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The experts speak: what's going to happen next season

ski diva

Administrator
Staff member
#1
Late this afternoon I had the opportunity to attend a ZOOM meeting with Pat Campbell,
President of Vail Resorts Mountain Division; Kelly Pawlak, President & CEO of the National Ski Areas Association; Nicholas Sargent, President of Snowsports Industries America; and Rick Kahl, editor of Ski Area Management.

The topic was what's going to happen next season, which is something we're ALL interested in. I've transcribed it here (most of it, anyway), so you could get some insight into this, too:

First up, Pat Campbell, Vail Resorts:

Question: So things are getting started in the southern hemisphere now. How's that going?
Pat: Right now we’ve been open for 3 days at Perisher in New South Wales. We thought the brush fires in the summer would be the worst we experienced, and then we went right into COVID. Our team there has done some great work in putting together a safe operating plan for the season. It’s been a collaborative effort not only in the resort but with the entire Australian ski industry. The resorts have worked hard together to come up with some operating standards and also partner with public health agencies to deliver a new experience. People are excited to be back on the snow. We’re doing everything we can to ensure social distancing, safe practices, and in the few days we’ve been open, we’ve seen people are ready and excited.

Question: What can we expect to see in the Northern hemisphere next season?
Pat: I wish I knew. I think we are of course learning a lot from the planning and how we’re executing in the southern hemisphere, which we think will be a huge benefit for our operations for the winter. Right now we’re trying to plan around some basic assumptions, because we don’t know, as things related to COVID change on a daily basis, I think the most important thing for us is to plan for different scenerios and remain really agile so that we can adjust to changing expectations for our guests around their safety, which is the most important thing. Of course we’re always going to comply with and collaborate with public health on what they need. That’s understood. But as important as what our guests need is what they expect. How can we make them feel safe and provide them with a compelling experience? You know, we plan to be fully open. Even if demand is lower because people aren’t travelling as much or they can’t travel as much, we know if there’s one person on the mountain or 100 people on the mountain, they expect the full resort experience, and that’s what we’re focused on: how can we deliver up that great experience across our mountains, regardless of the conditions or requirements of COVID. And we think we can do that.

Question: What’s been the reaction to the way Vail has been handling the season pass issue?
Pat: You know, you’re never going to make 100% of the people happy, but the vast majority have been very appreciative of our process to come up with the credit strategy and be forward looking. We considered a lot of feedback along the way and we know that flexibility and security are important for our customers, and we've tried to build that into the coming season. The response has been very positive.

Question: If I buy an Epic pass, will I still need to reserve a day before I drive up?
Pat: I wish I had the answer…there are so many unknowns still in terms of whether or not we’ll have operating constraints but I’d say first and foremost we prioritize safety and then for those guests who’ve committed in advance to us, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that they get the value and service they expect. So largely, it’s still to be determined if there are things we need to do to manage capacity at our resorts. We just don’t know. We hope not. But we’re prepared to do that in a way that will deliver on that value for our season pass holder.

Next up, Kelly Pawlak, NSAA:

Prior to the industry wide COVID shutdowns in March, we were on track to hit the fourth best season ever and finish off with about 59.7 million skier visits. Instead, we finished at 51 million skier visits. So that was down almost 14% from the previous year, and when you look at our ten year average, we were down about 7%. So the 2019/20 season was the lowest we’d seen since 2011/2012, which was a very low snow season across the country. We’ve calculated that missing the very important spring break and the decline in the summer business will cost the ski industry well over $2 billion. But we have to acknowledge that the timing is also helpful, because we can look ahead, we’re able to launch a soft summer opening and learn from those experiences. There are really good examples that the ski industry is sharing right now, to figure out things from parking lots to guest check ins.

This week’s news of President Trump’s executive order to not allow international workers to come into the US until the end of 2020 -- that’s very concerning as we plan to reopen. We don’t think that American workers are going to be enough to fill the void. Historically, ski areas have a hard time filling all the positions, so we’re concerned. Some of the reasons that we’re not sure we’ll fill all these openings with Americans is that people may not want to make the commute every day or they may not be able to find lodging or affordable lodging. Or they may be looking for a year ‘round job versus a seasonal job. The other barrier is that our jobs are tough. It can be an eight- or nine-hour shift in the cold. And then some of the indoor jobs are very similar to the jobs they can get in their hometowns. So we know we have a big challenge ahead of us. We’re going to try to recruit Americans for those jobs, but we’re also going to be advocating with Congress and try to get some exceptions to get some foreign workers in here by December.

During this time, it’s important to understand the benefits that ski areas offer. Like space, that room to spread out. The average ski area in the US has over 1,000 skiable acres, and many of them have thousands more than that, and the majority of time you spend at a ski area is outside. We all know that it’s an excellent source of physical activity. I think that the fact that face coverings are part of our culture is going to help us to achieve employee and guest compliance in that area, and every ski area has full time, on site patrol and rescue staff. So if there is a COVID 19 related problem, we can have our staff there quickly and give them professional attention.

