Vermont-based skiers will play a crucial role in the upcoming ski season. Season pass sales are up this year, and equipment retailers have been busier than usual outfitting skiers this fall.
But that doesn’t mean Vermont’s resorts can look forward to a strong season. For an industry that averages 4 million skier visits a year, thousands of Vermonters looking for something to do outdoors just can’t make up in number for the millions of people who live within driving distance in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
“No matter what, it’s going to be a tough season for operators,” said Geoff Hatheway, who owns Magic Mountain in Londonderry.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had an erratic effect on an industry that is accustomed to operating at the whims of the winter weather.
On Nov. 10, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott announced a mandatory 14-day quarantine for every person entering Vermont, or returning to Vermont, for nonessential travel. The quarantine can be cut to seven days if the person tests negative for Covid-19 on the seventh day. He announced the new measure to combat a surge in Covid-19 cases around the state.
Detailed guidelines for skiers and for resorts
Earlier, on Nov. 3, the state outlined an extensive policy governing the steps that ski areas must take to maintain the safety of guests and workers.
Among other things, resorts must collect the name, phone number, and email address of every person using the resort each day — including season pass holders — and must keep the list for 30 days in case contact-tracing is required. They also have to limit the number of people on the mountain, meaning they can’t sell as many lift tickets as in prior years.
Ski area guests must attest they are complying with the state’s travel and quarantine policies — and will be warned that they could lose their skiing and riding privileges if they don’t. Resorts must be able to show the attestation to the state.
Resorts don’t need to require reservations for day passes, but many plan to ask for them. Hatheway thinks that’s one reason he’s seen season pass sales increase this year at Magic.
“People want to be able to ski, and passholders can come and ski without a hard reservation,” he said. The southern Vermont resort usually sells about 1,000 season passes each year and this year sold 1,750. About 10% of Magic’s day pass skiers in a typical year are Vermonters, he said.
Skiing as a safe option
It’s clear that many people see skiing as a safe, socially distanced option for getting out of the house this year. Individual retailers around the country have reported strong skiing and riding equipment sales this autumn.
Ski equipment sales have been up about 50% over last year since late August at Outdoor Gear Exchange, said Mike Donohue, who holds the title of mission control at the Burlington retailer. The rush usually starts in October, he said.
“November through January are usually also quite large,” he said. “So there is still plenty of time to see how the rest of the season is going to play out.”
Adam White, of the Vermont Ski Areas Association, said Mad River Glen had to cut off season pass sales because supply didn’t meet demand.
The problem is that many of the people who purchased season passes earlier this year live out of state, meaning they will now be asked to quarantine for two weeks before showing up at the resorts.
One is Paul Gustafson of Madison, Connecticut, who owns a house near Quechee and has two children who ski. He declined to buy an Epic Pass (the Vail pass that includes Okemo, Mount Snow and Stowe in Vermont) because he wasn’t sure he would be able to use it. Quarantining for two weeks is out of the question because of school and work, said Gustafson, an English teacher.
Gustafson said he supports Scott’s safety mandates, but called missing out on skiing this year “a bitter pill to swallow.
“We want the people of Vermont to be safe; we love Vermont,” he said, “We want them to make good decisions for their health and community. Certainly we have a lot more Covid down here, so I can totally understand why they don’t want us bringing it north.”
Refunding season passes
The state in its guidance asks the resorts to “be lenient” about cancellations to discourage guests from skipping the quarantine so they can get their money’s worth on the mountain. Hatheway said many of his out-of-state passholders have requested and received a credit for the following year’s pass. A few requested full refunds, which he has granted.
“A lot of our pass money is already spent in just preparing the mountain,” he said. “It’s tough for a small ski area like ours.”
The sweeping quarantine order also led Jay Peak, on the Canadian border, to refund season passes or credit them to next year’s season.
“If they’re from an impacted state that is forced to quarantine, it’s not really a manageable solution for them,” said Steve Wright, the resort’s general manager. Jay Peak usually sells about 1,600 season passes each year, but because half of its skiers usually come from Canada — and won’t this year, because the border is closed — those pass sales were down about 30% this year, he said.
Bolton Valley Resort, like Magic Mountain, is a small, independently owned ski area. Its location in Chittenden County means it has a much larger population of in-state skiers, which would be a greater advantage if the state hadn’t limited the number of people who can be on the mountain, said President Lindsay DesLauriers.
“Usually you’re trying to get as many skiers up here as you can, and we’re going to be turning them away,” she said, noting that she supports Scott’s safety guidelines. “It definitely messes with your mind a little bit.”
‘It’s sad something can’t be figured out’
Some of the out-of-staters who were counting on skiing to get them out of the house this winter aren’t as supportive.
“I look at skiing as a great social distanced sport, so it’s sad that something cannot be figured out to allow your out-of-state resident customers to support the economy up there and enjoy the skiing,” Joe Orban of Norwalk, Connecticut, wrote in an email. He said he’ll probably end up skiing in New York this year.
Orban had purchased an Epic pass from Vail, which would have allowed him to ski at Okemo, Mount Snow and Stowe. He canceled it this autumn.
“There were no other options,” he said. “I’ve had people advise me to lie about quarantining but I didn’t see that as an ethical option.”
Many of Vermont’s ski areas are owned by large national companies, such as Alterra, which owns Stratton and Sugarbush; Powdr, which owns Killington; and Vail, which owns Mount Snow, Okemo and Stowe.
Jamie Storrs, a senior communications manager for Vail, said Tuesday that season pass sales are up about 18% at all of the company’s resorts collectively. Vail isn’t issuing refunds for Epic passholders who missed a September deadline to cancel.
“If someone is in Connecticut and can’t abide by the quarantine restrictions Vermont has in place, we do have Hunter Mountain in New York and several ski resorts in New Hampshire,” he said.
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