Most ski resorts have only been open for a few weeks and they’re still learning what works and what doesn’t during a pandemic.
It’s crucial for resorts to figure things out with the peak of the season approaching during the holidays. Social distancing, how — or if — people can safely gather inside to eat and drink, and reservation systems, are just a few of the issues facing resort staff and guests alike.
Take Alex Kravetz. He lives in Denver, and purchased an Ikon pass thinking he wouldn’t need reservations. Ikon competitor Epic, owned by Vail Resorts, announced in late summer that it would require reservations at all of its North American resorts. Alterra, which owns the Ikon pass, said it wouldn’t.
But as the season unfolds, resorts are making the decision to require reservations – even for passholders. For example, Winter Park announced this week that everybody will need reservations, reversing its earlier stance.
“We’ve had strong early season demand for skiing and riding … and it quickly became apparent that we’d need to do more to manage visitation throughout the season,” Jen Miller, a spokesperson for Winter Park, said in a statement.
Reservations at resorts are filling up fast, but there can still be crowds
Spots at Colorado resorts are selling out fast for weekends and holidays.
“The minute or the day or the week those reservation systems open, all the weekends through January and February are already booked,” said Kravetz. “[It] makes it just really challenging for people that don’t have the ability to go during the week.”
Resort operators have said more spots will be made available as more terrain opens up.
Reservation systems aren’t the only headache. At Winter Park, the season started with one long gondola line snaking through the base area.
“We were thinking a single line versus stacked up next to each other would be easier to manage when in fact that was not the case,” Miller said in an interview.
The gondola line got so long it started to merge with other lift lines, leading to confusion, Miller said. After the first weekend, the resort decided to reconfigure the line, using ropes and paint in the snow to show guests where to stand.
People have lots of questions and concerns. It's not always easy to answer them
Resort staff are also learning that it’s harder than they anticipated to enforce COVID-19 protocols. People aren’t always thinking about their mask when they get done with a run.
“They’re not used to having to keep it on all the time when they’re not skiing or riding. Some of it’s just a gentle reminder,” Miller said.
The steps resorts are taking to keep people safe mean customers have a lot more questions. That creates a different set of problems.
Vail Resorts’ social media feeds are full of complaints from people that can’t get help with things like how to get a refund, or how to pick up their pass. Wait times on the company’s online chat function can be hours long. Some customers say they never get through at all.
Vail CEO Rob Katz apologized in a recent letter to customers. He said the call center volume increased fourfold this year, overwhelming capacity.
“It is a huge miss on our part,” Katz wrote. “I wish I could say it will all improve overnight, but candidly, this is going to take some time to get up and running.”
How Loveland Ski Area is making adjustments as they go
At Loveland Ski Area, small tweaks have helped smooth things out ahead of the holidays, said John Sellers, a spokesperson.
“The couple weeks after Christmas are usually some of the busiest weeks of the season. It'll be a good test for us,” Sellers said. “We’ve learned a lot in the young season, so we think we’re prepared and well-staffed and ready to deal with the little bit larger crowds.”
For example, the resort has a reservation system for rentals this year to keep crowds from forming at rental shops during peak hours. But people don’t always show up at their appointed time, Sellers said.
“We're learning that people are kind of booking times and then … showing up whenever, which can be a challenge,” he said. “We've had to get a little creative with our booking. We've learned that we need to leave some open time slots.”
A lack of snow has been an added hurdle for resorts this year, according to Sellers. He’s hoping Loveland will have additional lifts open by next week.
“Terrain openings have been a little bit slower than normal, so we've had to really pace ourselves in terms of opening things up,” he said.