By Tiffany Montgomery | Originally Published September 29, 2021
The pandemic forced many companies to innovate, including snow resorts. And resorts are carrying over some of those improvements this year.
Last year at this time, the snow industry had no idea to what to expect for the winter season given much of the country was still in the grip of the pandemic.
But thanks to many hours of work by resort and ski area operators, who, led by the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), banded together to come up with detailed pandemic operating guidelines that were shared with local health officials.
The end result was that ski areas were able to stay open last season, with no major COVID shutdowns or outbreaks, and the snow industry ended up having a banner year.
According to the NSAA, the industry recorded its fifth best season on record with 59 million total skier and rider visits. The Pacific Northwest had its best season ever, and the Rocky Mountain region had its second best.
Overall, ski areas found that customers had more flexibility in their schedules because they were working remotely and many schools were virtual.
“What we found is that if a guest could not get a reservation on the weekend, they had the flexibility to ski mid-week,” said Kelly Pawlak, CEO of NSAA. “Or if they couldn’t get a reservation during the day, they had the flexibility to get out and take advantage of night skiing.”
“We had a good year,” said Mark Brownlie, COO of Alterra Mountain Company, which operates 15 resorts including Mammoth, Steamboat, Deer Valley and Big Bear. “The business was spread out with more mid-week visitation because of people’s new work schedules. I would say it wasn’t that different from a normal year apart from the indoor capacity limits and the lack of food and beverage operations at times indoors. But the skiing operation was relatively normal, except for the masks.”
At Alterra, the company has what it calls “COVID keepers,” said Brownlie.
“They range from virtual queuing systems for gondolas and lifts, as well as for rentals,” he said.
Some of the biggest innovation came in food operations, where customers could use an app to order food from the top of the chair lift and then pick up their food when they made it down the hill. The company also added food trucks at many resorts, expanded seating areas outside so people didn’t have to go inside the lodge, and added food delivery options.
Just as Alterra plan to keep many of those new features, other resorts do as well, Pawlak said. “A lot of ski areas are going to keep the cool stuff they built outdoors so people don’t have to go inside all the time,” she said. “That includes things like food trucks – that all went over really well.”
Many resorts also offered advance booking of rentals and even delivery of the rentals to hotels or lockers so when guests arrive everything is ready and waiting for them. At some Alterra resorts, guests could even add on items such as handwarmers, goggles and other gear that would also be ready in the locker.
“We have a variety of systems across the country that reduce lines,” Brownlie said. “In Big Bear, for example, there’s a virtual queuing system for rentals, where you plug your name into the app, and you go get a cup of coffee, and then come back and pick up your skis.”
Alterra’s Steamboat resort offered a similar system for the gondola at the base area. You get a virtual number, and you can go grab breakfast or go shopping, and then turn up when it’s your time, he said. “It really cuts down on the standing around time and waiting in line,” Brownlie said.
What’s interesting is that guests really liked many of the new innovations.
“The general trend for us as the season progressed was that our NPS scores became more positive throughout the company,” he said. (NPS, or Net Promoter Score, is a customer loyalty and satisfaction measurement used my many businesses.)
Seeing the success of some of those innovations has given Alterra the motivation to explore even more new technology, Brownlie said. The company is testing a system that allows guests to grab food and then walk out without having to stand in line and pay, ala certain Amazon stores.
“Our focus is on enhancing the guest experience, revolutionizing it,” he said. “That’s an example of building upon what our COVID learnings were.”
Kelly Pawlak of NSAA said many of her members tried new ways of doing business last year and saw positive results.
She said 62% of NSAA members required advance ticket sales last year, and 46% said they were going to continue next year.
“It not only cuts down on the hassle when you get there, but it allows operators to know how many people are going to show up,” she said. “It just reduces so many stress points. It ends up being a good experience not only for the guests but for the staff.”
Another positive outcome that came from the pandemic is that resorts were forced to communicate more with their guests.
“They almost had to over-communicate with their customers, just to make sure they were being safe and resorts did it in many ways – emails, apps, texts, or a combination of all of those things,” Pawlak said. “Phones at resorts also rang a lot more last year. Some ski areas had to scramble to put together enough people to answer the phones because guests had a lot of really important questions.”
She said that increased communication with guests will continue.
“We just found that guests need to ask all those questions, and the more information we can give them up front, the smoother their vacation is,” she said.
Increased communication was also a highlight at Alterra, including internally as the different resorts worked together to come up with operating procedures and share ideas and best practices.
“Communication improved and advanced as we worked more horizontally across our company, which is dispersed and has many unique brands,” he said. “A lot of teamwork came out of that.”
New Participants Decline
The only real downside to the robust season last winter was a drop in new participants, Pawlak said.
“Unfortunately, new participants were not our strong suit last year,” she said. “Our strong suit was lapsed skiers who had taken some time off and decided to come back out. And obviously, the season pass holders – they were out there, too.”
Pawlak thinks it was a little harder for beginning skiers because you had to be a bit savvy, especially with advanced ticket sales.
“If you waited until the last minute to book that ticket online, there may not have been any tickets left,” she said. “And maybe you don’t know the other options well enough to say, ‘Oh, Copper’s booked, maybe this other place will be good.’ The core skiers, they know the back entrance so to speak.”
As we head into the snow season this year, nobody knows what’s in store, of course. But both Pawlak and Brownlie said resorts now have an operating playbook that was developed last year that can be scaled up or down depending on the COVID conditions.
And with anything outdoors booming right now, there is a lot of optimism about the coming season.
“We’re having a great summer in all our resorts,” Brownlie said. “People want to recreate, they want to be with their families and they want to enjoy the outdoors,” he said. “And season pass sales and other indicators for the coming winter reflect that same consumer demand that we’re seeing for the summer.”
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