The new lockdowns in California couldn’t have come at a worse time for Mammoth Mountain.
As the company headed into the key holiday season, bookings were strong for December. But while the mountain is open and operating, county health officials banned all hotels and private rentals from housing leisure travelers through at least Dec. 26. And the vast majority of Mammoth’s visitors stay overnight.
We spoke with Mark Brownlie, President of Mammoth Mountain and Regional COO for Alterra Mountain Company, about how the new lockdown is impacting Mammoth, how the early season business has gone and how summer turned out.
In addition, we asked him for an update on current business trends at Big Bear Mountain Resort, which is also owned by Alterra and relies less on overnight lodging.
The state of California has issued the new restrictions in some regions due to hospital ICU capacity becoming strained.
Several days after Mammoth was impacted by the new restrictions, the California side of Lake Tahoe also moved to the more restrictive tier which makes leisure travel off limits there as well.
The good news is that at least the California resorts impacted by the new lockdowns remain open for skiing and snowboarding. In Europe, resorts in France, Italy and Germany have shut or have put severe restrictions in place through the Christmas holidays. In Switzerland, however, resorts remain open.
Can you just tell me what this new lodging lockdown means to Mammoth?
Mammoth Mountain President Mark Brownlie: It means a lot of things obviously. The first thing that it really means to me personally is that it has an impact on the local economy, but most importantly on specific jobs within all of the lodging in our community. That’s the real concern to start with is the actual workforce and what they’ve been through since March 15, since we originally shut down. We were closed up until June 18 and then reopened through the summer safely. And now we’re back into the state lockdown, which definitely has an impact on that workforce again.
And then obviously the follow-on effects with all the ancillary businesses in town as well as at Mammoth. And that’s ski rentals, food and beverage, etc.
We also have a specific lockdown on food and beverage, which has been through that roller coaster ride throughout the summer where we’ve been at outdoor only dining, then 50% occupancy, and then 25% occupancy, and right now all of the restaurants in the county are only able to do to-go, pickup, and delivery with no outside dining.
How was business this season so far before this lodging lockdown?
Mark Brownlie: We were having a great season. We had a very successful opening week or two and we definitely saw that a lot of people had pent-up demand for snow sports as well as coming to the mountains generally.
We had a very strong Thanksgiving holiday compared to previous years, with obviously a lot of different COVID mitigation protocols and measures specifically at the resort and within the community with regard to social distancing and mask usage. But we definitely had a strong start and a lot of demand.
And how did your December bookings look lodging-wise?
Mark Brownlie: Very strong. We had a very successful November, as I said, and we definitely were on pace to have a great December.
With lodging canceled and advanced ticket sales – did you have to refund those?
Mark Brownlie: Yes, we have a very fair and robust cancellation and refund policy for tickets as well as accommodations. So straight off the bat what we did is we started that refund program with regard to lodging and anything else through our call centers for this immediate period.
But obviously, we don’t know what the future holds. Will the lockdown go for longer than the 21 days? Or by some sort of good fortune for people’s health, will the ICU capacity changes here within a week? We just don’t know for those longer-term bookings.
We gave those guests the option to cancel, refund, rain check, book into another part of the year. But also, we said if they wanted to keep their reservation that were on the books after this initial 21-day period, we would do that and we would work with them to refund or do something closer to the time.
We’re really trying to make sure we’re being as flexible as possible during these vague and challenging times with our guests.
And do you have a sense of what people are opting for?
Mark Brownlie: We’ve had a large number of cancellations. That’s definitely had a huge impact on our December bookings. We’re just waiting to see what happens in the next 10 days with regard to the four-week rolling period of available ICU beds.
This must have impacted your staffing levels. How do you handle that?
Mark Brownlie: We’re back into what we were in April with trying to assign our staff different work if they’re impacted in those businesses that now have no associated business or revenue. We are also working with all the local community benefit programs as well as the state unemployment and economic programs.
In preparing for this season, what sort of adjustments did Mammoth make to food and beverage, ski school and retail?
Mark Brownlie: With all the COVID mitigation measures that you see everywhere with regard to contactless payments, mask usage, and screens, we definitely had to have those all summer. We were able to run successfully through summer.
Specifically with retail, we’ve also been working within the percentage capacities at whatever tier we’ve been in, 25% or 50% occupancy. With regard to ski school, we went to private only programs so that we have members of the same household in lessons and made sure we controlled that.
And obviously with regard to food and beverage, we’ve been either outdoor dining only, indoor at a certain percentage, and we really try to do more of the grab and go, innovative offerings. We re-concepted a restaurant from sushi to be a ramen restaurant, which has proven to be very successful for takeout and delivery.
We’ve put delivery options in a large number of our restaurants for the local community. And we’ve really activated what we would call our snow beach fronts outside of the lodges with different seating areas, as well as grab-and-go offerings. Those range from food truck concepts to developing an app for ordering over our Ikon app.
