For a ski rental shop at the base of Aspen Mountain, winter means big business when the resort opens. But right now, it’s pretty hard to say exactly what challenges will come with a mid-pandemic ski season.
“It’s part of being an entrepreneur,” said Tim McMahon, co-owner of Incline Ski and Board Shop. “You never know what the horizon’s going to bring. The best you can do is try to anticipate what would be negative and try to plan your short term business plan around that.”
Just like so many other businesses in Aspen, McMahon depends on at least some traffic on the slopes.
With winter gradually drawing nearer, he’s focusing on things that are within his control – adjusting the layout of the shop to allow for social distancing, and setting expectations for fewer rentals, since people might be less willing to travel.
But at the end of the day, he’s left waiting for decisions from state and local governments that will spell out what exactly the ski season looks like.
“It can certainly be frustrating,” McMahon said. “But you can't dwell on the fact that you have unknown variables. You just have to hope that you can have a good plan put together once those decisions get kind of dictated down to you.”
Aspen Skiing Company is also waiting on those decisions. They run all four mountains, and so many of the other services that are part of a ski resort.
“We have to look across every element of the business,” said Katie Ertl, Skico’s senior vice president of mountain operations. “From tickets to parking, to rental, retail, food, and beverage ski and snowboard school, how we work employees through in and out of the locker room.”
For a business that depends on snow, Skico is used to good and bad years. But the effects of the pandemic are so broad-reaching, this year is much different.
“It's just every time you open one door, it opens another door to the next conversation of, ‘Oh, we forgot to talk about this,’” Ertl said.
With some details – and perhaps the very existence – of this season out of their hands, Skico has started to plan for what they can control. That includes spreading people out in restaurants, and talking with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority about how to safely shuttle skiers and riders to the mountain.
Ertl has also has been talking with resorts in Australia, where it’s winter and mountains are open at 50% capacity to find out how they’re operating during the pandemic.
In conversations with management at Thredbo, Perisher, Mount Buller and Mount Hotham, Ertl has been taking notes on how to build a reservation system, which may come into play if Aspen-Snowmass has to limit the number of people on the slopes.
But there are lessons to be learned closer to home too. Skico has been running lifts on Aspen Mountain and Snowmass for biking and sightseeing since mid-June. That has given them a chance to test out new configurations in lift lines and mountaintop restaurants.
It also gave them a chance to ask summer employees about their concerns. Ertl said one of those has to do with getting visitors to follow the posted rules.
“When you're out there loading the gondola at Snowmass and people are coming up on their bikes and you have to ask them every single time to put their mask on,” Ertls said, “it gets a little bit tiring.”
As much as she’s learned from running the lifts this summer, Ertl said there’s still a lot to figure out when it’s time to scale things up four months from now.
“I think the biggest fear that I have with winter coming on in operations is the volume and how much larger volume is in winter with skiing and riding,” Ertl said.
Aspen is far from the only resort dealing with those kinds of planning worries during the pandemic. Nick Sargent, president of Snowsports Industries America, said every resort in the country is facing the same challenges.
“We're all in it together,” Sargent said. “And I wouldn't say there's one region that has it better or worse. It's really the same across the board.”
Officials for Aspen Skiing Company said a down year wouldn’t be a death knell, but Sargent said the pandemic could devastate operations that aren’t as well-positioned.
“A lot of these weaker and smaller resorts are going to be hit really hard,” he said. “And it might cause them to close down permanently.”
Sargent said that could affect retailers too. Some smaller stores have shut down entirely, and some winter gear manufactures have pivoted to making personal protective equipment in the interim.
Even for a resort like Aspen-Snowmass, there’s the reality of substantially less business. Winter-dependent businesses in the area fear that bans on international travelers could take a huge slice out of visitorship this season.
Federal holds on international work permits have some Aspen businesses worried that it could be tough to find adequate staffing come ski season. J-1 visas, among the suspended permits, typically bring hundreds of young foreigners to work in shops and restaurants in Aspen and Snowmass each year.
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