One way to look at the ski and ride season ahead is to think of it as a weather prediction: “Mostly sunny with a chance of rain.” The “r” word isn’t something we like to think about, but coming off a year that was anything but normal, we should be prepared.
Most resort management teams and presumably most of us were hopeful the worst of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic was substantially in the rearview mirror. The arrival of variants and a U.S. vaccination rate currently at 55 percent has made it clear the over-used phrase “new normal” is what we can expect this year at ski resorts across America.
Still, the ski industry rose to the occasion last winter and it turned out the rules and regulations imposed were perhaps a bit of a pain in the fanny pack, but actually let all of us safely enjoy the sport.
“What we learned last year is that the resorts were incredibly creative and resilient with how they dealt with the pandemic,” Ski Utah President Nathan Rafferty told OnTheSnow.com. “They came up with innovations to enhance guest experience while keeping their patrons and employees safe. After weathering the challenges from last year with a successful result, we hope 2021-2022 will be similarly successful. We don’t anticipate it will be as restrictive as last year.”
Learnings from last winter
Many of the practices that became routine last winter will stay that way, at least as the season gets underway, although one of the one more controversial requirements — making advance online reservations — seems to be fading out with many resorts. Those of you holding Epic Passes, for example, likely will be pleased with the announcement from Vail Resorts’ Rob Katz eliminating the reservation system in his company’s 37 resorts. He wrote to pass holders:
“For anyone worried that the absence of a reservation system will lead to longer lift lines, we have extensive learnings from this season around lift loading efficiencies and are implementing new strategies to materially reduce wait times.” Vail Resorts also plans to quadruple the company’s customer service staff to avoid long waits on phone calls.
One change from last season that isn’t going away for those skiing and riding at Alterra’s 15 resorts (think IKON pass) is that contact-free buying and mobile technology “is accelerating as fast as we can put money and people power into it,” Alterra President Rusty Gregory told the Colorado Sun. That builds on Alterra’s mobile app from last season that included some 40-plus eateries where skiers could book tables and purchase food for ski-up pick-up leading to picnics on decks and snow.
Once again: Know before you go
Virtually every ski resort in North America is working out of the same playbook and it’s one that makes it much easier this time out for guests to “know before we go.” They all put it rather simply as the season rolls up opening days: Each resort is following local county health guidelines as well as those in place from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
“COVID continues to be extremely dynamic and we will respond to evolving pandemic circumstances and federal and local government health requirements with appropriate measures,” POWDr Chief Operating Officer Tim Brennwald told us, noting as most resort operators have, the number one priority of POWDr’s 11 resorts is the safety of guests and employees. “Thankfully, skiing remains one of the safest things people can do given the outdoor environment and the ability to social distance and we are excited for the season ahead.”
Molly Mahar, president of Ski Vermont, makes a good case for skiing and riding in the Green Mountain State this winter. Here’s what she told Onthesnow.com: “Outside is a COVID-safe place to be. Vermont, over and above its variety of resorts and terrain, snowfall, world-class snowmaking and easy access, has been a popular destination thanks to the state’s proactive pandemic response. Many Vermont resorts have invested in technology and systems to enable guests to purchase lift tickets online. They have also invested in fire pits, windbreaks and outdoor heaters making outdoor spaces a more comfortable option for taking breaks. To complement this, guests also will find more grab-and-go choices for lunch or snacks, making flow-through in the food and beverage areas more efficient and enabling guests to spend more time outside.”
Masks are still in vogue; follow the rules
One of the most talked-about issues in the ski world and everywhere else is “masking up.” Those rules will be all over the map in ski resorts this winter, but will mostly be enforced indoors, particularly in areas where COVID remains on the rise. Still, the best advice is to always have a mask or two in your parka pocket. Vermont’s Killington, for example, will not require guests who are fully vaccinated to wear a mask either outdoors or indoors. But, unvaccinated guests need to wear masks indoors.
A twist in the mask mandate is in effect in Summit County, Colo., where all children ages 2-11 must wear masks in indoor group settings such as childcare, camps and schools as they cannot yet be vaccinated. All persons, regardless of vaccination status, are required to wear face coverings while in public, indoor spaces at Mammoth Mountain in the California High Sierra. This includes base lodges, ticket offices, retail stores, gondolas, and more.
Ski town residents have a responsibility, too
It’s not only resort management that has a responsibility to help ensure a long, safe season. A current Aspen Times editorial exhorts those residing and employed in the world-famous resort community: “We need to remain diligent in protecting ourselves, our neighbors and our guests by following CDC guidance in wearing masks indoors and at large public gatherings, staying at home if feeling ill and getting tested. Even more importantly, go get vaccinated if you aren’t because otherwise this pandemic will linger and more people will get sick or, worse, die, and life will not return to normal anytime soon.”
The Times Editorial Board also suggested guests may not be aware they need to click to the county website for current guidelines. They make an excellent point by suggested making sure lodge and hotel concierges, front desk personnel, and property management companies know to tell their guests that “the county’s website is the center of the COVID universe here.” Good advice for ski town residents everywhere.
