Winter Sports

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Ski Resort Business Trying to Stay Relevant in a COVID-19 World

20 Jun, 2020

By: Michael Popke

The headline for an Outside.com article posted June 4 says it all: “The Pandemic Is Forcing Ski Towns to Rethink Tourism.”

The piece chronicles the Breckenridge Ski Resort in Colorado, one of the busiest in the country during a normal tourist season. The resort shut down March 14, followed by the Town of Breckenridge’s restaurants and bars two days later. By the end of the week, all tourists were gone. Vail Resorts, the industry giant that owns Breckenridge, closed 34 of its properties and laid off or furloughed almost all local employees

“It was as if an ice age had arrived while everyone was sleeping, and we work up to a place frozen in time,” writes Outside magazine correspondent Devon O’Neil, who has lived in Breckenridge for 18 years. “Retail shops that had been short-staffed all winter replaced their “Help Wanted” signs with COVID-19 closure notices. I walked down the double yellow line on Main Street for blocks without seeing a car — or a person.”

Three months later, in early June, Vail Resorts announced plans to reopen its North American resorts for summer activities in late June or early July.

“We believe we are uniquely positioned within the travel industry to deliver a safe, high-quality guest experience,” Vail Resorts chief executive officer Robert Katz said on a recent Q320 conference call. “Our strong network of resorts provide[s] unparalleled outdoor experiences that are located within the drive to the proximity of major population centers in the U.S., Canada and Australia. We believe that this will be a significant advantage this summer and next ski season with expectations that outdoor experiences and the drive to leisure travel will be an early area of recovery relative to broader travel demand.”

Any type of recovery likely will be welcome by the outdoor tourism sector. Sales across the snowsports industry were down 43 percent in dollars and 45 percent in units for March, according to Snowsports Industries America’s U.S. Snow Industry Retail Market Report.

And Oxford Economics, a global forecasting company, predicts a34 percent decline in U.S. travel spending for 2020. That includes a predicted 78 percent drop in revenue from late March to late May, and continued losses reaching $400 billion. “Travel industry losses will far exceed that of any other sector,” according to “The 2020 Economic Impact of the Coronavirus Due to Travel Losses,” published by the firm March 24. “This is seven times the impact of 9/11.”

All of which means outdoor resorts must find ways to survive in a new normal — and find them fast. Breckenridge Grand Vacations, a property management company, is expected to make guests sign a pledge to wear face coverings anytime they are not in their rooms, eating, drinking or playing in the pool.

Mammoth Mountain Ski Area in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., meanwhile, announced it will reopen for the summer season on June 26 with bike park operation, scenic gondola rides, dining and golfing. The resort’s website offered details about modifications made for summer activities and lodging, while also providing a list of “What We Expect From You” and a “COVID-19 Related FAQs” section.

Resorts also are rolling out plans to address concerns of 2019-20 season passholders, who were unable to use those passes during the shutdown.

Still, at least one major reason for optimism remains: The great outdoors allows for more natural social distancing practices than indoor activities.

“The fact is that the core part of our experience is an outdoor experience over a very wide piece of crown that allows people to really spread out,” Vail Resorts’ Katz said on the conference call. “And then our focus will be on those pinch points. Certainly, inside our restaurants and lift lines, and certainly as people enter the resort, our job will be to make sure that we can maintain social distancing while still giving people a great experience.”

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