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Was the pandemic season an eye-opener? Resorts assessing permanent changes

29th March 2021 | Craig Altschul

Skiers wear masks in liftline at opening day at Keystone, Colorado

Skiers wear masks in liftline at opening day at Keystone, Colorado

Copyright: Hart Van Denburg

Who knew? Think back to those somewhat scary days of early fall when the 2020-21 ski season was coming out of its shell. 

COVID-19 was re-surging in many metro regions. Vaccines were just “maybes” on the far horizon. We just were starting to multiply our collection of colorful masks. Ski resort managers were putting protocols in place that had been discussed and spurred on aggressively and  cooperatively by the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). “Ski Well. Be well” was quickly becoming the new season’s battle cry.

Today, with some resorts ready to pull down the curtain to prepare for a promising summer of domestic travel and the handful of Eastern areas and bunches of Western snowfields looking to stay open another month or more, it’s probably time to take stock of what happened.

Industry should be proud

“The industry should be proud of what they have been able to achieve in the past year,” NSAA President and CEO Kelly Pawlak told OnTheSnow.com.  “I knew they would excel on the operations side because they are masters at responding and flexing to a myriad of situations and environments.

“On top of developing and implementing strong COVID-19 best practices, they proved that when the industry works together on a common goal, more can be achieved,” she said.  

Pawlak said she is looking forward to using this collaborative approach on other important industry initiatives and programs such as “safety, climate action and building more inclusive and diverse mountain environments and workplaces.”

Still, when we asked more than a few industry marketers and CEOs for specifics of how the ’20-’21 lessons learned would be applied to next season and beyond, we were stonewalled into an avalanche of “we’re still finishing this season” and “discussions will start next month” and “it’s way too early to commit.” All were polite, of course. But,  only one was forthcoming.

Meyers, Wachusett look ahead

That was Tom Meyers, the highly respected 25-year marketing veteran at Wachusett, one of the East’s most popular resorts. Crowley-family owned Wachusett consistently lures the Boston Metro throngs of families to the tune of 350,000 or more annually, certainly among the highest volume ski areas in the country for its size.

Meyers didn’t hold back, noting how Wachusett communications and marketing strategies changed so much that “one-to-one marketing” led to significantly reducing the type of broadcast advertising that led to so much of the resort’s success over many years. 

“We didn’t put out our ‘Wa-Wa-Wachusett’ jingle once this season,” Meyers laughed, “and our local brand awareness was built on that jingle.”

Wachusett Mountain Ski Area  - © Wachusett Mountain Ski Area

Wachusett Mountain Ski Area

Copyright: Wachusett Mountain Ski Area

He told us the pandemic season turned out to be “far better than we would have ever imagined going into it. Guests were just so appreciative we were here for them!”

Meyers said their goal from the start was to find a way to balance supply and demand. They, like many other resorts, were faced with a significant cutback in season pass sales so “we had to figure out how to balance day-of lift tickets sales.”  

Wachusett broke the ski day into four sessions providing a way to add more access with less capacity. “For the most part, our high-speed quads were turned into high-speed doubles,” he said.

Meyers said it took some adjusting but guests enjoyed their time ranging from 2.5 to 4 hours depending on the time and the day. The most popular time slot on weekends and holidays was 11:45 a.m.-3:45 p.m. and 12:30-4 p.m. on weekdays.  

The COVID information on the Wachusett website (https://www.wachusett.com/The-Mountain/About-Wachusett/Covid-Information.aspx/) was among the clearest and most comprehensive in the industry.

It read in part: “Wachusett has been working with the State of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Ski Areas Association and National Ski Areas Association to establish proper COVID protocols and guidelines. Skiers and riders should be aware that a potential risk of visiting the ski area may include exposure to COVID-19 and becoming infected.

 “Please remember we need everyone's cooperation to make this season the best it can be! We are looking forward to being on the slopes and believe we can provide you with some much-needed fun during the winter months, as long as we all work together to make it happen.”

 Here’s what’s ahead

Meyers provided us a list of Wachusett COVID practices he believes will endure next season and likely beyond. Likely more ski resoert will follow suit.

  • 4-session ticket model vs. 2
  • Required online ticket purchasing
  • Increasing reloads of radio frequency identification (RFID) tickets
  • Outdoor seating
  • Outdoor staging area for rentals
  • Outdoor check-in for Polar Kids (learning center for kids 4-8)
  • More storage for outdoor gear and ski/boot bags
  • Heaters
  • Heated dragon benches (fiberglass)
  • Wind screens on patio
  • Ski-up and grab donut window on Bullock Lodge, the original, historic base lodge
  • Camera-security for Ski Watch storage, rather than staff
  • More online staff and management meetings and employee training

 While others were mum, give it up to Meyers and Wachusett for giving us a glimpse of how one ski resort will take the pandemic learnings and make future seasons better for all of us.

 

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