Snow Day

Ian Downing, of Montpelier, co-owner of SlopeStyle Ski & Ride, skis fresh powder at Stowe Mountain Resort in this photo from last year.

The good news is that Vermont’s ski resorts plan to be open this winter.

Offering the fun of skiing and snowboarding is still the focus, but the mountain experience will look different due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Lift queues and loading, ticketing, rentals, lessons, child care, dining, après-ski, events, and programs will see changes that vary from resort to resort.

Guests will have to wear face coverings in lift lines, on lifts, and inside buildings, observe physical distancing, and go through health screenings among other requirements. Many resorts will be asking guests to use base lodges sparingly, recommending that they boot up, eat lunch, and warm up in cars to avoid going inside a lodge, especially at peak times.

State mandated guidelines on indoor gatherings mean limitations on indoor dining are expected to continue through the winter. Reduced seating at restaurants, more grab-and-go food-and-beverage options, and reservations for sit-down food service will be seen.

Providing guest and employee safety in the time of the pandemic is paramount, concur resort operators, who also note that fresh-air outdoor mountain recreation provides a great activity with face coverings, goggles and gloves already a norm.

But planning for skiing and riding has been challenging even disconcerting when a service must be modified or eliminated, they note.

Smuggler’s Notch President Bill Stritzler said that summer operations taught management that the best-laid plans will change as a resort resumes its offerings. Speaking as a panelist for the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum’s Red Bench presentation on what this winter will look like, he addressed how the resort screens guests and has a focus on “doing the right thing while they’re here.”

Stritzler also noted a National Ski Areas Association message: “Don’t be the reason we lose our season,” adding, “It’s a pandemic; It’s a partnership” that requires guests, employees, and management to work together to provide a safe and fun environment by following health and safety protocols.

Bromley President and GM Bill Cairns agreed, noting he was surprised at how well mask wearing went this summer. Masks were required for entry to the Adventure Park, but guest response was it made them “feel comfortable,” he said.

To promote that this winter, Bromley invested six figures in technology for contactless payment, lift ticket pickup, and an equipment ski rental module — all to lessen person-to-person contact and to streamline the arrival process.

Cairns said winter planning also involved some decisions that will create inconveniences. One he disliked making was to repurpose the children’s center into a base lodge for employees, which meant eliminating a popular program; it was done to keep guests and workers safe and to provide more room for skiers in the base lodge.

John Hammond, new CEO at Sugarbush, said planning is challenging, noting June plans to build six new mini cabins for families or a group of friends to rent at the base area — saw lumber prices increase 60 % when construction started.

Sugarbush provides a “high-touch guest experience,” Hammond said, adding, “It is difficult for us to give that up — we’re working on it.” But COVID necessitates day tickets, rentals and lessons being sold online and more grab-and-go food offerings as well as ski school changes this winter.

Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts, which operates Mount Snow, Okemo, and Stowe Mountain Resorts in Vermont, wrote in a letter to guests: “I realize not everyone will agree with our approach — some feeling we are being too conservative or aggressive. And I recognize the changes we are implementing will be an inconvenience. But I ask for your understanding and patience. In return, you can count on us to try and do everything we can to help keep you safe and make skiing and riding a reality this entire winter. While it will be a little different than we are used to, we are very optimistic it will be a great season and the welcome respite we all need right now .

Planning ongoingVermont Ski Area Association Director of Communications Adam White observed that, “Planning for a healthy and safe winter for guests and employees has indeed been the biggest challenge and concern to date, especially with operator expectations to make changes along the way as necessary. The COVID landscape continues to shift daily and that leaves a lot of uncertainty that requires the ski industry to remain as adaptable as possible.”

He also stressed “a shared responsibility between customers and ski areas when it comes to doing everything we can for a successful ski season. Getting infection numbers down — and keeping them down – is crucial, not only here in Vermont but also in the regional population centers from which we draw so many of our visitors,” he stated.

VSAA President Molly Mahar said that a ski area plan which VSAA submitted to the State is “designed to incorporate CDC and state guidance and requirements. Ski areas will follow existing guidance for certain lines of business that have their own guidance, such as lodging, retail and bars/restaurants. Base lodges may follow different guidelines, since they operate differently than a restaurant,” she said, noting that this is still being discussed.

