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Straight talk about running a ski resort during a pandemic

Marie-Josée Legault
Mar, 2021
12 mins

Mountain resort leaders are no strangers to challenges. Weather, staff shortages, technology issues, guest complaints; the list goes on. But none of it compares to the past year, the undisputed challenge champion. How did our industry friends manage? What were their coping mechanisms? What silver linings did they find, if any? For the answers to all these questions (and more),  we chatted with Steve Wright, General Manager at Jay Peak Resort in Vermont, David Norden, CEO at Taos Ski Valley, Pete Woods, President at SkiBig3 and Cole Fawcett, Marketing Director from Ski Castle Resort.

Origin: Tell us what it's really been like managing a resort during a full-blown pandemic. What are the top three challenges?

Steve Wright: Helping the team to feel safe, motivated and acknowledged/valued (which is no different than standard operating environments, but the safe element takes on more weight), managing cash-flow and liquidity and understanding, on a daily basis, how operating decisions are impacting those, and forward looking forecasting in an environment where guests’ ability to travel is predicated on the State allowing people to move and gather freely.

Dave Norden: First, the biggest challenge was the ongoing amount of planning and re-planning and subsequent communications we had to do as public health orders and mandates changed regularly through the fall. In fact, one week prior to our opening we were asked to delay our opening indefinitely (it ended up being two weeks, but the uncertainty kept everybody guessing and reshuffling).

Second, our staff struggled with the virtual onboarding and training while we worked to maintain the highest standard of Covid-Safe Practices. People really missed the in-person attention and the social aspect associated with a return to the mountains.

Third, by being completely absorbed by the pandemic we were forced to put other priorities on the back burner, specifically some of the important environmental and social justice work that has become part of our operating culture.

Pete Woods: Every jurisdiction, from local and regional to national and international, has had its own reactions and restrictions - and those have been in constant flux, based on ever-changing and evolving information. From one day to the next, we've had to start, stop or sprint, in response - this is not only hard to DO, it's hard to effectively, accurately and broadly communicate to our internal and external audiences.
 
Historically, our business emphasis has been on international travel, longer stays, mid-week visitation and ancillary spend - the combination of no international travel and on-resort/in-venue spacing restrictions have made it very difficult for us to rely on the programs and products we've focused on in the past.
 
Personal life and work have become totally blended, with kids and dogs on Zoom calls from the dining table, school and board meetings happening not just simultaneously but in the same room; our release valves (from gyms to restaurants to dinner with friends) aren't available, our teams are literally living in their offices. For some, this means an amazing freedom and flexibility. But for others with limited living space that often comes with mountain town living, it means their homes have become toxic workplaces. That balance has been hard for all of us, and entangled emotional swings as the restrictions and uncertainty wear on. 

Cole Fawcett: It’s been a lot of work! We would say our top three challenges are:

Communications - We are fortunate in that the experience we’ve been offering our guests has been pretty consistent since mid-December. However, what we indicated the guest experience would be like, in the fall, changed drastically in mid-December with the outright closure of in-person dining and moving to limited ticket sales due to changing public health guidelines. 

Face Covering Enforcement - The vast majority of our clientele have been incredibly friendly and compliant with COVID-19 protocols. Without fail though, we encounter several individuals every weekend who want to fight us on the need to wear a face covering. It is as perplexing as it is disheartening, and it has taken its toll on all of us– especially our front-line staff on lifts, patrol and food and beverage. Managing visitation - At Castle our depth of knowledge and expertise, with respect to our e-commerce platform, isn’t vast - we get by, that’s about it. When we combined that with our desire to honour our commitment to unfettered access for season pass holders, we brought in a hybrid capacity management system. We offered our pass holders and loyalty card holders the ability to ski/ride at their leisure – guaranteed direct-to-lift access with no reservation – and then limited daily ticket sales. It wasn’t perfect but it has worked remarkably well. We’re really proud of the fact that people aren’t having to arrive at 7 AM just to score a parking spot for fear that they won’t be able to ski/ride that day (we’re seeing capacity management by parking at two other major resorts in our area). In short, bottlenecks have improved – key in the midst of a pandemic.

