Resort executives in a ski season town hall on Sept. 17 painted a picture of what the coming winter might look like. Sure, there will still be the freedom that comes when schussing the slopes, but the rest of your resort experience will likely be somewhat different. I’m Becca Loux, bringing you your daily dose of Moonshine Minutes based on reporting by my co-editor Juliana Demarest. Find the full story online, titled Tahoe Resorts Announce Reopening Plans.
During the town hall Zoom session hosted by the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows president and COO Ron Cohen said: “I think we could generally say that we would expect the differences this year to be most obvious in the non-ski experience. The downhill experience is really going to be mostly the same.”
(Cohen’s resort has committed to changing their name, because the term ‘Squaw’ has been deemed offensive, but likely won’t announce the new name until 2021. Read our full story on that process, titled The Journey To Remove Squaw from Tahoe’s Washoe Lands in our current print edition and online.)
With the season still a good two months out, there remains time for fine tuning to account for the many variables that remain, but the overall picture includes limiting ticket and season pass sales, creating as close to a contactless environment as possible, providing for adequate social distancing, and, of course, stringent sanitizing measures for health and safety. Resort-goers can also expect limited indoor access, particularly at smaller resorts. For example, rather than operate dining areas at 25% capacity, Sugar Bowl Marketing Director Jon Slaughter said such indoor spaces will instead be used as warming centers.
Northstar California Resort Manager Deirdra Walsh cited the example of the sudden closure of all ski areas when COVID-19 hit back in March, the same time as the biggest snow story of the season. “I certainly know — and I think all of us do — that sometimes putting safety first is not the most popular decision … But it’s our responsibility, I think, to make sure that we make these tough decisions and that we manage through what the necessary changes are in our current environment right now.”
While some resorts like Northstar will be using a reservation system to regulate the number of skiers on the mountain on any given day, others have decided to cap sales of season passes and day tickets or even abandon in-person ticket sales altogether.
Incline Village’s community-owned resort, Diamond Peak, will require all products to be purchased through their online e-commerce store in an effort to minimize in-person contact. This includes lift tickets, rentals, and lessons. In a follow-up email to Moonshine Ink, Marketing Director Paul Raymore noted that day-of ticket sales will be available only when inventory is available, but such tickets would require purchase online. Advanced purchase of all the resorts’ offerings is highly suggested as there will be no guarantee of availability otherwise.
Cohen explained that Squaw would be “looking less at aiming towards capacity and more towards controlling visitation” to provide sufficient space on the hill for guests to be able to distance. The resort will be limiting the number of tickets sold, at least the start of the season.
He said, “[That] takes out a big chunk of people, unfortunately. It’s obviously a big piece of our business … but I think it really reflects our company’s desire to strike the right balance out there for health and safety even at the cost of really one of our most profitable lines of business.”
Homewood General Manager Kevin Mitchell said the goal at his resort is to enable guests to ski and ride while also socially distancing.
Mitchell said, “Specifically at Homewood, what we’re focusing on is fewer skiers per acre … The way we’re doing that this year is we’re actually reducing the number of season passes that we’re selling. We’re reducing our number of season passes by 25%.”
Not only is the West Shore resort also looking to reduce the number of guests on a daily basis, it’s planning to limit as much as possible the contact between guests and employees. New technology has been implemented that will allow for a near-contactless experience, with prepaid tickets redeemable at kiosks, reserved parking online, devices that will scan tickets and passes from 12 feet away, and online food ordering. Grab-and-go food items will also be available.
Mitchell noted that extra space accommodations will be made in the parking area, saying, “We’re really going to be encouraging people to use their car as the lodge. The space indoors is constrained already, and with the current restrictions and what we anticipate to be continued restrictions, we don’t want to pack a lot of people into the lodges.”
Much in the way of fine-tuning remains for all the resorts, with variables like weather conditions and ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions and thresholds keeping some aspects in limbo until estimated opening days are much closer.
Up on Donner Summit, Boreal Mountain Resort is usually at the front of the pack in the race to be the first resort to open for the season. This year, however, President and General Manager Amy Ohran says the resort is starting out with a more conservative approach, pulling back and waiting to open until they can ensure there is sufficient terrain open to allow for adequate spacing. Also representing Woodward Tahoe and the Soda Springs ski area, Ohran said her resort is drawing insight from its summer offerings, which helped facilitate ways to ensure a safe environment for both employees and guests.
She said, “Some of the insights from our summer operations that are serving as some true guardrails in how we design our winter experience are very much aligned with the Ski Well, Be Well guidance from the National Ski Areas Association. Our most primary goal is the well-being of our people and to ensure the longevity of our season … I think that’s something that we’re all talking about. Let’s do it right with the goal of being safe and staying open.”
The NSAA’s Ski Well, Be Well program Ohran cited stands as the basis of health and safety guidelines for the ski industry and encompasses resorts around the U.S.
NSAA president and CEO Kelly Pawlak wrote in a statement, “Ski areas provide acres upon acres of wide-open natural space for recreation, allowing guests to enjoy the mental and physical health benefits of outdoor recreation while maintaining physical distance. As operators committed to the health and safety of our stakeholders, we will implement the following best practices, and take additional guidance from local public health and municipal authorities.”
Face coverings will be required at all U.S. ski resorts both indoors and outdoors when physical distancing isn’t possible, specifically in lift queues and loading, riding, and getting off the chair. Most areas will permit parties skiing together to ride the lift together and are required to implement physical distancing plans when it comes to lift and ticket lines, ski and snowboard lessons, employee spaces, and food and beverage outlets.
In an effort to ensure adequate distancing on the hill is followed, Mike Pierce, marketing director with Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe, said the resort won’t open until there are a number of different ways down the mountain. The resort is capping the number of season passes sold, augmenting the decrease with the sale of day passes, and will restrict early season operations to passholders only. Sugar Bowl, located on Donner Summit, has also capped its number of available season passes. The resort sold out just after Labor Day, according to Slaughter, although it could reopen sales once the early season is underway depending how operations are running.
All the resort heads agreed that communication will be the key for a successful 2020/21 ski season. While all NSAA-member ski areas will follow the same general guidelines, operations on all levels — from ticket sales to indoor/outdoor dining to reservation requirements — will vary by resort. The best advice is to know before you go and the best way to be in the know is to visit the resorts’ websites and social media pages for the latest up-to-date information.
This season, Squaw Alpine will be heavily relying upon its social contract with guests: The Skier Responsibility Code that has existed for five decades. Cohen explained “[The] code is really all about how our guests act on the hill, how they go about skiing and riding, so that they have a safe experience for themselves and for everybody else who they’re sharing the hill with.”
Yet one of the biggest factors of the season is this: Don’t go to the mountain if you feel sick.
“We really need our guests to not come sick and, as much as they want to go skiing and riding, they can’t be here if they have those symptoms,” Cohen said. “You may have heard tag line … Don’t be the reason to lose the season. It’s up to each and every one of us. We can do all this stuff. We can put in millions of dollars of mitigations and we can change the way we load lifts, we can limit tickets, we can do all those kinds of things. If our guests aren’t willing to do their share, carry their part of the social contract, we won’t be able to succeed through this.”
Check out the story online for a current list of what we know for each local ski resort, regarding opening dates, whether day tickets are available and what if any limitations or restrictions they have, season pass information, and whether reservations will be required. Make sure to pick up a packed print edition, and subscribe to our email newsletter on moonshineink.com to stay up to date with our latest coverage. That’s all for today, Tahoe, stay safe and pray for snow.