Routt County epidemiologist Nicole Harty took even a tougher stance by telling the Steamboat Pilot, “if showing any symptoms of congestion, headache, fever, sore throat, body aches or nausea, people should take a COVID-19 test. Please get tested and assume it is COVID until proven otherwise.”
In another move that may or may not become a trend in ski towns and resorts, Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe, the closest ski area to Reno, announced that all employees must be vaccinated before the start of the season. A big incentive is a rise in the Nevada minimum wage of $9 to $15.. Year-round employees will see a 5 percent rise. Also making the same decision: Aspen-Snowmass and Arapahoe Basin, Colo., and Mt. Bohemia, Mich. No doubt, there will be many more to come.
One more of those early “abundance of caution” decisions have been announced by Snow Industries America (SIA), the trade association for retailers and suppliers. They have canceled the much-anticipated fall “Snowbound” ski festivals in both Denver and Boston. “We felt that even with mask mandates and proof of vaccine or a negative COVID test requirement, we could not guarantee a completely risk-free environment for winter enthusiasts of all ages,” SIA President Nick Sergent said.
Riding in the sky: Be flexible and patient
If getting there is half the fun, the airlines and the Federal Government are deciding what flying fun will be, at least through mid-season. Scott Mayerowitz, the Internet’s Points Guy makes his own crucial point: “Most of all, be flexible and patient.”
Dan Landson of Southwest Airlines told On The Snow the best way to understand what his carrier is trying to accomplish is by visiting Southwest.com. “You’ll see a complete breakdown of the Southwest Promise including our 24/7 efforts to put our Customers and Employees health and well-being top of mind. This includes abiding by the federal mask mandate and a COVID-19 acknowledgment during the booking process.” The same is true for all airline websites as they have explicit COVID information. Don’t wait until you are in a TSA line before knowing the rules.
The TSA mask mandate is in effect until least through Jan. 18, 2022, and it means wearing masks aboard flights, in airports, and on trains, buses, and other forms of public transportation. TSA is imposing stiff fines for first-offenders between $500 and $1,000 and it escalates to $3,000 for repeat violations.
Just to be on the safer side, suggests Megan Montcrief, chief marketing officer at Squaremouth, a travel comparison website, “purchase trip insurance 14-21 days out. But, be sure and get a ‘cancel for any reason policy as they are the only ones that cover COVID-related issues.” Long-time ski writer and travel advocate Charlie Leocha says booking your ski trip with a travel agent is wise this season as “they can book, plan, alert you to COVID rules and disruptions and rebook if your flight is canceled.”
Use your passes across the pond — but COVID rules vary by country
What’s the story if you want to ski or ride internationally, perhaps taking advantage of visiting those enticing resorts included on the multi-resort passes this year? The answer is “more of the same.” Dan Markam at Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada, confirmed to us the Provincial Government currently mandates masks to be worn in all indoor spaces. Physical distancing and obeying of foot traffic management signage as you move through indoor and outdoor areas is required. The rules have been relaxed slightly for flying into Canada (actually relaxed a lot as you couldn’t even go there at all for year). You will need a passport to fly to or transit through any Canadian airport. Interestingly, a passport is not necessary if arriving by land or boat. You must carry proof of citizenship, however, and a photo ID.
Want to ski across the pond on your Epic or Ikon passes? First, understand you will need a negative COVID test result within three days of returning to the United States from anywhere in Europe. Otherwise, you’ll have an extended ski trip without the skiing. France requires a vaccination certificate or proof of a negative test three days before arrival. A mandated European Union (EU) app must be downloaded that lets authorities contact trace. A mask is required on all public transport within the French Alps as is one meter (three feet) of social distancing.
Austria’s rules require a vaccination certificate within 270 days of the second dose (a bit over three months) or a negative test within 72 hours of arrival (self-test, 24 hours). Non-vaccinated visitors must quarantine for 10 days. Italy has similar requirements (including that EU app on your phone). Switzerland requires completion of an online TravelCheck to see if you may even enter the country in the first place. Consider packing a couple of home testing kits with you as they will be valid in most circumstances if the results are timely. They will save you time looking for testing sites and incurring too-long wait times for results. Kits run from $23 all the way up to $129 at U.S. drug store chains.
A few more guidelines from a variety of travel sources:
- Always check the official local and national government websites for rules and regulations, not relying on telephone receptionists or rumors. Further, check that the date listed on the information is current as regulations can change quickly.
- Got the vax? Carry a scan of it on your phone. The “Clear” app is free and very easy to use and show as proof. It wouldn’t hurt to carry the actual certificate with you in a safe place as a back-up, particularly overseas.
- Plan ahead on how you will deal with any family emergency (i.e., family member contracting COVID) that might come up during your ski trip).
- Plan to use airline travel often? Then consider enrolling in “Clear” to assure a faster entry through TSA checkpoints at many airports.
- Reserve rental cars early if you need them as may be scarce. Consider some of the smaller rental companies.
Finally, take seriously those words of The Points Guy: “Most of all be flexible and patient.” After all, it’s winter, so we ought to be able to chill.