Because we don’t know if there will be those capacity limitations, the best advice is to plan ahead. This is not the year to roll out of bed and say “Hey, I think I’ll go to my favorite ski area today!” That’s not a good plan. Those who do just a little pre-planning will enjoy the best days. The capacity may be limited, so advance on-line tickets may be part of the new reality, at least for part of the season. Depending on what the restrictions are, that may be the only way to get access. I encourage everyone to check out the resort website not only when they make the reservation, but right before they go out because the information is changing day by day, and I think it’s important for our guests to do their part when it comes to virus protection and prevention. I’d encourage them to choose their trip dates carefully. Skiers should really consider a mid week, non holiday vacation. That’s when it will be less crowded.

(continued below)
 
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ski diva

Administrator
Staff member
#2
Nick Sargent, president of Snowsport Industries America

Companies are looking at reducing their new product offering and put the focus on the 21/22 year products, knowing that there are a lot of products still in the pipeline from the resorts and the industry shutting down, so we’re working through that right now. Many of the manufacturers have this coming season’s product arriving into their warehouses, and now they need to find a home for that product. So we have some work ahead of us there. We’ll see some new products this year, but we’ll probably see more new products in 21/22 as we navigate COVID.

Rick Kahl, Editor of Ski Area Management

In the southern hemisphere, NZ is almost back to normal. They had prepared all pre-season to do social distancing, then the government said nope, it wasn't necessary. At the other end of the spectrum, almost all the areas in South America are closed. They may remain closed all year. Australia is somewhere in the middle, and its more similar to what I think a lot of resorts in the US have been planning for, which is limiting capacity, social distancing, and all other kinds of usual mitigation measures to reduce the chances that someone will contract COVID 19. What Thredbo did is stopped all season pass sales and refunded everyone who had bought a season pass. They knew that they were going to be hit with a 50% reduction in their capacity, so they went to an online only advance reservation for the bulk of their season. It was a first come first serve sort of thing, and it was a system similar to Ticketmaster, waiting in a queue until you could place your order. People waited several hours to buy tickets. They started that a couple weeks ago, and all their tickets are sold out through August 30. In order to prevent a complete revolt by their season pass holders, they offered them a discount of 40-70% off the day ticket rate, but basically, they charged one price for their main season, and you just had to go on line and wait your turn and book what you wanted.

Question: How are the resorts faring during summer, here in North America?
Things like mountain biking, which are relatively easy to practice social distancing, have opened earliest. And those operations tend to run pretty smoothly. A few resorts that offer mountain biking have gone to an online advance reservations system for both tickets and rentals, and so far they’re reporting that things have been going well. I think that’s also one of the things resorts have been looking at, and as they look toward this coming winter on the assumption that they’re going to have some sort of restrictions in place, people are looking at a variety of solutions like that. They’re sort of taking two approaches: one is that they want to try to speed the process, whatever that process might be, and the other is that they want to spread it out so that they can practice social distancing. And those are the sort of things that are being experimented with at ski areas this summer. At adventure parks, for example, where it’s not as easy to do social distancing, they’ve been slower to open and will probably take it more cautiously. They’ll probably start at 25% of their capacity.

Question: What about next year?

I think all the season pass assurances are good, because they let people know that if they do commit in advance and things go south on the winter, they won't be stuck, having put out a lot of money and have no recourse for getting it back.

We’ve been running ZOOM huddles with resorts since back in late March, and when we started, everyone was in a state of shock. They’d been asked to immediately stop operations and send all their guests and employees home, and it’s really hard to shut a ski area down on 24 hours notice. There’s a lot of things you need to do to properly shut a resort down, and they didn’t know if they were going to have a chance to reopen or what the situation would be. But as the weeks have gone by, I think the anxiety level has gone down as people have shared ideas of what they might be able to do depending on what restrictions are in place next fall. So right now, I’d say the typical area is looking at 5 different plans, depending on how severe the restrictions are or if they’re gone entirely.

I think resorts are going to encourage people to make reservations anywhere you can, whether it’s for lift tickets, rentals, lunch – all those things are possible. Resorts are probably going to look for more contactless transactions. They’re going to want to do more with credit cards and that sort of thing. Social distancing is something they’re considering in every aspect of their operations, from the lift line to how many people are going to be on the lift, to rest rooms and restaurants and rental shops. How close are people going to park in the parking lot. What are you going to do about shuttle buses. They’re looking at all these things right now. What can we do to have people pay in advance, so there’s not a bottleneck when they get to the resort. As much as possible, I think resorts will encourage people to dine outdoors, maybe putting up windbreaks on their deck or on the snow.
 
