Vt. Resorts To Skiers: Be Flexible, Be Patient, And Maybe Bring A Sandwich
Vermont's ski resorts employ about 13,000 people, a quarter of them year-round, and the $1.6 billion industry typically brings in $925 million in direct spending, plus the $675 million resorts spend on vendors according to Ski Vermont. The current pandemic, however, has been anything but typical, and across Vermont, ski resorts are taking different approaches for how to open for the upcoming season.
At Killington, the K-1 gondola is mostly carrying hikers and mountain bikers at this time of year. But in two months, if the weather cooperates, resort president Mike Solimano says skiers and riders will be using the lift and nearby base lodge – as long as they’re wearing masks and as long as they planned ahead and made a parking reservation.
Solimano recently unlocked the door and walked into the K-1 base lodge, not far from the gondola, and pointed at the tables and chairs still in place from last season.
“We still have some tables to move out by the time we get ready to open," he said. "But this is gonna look a lot different once we do that.”
On a really busy day, Solimano says Killington might have 14,000 to 15,000 visitors. But this winter, with COVID-19, he wants to cut that in half.
Twenty-one lifts and 155 trails will help spread people out on the slopes, but controlling crowds when they come inside to warm up, go to the bathroom or eat is where things get complicated, Solimano says.
“We don't really want people to sit in and drink and relax and hang out," he said. 'It's actually the opposite.”
Solimano gestured to a large bar area that on a busy winter weekend, would be packed with skiers.
“Normally we'd have a band, and people would be hanging out, drinking and having a good time. We're really not going to do any of that this year."
The bars won’t be open. Half the furniture in the lodge will be gone, he says food will mostly be grab-and-go.
Exactly how they’ll count people and enforce capacity is still being figured out. But Solimano says they’ll have to limit the number of doors into and out of each lodge, and have staff with clickers monitoring how many people come and go.
He envisions some type of electric board out in front of every lodge showing capacity, and said he's thankful they still have their main base lodge. Had last spring's shutdown come two weeks later, he says it would have been torn down as part of their effort to replace it with a new base lodge. Construction on that project was halted, though, and it's now on hold.
According to Solimano, a lot of people have suggested the resort just set up more tents and outdoor porta potties. But he says they’ve learned from hosting the Women’s World Cup races the last three years that it’s not so easy to accommodate large crowds in the cold.
“Nobody wants to go into a porta john when it's 10 degrees out,” he said with a laugh. “So you need solutions that are actually practical and don't just look great on paper.”
Like tents. At this altitude, they blow over easily, he says.
“So one idea we've talked about is, we have a couple of gondola barns where our gondolas go in at night," Solimano said. "Can we can we let people go into those during the day, on a busy day as sort of a warming area?"
He says they’ll need to work with state authorities on all of this, but flexibility and creativity will be key.
Okemo, Stowe and Mount Snow
Vail Resorts owns Okemo, Stowe and Mount Snow in Vermont, and company spokesman Jamie Storrs says in this industry, people are used to being at the mercy of weather and the economy, but a pandemic is a brand new challenge.
“So what we are asking for this season is a little bit of patience from everybody," Storrs said.
He added that anyone who wants to ski or ride at one of their resorts will have to wear a mask and make a reservation, which he thinks should not be that big a deal.
“The average person doesn't show up to the airport and go, ‘One ticket, please, for today,’" Storrs said. "We're asking guests to plan ahead a little bit more this year to make their reservations, and to kind of think through when they're going to ski, and to book out that time.”
Season pass holders will be prioritized, and Storrs says early in the season, they’ll have the opportunity to lock in up to seven high-demand days like Christmas week or Martin Luther King weekend.
“That being said, on a lot of days this season, there'll be the ability to make a reservation the day before or even the morning of,” he added.
Chair lifts and gondolas at their three Vermont resorts will all have the latest ticket scanners to reduce wait times. But Storrs says lifts, lodges, and restaurants will all be operating at a lower capacity, so flexibility, and maybe a sandwich or granola bar from home, will help.
“If everybody tries to go to lunch at 12:30," Storrs said, "it's going to be crowded and we're not gonna be able to accommodate everyone inside.”
At Stratton Mountain, spokesman Adam Kimiecik says they’re looking at different apps that will allow people to reserve a table inside. He added they also plan to expand outdoor seating and warming areas and bring in some additional food trucks.
As far as lift tickets go, "if you had a season pass of any kind, you're allowed to come up and ski, no reservations required at this time,” Kimiecik said.
You'll also be guaranteed a lift ticket if you book lodging or rent equipment at Stratton.
But at this point, Kimiecik says there won’t be any ticket windows selling day passes. So to ski a day here or there, you’ll need to plan ahead. Tickets will only be available online, in advance, and Kimiecek says quantities will be limited.
Up near the Canadian border at Jay Peak, general manager Steve Wright says they're taking a more relaxed approach to ticket sales.
“We're saying to our season pass-holders, you do not need to make any reservation," he said. "We're saying to our day ticket purchases that you can, you should feel free to arrive on the day of and buy your ticket. Our expectation is that there will be plenty of room to spread out here at the mountain this year.”
Wright says 50% of Jay Peak’s business comes from Canada, so with the border closed and no sense of when it will re-open, their capacity will already be down by half. He added another 30% of their U.S. market may have to deal with travel restrictions.
It’s a reality that’s playing havoc with their budget and projected revenues, but Wright says they’re hoping skiers and riders concerned about the pandemic might see Jay Peak as a safer option.
Economic need vs. travel restrictions
Molly Mahar, President of the Vermont Ski Areas Association says having to shut down early last season and cancel many summer events has already cost the state’s ski resorts around $100 million. So opening and staying open this season will be crucial.
With many people still concerned about air travel, she says resorts in southern Vermont like Stratton and Magic Mountain may benefit from their proximity to New York and Boston.
“The flip side of that is that right now, we have some pretty rigorous cross travel restrictions for quarantining, and that is something that we are worried about," Mahar said.
She added the state’s ski resorts are committed to following whatever rules the state sets, and if skiers and riders do likewise and plan ahead, she’s hopeful this year’s season won’t be interrupted.
We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.
Correction 12:46 p.m. 09/21/2020 An earlier version of this story misspelled Jamie Storrs' name.