Nearly a year later, ski industry still dealing with COVID-19 fallout
For nearly one year, ski resorts in California and Nevada have had to impose numerous restrictions that have impacted the mountain experience.
From the way skiers grab a bite to eat to moving employees up the mountain to perform operations, the industry — which, according to Ski California, generated an estimated $3.2 billion in economic output in 2018-19 — has been upended by COVID-19.
There is optimism at local resorts, however, and officials say that with a solid snowpack, and as long as restrictions continue to ease and capacity rules remain consistent, the industry should have a relatively strong end to the 2020-21 season.
“Lately, resorts have seen higher mid-week visitation than is typical, which is great for spreading people out,” said Ski California President Michael Reitzell. “Overall, however, with capacity constraints in compliance with state guidelines, visitation on any given day is less than it could be in a normal year. Our member resorts have also focused heavily on those who are at the resort to ski and ride. In other years, there are many people who visit resorts for other reasons, and they are not visiting this year.”
Reitzell added that season pass sales have been “very strong, but ancillary services such as food and beverage, lessons, and equipment rental have generally been down. While many mountains have taken a financial hit, Reitzell said that some resorts, particularly ones that don’t depend heavily on lodging, have actually seen an uptick in beginners renting equipment in an effort to get outdoors during recent stay-at-home orders.
“Overall, if we continue to receive snowfall that approaches normal levels, we feel confident that the industry can come away from this season feeling good about where we are financially, particularly given what we knew we were up against before the season began,” said Reitzell, who added there is hope within the industry that dining restrictions could be eased by season end. Other restrictions on resort capacity and uphill transportation, according to Reitzell, are expected to remain in place through the end of the season.
Perched along Tahoe’s West Shore, Homewood Mountain Resort has been able to make use of recent snowfall to spread guests out on its terrain, which General Manager Kevin Mitchell said should allow for quality skiing through the remained of the season. Homewood typically continues spinning lifts through mid-April.
“We have worked diligently over the past year to ensure our operations adhere to ever changing public health and safety guidelines, and appreciate the overwhelming support and cooperation we’ve had from our guests to the new policies and procedures that are in place,” said Mitchell. “The snow we’ve received to-date has given skiers and riders space to spread out, have fun and recreate outdoors, and we are confident we’ll be able to continue to offer a high quality experience through the end of the season.”
One of the area’s largest players, Vail Resorts, which operates Northstar California Resort, Heavenly and Kirkwood mountain resorts, announced in January that total skier visits have been down 16.6% compared to the prior season. Vail Resorts also reported in January that its season-to-date lift revenue was down 20.9% compared to the prior season; while on-mountain activities like ski school revenue were down 52.6% and dining revenue was down 66.2%.
“As expected, COVID-19 has had a significant negative impact on our 2020/2021 North American ski season-to-date results. Visitation across our North American resorts declined relative to prior year levels, primarily as a result of declines in visitation from non-pass, lift ticket purchases,” said Vail Resorts Chief Executive Officer Rob Katz in a report. “We expect these declines were primarily driven by reduced demand for destination visitation at our western resorts and COVID-19 related capacity limitations which were further impacted by snowfall levels that were well below average at our Colorado, Utah and Tahoe resorts through the holiday season.
“Consistent with our expectations, our ancillary lines of business saw material season-to-date revenue declines in excess of the declines in visitation as a result of the COVID-19 limitations and restrictions, particularly in food and beverage and ski school,” he continued. “Additionally, our lodging revenue is experiencing quarter-to-date declines relative to prior year that are similar to our first quarter of fiscal 2021.”
Katz added that Vail Resorts expects to see improved performance through the remainder of the season, as long as capacity restrictions remain stable. Vail Resorts announced its second quarter earnings on Thursday, but those figures were not available that morning.
The company operates more than 10,000 acres of terrain in the Tahoe area. The individual resorts don’t disclose ski visit numbers, according to Susan Whitman, communications manager for the Tahoe region.
In order to manage the number of guests on the mountain, Northstar, Kirkwood, and Heavenly have implemented a reservation system, which will remain in place through the remainder of the season.
“Our reservation system is an essential piece of our winter operating plan and helped us prepare by allowing us to cap the number of people on the mountain. It is a critical tool, which helps us manage access to help ensure our guests have the space they need to stay safe at our resorts,” said Whitman. “Capacity is managed daily and is based on a variety of factors, from conditions to terrain to local community impacts, to provide assurance to our guests that we will do our very best to minimize crowds at all times – be it a holiday weekend or a powder day.”
Similarly, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is also limiting visitation, and due to restrictions and the outbreak of COVID-19, Public Relations Director Liesl Hepburn said the mountains are generally selling about 70% fewer day tickets than in previous years.
“Thankfully, the skiing and riding experience has been relatively unaffected this season,” added Hepburn. “It seems to me that being able to get outside and go skiing these days has taken on a greater level of meaning, it feels more therapeutic than ever. We’ve also been really fortunate with recent snowfall, setting us up for a long spring skiing season.”
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows has reported 19 feet of snow, thus far. The resort has an annual average of roughly 400 inches of snow.
Though Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows has worked to limit visitation this season, Hepburn said parking continues to be an issue on busy days — a problem that has caused traffic delays on local roads and on Highway 89.
“The reason that parking lots have been filling so quickly is not because of high visitation, but that COVID-19 has changed how we get to the mountains this year. Fewer people are sharing rides outside their household, and they are less likely to use public transportation,” said Hepburn.
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows has also canceled or limited its transportation initiatives like POW Parking, Mountaineer, and supplemental park and ride trips.
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun, a sister publication to the Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-550-2643.
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