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Skidreamer

Diva in Training
#4
Thanks, really interesting! Here in Australia, I'm watching the situation closely. We were supposed to be in Europe right now for 5 weeks so had no plans to ski in Australia this year and didn't purchase our season tickets, but of course Europe was cancelled. So, we were/are keen to replace this disappointment with a little skiing at home instead, but so far the season (all 4 days of it) has been a very complicated situation. It didn't matter that COVID put off the opening date in Australia until late June, as we have still almost no snow at all. This coming week looks a little hopeful in terms of weather, good timing as school holidays start around now (Victoria now on hols, New South Wales 2 weeks away, other states, I am uncertain.) Some resorts have still not opened due to lack of snow. Perisher, Australia's biggest resort and now owned by Vail, is operating miniscule run capacity. The capacity to purchase tickets is extremely limited, and they are sold out for days (weeks?) in advance now. But when I look at the live snow cams, there are so very few people on the snow, even with the extremely limited number of lifts open, ie, about 4 lifts last I heard. In a resort that has the capacity to run almost 50 once full operational and having adequate snow cover. Season pass holders are finding it difficult to book in particular days, although it seems to be working better over time. The Perisher website (and nearly resort, Thredbo) went into meltdown and go-slows several days.

As to COVID, Australia almost had it completely under control at a national level (ie we were down to 1 or 2 diagnoses PER DAY, NATIONALLY, most states completely free of new cases for several weeks apart from the occasional traveller returning from overseas and being kept in isolation, and diagnosed there), but now there has been a significant outbreak in Victoria, and people from this state are being allowed to travel and fly interstate, the stupidity of which just takes my breath away, to be honest.

The post above also states that NZ has returned to normal, however, their numbers will be substantially reduced by the refusal (and rightly so) to allow overseas travellers into the country at this stage. As NZ is pretty much covid-free.
 
#6
What I’m most curious about is whether or not season pass holders will need to make advance online reservations in addition to having their season pass, and if it will be possible for season pass holders to be told that they can’t ski on a given day because capacity is already sold out.
Wondering the same thing....
 

Jilly

Moderator
Staff member
#7
That is exactly what is stopping me from confirming my seasonal rental. And the landlord totally understands. If I don't take it, he doesn't want anyone else. And he's not the type to put it on an Air B n B site. So I have lots of time to figure this out.

Tremblant is opening for the summer season. The gondola is restricted to same group members or family. It was also be sanitized frequently. But that's summer. Not sure how that will work at -20C in the winter....
 

mountainwest

Ski Diva Extraordinaire
#8
Wondering the same thing....
I will probably buy my usual season pass by the end of July before the pricing goes up, but I'm going to need a definite answer to this question before deciding whether to keep or cancel it by the October deadline. My home mountain was already having problems with the parking lots filling to capacity and traffic backing up down the access road on weekends, and this will be their first season as a part of Mountain Collective with no increased parking or lift capacity, so I'm wondering how this will play out.
 
#9
I have until Labor Day to purchase my Epic Pass and have a credit from last year due to early closure. I'm planning an out of state trip as well but who knows if that will happen.
 
#10
The resort at which I work ceased selling season passes on 6/15. I think it didn't want to be in the position of having to limit access to passholders if things go south, and having cranky people complain. They've guaranteed 150 days to those passholders. I wonder about seasonal programs and snow sport schools. Typically, pass prices increase on 10/15 and everyone waits to the last minute to buy those products; not sure if the deadline of 6/15 was on anyone's radar.

If passes and those products aren't' going to be sold in the fall, there will be alot of out of work race coaches and ski instructors.....
 

mustski

Ski Diva Extraordinaire
#11
I still have all the same questions that I previously had. Will season pass holders and/or locals be given priority over those coming from out of town? Will it be a reservation based on first come first served or a lottery? How much in advance will people be able to make a reservation?
 
#12
I still have all the same questions that I previously had. Will season pass holders and/or locals be given priority over those coming from out of town? Will it be a reservation based on first come first served or a lottery? How much in advance will people be able to make a reservation?
I can’t imagine.
 

fgor

Certified Ski Diva
#13
The post above also states that NZ has returned to normal, however, their numbers will be substantially reduced by the refusal (and rightly so) to allow overseas travellers into the country at this stage. As NZ is pretty much covid-free.
Yep, it's business as usual here. My local ski area (Mt Hutt) is mostly frequented by locals anyway. In fact it looks busier than it was last year, and my boot fitter is saying the same - they're just inundated. I suspect more people are skiing because they can't travel. The ski areas have had staffing difficulties because they're used to a lot of staff from overseas, especially for skilled positions like ski instructor/patroller - but they seem to have rallied surprisingly well. Some overseas staff managed to get into the country in March before the borders shut.

Down in Queenstown which is more driven by overseas tourism - slightly different story. At least one field is running weekends only because they don't have the staff or visitors to open full-time.

It's a real shame we didn't end up with a trans-tasman bubble. It's awful what happened with the state of Victoria.
 

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