The COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world in the midst of one of the busiest times of the year for ski resorts. Winter sports were among the first industries that really had to face the consequences of the global pandemic as they were forced to stop spinning lifts during the highly-profitable spring break season., The ski industry is entering uncharted territory and is relying on new strategies to ensure they can safely offer a skiing product this winter while keeping both visitors and local communities safe. The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) held a webinar in early June to share some of these strategies and help all ski areas, large and small, successfully navigate this difficult business climate. Here are a few takeaways.
Demand Is High
It’s become increasingly clear that people crave the outdoors now more than ever, thanks in part to stay-at-home restrictions that have forced them to remain indoors. This extends to skiing not only in the mountain west but across the country. When ski resorts closed this spring, both experienced and novice backcountry skiers flocked to trailheads across the western United States to earn some turns while the snowpack remained intact. Several ski areas re-opened in May and June when local restrictions allowed, including Timberline Lodge, Oregon, Crystal Mountain, Washington, Mount Baldy, California, and Arapahoe Basin, Colorado. Arapahoe Basin re-opened from May 27 to June 7, and relied on a daily limited reservation system open to pass holders; the ski area saw such huge demand that it had to pivot from its original reservation system. The week-plus reopening allowed the ski area to test operations policies moving into next winter. Timberline Lodge re-opened on May 15, leaning upon a Business Continuity Plan with the message, “We’re all in this together.” The plan took ownership of the business operations, encouraged feedback from the community, and kept the community at the forefront of the Timberline strategy.
Lodging occupancy is a huge part of any ski resort business plan, however, hotels and shops will be at the forefront of implementing new strategies in the COVID-19 world. Timberline Lodge has re-opened its lodging properties, but with obvious restrictions. According to John Burton, marketing director for Timberline Lodge, the hotel is operating at 30-percent capacity, and the resort is planning to continue with that ceiling. Assuming restrictions remain in place for the number of people allowed to gather in a single place, many ski resorts will have to operate their lodging facilities at a drastically reduced occupancy. Timberline and other resorts are implementing enhanced sanitary protocols, mandatory social distancing, face-mask requirements, and employee temperature checks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, for example, is reopening its on-mountain lodging with increased sanitary procedures put in place and, in the event of a presumptive COVID-19 case, will remove that guest’s room from service, quarantine it, and not return it to service until it has undergone enhanced sanitation as directed by the resort’s Risk/Safety Director.
Rentals and Retail
Just as the rest of the country’s retail storefronts attempt to re-open safely, so too will the gear and rental shops under the umbrellas of ski resorts. Many resorts are moving forward with summer operations plans, and utilizing strategies for safe bike and summer equipment rentals as a litmus test for wintertime. Timberline is only allowing four to five people inside of its retail shops at a time, and utilizing signs and taped floors that promote the flow of traffic within the store and mask requirements to ensure social distancing. John Burton is projecting flat sales in the retail space for the coming year.
Aspen Snowmass has implemented a slew of new policies in its retail locations across its four mountains. Guests and employees are asked to wear masks and gloves when handling equipment or engaging in transactions; guest sign-ins have been eliminated, and will be handled by cashiers; Rental gear is sanitized with wipes and Matguard spray prior to and after every rental; bike rentals have gone contactless, with techs setting up bikes and putting them outside the store for guests to pick up; in-store capacity, including both guests and employees, is set at 10; and retail returns, while considered, are not guaranteed.
