Masked skiers and riders walk the maze to load onto Gondola One, one year after the last operating day of the 2019-20 ski season, at Vail Ski Resort, March 14, 2021. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A year ago this week, lift-served skiing was broken

Ski areas around the planet ground to a sudden halt in a desperate effort to slow the spread of contagion. Operators were distributing food from spring-break-stocked coolers and figuring out what to do with jobless workers in employee housing, all while slashing budgets and planning for what would be a historic 2020-21 ski season, upended by the coronavirus pandemic.

After a year of refunds, irked skiers, wary workers, low snow, reservations, capacity caps and long lines, it appears the resort industry is about to return to normal. And as resort operators assess the damage of the last year, the wounds are, for some, surprisingly, superficial. That’s thanks largely to drive-up skiers escaping cities and aggressive cost-cutting by resorts. 

And as resorts unveil prices and plans for the 2021-22 ski season, it looks like the resort experience will soon be back on track, with a few pandemic-adjustments sticking around — but not that advance-reservation business.

“It was an amazingly difficult year on our employees and an amazingly successful year when you consider the headwinds,” Alterra Mountain Co. chief Rusty Gregory said. “The fear that struck our hearts shortly after we closed down last March — and the fear we had really all summer —(the reality) was much better than the various catastrophic scenarios we had worked up.”

Alterra competitor Vail Resorts also emerged from the pandemic in better shape than expected, with earnings and revenues for the start of 2020-21 down 27% compared to the previous season. That was a smaller loss than projected and Wall Street responded favorably, with Vail Resorts’ stock at all-time highs for the last two weeks. 

On Friday, Vail Resorts chief Rob Katz told passholders that after developing and installing a mandatory booking system across all its 34 North American resorts, reservations are being mothballed. The Vail Resorts reservation system likely will book more than 12 million skier days this season, considering visitation of 13.7 million and a roughly 8% decline so far in 2020-21.  

“For anyone worried that the absence of a reservation system will lead to longer lift lines, we have extensive learnings from this season around lift loading efficiencies and are implementing new strategies to materially reduce wait times,” Katz wrote in his letter to pass holders.

Katz also announced plans to quadruple the company’s customer service staff after skiers were left waiting for updates on rebates and refunds this season. (In a December letter to pass holders, Katz apologized for “unacceptable” wait times for skiers calling in to the company’s overwhelmed representatives.)

Lines still were long at Vail on Feb. 6, 2021.

It’s probably too early for resort operators to begin detailing changes that could — or should — linger post-COVID. But one thing is certain: In the depths of a once-a-century global pandemic, skiers might not fly, shop and après, but they will go skiing. Especially if they can drive to the slopes.

One change that isn’t just lingering for Alterra Mountain Co.’s 15 North American ski areas but “is accelerating as fast as we can put money and people power into it,” Gregory said, is the digital guest experience. Contact-free buying and mobile technology got a swift upgrade this season and will remain a big part of resort business plans. 

Alterra had 40 eateries on a mobile app this winter, enabling skiers to not just book tables, but purchase food for ski-up pick-up. 

“It worked unbelievably well and became a big part of our business this year,” Gregory said.

At the resort operator’s dozens of restaurants, rental shops, ticket windows and even lift lines, phone apps allowed for virtual queuing to reduce the crowding and the inconvenience of waiting in a line. 

“Just trying to make sure we better match capacity available with the crowds,” Gregory said.

Arapahoe Basin last week revealed a change from lessons learned this season. In a first-ever tactic in the industry-shifting season pass war, the Summit County hill will restrict pass sales for the 2021-22 season, cutting sales by 10% from this season. And it will be capping daily lift tickets, which can only be bought online. The resort expects to sell out weekends next season. Before the pandemic, it was rare to hear about any resort ever turning away skiers.  

Reducing available tickets is a significant detour from the industry’s relentless push to sell more passes. (Vail Resorts, for example, reported 1.4 million Epic Pass sales for 2020-21, a 20% increase from 2019-20.)

“We are actively working to reduce the number of skiers on weekends and holidays,” Arapahoe Basin boss Al Hencroth wrote in his blog post announcing the new pass plan. “We have learned so much since COVID forced us to hit a daily target of skier numbers.”

Like Vail Resorts’ shareholders, Arapahoe Basin’s owner is bullish on skiing. Canada’s Dream Unlimited Corp. last month reported the Summit County ski area generated $24.2 million in revenue in 2020, down 38% from the 2019. But Arapahoe Basin is surging this winter. The company last month told investors the resort is “producing impressive margins” with “strong pass sales” and “relatively consistent results” in yet another pandemic-addled season. 

Dream Unlimited chief Michael Cooper in February told investors that the 2019 decision to part ways with Vail Resorts as a partner on the Epic Pass was working well. Despite the capacity limits to prevent the spread of contagion, Arapahoe Basin earned more money in January 2021 than any previous January. 

“And I think that this year, we’re likely to have probably our second-best year ever,” Cooper said of the ski area Dream Unlimited acquired in 1997.

While remote resort areas that rely on air traffic — like Aspen Snowmass and Whistler Blackcomb — endured painful declines in visitation, ski areas near urban areas, like Arapahoe Basin, are busy. 

“Those drive-up areas that frankly have always been popular — they were very, very popular this season because they were things you do at the drop of a hat and get out of the city,” Gregory said, pointing to healthy traffic at Alterra’s close-in resorts like Winter Park, Southern California’s Big Bear and Snowshoe in West Virginia.

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out.

Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors, ski industry, mountain business, housing, interesting things

Location: Eagle, CO

Newsletter: The Outsider, the outdoors industry covered from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state

Education: Southwestern University


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