And then most importantly, our main principles have been having safety as a priority and empathy for our people. And really, the safety aspect for us is really having very detailed onboarding and staff training with regard to COVID mitigation, specifically within those business units and those departments.
And one positive that has come out of this as we’ve been working to open during the summer and then into the winter is our improved and strengthened relationships with our town and our public health department. We already had good relationships but they have improved even more through us collaborating and partnering to actually figure out how to operate and keep the community prosperous and healthy.
One of the things that we heard from a lot of other sports, whether it’s biking or surfing or skateboarding, is that there has been a surge in new participants. Were you guys seeing new customers coming up, whether it was in the summer or in your winter reservations?
Mark Brownlie: In winter we’ve had strong visitation from our Ikon passholders so far. I don’t have specifics on how many of those are new.
We haven’t been open long enough to say if we’d had a big surge in beginners. Usually that’s driven by the holidays and when we get significant snowfall.
But for the summer, I’d say in the community as well as the mountain, we saw a lot of new visitors to the area. We saw a lot of participation in mountain biking and on our Via Ferrata (guided climbing adventures).
And you had mentioned summer was strong. Was it comparable to last year’s summer?
Mark Brownlie: For general visitation, yes. With specific businesses just due to having outdoor dining only and those restrictions, we didn’t have as high of volume through those businesses. But with regard to visitation, yes, we had good visitation throughout the whole summer and comparable to the previous year.
The one thing that did impact us for a period of time was the Creek Fire in the back of Mammoth Mountain for almost six weeks. So, there was a lot of smoke in the area. And then we also had a shutdown due to that fire as well, a forest service shutdown.
In addition to the COVID issue, we had Mother Nature playing some games with us as well.
A lot of our readers are executives at the brand level. Is there any insight you can give us into how retail has held up?
Mark Brownlie: We’ve obviously had the restrictions on numbers inside of our retail shops. But when we were open and we weren’t affected by fire or capacity restrictions, we had a very successful retail summer that was comparable at certain periods of time with last year. Logo wear, that type of retail, was very buoyant.
And definitely as we opened for winter, we had decent hardgoods sales, not huge. We had very good demo rentals because we had early season conditions. Retail definitely started out the year being a very strong business unit performer.
But like I said, currently heading into the Christmas holiday period, it is really hard to say what the trend is given the circumstances. But it definitely started off in the right direction and with a lot of momentum.
As far as Big Bear, is there anything interesting going on there?
Mark Brownlie: They had a very strong summer as well, with one of the most successful bike seasons ever.
And then as we’ve opened for winter, they opened with very high demand and we’re still seeing that with the day visitor heading towards Bear.
I don’t know if you saw in Governor Newsom’s presentation when he rolled out the new lockdown, he really made a point of saying we’re supporting outdoor recreation because we believe it’s beneficial to people’s mental health. And he actually called out sledding and snowboarding and skiing as something you should participate in. So, Bear’s definitely situated to support that direction especially since they are a drive-to market.
When you look ahead, how are you planning for the rest of the season?
Mark Brownlie: Well, we have many different plans. Alterra Mountain Company has a massive COVID Playbook.
We started with the overarching guidance of the National Ski Areas Association, which we worked with to help formulate for the industry. And then we developed our own very comprehensive Alterra Mountain Company Playbook.
And then our individual resorts across the entire enterprise have their specific resort operating plans. And those plans have many different As, Bs, and Cs for different capacities and different restrictions. So, we have a multitude of plans.
We’re really focused on being sustainable right now during a period of time when we do have an impact to our visitation. And being sustainable means operating the ski area and making sure that we are being efficient in that operation so that we can take the dimmer switch and ramp it up as soon as we get into the next phase of whatever the state decides to do.
We’ve worked on them all through the summer. In the summer, we adapted and adjusted based on what was happening and we learned a lot from that. So, it doesn’t take us very much to turn that dial and ramp up or ramp down. Ramping down is not something we enjoy but ramping up is something we’re used to with the seasonality and volatility of our business with weather.
Do you see any light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine coming soon?
Mark Brownlie: Yes, for sure. We’re very optimistic about the new year and the scaling out of the vaccine. We’re 100 percent optimistic on having a great 2021.
Hopefully, we’ll bounce back strongly.
Mark Brownlie: Skiing is one of those sports, you know, you’re outside for the activity, you’re sitting on a chair lift that has lots of physical distancing, there’s wind.
Personally speaking, the first time I went skiing this season, it was like a breath of fresh air, and the weight of the world comes off your shoulders when you get that Mammoth breeze in your face as you’re swishing around.
I think we really have one of the better outdoor recreation sports and activities that people can participate in during these challenging times.
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