The scheduled start of the Colorado ski season is only about three months away – and with snow falling on the tops of nearby peaks just this week, it’s hard not to wonder what a winter on the slopes is going to look like during a pandemic.
But to get an idea of what it might be like to go skiing in these strange times, just ask the people who have already been on the snow in the middle of this pandemic.
In Australia, some ski mountains have been open since June, albeit at 50% capacity.
“The whole thing was just a really really novel experience,” said Anto Sweetapple, who went skiing at Thredbo Resort in the Australian state of New South Wales. “It was a really pleasant experience because the crowds weren’t there.”
Sweetapple said many aspects of the on-mountain experience had changed. For example, a ban on riding lifts with strangers and the presence of “COVID marshals” who monitored lift lines to make sure people kept six feet apart.
Sweetapple’s experience on the slopes gives a glimpse into some of the inevitable challenges that ski resorts in North America are planning for this winter. To help settle some of their uncertainty, U.S. ski operators, including Aspen-Snowmass, have been calling resorts down under for advice.
Colin Hackworth, CEO of the Australian Ski Areas Association, said the biggest change this year was a new reservation system.
“The ski lift companies regulate the amount of people which come to the mountain, Hackworth said. “And the way to do that is to restrict the number of lift tickets that you sell. And so people need to plan in advance and need to go and buy a lift ticket online. Even if you have a season’s pass, you need to book a spot.”
Vail Resorts already introduced a reservation system for its mountains, and Aspen-Snowmass has teased the idea of doing the same here. Katie Ertl, Aspen Skiing Company’s vice president of mountain operations, said advice from Australia is helping provide a roadmap for what that system might look like.
Ertl said she has been in contact with a handful of Australian resorts, mostly learning about reservation systems.
When a new reservation system was rolled out in Australia, some customers waited more than 12 hours for their turn to lock down tickets. Thredbo itself admits that the process did not go as smoothly as planned, due to a technological overload.
“We had four times the demand on our website,” said Caroline Brauer, Thredbo’s director of brand and marketing. “We had 38,000 people trying to access our reservation system to get their lift passes. And our system just didn’t cope.”
Brauer’s advice to resorts in this hemisphere is to make sure software can handle volume.
“I would recommend that every North American resort really looks at their systems and ensures that it can cope with the demand if you’re faced with a similar situation,” Brauer said.
But even if reservations go according to plan, Hackworth said plenty is out of resorts’ hands.
“It doesn't matter how well prepared your ski resort may be to operate,” he said. “You are at the whim of your government and of your health authorities.”
Australian resorts had to navigate that in July and August, when surging cases in some areas left them on edge waiting for the latest on state health restrictions. Those restrictions didn’t shut down the lifts, but they changed so many other parts of a mountain getaway. Sweetapple said it was strange going to a bar that was only about a tenth full.
“From a social point of view, I think everyone just sort of hunkered down in their own lodges rather than going out as much,” he said.
Some resort towns have seen limited business with capacity restrictions on the mountains, and others have suffered even more. Falls Creek and Mount Hotham both closed after less than a week of skiing, leaving nearby businesses with a severely shortened tourist season.
Those mountains, both owned by Vail Resorts, were shut amid surging cases in the Australian state of Victoria, although local governments did not mandate their closure.
“It's fair to say there's been economic devastation across a wide range of businesses in the Australian ski industry this year,” Hackworth said.
As far as the on-mountain experience goes, Sweetapple cited a silver lining to the capacity limits – skiers can enjoy plenty of untouched powder with less traffic on the slopes.
“You could just do big jet turns everywhere and not have to worry too much about people coming in sideways,” he said.
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