’s owner Tom Rose said he expected to lose up to 60% normal winter sales.

“We survived Hurricane Irene. Our sales plummeted after 9/11. We have overcome the Great Recession, ”said Rose. But “this pandemic is by far the worst”.

There are some good points. Indoor skiing, or cross-country skiing – which usually involves climbing isolated snowy mountain ranges – is on the rise. Equipment sales in remote areas increased 76% from August to October, compared to the same period last year, according to the NPD Group.

“The Covid environment that favors outdoor and socially distant recreational activities, coupled with restrictions in place at ski resorts, has accelerated interest in skiing in remote areas this season,” said Eric Henderson, spokesman for Snowsports Industries America , a commercial group.

Who has made the trips to the resorts said they were happy to have made the effort. Recently, in Squaw Valley, Ms. Nottingham, 21, who was visiting other students at California State University, San Luis Obispo, said that while the resort was quiet, the experience “felt safer than entering a supermarket because everyone it’s all covered up anyway. “

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

In August, Squaw Valley said it would change its name in 2021, because “squaw” is considered a racist and sexist term for Native American women.

But nothing the resort has gone through can compare to the chaos of the pandemic, Cohen said. Although he refused to disclose Squaw and Alpine’s finances, he described the losses in the spring as “devastating” and said the resorts were “operating at lower profit margins” this winter, with weaker sales.

The disruption became doubly evident this month when a new home stay request came into effect in the area, forcing resorts to cancel hotel stays and adding more details for potential visitors.

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