Independent Ski Areas in the West Address Expectations, Plans for Next Season During Pandemic

Martin Kuprianowicz | | Industry NewsIndustry News
Social distancing measures can be expected at virtually all North American ski resorts this winter. This photo was taken at Arapahoe Basin Ski Resort on May 27, when they were able to reopen for 12 days after being forced to shut down because of the pandemic. | Photo courtesy David Zalubowski/AP/Shutterstock

The only thing certain about this coming ski season is that nothing will be certain. With virtually every ski area in the world now addressing the pandemic and how to operate under its grip this winter, no one really knows what to expect — ski resort nor skier alike.

Several of the large, destination-type ski resorts under the umbrella of mega-ski corporations like Vail and Alterra have already announced plans to include social distancing measures, mandatory facemasks, reduced indoor amenities, and possibly even reservation-like systems to help control the flow of guests. Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts, recently sent out a letter urging the ski community at large to remain optimistic about next season but also extremely vigilant. “Safety is not optional,” Katz said, and face coverings will be required at Vail Resorts.

Vail-owned ski resorts in Australia were forced to close for the remainder of the season due to a resurgence in COVID-19 cases. | Photo courtesy SnowBrains.

At this same time, Vail-owned resorts in Australia like Falls Creek and Mount Hotham have already closed for their winter season because of a resurgence of COVID cases. Could it be that Vail-owned resorts here at home will have to follow a similar suit? Will they have to make extremely challenging decisions, ones that put the people’s safety first, like with their resorts in Australia? It’s still up in the air, and a corporation as large as Vail has to do what’s best for the longevity of its financial assets and the health and safety of its employees and guests.

New Zealand could provide insight into what could happen here next season. The island nation was COVID-free for a whopping 102 days before four new cases popped up Auckland last week, prompting ski resorts on the South Island to temporarily close while they reorganize under Level 2 restrictions.

But of what the independently-owned resorts in North America that sell skiing and not real estate? What are their plans, and at what point will things turn nuclear for them, like last March when they were all forced to close? I wanted to know, so I reached out to marketing directors and assistant general managers at a few independently-owned ski areas across the West such as Mt. Baldy in California, Monarch Mountain in Colorado, and Red Lodge Mountain in Montana. Because these mountains don’t exactly operate in the same ways as corporations like Vail and Alterra, and their markets of skiers are often totally different, meaning that they may not necessarily be up against the same level of threat or need play by the same rules.

This is a photo from Mt. Baldy last season after they had reopened with social distancing protocols in place. | Photo courtesy Mt. Baldy.

Florent Déchard, who goes by ‘Flo,’ was born and raised to ski in France before he moved to San Bernadino county a couple of years ago to run the marketing aspects of Southern California’s premier ski area, Mt. Baldy. He’s a cheerful man with a French accent and a hopeless addiction to snow just like you and me.

Flo told me over the phone about Mt. Baldy’s reservation system that was enacted at the tail end of last season when they briefly reopened after having closed due to the pandemic. He said it’s likely they are going to resume a similar system this year.

“Think of it as golf-tee times,” Flo said. “If you make a reservation at 8:00 am to pick up your [lift] tickets, then between 8:00 and 8:15 only four guests can go pick up their tickets before they can start skiing. That way we can control the flow of skiers, and I think we’ll be able to operate like any normal ski season that way.”

Mt. Baldy trail map. | Photo courtesy Mt. Baldy.

Season pass holders will also likely be able to ski whenever they want without having to make a reservation to do so, according to Flo. Mt. Baldy has yet to release an official operational plan for next season but is planning to at the end of August or early September.

Flo was also curious, like thousands of others in the ski industry, what expectations skiers and snowboarders have in regards to next season.

“I think it would be interesting to see where everybody’s mind is at. Are people still going to ski no matter what?”

On a closing note, Flo said that praise should be given to all ski areas right now that have been working together to open next season and keep us safe.

