“If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that things can change quickly,” Big Sky General Manager Troy Nedved and President Taylor Middleton made crystal clear in a letter to the Montana resort’s skiers and riders as the 2020-21 season ramps up. “The good news is, a few things won’t change: skiing will be as fun and exciting as ever.”
That sentiment is echoed about 450 times over from small ski hills to mega resorts across the United States. This season will be very different because of COVID-19. All of us – guests and resort and ski town employees – will have to make significant adjustments to our long-ingrained habits and mindsets. But we want to ski and ride, so adjust we will.
This is the key takeaway: we can be assured our favorite ski mountain is following an operation plan using the best ski industry practices, national, state and local health recommendations.
The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) has worked for months with an advisory group of ski industry leaders. They have carefully developed a return to outdoor winter recreation known as the “Ski Well, Be Well” operational best practices program. It is based on scientific guidelines from acknowledged experts. These practices are being adapted to each ski area’s unique operation and can be adjusted according to the appropriate local pandemic response.
“Ski areas provide acres upon acres of wide-open natural space for recreation, allowing guests to enjoy the mental and physical health benefits of outdoor recreation while maintaining physical distance,” says NSAA President Kelly Pawlak. The ski resort trade association “is committed to the health and safety of our stakeholders,” and has implemented a set of best practices while taking additional guidance from local public health and municipal authorities. Just as an aside: All of this thought and implementations may well improve guest services in the seasons ahead.
What can you expect as you and your family head to the slopes this winter? That’s where OnTheSnow.com comes in. We will be your “go-to” source for up-to-date information as you seek to “know before you go” for a day, a weekend or winter vacation.
Still, what you need to know will likely depend on where you live and where you’re headed. OnTheSnow.com’s staff team is currently creating a series of “Know Before You Go” pages from metropolitan areas across the country with area-specific information you will need from the moment you decide to head for the hills until it’s time to return home, including rules for crossing state boundaries, testing requirements and even quarantines. This pinpoint information reporting will be updated regularly so, as that old ad says, “Don’t leave home without it.”
Here are some universal requirements you can expect this winter though any and all can and will be modified on the fly as conditions and rules change.
This requirement shouldn’t come as a surprise nor should it particularly bother those of us who choose to play on cold, snowy mountains. Now, however, it means masking-up everywhere you go: enroute, in ski towns, on the mountain, anywhere at the resorts where you can’t social distance with the only exception being while eating or drinking. In short: getting up to visit the restroom? Wear the mask.
Vail Resorts (all 19 of them), for example, has made it clear: “Guests will need to wear face coverings everywhere on the mountains. No one will be permitted on the mountains without a face covering.” All employees will wear masks and will undergo daily health screening.
Most ski resorts will require you to purchase lift tickets in advance online if you don’t have a season pass. And sometimes, even if you do. Don’t just show up at the ticket wickets and expect to buy a ticket as they could be closed and sold out. Day tickets largely will be specific to date and ski area. Most plan to limit lift tickets to be sure guests can be spread out across the mountain and lift lines and resorts services can be manageable and safe. This is certainly the year to try out midweek skiing like the resorts have been preaching to us for so long.
Resorts across the country and companies that analyze trends report that consumer confidence is continuing to build as resorts announce their winter operating plans. There is certainly a pent-up desire to ski and ride again since last spring’s “second season” was cut short. But, will you drive or will you fly?
Resorts operators expect the drive market to be huge. Local mountain experiences will be more desirable than ever, so make reservations early. Some ski areas will even ask you to make reservations for free parking spots. Those will be limited and spaced apart. In fact, gear up in your car or as Wachusett Mountain’s Tom Meyers puts it: “Consider your car to be your personal base lodge.”
Most of the major resorts have arranged non-stop flights to their local or closest airports from metropolitan areas where they traditionally attract the most visitors. Some have increased those flights while others have decreased them. Delta Airlines, for example, is bringing back flights at LAX to and from Reno-Tahoe Airport three times a day (has been on hiatus since 2008) and daily flights from Atlanta. But there will be new rules including potentially COVID testing, temperature checks and face coverings on all airlines.
On the mountain:
Each resort will manage lift queues differently but forget about the singles lines of seasons gone by. Most will allow guests in the same party to ride together and, if capacity is in check, single riders on chairs will be OK. Some will allow riding on either end of large six-passenger chairs or inside gondolas.
Ski school will be almost universally enrolled by advance reservations and normally that does not guarantee you a lift ticket. Plan on smaller group lessons and plenty of distancing during the lesson. Otherwise, congregating in groups on the mountains will not be allowed. Need rentals? Reservations only for fitting and pick-up.
Dining and apres ski:
Sit-down restaurants at some resorts will be open with limited, physical distancing (i.e., tables will be spread out), but the norm will be hot and cold “grab and go” with limited indoor seating, but as much outdoor seating as possible. Apres ski as we knew it? Not going to happen. Traditional bar settings will generally be closed, though packaged beer and wine should be available. Virtually all transactions on the mountains will be touchless, most using bar codes for scanning on your personal devices.
Dining in ski towns will be different as well, largely because they are at the mercy of the resort limitations on guests and requirements. Creativity will be everywhere. An example: Aurum Food & Wine in the town of Breckenridge is using yurts — circular, more-permanent tents with glass domes at the top — to keep outside dining alive through the winter. Steamboat plans a mobile pizza parlor and Rex’s restaurants at the resort will operate at 50 percent capacity. That will likely be the norm at most mountain and town eateries.
Resorts have strict policies when it comes to lodging. Most will use EPA approved cleaning and disinfecting products and protocols to clean rooms, condos and homes after guests depart and before the next guest arrives, with particular attention paid to high-touch items.
Most properties will be equipped with contactless check-in and many have smart keypads. All employees will wear gloves and masks when entering rooms and there will be continuous training on housekeeping and hygiene protocols for staff. Your own lodging is your best bet for creating cooking and personal apres ski. Bring those groceries or pre-prepared meals and adult beverages with you.
Just for the record:
All of this information could be just as effective as writing in the snow with a tree branch during a snowstorm. That’s why it will be important for you to check in here at OnTheSnow.com to know before you go. Protocols, rules and regulations are going to change for sure and this is your one-stop place to – as the Boy Scout motto implores – Be Prepared.
Craig Altschul has been covering winter sports and the ski scene for more than 40 years. He will be working with a special team of reporters all season long to keep you up-to-date on all things skiing and riding during the COVID winter.
The COVID Winter: We Have The Answers You Will Need