Summer Influencing Winter
Summertime activities at ski resorts like mountain biking and golf allow for minimal contact between customers and staff. Ricky Kelley, COO of Boyne East, conveyed that the Boyne golf courses in Michigan are operating under a “park and play” system, to encourage social distancing between staff and golfers. Strategies like this to prevent visitors from flocking inside resort lodges could be leaned on once ski season hits, although the colder weather could create roadblocks. David Norden, CEO of Taos Ski Valley, outlined that the New Mexico ski resort’s first priority in its phase one return to work is to regain the confidence of its staff. Each morning employees go through a checkpoint, where health questions are asked, their temperature is taken, and an employee’s health status is recorded. There are criteria implemented that employees must pass before moving onto the next checkpoint. This training and confidence from staffers will translate to customers, as well. The NSAA has developed a document called “Bringing Your Staff Members Back,” as well as a “Summer Operations A to Z” guideline list that is updated consistently to help give ski resorts a road map to safely returning to normalcy.
Because the 2019-20 ski season ended so abruptly, and the 2020-21 season is rife with uncertainty, most season pass products—from multi-resort to single ski area—are offering extended savings periods, bigger discounts, and pass deferral programs, should the season be cut short due to another surge in the pandemic. Vail Resorts launched the spring sale for its flagship Epic Pass with contingency plans in place, including the replacement of an Epic Pass if it cannot be used for the 2020-21 season due to injury, job loss, or events that prevent its use, such as the continued effects of the pandemic. Vail also offered credits worth 20- to 80-percent of the price of the 2020-21 Epic Pass based on recurring customers’ use of their passes last season. Skiers who weren’t able to use their pass at all could receive the full 80-percent credit toward next year’s pass. The Ikon Pass, the biggest competitor to the Epic Pass, offered similar pass assurance, and many of the independent ski areas have also put plans in place to prepare for the uncertainty tied to next winter.
Resorts are currently requiring customers to pre-register and purchase lift tickets online in advance to prevent lines at the ticket counter. There also may be the need for “blackout” dates to be added throughout the season to help minimize crowding during popular periods or holidays. Resorts will look to local authorities when deciding what capacity levels will be for each day. John Burton has looked to Disney’s park policies and implemented “visit us at your own risk” wording into Timberline Lodge’s liability language to cover the resort in case of an outbreak or illness. Resorts will also have to decide whether they will allow skiers to only ride chairlifts by themselves, with only the group they arrived with, or with others.
Consumers are more than likely going to have increased trepidation when getting on airplanes to travel across the country, which will have a huge effect on revenue for ski resorts that rely heavily on out-of-state travel. However, higher-end consumers could solve this issue for the more upscale resorts. Taos, for example, is relying on Taos Air to bring visitors in and out of private airports. The resort is utilizing the “House to Air” advertising language, and encouraging the day trip mentality, inviting skiers to charter flights for the day to ski, and still be able to wake up and go to sleep in their own homes. David Norden says the charter program has been successful for Taos, with Colorado being their fastest-growing market, and New Mexico and Texas also serving as large cash cows. This strategy could work in similar markets like Aspen, Sun Valley, Telluride, and Mammoth, where regional or private airports can service same-day transit.
Trust is Key
Rebuilding trust between resorts and skiers during the ongoing pandemic will be key to not only ensuring visitors are comfortable coming to the resorts this season but also in seasons to come. Vail Resorts has been transparent in its strategy to re-open slowly, and truly cover all of its bases before inviting guests to return to its mountains. CEO Rob Katz, in a letter to the public on May 21, stated that “We intend to take our time to reopen, and we acknowledge that we may be slower to open than others. Our goal is not to win the race to reopen, it’s to look back one day with great pride in our track record on safety.” By keeping the communication lines open and taking the time to make sure both employees and guests understand the new policies put in place, Vail’s relationship with its customer-base will be that much stronger.
Virtual communication can also paint a transparent picture of what the updated operations will look like for visitors. Norden noted that the resort plans to have a video ready for potential skiers to watch to prepare them for what the experience at the resort will look like. Transparency will be a key tactic in tempering guest expectations and preserving trust between skiers and the resorts.
If your resort is struggling with its marketing message during this uncertain time, Outrigger Advisory Group can offer a free consultation to help build a communication plan with your potential customers. Visit Outrigger to schedule a discussion today.