“We praise [ski resorts] for their innovation and finding a way to operate next season due to the current situation,” Flo said.

SnowBrains editor Steven powder skiing at Monarch Mountain, Colorado, last season. | Photo courtesy SnowBrains.

Next, I spoke with Monarch Mountain, in Salida, Colorado. I was able to chat on the phone with Dan Bender, Monarch’s Vice President of marketing, who grew up skiing at Monarch and has continued to ski there for most of his life. He told me that Monarch feels very positive about next season and that they will be making some significant changes, such as a “COVID page” on their website that will list expectations for their guests and employees along with a set of rules detailing how they’ll operate season.

Bender also said that they’ve made some remodeling changes to their lodges and put in a large number of sneeze guards in restaurants and offices. He said that there will be no seating at the bar of the Sidewinder Saloon next season, either.

“We’re going to really encourage people to not be socializing like they have in the past,” Bender said.

monarch, colorado
Monarch Mountain trail map. | Photo courtesy Monarch Mountain.

Bender told me that Monarch is also going to focus on getting skiers and riders to visit more during the week as opposed to the weekends since Saturdays and Sundays are their busiest days. 

“We’re going to be working really hard to try to encourage people to come midweek. If we move people off of Saturdays, that sure is going to make things better for everybody,” Bender said.

When I asked him if Monarch had any sort of advantage by being a smaller, independently-owned ski area as opposed to a larger, more corporate one,  Bender got excited. 

“I grew up skiing at Monarch. I started teaching skiing at Monarch when I was 19. I went to college at Western State and skied all the way through. When I got out of college, I had a cocky attitude so I went to Breckenridge, managed the store over there, and taught skiing there. But I found myself back at Monarch for two reasons: the snow and the people were real. That’s our advantage. And we have a pretty strong following of [skiers and snowboarders] who are starting to feel the same way. I also feel that a lot of the people who ski the bigger resorts are worried about international travelers coming in — which we don’t normally get.”

Bender also told me that last year they broke their all-time record for season pass sales and that this year they’ve already passed where they were for August 2019. So it seems as though people are looking to ski more independently this year, which makes Monarch “feel really comfortable with consumer confidence,” Bender said. “The people want to go skiing.”

A photo from the existentially-deep February at Red Lodge Mountain, Montana, last season. | Photo courtesy Red Lodge Mountain.

Lastly, I spoke with Spencer Weimar via email, the assistant general manager of Red Lodge Mountain in Montana, who provided a brief outlook of what to expect at Red Lodge next season. He also mentioned some concerns that they have for the industry at large.

Weimar said that Red Lodge will be focusing on following state and local directives with a particular focus on areas where social distancing can be difficult to maintain, like lodges. When asked how he expected next season to go for Red Lodge, Weimar said,

“With skiing being an outside activity where distancing is easy to maintain, we are looking forward to a good season. We feel fortunate that we are not reliant on skiers traveling via air to get to Red Lodge.”

Weimar told me that Red Lodge’s biggest concern with next season is how people behave in the time leading up to ski season. 

“If people do not follow the recommendations of distancing, washing hands and wearing masks, it will increase the number cases which could lead to more restrictions at the state and local levels,” Weimar said.

Red Lodge Mountain trail map. | Photo courtesy Red Lodge Mountain.

I finally asked Weimar if Red Lodge had any particular message that they’d like to share with skiers, snowboarders, and the ski industry at large. He said,

“Do your part to slow the spread of COVID now and start your ski conditioning for what should be another fun season at Red Lodge Mountain.”

All of this makes me wonder: are these independently-owned ski areas really prepared for next ski season or are they just placating themselves into thinking that everything will work out? OR, is their optimism genuine, and are they actually in advantageous positions to endure the imminent corona-winter? I, personally — like the successful ski bums who made their way up the ranks of the independent ski areas I’ve just spoken to — choose to believe the latter. Plus, who likes a crowd on a powder day anyway?

