It wasn’t that long ago that ski resort operators lost sleep over snowfall. Then they had to fret over once-in-a-lifetime protocols to limit the spread of contagion at their ski areas.
Now, the worries are stacked even deeper, with affordable housing, dwindling numbers of workers and ever-lengthening lift lines joining the perennial fretting over snow and looming threat of spiking COVID cases.
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
This year, ski area bosses are praying for snow, hoping for declining coronavirus cases and tinkering with a variety of strategies to entice more workers, get them into housing and manage the pending tsunami of ski vacationers.
“The primary focus this season, I think, will be to keep the lifts running. Everything else might fade some, but you need to keep the lifts spinning,” said Chris Diamond, the former boss at Steamboat whose two “Ski Inc.” books document the growth and recent rapid consolidation of America’s resort industry. “You can be sure of only one thing this season: it’s all going to change and it won’t be the same as any previous season. It could get better, it could get worse.”
Resorts this year won’t require masks in lift lines. The capacity limits and reservations are gone. There will be some rules for indoor access, like proof of vaccinations to access some indoor areas, but the outdoor experience should look similar to pre-pandemic skiing.
Even with the end of masks and reservations, the bounce back from the pandemic has not been smooth for heavily touristed Colorado ski towns. Record numbers of visitors and home buyers flocked to mountain communities this summer, stressing overworked locals who struggled to find housing. Now resort operators are feeling that stress and adjusting to an unprecedented shortage of workers caused, in part, by a dramatic decline in available housing. And with all signs pointing to a very busy ski season — like record-high pass sales and robust reservations for mountain lodging — ski hills are getting innovative as they prepare for the season.
Vail Resorts this week announced a slate of new plans and “enhancements.” The owner of 34 North American ski areas, including Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Crested Butte, Keystone and Vail in Colorado, will limit lift-ticket sales on peak holiday periods, like Dec. 25 to Jan. 2, Jan. 14-17 and Feb. 18-27.
The company also has a new program for managing crowds and lift lines. And the updated Epic Mix app is going the way of Waze, offering all-day forecasts for lift-line traffic. And like Aspen Skiing Co., Vail Resorts is tweaking job roles, creating new positions where workers move around the mountain to follow skiers, like working in the ticket booth or rental shop in the morning before heading up to work in a restaurant for lunch. The company’s Keystone ski area also secured temporary permission from Summit County this month to squeeze more workers into its Tenderfoot housing complex by adding bunk beds to bedrooms.
Aspen Skiing is offering free skiing to Roaring Fork Valley homeowners who offer rooms to resort workers. (They call it “Tenants for Turns.”) The company also rented a hotel for its employees in Glenwood Springs. The operator of four ski areas and four resort hotels announced this month it was investing $3 million in wages, bumping its minimum pay up to $17 an hour, from $15, and salaried workers get at least $50,000 a year. Aspen Skiing needs about 4,000 workers every season and 1,500 of them are first-year workers who often need housing. The company has 1,000 beds for workers in the Roaring Fork Valley and has added 90 temporary beds this month.
Powdr, which owns Eldora and Copper Mountain, last month announced a “premium experience” program that gives skiers a beat-the-crowds lift line for an extra $49-$69 on top of lift tickets or season passes.
Aaron Brill, who, with his wife, Jen, opened their hand-hewed Silverton Mountain ski area in 2002 with a double-chair fixed-grip they rescued from a California recycling yard, thinks all the crowd mitigation plans at the big resorts are good for his business. (Silverton Mountain is largely guided skiing with a limited number of skiers on the hill.)
“The fast passes are funny,” Brill said. “If you have to pay extra because the lines are so bad you probably should ski elsewhere. It only increases the comparative value of a place like Silverton Mountain.”
Brill said he pays his workers more than they could earn at other ski hills, and about three-quarters of his staff own their own homes.
“That makes a big difference,” he said. “Small guys win again. The big boys are going to have serious problems moving ahead as their models won’t work if they have to pay all their employees more, year after year, because housing is so tight.”
Melanie Mills, who directs the Colorado Ski Country trade group representing 23 of the state’s 29 ski areas, said the lack of workers is particularly rough for food and beverage operations at Colorado resorts. Speaking Thursday in an online panel with ski groups from California, Utah and Vermont, Mills said many resort eateries are following the same pandemic adjustments from last season, with more grab-and-go food options, required reservations for some restaurants and systems that allow for call-ahead ordering.
Steamboat ski area is feeling the labor shortage in its kitchens. The Routt County resort is offering two months of free rent in employee housing for cooks who sign on with one of the resort’s restaurants. Staff who can lure a new full-time worker get $200. And Steamboat is suspending night-time dining at four of its on-mountain restaurants.
“We are looking at our product offerings and making adjustments in response to less than 100% staffing,” said resort spokeswoman Loryn Duke.
It’s not just Colorado resorts that are adjusting for crowds and grappling with housing and labor issues.
Jackson Hole is requiring Mountain Collective and Ikon passholders to make reservations. Montana’s Big Sky is making skiers with the Mountain Collective and Ikon passes pay extra for access to the resort’s iconic tram.
And the labor and housing issue is reaching every mountain community.
“The problem is so big and so wide ranging that we have a pretty huge challenge in front of us,” said Mike Reitzell, the president of the Ski California trade group, describing Tahoe resorts wrangling with the cost of homes and dwindling supply of workforce housing. “These things are not just ski industry problems. This is not something that we as a group can necessarily get together and say ‘Ok we can solve this problem.’ To not have control over all that can be really challenging.”
