Ski Industry Prepares For The Season In The Pandemic

Sep 29, 2020
Originally published on September 29, 2020 6:07 pm
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TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

In a typical year, skiing and snowboarding in Vermont is a $1.6 billion industry. The state's largest ski association says closing early last season because of COVID-19 cost the state's resorts about $100 million. And as Vermont Public Radio's Nina Keck reports, that's why resorts are doing all they can to stay open this season.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKI GONDOLA HUMMING)

NINA KECK, BYLINE: This time of year, the gondola in front of Killington's base lodge mostly carries hikers and mountain bikers. But in less than two months, if the weather cooperates, resort president Mike Solimano hopes skiers and snowboarders - all wearing masks and all having reserved a parking place ahead of time - will be using this lift and the nearby base lodge.

MIKE SOLIMANO: So we're in K-1 lodge right now. You can see, you know, we still have some tables to move out by the time we get ready to open. But this is going to look a lot different once we do that.

KECK: In a normal year, Solimano says Killington might have 14 or 15,000 visitors on a busy day. This winter, with COVID-19, he wants to cut that in half, and limiting access indoors will be the biggest challenge. So the bars won't be open, and food will be mostly grab-and-go.

SOLIMANO: We don't really want people to sit and drink and relax and hang out. It's actually the opposite.

KECK: A lot of people have suggested the resort just set up more tents and outdoor port-a-potties. But Solimano says they've learned from hosting the Women's World Cup races that it's not so easy to accommodate large crowds in the cold.

SOLIMANO: Nobody wants to go into a port-a-john when it's 10 degrees out. So, you know, we realize that's a good lesson learned, right? It's - that sounds great, but people don't really want to use that. So you need solutions that are actually practical.

KECK: Like using the barns where they store their gondola cars as possible warming areas. Other U.S. ski resorts will try to take the chill off with propane heaters, outdoor fire pits and windscreens. Many plan to add food trucks, and some are exploring apps that will allow skiers to reserve a table indoors or better monitor lift lines. Jamie Storrs is a spokesman for Vail Resorts, which owns 37 ski areas, including three in Vermont. He says anyone who wants to ski or ride at one of their resorts will have to wear a mask and make a reservation.

JAMIE STORRS: You know, the average person doesn't show up to the airport and go, one ticket, please, for today. We're asking guests to plan ahead a little bit more this year to make their reservations and to kind of think through when they're going to ski and to book out that time.

KECK: Jay Peak, a Vermont resort near the Canadian border, is taking a more laid-back approach to ticket sales with no reservations required and day tickets easy to get. General manager Steve Wright says normally, 50% of their business comes from Canada. And with the border closed and travel restrictions hampering some of their U.S. market...

STEVE WRIGHT: Our expectation is that there will be plenty of room to spread out here at the mountain this year.

KECK: It's a reality that's playing havoc with their budget and projected revenues, but Wright says they're hoping skiers and snowboarders concerned about the pandemic might see Jay Peak as a safer option. The ski industry is used to dealing with unpredictable weather and economic ups and downs, but a pandemic is new territory, and resort officials say flexibility will be crucial as they try to adapt.

For NPR News, I'm Nina Keck in Chittenden, Vt.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'IMPERATRICE SONG, "SONATE PACIFIQUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.