Origin: Were you feeling like your local or state government was an ally in the process? 

Steve: Yes, absolutely, both in delivering grant funds and in communicating (we met with the Gov and his team on a weekly basis throughout). We didn’t necessarily agree with everything they decided upon, but I always felt like they had the best interests in Vermonters at heart.

Dave: We worked very closely and continue to work closely with our state and local government. They were great. We were provided with clear guidance and support and regulators responded rapidly to questions and suggestions. New Mexico implemented a program called New Mexico Safe Certified. Seven of our businesses are now Safe Certified and we were the first in the state to earn many of these designations.

Pete: The wage subsidy was critical for us and all of our partners. It allowed us to keep the business running - albeit in a limited capacity - but we were able to continue to both fight for the business that was out there this season, and maintain a dedicated and talented team who will help us recover (and thrive) on the other side.

Cole: Yes and no, to be honest. The Government of Alberta’s initial delay/reluctance to require face coverings put a lot of the load on municipalities and businesses to come up with the rules and then enforce them. When the government finally did pass that public health order, we were well positioned to enforce it as that was a rule we were imposing from the outset of the season. To the good, the government has seemingly been understanding of the fact that skiing/snowboarding are low-risk activities and we are very grateful for that understanding as it’s allowed us to operate the lifts mostly as normal. Travel Alberta, a Crown corporation at arm’s length to the government, has also made historic investment in supporting our marketing message(s) this season. This has allowed us to do more than we normally would be able to, including hiring a digital marketing agency to help us with some of our more key campaigns.

Origin: Are there any changes you've made this year that you hope to continue even after the pandemic ends?

Steve: No question. On campus food delivery to all of our units (we are the largest lodging entity in the State and we should have been doing this long before this season). Continuing to focus on the management and development of outdoor spaces/food options and community areas, dedicating part of our lodging inventory to long(er) term rental options bundled with amenity and admission packages, scaling profit centers open and closed schedules to better reflect on-campus volume and visitation.

Dave: Yes, there are many changes that have been made this year that will stick going forward. To start, we made several indoor air quality improvements in buildings throughout the resort, and we believe we will see continued benefits in the overall health of our staff in places like locker rooms and the Children’s Ski School indoor spaces. We also discovered that implementing simplified, easy, and fast outdoor dining options helped control flow and were very successful. The modified season pass and ticket offerings that were designed to spread out visitation from peak to off-peak periods worked really well, too. We’re going to continue with the new cleaning procedures for the hotel, and also allowing for remote work where it makes sense. Those are the big ones. 

Pete: Like everyone, we've had to get scrappy and creative. We have a team and an industry that is used to responding to uncontrollable events (snow drought, anyone?) so we are used to experimenting, testing, exploring....but it's too early to tell which adaptations will stick.

Cole: Pre-purchased, date specific lift tickets, all the way. It’s amazing what happens to ticket window wait times when the vast majority of your customers are showing up having pre-paid for their tickets, and only needing to show ID in order to walk away with their tickets. They are down substantially and it represents one less bottleneck. Perhaps no walk-up ticket sales are next… Pre-purchased lift tickets also opens the door for the implementation of kiosks, into the future.

Origin: Knowing that there were months to prepare for operations this year, what was one thing that caught you off-guard once operations began?

Steve: Given our weather, we thought it would be next to impossible to get folks outside but, for the most part, they’ve had no interest in coming indoors and have really taken advantage of our outdoor options. I was also personally surprised how well we did, financially, during the month of Feb. If not well, I was surprised how not-awful we did….

Dave: Despite our Wear a Mask Or Lose Your Pass messaging, I believe we were all caught off-guard the amount of times we would have to say: “masks up please!”

Cole: Demand. We were told over and over, especially from ski areas in the southern hemisphere, that we’d be busier than we expect. As a regional ski area, we felt well positioned to enjoy solid visitation. We knew it would be busy but when we started seeing pre-Christmas days that were akin to what we’d see over February’s Family Day Weekend, that’s when it really hit home.

