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Vail Resorts owner offers preview of a socially distanced ski season

Jay Hamburger / citynews@poarkrecord.com

Northstar California and Heavenly and Kirkwood mountain resorts owner Vail Resorts has offered a preview of what is anticipated to be the first-ever ski season in the era of social distancing, providing an early look at how the experience could change for skiers and snowboarders as the industry takes steps to guard against the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Rob Katz, the CEO of Colorado-based Vail Resorts and a powerful figure in the ski industry, addressed the topic during a recent call with Wall Street analysts. There has been widespread focus in the Tahoe area on the summer-tourism season, but only limited public discussions in any detail about the 2020-2021 ski season, which is scheduled to start in November. Vail Resorts and other operators in the U.S. are readying for a ski season with operations that will be altered in some fashion by the sickness.

Katz said the Vail Resorts properties in Australia, including in Perisher, will supply the company some guidance for the resorts in North America since, in the Southern Hemisphere, the ski season begins shortly. He said Vail Resorts continues to work on the details of the operations at Perisher as he explained “at this point they’ll certainly be a limitation on the total capacity of the resort, to ensure that we protect social distancing.” He said Vail Resorts is “very confident that we can provide a terrific experience for people who come.”

“That will give us some very unique insight that we’ll be able to use as we plan the North American ski season next year,” he said.

Katz said skiers and snowboarders are able to spread out through the slopes. Vail Resorts, then, must focus on what he described as “pinch points,” he said.

“Certainly inside of our restaurants, in 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,” Katz said.

He also spoke about the number of people at a mountain resort at any one time, describing how Vail Resorts is preparing for crowds. He said there are possible constraints on food and beverage services and the management of the network of lifts and gondolas. He said it is unclear what sort of travel demand there will be during the ski season, meaning a drop in skier and snowboarder numbers could dull the impact of any constraints.

“I think the two places that, you know, we’re certainly well aware of potential capacity constraints: one is on loading lifts and gondolas and to the extent that, you know, you’re maintaining social distancing between unrelated groups, right, that could limit the number of people, you know, that you can put on a chair, put on a gondola at any one time,” Katz said. “And that’s certainly something that, you know, will likely be a part of the plan in Australia. Unclear whether that will still be necessary next winter season, but that’s one, you know, potential constraint.”

He acknowledged there may be a drop in the number of skiers and snowboarders during the ski season, but he pledged that Vail Resorts would open the terrain at the mountain resorts as the firm would any other year unless there are mandated reasons.

“We are not going to pull back at all on what guests would expect when they come to one of our resorts,” Katz said. “It’s incumbent upon us, I think, to, to keep our mountains open when we can open them, based on weather conditions and, obviously, you know, restrictions from health or whatever, you know, COVID-type things. But apart from that, no, we do open our resorts and we do open our terrain. And we want people who come to get the full experience … and that’s something we are going to do for next year,” Katz said.

He described that Vail Resorts continued to operate with all the slopes open during the recession more than a decade ago even as skier and snowboarder numbers dropped. Katz said a larger drop could occur in the upcoming ski season than during the earlier recession.

“If you look back to like the ’08-’09 recession, no, we maintained, you know, full terrain, full resorts open, even though we had, you know, lower demand. Now it’s possible that with COVID we could see even lower demand. … But we think we can absolutely still be profitable, you know, once, once we get into the season,” Katz said.

The Katz comments were some of the most extensive made publicly by a leading figure in the ski industry regarding the next ski season. They were made nearly three months after the 2019-2020 ski season abruptly ended several weeks early as the mountain resorts closed amid the spread of the novel coronavirus. The impact of the early closure of the Tahoe resorts rocked the economy.


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