After the coronavirus outbreak forced the second half of the ski season into an abrupt standstill in March, the industry spent the summer preparing to open up amid the pandemic winter and bring visitors back.
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Some of the country’s largest resorts, which draw in several billions of dollars each year, have implemented plans to mitigate risks against a looming third wave. Measures will take aim at reducing slope capacity, socially distancing lift lines and limiting on-mountain services, including restaurant reservations. Transportation vehicles like lifts will require adequate spacing between separate parties, while gondolas will keep windows open and allow no more than 50% capacity for more than one party rides, with the exception that single parties can reach full capacity.
And mountains might look a little less boozy this year, with aprés ski options curtailed to outdoor seating only, accompanied by heating lamps.
Nonetheless, the ski season is still on, and resort owners are encouraging people from both coasts to visit the slopes this winter, even though new rules and regulations will reimagine the typical experience. Despite new plans, ski operators are dealing with a much larger challenge ahead of the season opening: curbing excess demand.
“There’s a lot of demand to buy tickets this year,” CEO of Alterra Mountain Co. Rusty Gregory told FOX Business. “Even though the inventory is limited, we're getting a lot of transactions and inquiries for advance ticket sales. It’s clear that people definitely want to get out of their basements and away from their computer and get out in nature.”
Alterra Mountain Co., one of the two largest U.S. ski conglomerates, has only opened six of its 15 resorts this season, but the pent up demand is already being felt. Gregory anticipates that its other resorts, including Steamboat, Deer Valley Resort and Snowshoe, will see the same significant traffic.
The demand comes as a double-edged sword, offsetting some of the earlier losses but also raising concerns about crowd control. In Colorado alone, the ski industry generates $4.8 billion and supports more than 46,000 workers, according to a 2015 study. Even though summer tourism and an influx of people looking for long-term residency helped compensate for the shortened season, ensuring that the mountains will remain safe, nimble and durable against the threats of case spikes has become a center of focus.
Countries in the EU are already calling on ski slopes to shut down. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is urging an EU-wide ban on ski trips to prevent superspreader events, which are widely believed to have been coronavirus hotspots. Whether or not skiing stays open in Europe will send strong signals to the West.
The World Health Organization recently warned countries to look "very, very carefully" at ski season plans and assess the risks associated with mass gatherings.
Resorts in the U.S. are coaxing travelers by assuring that their plans are resilient, as well as providing additional perks to those who lock in season passes.
In order to incentivize ticket purchasing while scaling down excess demand, ski operators are doing away with day-of tickets and prioritizing season pass holders. Alterra Mountain Co. will offer its Ikon pass holders access to the mountains without advance reservations, although the discretion will be left to its 15 resorts. The company is taking steps to make sure that it will reduce ticket availability for the peak ski weeks, including Christmas and Presidents Day weekend, according to Gregory.
Competitor Vail Resorts, which services Epic Passes, is requiring pass holders to reserve spots to ski at its 34 resorts but without a cap on the number of ski days that can be booked based on their pass type. Slots will need to be placed at least a week beforehand and will depend on availability. An added bonus of being a pass holder includes exclusive pre-season access through Dec. 7.
POWDR Corp., an adventure lifestyle company with resorts across North America, is also mandating visitors to pre-book their experiences as a way to enable appropriate physical distancing and ensure that resort guests can have “plenty of space to spread out on the mountain and enjoy phenomenal skiing and riding,” according to a POWDR spokesperson Megan Baroska.
Experts have pointed out that skiing is inherently a socially distanced sport, as industry guidelines call for 50 feet of separation when moving down the ski slope as a safety protocol. Even so, the rising level of cases increases the possibility of state crackdowns.
“The ski industry is a risk sport, so we always have to be thinking that way,” Alterra Mountain's Gregory told FOX Business. “It’s natural to us to be thinking about safety, but COVID adds another sort of mysterious element to that. My fear with that is, do we have the right plans in place? Will we be able to pivot quickly enough if we see better ways to do things and risks that we hadn't planned for?”