Business & Economy

Vermont ski resort leaders share plans for a hopeful and more careful winter

Skiers and snowboarders head for a lift at Sugarbush ski resort in 2018. With the Covid-19 pandemic, ski lifts and other resort operations will look considerably different this winter. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger

This article by Tommy Gardner was first published in the Stowe Reporter Oct. 8.

Smaller ski resorts may benefit from Vail Resorts’ August announcement of its winter season plans. For example, the Colorado operator of Stowe Mountain Resort takes all the heat for its 2020-21 plan, enabling others to adjust accordingly.

On Sept. 24, the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum hosted a lecture discussing how some resorts plan on opening.

Parker Riehle, a museum director and former president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association, said Vermont is the fourth-largest ski state in the country, with an average of 4 million skier visits per year.

He said those visits typically generate more than $900 million in direct spending, about two-thirds of which is spent off-mountain in the surrounding towns.

That’s in addition to $700 million in “indirect and induced spending” that travelers shell out.

The reality is, though, about 80 percent of those skier visits come from out of state.

“And most of those are from Boston and the tri-state area, which, when you look at the travel map, are still glowing yellow and red at this point,” Riehle said. “We obviously hope that will change and improve and be alleviated by the time snow flies. But that’s obviously caused concern for the resorts.”

Riehle hosted the Sept. 24 lecture with a panel of Vermont resort executives: Bill Stritzler, managing director and owner of Smugglers’ Notch Resort; John Hammond, the new president and CEO of Sugarbush; and Bill Cairns, president of Bromley Mountain.

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“I really think, from the snow line up, skiing is pretty straightforward. You’re going to be wearing a mask. You’re gonna ski. You’re going to ride lifts at some number,” Cairns said. “Everything that’s good about skiing still remains good about skiing.”

Covid protocols

Stritzler said that, when it comes to masks, resort employees set the example. Smuggs set up a system where employees could call any upper-management officer in case a guest fails to comply with Covid measures — alleviating the employee from having to confront the guests.

Stritzler said there were no calls during the summer.

“What we learned is that they watch our employees like hawks, and as long as the employees are complying, the guests feel that they should comply as well,” he said.

There were rare instances during the summer when a guest at the service desk said they didn’t quarantine before coming to Vermont, but were going to sign the form indicating they did anyway, he said.

“And that’s not acceptable,” Stritzler said. “So, when that happens, then the person at our guest service desk is instructed to allow them to check in, and then let an officer of the company know, and we will work with them to work it out. They will probably end up leaving the resort.”

Cairns cited a slogan from the National Ski Areas Association: “Don’t be the reason to lose the season.” He said all the preparation boils down to guests being part of a circle of trust.

“I’m going to trust, if you’re standing in front of my ticket office, that you know the rules, that I have messaged you, you know it’s a pandemic winter. And I am going to trust that you have done your responsibility, your obligation,” Cairns said. “We’re all doing the best we can as operators, but it’s a partnership.”

Winter is coming

Cairns said Bromley has made a six-figure investment in technology such as rental modules and ticket pickup boxes.

“The idea is to have the guests have as little interaction, to do things on their own, at a higher level than maybe they’ve done in the past,” Cairns said. “Bromley has always been a very hands-on, almost throwback, ski resort.”

There are also high-tech time clocks for the employees. They’re voice activated — so no touching — and the device takes the employee’s temperature, which is reported to human resources.

Smuggs will communicate directly to guests its strategies for how best to get on the hill without running into too many people.

Guests will be encouraged to come skiing with friends and family to fill chairlifts. They’ll be asked to consider showing up sometime outside of the busiest period — 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. — particularly on holidays and long weekends.

Sugarbush will not be implementing a reservation system, either, despite being bought last year by Vail competitor Alterra Mountain Co.

Hammond said the resort has crunched numbers so thoroughly over the years that it has an accurate forecast of when things will be busiest.

“We feel pretty confident that, by allowing all of our passholders unrestricted access, except for what their pass restricts, we can manage the crowds and make it a good experience on the mountain by limiting day tickets,” he said.

Changes

Ski resorts are limiting indoor spaces — restaurants will be takeout only and people are encouraged to “boot up” in their cars.