“Hey! Six-feet, guy…” | Photo courtesy Anchorage Daily News.

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13 thoughts on “Independent Ski Areas in the West Address Expectations, Plans for Next Season During Pandemic

  1. This is why the Forest Service should allow ski resorts to grow and get bigger!! We need more lift access terrain!! 🙂

    1. and on top of that bigger ski areas would allow more people to fully experience and appreciate national forests.

    2. How does more skiable acres help distancing in the parking lot, lift line, ticket line, cafeteria….

      1. more acres = more lifts
        more lifts = smaller lift lines
        more acres = more lodges
        more acres = bigger parkinglots
        more acres = more ticket booths
        ticket lines, they will need to enforce 6′ distancing

        Damn bro did you ever think outside any box or solve any problems like 1+1=2?

        1. Yeah, there are too many trees and not enough pollution. The wildlife will also love it…

          1. Have you ever skied in Europe? No probably not, you’re too poor and too ecofriendly to jump in a plane to go over there.

            Europe somehow has successfully and eco-conscientiously built hundreds upon hundreds of ski resorts all over the alps. The density and proliferation of ski resorts throughout the Alps is 100x what we have in the US. Europe’s resorts continue to expand and PROGRESS. Despite being very progressive themselves Europe somehow doesn’t have all the tree hugging libtards preventing PROGRESS from happening.

        2. More acres developed is not a direct correlation to anything you listed. Point to me a recent expansion in acreage that has correlated to more parking lots and more “ticket booths, ” because I can point to a bunch that havent (Steamboat-Pony Express, A Basin- The Beavers/Steep Gullies, Mt. Rose- Atoma, Mont Tremblant) It’s so much harder to get Forest Service approval for permanent structures and new lots. And it’s you that specifically said “wE NeEd MoRe LiFt AcCeSs TeRrAiN,” implying more terrain leads to more distancing on the whole. Must be hard being the smartest guy in the room all the time.

      1. That’s because there is no concept of “wilderness” in the Alps, they were settled and tamed thousands of years ago. There is nothing to protect. The US on the other hand has lots of area that isn’t untouched and needs extensive environmental considerations. It’s apple to oranges. I prefer to spend my money in Canada, Europe is a clown show, probably why you feel so at home

        1. ya you’re right, ski resorts, lift systems, parkinglots, ticket booths and roads where all used to tame the alps thousands of years ago……. lol you’re a sharp cookie

          you realize tahoe was clear cut bare bone dry 100 years ago, and guess what??? the trees grew back…. omg

          you think we can’t build new stuff w/o being environmentally responsible for the long haul?

          ppl like you are unintelligent and the reason we have such over crowded ski resorts, with overpriced tickets and real estate. supply and demand bro, super simple economic principal. use your snNOwBRAIN, maybe take an econ course and spend some time thinking for a little while 🙂 WE NEED MORE SKI RESORTS and TERRAIN in NORTH AMERICA

          1. I never said those things were in the Alps during that time. So no defense you praising the Euro model even those had to shut down the same as here? Try not to use the word “libtard” unless it’s for ironic purposes. If you are 20 years old, you have hope yet. If you are over 40 and arguing like you do, it’s a lost cause. Good luck either way!

          2. Sorry to use words that offend you. Are you triggered?

            I’m doing great. Probably better than you. Good luck to you too bud.

            I actually don’t care about COVID. I’m young healthy, don’t hang around old people, work from home and do all the proper mask/hand washing precautions. I’m more likely to die of a heart attack than COVID. Vaccines are coming here shortly, COVID will be gone in a year so long as China doesn’t cook up another round.

            I just think its a joke how America’s environmentalists have effectively put a moratorium on building new ski resorts. Open more ski resorts 🙂 That’s all I care about.

      2. Weren’t European ski areas the center of massive COVID outbreaks this past season? Not sure how those resorts help your case.

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