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Ski industry CEO’s gaze into crystal ball: ‘Bullish’ on future

22nd December 2020 | Craig Altschul

News Regions: Maine, Michigan, British Columbia, Colorado, California

Resorts in this article: Boyne Mountain Resort

A view of the Mountain Grand Lodge and Spa in Boyne Mountain, Michigan

A view of the Mountain Grand Lodge and Spa in Boyne Mountain, Michigan

Ski industry leaders from across America are ready to turn the page on 2020. But, what’s on the next page? They plan to learn from this season and have multiple reasons for being optimistic.

“As we move past what will hopefully be a COVID-responsible winter season that safely brings the gift of outdoor recreation to millions of North Americans, we are bullish on this industry in the coming years,” Boyne Resorts President and CEO Stephen Kircher told OnTheSnow.com.

Boyne Resorts collection spans from British Columbia to Maine and, as Kircher puts it, “has a 72-plus year-tradition of providing uniquely individualized settings.” Regardless of the challenges a season like this creates, he said Boyne’s ski areas “are intent on captivating a whole new generation of mountain sports lovers. 

“Our journey of modernizing the experience at every touch point is ongoing as we forge new ways and reasons for all ages and enthusiasts to enjoy our resorts in every season.  And, notably doing so in an even more sustainable manner,” he said.

Focused on learnings

Industry leaders are focusing on the learnings from this year with predictions of what we might expect from now on. Kelly Pawlak, President and CEO of the National Ski Areas Association, the group that spearheaded the unprecedented amount of planning for what everyone knew last summer would be a very difficult season, has some predictions. NSAA represents more than 300 ski resorts. 

“At many ski areas guests will most likely see more automation in the form of advance, online reservations for everything from lift tickets to rental equipment to dining,” Pawlek told us.  “Some ski areas are discovering the advantages of knowing how many people are going to show up on a given day and will find ways to incorporate practices that can help with more accurate guest counts – a win for both the operator and the guest.

“I also expect that the best values for the consumer will continue to be in the season pass products and midweek, non-holiday vacations.  If the U.S. shifts to more remote work, that could be an advantage to skiers and riders who have a little more flexibility to get away at off-peak times,” she said.  

Steamboat is one of the most iconic destinations in the Alterra Mountain Company portfolio.

Steamboat is one of the most iconic destinations in the Alterra Mountain Company portfolio.

Copyright: Loryn Kasten

Investment will ‘snap back’

The pandemic economic hit may trigger a slowdown in capital investment in resort infrastructure, but Pawlak expects that to be short-lived. “We expect strong spending to snap back quickly,” she said. “There are lifts already under contract for next summer and we expect that investments in information technology, especially in areas that can improve the guest experience, will also top the capital list.”

Optimism is omnipresent, even for a ski state like California, especially hard-hit with “stay-at-home” requirements to start the current season. Michael Reitzell, President of Ski California, a trade association of 32 California and Nevada ski areas, is among those who can see the horizon, even if next season continues with some restrictions.

“One of the best things about skiing and riding right now is that once you get to the top of the lift and you look down at your run, that’s about as normal as things are going to get right now,” Reitzell says.

“For the future, I think everyone hopes that the challenges of 2020 will be behind us when the next ski season begins. We certainly expect the restrictions to be less, which should allow us to return to at least a somewhat normal season, if not totally normal,” he said.

The new year sends us part way through the current season, and while the industry looks ahead thoughtfully and hopefully to next winter, there is some short-term optimism as well.

Mammoth Mountain getting buried to start December.  - © Mammoth Mountain

Mammoth Mountain getting buried to start December.

Copyright: Mammoth Mountain

“As the availability of vaccines reduces the threats to our local hospitals and public health systems, we believe we’ll start to see some of the spring skiing activities and events, albeit at a smaller scale, reappear and help end the season on a positive note,” says Melanie Mills, President and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA, which represents 22 resorts in the Colorado Rockies.

“Most of our attention is focused on day-to-day operations during this pandemic, but everyone is thinking ahead to what the summer and the 2021-22 ski season will look like,” Mills said. “Colorado ski areas will continue their investments in snowmaking and other guest service improvements—just as many of them did this year, despite the pandemic.” 

She, too, predicts there will be elements of the 2021-21 ski area experience “that survive and enable better day-to-day planning in the future.” Mills cited many new ticketing and pass options, along with a focus on growing the sport in a more inclusive way. 

An element of pride

An element of real pride shows through whenever ski area leaders talk about the current season and that bodes well for the future.

“All U.S. ski areas collaborated to produce the ‘Ski Well, Be Well’ COVID-19 best practices and customized operating plans were developed for states and individual ski areas,” NSAA’s Pawlek said.  “The willingness to face the challenge of a pandemic head-on not only shows the leadership of the ski industry in the outdoor recreation space but also demonstrates that when it comes to safety, the ski industry chose collaboration over competition.”

Ski California’s Reitzell echoes that sentiment: “I am very proud of our industry for the way we have responded to the pandemic and continue to operate with so many modified procedures in place,” he told us. “We also have to thank our guests for complying with all of the new and constantly changing procedures. They realize how important outdoor recreation is to them.”

The crystal ball, for those who make the decisions, isn’t murky at all: The best is yet to come.





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