However, Sugarbush is experimenting with a sort of personal base lodge for guests who want a more premium experience.

Hammond said the resort will have a half-dozen “mini cabins” in the base area for guests to rent.

“So, your family or comfortable group that’s in your cohort or bubble can rent this, and that can be your home base,” he said.

Sugarbush ski school will essentially just be private lessons.

Stritzler said Smuggs will continue its ski school programs to the extent it can, but with one caveat: Kids need to be accompanied by a parent.

The resort will experiment with what the industry calls “drop and go” — “It sounds like a supermarket,” Stritzler quipped — where kids can ski by themselves if they don’t need their instructor to literally be hands-on.

Even then, the parent will need to be at the ready, within 10 minutes of the lesson, just in case.

The ski patrol will have new rules, too, because, as Cairns put it, their first-aid room has capacity limits and patrollers “certainly don’t have a palace on top of the mountain.”

“I view them as essential employees,” he said. “I look at them as a critical piece for us to safely open.”

Sugarbush is trying to get the UVM Medical Center to operate a clinic in the base lodge.

Racing should go off without a hitch, at least for competitors, all three resort operators said — and all of them hope to keep as many special events as possible, such as pond-skimming competitions.

Hammond said there will be more strain during weekends, and racing teams will be urged to hold midweek competitions instead.

“It’s a great activity to do. You’re not competing with another person; you’re competing against yourself for the time,” Hammond said. “So, talk about socially distant.”

Child care is “one of the more intense ongoing discussions at the moment,” Stritzler said, and the Smugglers’ Notch organization has not settled on whether the resort will offer child care for kids age 6 months-3 years.

He said Smuggs already takes care of employees’ children now, and there is a child care system in the state, albeit also dealing with Covid complications, too.

“It’s unresolved, but we’re going to really try and figure out a way to take care of younger kids so that their parents can enjoy the sport,” he said.

Bromley just won’t offer it, and Cairns said it pains him to say that, because Bromley is also known for its family-friendly atmosphere. Instead, the child center will be used as a place for employees to eat lunch and warm up; the base lodge will be reserved, however limited, to guests.

“It’s for one year. And I feel bad about this,” Cairns said. “These are the kinds of decisions we were faced with and we have to make and I don’t know how we can do it, and meet the guidelines. That’s really the bottom line.”

What did you do this summer?

All three resorts represented in the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum talk offer summertime activities, and all three are coming off of very unusual summers.

Sugarbush, a popular wedding spot, saw almost every event change from “I do” to “I will … next year.” Lodging, restaurants and other facilities were largely empty this summer. Mountain biking was a no-go.

Golf was a bright spot for Sugarbush, with a 30 percent increase in people on the fairways.

“Golf hasn’t been the strongest player for us in the summers, and this year it’s the only player,” Hammond said.

Riehle said the increase in golf outings — one of the few facility-maintained sporting activities relatively unaffected by the pandemic — suggests a “pent-up recreation demand” that could bode well for winter.

Hammond said the maintenance crews at Sugarbush cranked out a lot of projects that normally would be reserved for the shoulder season before the resort opens for winter and have already had half of the resort’s lifts inspected for winter.

“It’s been a busy summer, but not with guests,” he said.

Cairns said Bromley opened up about half of its summer attractions, which meant fewer jobs for local high school and college kids.

Smuggs has long had a large array of summer activities, and Stritzler said many of those continued, but with unforeseen changes and about half — or fewer — the number of guests as usual.

In what might be seen as a harbinger of how winter reservations at Vail-owned ski resorts could pan out, Stritzler points to swimming pools, of which Smuggs has a large number. Smuggs started the summer with a reservation system for them, but it didn’t work because all of the no-shows left people who couldn’t get in frustrated when they walked by and saw empty pools.

“One of the things we learned in the summer, you really have to be flexible,” Stritzler said. “So, as we think about the winter, we really are thinking that whatever it is that we’re planning, as our entire industry has specific plans, we’d better be ready for the requirements to change during the course of the winter.”

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The Vermont Community Newspaper Group includes six weekly community newspapers: Stowe Reporter, News & Citizen (Lamoille County, Waterbury Record, South Burlington’s The Other Paper, Shelburne News, and The Citizen (Charlotte and Hinesburg).

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