Changes“We continue to monitor COVID-19 and, given its dynamic nature, have prepared thorough, adaptable operations plans that are consistent with the Vermont Department of Health and follow the NSAA’s Ski Well, Be Well best practices and protocols that ensure the health and wellbeing of guests and staff,” Killington-Pico Resort President and GM Mike Solimano wrote in an email.

Among “many tough decisions,” he announced a “projected starting date” of Nov. 14 at Killington (Dec. 19 for Pico) so that more acreage and lifts could be open a different early season snowmaking plan will help guests spread out and maintain an appropriate distance.

Killington will limit the number of guests at the resort by adjusting ticket and pass product offerings and limiting the number of tickets sold on any given day. Killington will not host bus groups or offer promotions/third party tickets on weekends or peak days. Advance ticket sales will allow for contactless ticketing by loading an existing One Pass card.

Other changes include: introducing a new Resort App for Apple and Android phones; rolling out a text messaging platform; implementing an online parking reservation system; closing the Ledgewood Yurt and Motor Room Bar; implementing new software for contactless credit card payments in food-and-beverage outlets; delaying Uphill Travel until conditions merit; and requiring reservations for both rentals and lessons with several changes in lesson offerings.

In his letter, Katz noted the requirements for guests, a new reservations system, and projected opening dates of November 14 at Mount Snow, November 20 at Stowe, and November 21 at Okemo for passholderså.

“For guests’ safety, we’re managing on-mountain access this season. Reservations will be required, and our passholders will get priority access. Lift tickets will go on sale Dec. 8 after our passholders reserve their priority days. Lift tickets will not be sold for the early season, but Epic Day Passes are available now, explained Bonnie MacPherson, Communications Manager — Northeast for Vail Resorts.

To maintain physical distancing on chairlifts, the resorts will only be seating related parties (guests skiing and riding together); two singles seated on opposite sides of a four-person lift; or two singles or two doubles on opposite sides of a six-person lift.The resorts will offer group and private lessons with a maximum class size of six. For 5- and 6-year-olds, the maximum class size will be four, and lessons for 3- and 4-year-olds will be one-hour private lessons.

Regarding employment and safety protocols for staff, she said, “Right now, our company’s focus is to return our furloughed employees to work, and we have welcomed many employees back. We expect to be able to staff appropriately without J-1 workers this winter. In addition to complying with local guidelines, we have developed a robust return-to-work and training process for all resort employees to ensure safety.”

Due to the loss of its Canadian market (50 % of its guests) this winter, Jay Peak will not require advanced reservations or ticket purchasing. The resort’s operational plan includes modifying and adding new eating venues; constructing a new outdoor space with fire pit, food truck, and seating; a Relocation Package for five months lodging and season passes; and an EverClean Program and Team for sanitation and health with complimentary masks for those needing them. The 60,000-square-foot indoor waterpark which can accommodate 900 now has a capacity of 75, but hopes are that evolving state regulations will increase that.

Burke Mountain GM Kevin Mack has announced, “There will be no limitations on ticket sales or season pass use, noting, “midweek non-holiday is the time to be here.” Changes include: all base area-ticket sales, pass questions, and everything guest services will be accessible via outside ticket windows; lift lines will be socially distanced, mask wearing affairs; lessons and rentals will have some new hours, procedures, and protocols with advance reservations required; and group lessons will be shorter and smaller in size.

The 2020-21 season will be “like no other,” and Stratton’s “Play Safe, Play Smart” operations will necessitate changes but summer provided “a good dress rehearsal for the new protocols,” notes a mountain update. The projected opening date is Nov. 25 with priority access for season passholders and advance purchase of tickets required online.

Help and hope“The state budget that was just passed included $2.5 million for Recreation Safety Grants for ski areas to make necessary physical improvements to their facilities in order to mitigate public health and safety risks to the public due to COVID-19. The grant details for application and eligibility are still being worked out by the Agency of Commerce. Additionally, the next round of Relief and Recovery Grants will not have a revenue cap for eligibility. The previous rounds did, which precluded some ski areas from applying,” Mahar said.

Cairns noted that over 100 families stayed all summer long in the 300 units in Bromley Village, seeing it as a ray of hope that midweek business might see an uptick this year.

Stritzler said hearing more about home schooling leads him to hope for more midweek business.

Hammond added that although staffing presents a problem with J-1 Visa students unable to come to the US, they are seeing more college students applying for jobs with longer college breaks a plus.

With summer behind them, there is agreement that the evolution of that experience “is breeding confidence that we can pull winter off,” Hammond said.

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