Record high prices for day lift tickets
Resorts last week quietly began releasing their peak lift ticket prices as skiers start buying tickets for the holidays. Those prices — like $269 at Steamboat, $219 at Vail and $205 at Telluride — are the clearest indication of resorts pushing skiers toward season passes. Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass and Alterra Mountain Co’s Ikon Pass, are cheaper than five days of skiing on daily lift tickets, but must be purchased before resorts are fully open. Early purchased Epic day passes are $91 and $107 during holiday periods. (Sales of the unrestricted Epic ($819) and Ikon ($1,049) passes will end soon.)
Selling season passes months before snow flies moves some of the risk of a snow-dependent business onto skiers and evened out the roller-coaster flow of revenue in the resort industry. The strategy has become a cornerstone of the resort industry’s business model.
But the sky-high daily ticket prices is limiting access by newcomers who might want to dabble in the sport before buying a pass. That makes it difficult to grow participation in skiing — a decades-old challenge for the ski industry — and limits its ability to attract and retain new skiers.
Mills, with Colorado Ski Country, points to her group’s robust programs that offer discounted skiing to Colorado’s 4th, 5th and 6th graders as tools to help attract new skiers and families.
She says skiers paying walk-up lift ticket prices are akin to travelers walking into an airport and buying plane tickets. They are going to pay a lot, she said.
“There really are many opportunities to ski at a very accessible price-point if you plan ahead,” Mills said. “There are some great deals to be had in the sport and we just need to talk more about the fact that if you are looking for a price-point deal, peak periods are not the time to find them. We shouldn’t apologize for that. We should shine a spotlight on opportunities for folks to participate more economically.”
Vail Resorts’ decision to limit lift ticket sales at peak times is yet another example of the company driving skiers toward the Epic Pass. The company does not regularly release total sales of Epic Passes, which now range from pre-ordered one-day lift tickets to a full-season of unrestricted access to all 34 of the company’s North American resorts. But it did once, saying it sold 1.2 million Epic Pass in 2019-20. The next year the company said it sold 18% more passes for 2020-21. Then it lowered the price of its Epic Pass by 20% for 2021-22 and said it sold 42% more than the previous season. All that math means Vail Resorts sold about 2 million Epic Passes for the 2021-22 season.
Vail Resorts former chief Rob Katz told investors in September that most of that growth came from skiers who typically buy lift tickets, so the company is not necessarily bracing for a swell of first-time visitors.
“And as people move into a pass, they spread their visitation throughout the season, away from just peak days, which is good for the overall experience,” Vail Resorts spokeswoman Lindsay Hogan said in an email. “Our decision to limit lift tickets during those three holiday periods is not to drive pass sales – it’s to prioritize the mountain experience and our passholders during what is always a popular time at our resorts.”
Vail Resorts already is planning ahead for next year, announcing a highest-ever $320 million investment for the 2022-23 season, including 19 new chairlifts.
But even as season pass sales have reduced the dependence on snowfall luring skiers who buy lift tickets, resort operators are facing fresh concerns this season: namely how to get workers during a labor crisis and finding housing for them.
Hiring and housing have always been a challenge for resorts. Most resort communities and ski area operators have spent millions on subsidized housing for workers. But the rush of buyers in mountain towns in the last 18 months has erased the already meager supply of market-rate rental homes for working locals.
Developers in Steamboat Springs are converting hotels into dormitory-style worker housing. An entrepreneur in Eagle did that in 2018 and has been full ever since. Communities from Summit County to Crested Butte have acquired or are temporarily renting hotels as housing for locals. Business owners, too, are buying hotels to house workers.
Early bookings at resorts “couldn’t be better.”
The momentum from the 2020-21 ski season appears to be carrying into 2022. (The 59 million resort visits counted by the National Ski Areas Association in 2020-21 marked the fifth busiest season, falling about 1.5 million visits behind the busiest-ever 2010-11 season.
The ski crowds are coming this winter, riding a record-setting wave from this summer and fall.
Mountain communities in eight Western states this year posted their biggest summer ever for lodging occupancy, daily rates and revenue. Of course the numbers collected by Inntopia’s DestiMetrics from 290 lodging properties in 18 mountain towns across the West showed incredible growth this summer over the same pandemic-addled period of 2020. But 2021 also eclipsed the previous high point set in 2019. Lodging occupancy was up less than 1%, but room rates were up 33% over 2019 so lodgers and innkeepers posted a 34% increase in revenue over 2019.
Early bookings show the 2021-22 winter will follow the same trajectory, according to DestiMetrics. Again, the numbers are way up over 2020, but lodging reservations from November through April in ski towns are up 19% compared to the 2019-20 season.
“Conditions driving bookings for the upcoming winter season at mountain resorts couldn’t be better,” Tom Foley, who tracks analytics for Inntopia, said in his monthly report released in mid-November. It’s not just more skiers booking rooms, Foley said, but they are booking earlier than usual and planning longer vacations, all of which is “contributing to the positive winter outlook.”
While snow no longer sits alone atop the resort industry’s proverbial pile of worries, it is still the critical component to success. But it’s a bit of a double-edged sword this season. Heavy snow always brings big crowds, which will stress resorts running short-handed. But without it, there won’t be much of a season.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how this all unfolds,” Diamond said from his home in Steamboat, where the resort has delayed its opening due to paltry snowfall and warm temperatures. “I sure hope the snow arrives soon. That really, really does still matter.”