After weeks spent in intense planning for the upcoming ski season, a process made infinitely more complicated because of the coronavirus pandemic, Aspen Snowmass chief executive Mike Kaplan thought he’d get away last week for a relaxing working vacation near Cabo San Lucas. There would be surfing in the mornings, a few work calls in the afternoons.
“Of course, it’s 2020,” Kaplan said, “so a hurricane had to hit.”
Kaplan didn’t get much sleep Wednesday night. Hurricane Genevieve churned off the western coast of Baja California, but the winds where he was staying thankfully didn’t exceed tropical storm intensity.
Ski area managers in Colorado and across the nation may lose a lot of sleep in the coming months as they try to navigate a ski season like no other.
Colorado resort managers who had to shut down their operations on March 15 due to the pandemic are proceeding with plans to open on schedule, but they still don’t know precisely what protocols will be in place. Many say it’s too soon for them to talk about what their experiences will look like because there is so much yet to be determined. A few have written letters to people in their databases offering a few clues. Managing expectations has been a consistent theme.
“You’re coming out to be in the mountains, first and foremost, appreciate the fresh air and the natural environment,” Kaplan said in a telephone interview. “I think if we all focus on that, and maybe tone down our aspirations for a raucous, tightly packed après-ski kind of experience, I think that would serve us all well.”
Ski industry insider Chris Diamond said “lowering the bar in terms of expectations” probably will be a common theme across the industry this season.
“There is not only the protocol, but they also may have issues with staff, where all of a sudden a third of the lifts can’t run because you’ve got quarantine for one section of your employee housing,” said Diamond, a retired executive who has written two books on the ski industry and ran the Steamboat resort for 16 years. “It’s almost inevitable that something like that will happen, and from time to time you will have closings of areas of the mountain, of facilities, who knows what.”
In a letter sent to Vail Resorts passholders, chief executive Rob Katz said everyone needs to assume that the impacts of the coronavirus will continue through the ski season.
“Even if new COVID-19 cases decline — nationally or locally — we must assume the virus will re-emerge,” Katz wrote. “We cannot relax restrictions or protocols. We cannot get caught trying to play catch-up to the virus during the ski season. … Exacerbating that reality is the fact that each one of our communities is a destination for visitors from countless other cities. This is our greatest strength, but it can also be a weakness. We cannot only look at the COVID-19 data in our local communities. By welcoming people to our resorts from other locations, we need to realize that we will be taking on their COVID-19 experience as well. Therefore, for us to be successful we need to enforce protocols and procedures now that can work all season.”
Rusty Gregory, chief executive of Denver-based Alterra Mountain Co., said his company has put together a 110-page internal document filled with protocols for COVID-19 mitigation. Alterra operates 15 ski destinations, including Winter Park and Steamboat in Colorado.
“The facts are that we really don’t know all the facts,” Gregory said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “Our understanding of things is literally changing daily. It’s quite a challenge to even figure out how to communicate it. First and foremost, we’re very focused on protecting our people, our guests and our employees. We’re trying to push through how we mitigate contagion correctly in this environment, when there is all sorts of conflicting information about what’s safe, what’s not safe.”
Gregory said his company expects demand to be “very, very strong,” based on strong season pass sales and summer visitation at the company’s resorts.
“People definitely want to get outdoors and be active and have felt cooped up,” Gregory said. “We need to be prepared to deal with that.”
There is a sense in the industry that the nature of skiing itself — outdoors, with people spread out over hundreds of acres of terrain — will be safe. The question of what to do about chairlifts and gondolas is more complicated.
A letter that Loveland ski area managers sent to their database two weeks ago said chairlift capacities will be decreased and “only related parties will be permitted to load together.”
Alterra and Aspen Snowmass officials aren’t sure that’s necessary.
“We’re becoming more convinced, based on the data that we see and the scientific evidence that we’re collecting, that with a mask, people loading together is likely sufficient mitigation to reduce contagion to an acceptable level,” Gregory said. “That’s the direction we’re headed. That would allow people who don’t know each other, who aren’t family members or part of the same cohort, to occupy the same lift for two reasons: the masks, and the very short duration of chairlift rides. And, the fact that it’s out in the environment and the wind that’s inherent to a lift that’s moving, even on a calm day.”
Kaplan seems to be leaning the same way for Aspen Snowmass, which is comprised of four mountains: Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass.
“We’re going to work with the industry and see where we end up, based on the research that’s being done at an industry level,” Kaplan said. “Most chairlifts are way less than 15 minutes and most are less than 10, absent a stop. We’re talking about spreading people out in lift lines. How do you do that, and maintain that?”
Gondolas have other issues because they are enclosed spaces. It may be necessary to keep gondola windows open, Gregory said, but ski areas can’t put attendants in every gondola car to make sure people keep their masks on.
“We’re leaning toward the fact that gondolas can operate as well with people who don’t know one another,” Gregory said, “but we’re not as far along on our thinking there as we are with chairlifts.”
Ski area managers are using the term “pinch points,” meaning places such as restrooms where people are forced to congregate briefly without the ability to maintain social distancing. Kaplan said Aspen Snowmass is replacing soap dispensers with push levers with touchless dispensers that are activated by sensors. Alterra is installing touchless wash basins, Gregory said, and is replacing hot-air hand dryers with paper dispensers to avoid “airborne contagion risks.” The blowers were initially installed to be more environmentally by eliminating paper waste.
The most vexing problem for ski areas will be food and beverage service. Restaurants and bars will be subject to capacity restrictions, so resorts are looking for ways to add dining space. That might mean converting resort conference rooms — which probably won’t be in much demand this season — into places where people can eat. Resorts also are looking into adding more space outdoors for diners.
Gregory said his company authorized the expenditure of “several million dollars” last week for tent purchases and rentals. Aspen Snowmass is looking at covered outdoor seating, possibly with heating. Kaplan said Aspen Snowmass might also offer menu deals or specials before and after typical peak periods to spread out occupancy.
“Restaurant facilities are obviously going to be following whatever the rule for occupancy will be,” Diamond said. “And it’s going to be back to the ’50s and ’60s, where people who are renting a condo nearby will probably go back to the condo for lunch. If you’re a local pass-holder, you’re going to bring your sandwich like you used to.”
The “central paradox” of the upcoming season, Gregory said, is that many people consider skiing and other outdoor activities to be essential parts of their lives and their health. Now, though, they have to decide whether skiing is worth the risk to both.
“There is risk in skiing in general, which is part of the appeal, but now we have the overlay of the pandemic’s risk,” Gregory said. “This is all about how we balance the absolute need for health and well being, and people’s ability to get outdoors and connect with one another — and with themselves — for everyone’s mental and emotional health, and mitigate that increased risk that the pandemic creates. It’s a very vexing paradox that we’re trying to work through, step by step.”
This content was originally published here.