Origin: Do you feel as though the media accurately represented your resort's operations and issues this season? 

Steve: Yes, for the most part, but this was a good question because I’ve heard alternative takes across other states and resorts.

Dave: Yes, we have seen dozens of articles that detail how ski resorts have adopted new protocols and which, in our opinion have done a great job explaining how skiing has generally been a healthy, safe activity during the COVID winter. The coverage reassured guests, the community, and regulators that not only was Taos doing a good job staving off COVID infections, but the industry was in general. This helped generate skiing interest, and also helped prepare guests for the different experience they’d get this year.

In most cases, Taos was positioned fairly and honestly in these articles.

Cole: I’ve never done as many interviews with media, in any other season, as I have this season. To be honest, I think they have been pretty fair and we have not shied away from sharing information with them about our operations – pre-season or in-season. It has been a good news type of season with ski resorts one of few businesses thriving in the face of COVID-19.

Origin: What's keeping you up at night? 

Steve: The ongoing misadventures of my 16-year-old and 21-year-old daughters.

Dave: We must get back to some of our top agenda items around environmental and social responsibility. We have much to do. We need to rapidly expand of our sustainable forestry work to reduce wildfire risk in the west. We need to further development plans to increase our fleets of EV transportation. We need to bring better understanding, awareness, and implementation of progressive diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. And we need to advance the support of the work by our anti-racism task forces.

Pete: How do we continue to work together as one community to continue to grow visitation to Banff and Lake Louise, the Park, the resorts, the towns, the hamlets - to share this magical place with the world - and to face together whatever challenges may come our way. And, how do we continue our great collaborative work across Canada to compel skiers to keep the dream alive?

Cole: When is it going to snow again (it’s been so dry so far in March)? What’s next season going to look like? Can we facilitate the dozen weddings we have on the books this summer? How do we keep people coming back to us like this every year? Will change in our season pass program and limiting the number of season passes available for sale for next season backfire? This season – knock on wood – seems to be on cruise control with only four weeks remaining.

Origin: Were there any surprise upsides to this whole mess? 

Steve: It wasn’t a surprise, but we knew the team would continue to tighten up and get closer through it. Despite wholly losing the Canadian market, our season pass share grew. And our connection to State, local and Federal agencies have been strengthened in a way that would have taken us years otherwise.

Dave: Yes, there were certainly surprises. For instance, we saw better communication and teamwork across departments while utilizing new systems, and we were pleasantly surprised by how well the grab-and-go food service worked for us. Thanks in part to all the safety protocols, staff were healthier and more engaged than in past years, and with a lower overall guest headcount, we were better staffed than normal, which meant staff were able to take more ski breaks than usual. We also witnessed our staff take a deep re-evaluation on the importance of family at home, compassion at work, and overall balance in life. Finally, it was amazing to see and hear the gratitude from our guests. 

Pete: We have come together as an industry in a way that crises can sometimes inspire. The industry and our enthusiasts are passionate, relielent, and will do whatever it takes to get out on the snow!

Cole: People have come back to the sports of skiing and snowboarding, likely in droves. We hope to have some data to back this up but, anecdotally, we know it’s occurring. I mean…what else would you have done all winter, right? In general, I think this pandemic has served as a values check. If you’re anything like me, you’ve likely reassessed what’s really important in your life during this whole thing. For a lot of people, I think that they’ve increased the value they put on getting outside. While that has been demonstrably good for (most) ski resorts, I think it’s also beneficial to society as a whole. 

A year ago, it scarcely seemed possible that ski resort GM’s would have any upsides to report. And while it’s true that the suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (which, it’s worth noting, isn’t exactly over) certainly puts activities like skiing in perspective, it’s also true that for many of us, time spent outdoors, doing something we love, is an essential coping mechanism. It’s a way to feel whole during a period that has caused many of us to feel less-than-whole. Which is why all of us at Origin remain grateful for the mountains, for the resourcefulness and resilience of the ski industry, and for all our friends who continue making it possible for us to click in and push off. 

Marie-Josée Legault

Marie-Josée Legault

Principal + Strategy Director