Ski resort opening plans seem to be changing faster than the seasons. “We’re making the best plans that we can now, but they might change. We all know that they’re probably going to change,” said John Hammond, president and COO of Sugarbush Resort in Warren. “But we are working together round the clock to make sure this is going to be a safe, fun season for everybody.”
Hammond was one of three panelists who spoke at a virtual panel called “How Vermont's Ski Areas Are Open for Business and Ideal Distancing,” hosted by the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum on September 24. Joining Hammond to answer public questions about the fate of the approaching ski season was Bill Stritzler, managing director and owner of Smuggler’s Notch Resort, and Bill Cairns, president of Bromley Mountain Resort.
When asked about ski school protocols for the winter, Hammond informed the public that Sugarbush canceled all its seasonal ski school programs. “We didn’t feel comfortable saying at Sugarbush that we’re the ones grouping the customers together, with 80% of customers coming from outside Vermont,” said Hammond. “We’re basically just doing privates and getting people’s health information online ahead of time.”
As for child care at Sugarbush, Hammond reported that the resort has reopened its day care facility for local children; that is, children who are enrolled month to month. “As of right now we’re not planning to open up the day care for walk-in guests,” he said.
At Smuggler’s Notch, ski school programs will still be an option. “We’re going to continue the ski school program as long as we can,” said Stritzler, who explained that only programs for younger children have been canceled. “We dropped the programs for 3- and 4-year-olds, and for programs in age 5 we are asking the mom and dad to be present so they can handle the child.” The idea behind canceling programs for the youngest ages was born out of a concern that ski instructors might risk coronavirus exposure when handling small children after a fall or a lost ski.
Bromley Resort is not running ski school programs at all. “You just can’t bundle children together from out of state,” said Cairns. However, Cairns encourages families to sign up for family private lessons. “We’re reengineering the ski experience. Skiing will be just as fun as it ever is, it’s just going to look a little different.”
All three resort representatives said their back-country skiing policies won’t change in response to the pandemic. “That’s not an issue that we’re dwelling on. We don’t have a firm policy,” said Cairns. “We’re going to go with the same policies we had last year,” said Hammond. “We’re going to continue to partner with everyone,” said Stritzler.
Ski patrol, however, is subject to change. As the resort representatives pointed out, ski patrol facilities are not grand palaces. They are small, enclosed spaces. At Bromley, an indoor space previously used as a kids’ center has been converted into an employee space, where ski patrollers can go to be inside at a healthy distance. “The kids’ center space acts like an accordion that can take in employees,” said Cairns.
At Sugarbush, ski patrollers will do more of their work outside. “There might be a lot more outside-the-clinic treatment,” said Hammond. “The level of care is not going to change, it’s just where they’re going to be doing it.”
There were also questions about ski racing programs. Some were concerned about the number of people that ski racing attracts to the mountains. However, Hammond was not worried about racing as a source of increased virus transmission. “It’s a great activity,” he said. “You’re not competing against another person, you’re racing against yourself and the time. So, talk about socially distant. It works out perfectly.”
Hammond only expects to constrain racing venues on weekends and holidays, when the resort is generally packed. He also reminded participants that there are broader racing restrictions now. “You can’t have more than 100 participants. There’s some different boxes being set up. All of us are trying to keep up with all of the guidelines,” said Hammond.
In fact, all three resorts are hoping that this year will bring a more even flow of business to their mountains. In other words, they want a steady flow of people to come throughout the week rather than a huge mass of people coming only for the weekends. For instance, Stritzler expects that more students will come to Smuggler’s Notch during the week this winter, as many students are working from home on Wednesdays.
When asked how the resorts are going to deal with out-of-state guests, all three resort representatives pointed to one new phenomena: Because of the pandemic, out-of-staters are coming to stay. “There are a lot of people who’ve been here since March 14. Their plates might be white, but they’re Valley residents just like the rest of us,” said Hammond.
For those visitors who aren’t living in Vermont full time, however, resorts are relying on the honor system. When a visitor is asked if they’ve been quarantining for example, “It’s hard to tell if they’re telling the truth or not,” said Hammond. “We’re counting on the personal accountability of the skiers.”
Cairns hopes that visitors will follow health protocols and internalize this mantra: “Don’t be the reason we lose our season.”
Another pandemic-related change people can expect to see at Sugarbush this season is an influx of domestic workers. “We’re getting more college students applying for jobs, since they are learning remotely,” said Hammond. “We’re feeling optimistic about the jobs. We want to employee Vermonters and get people to work locally.”
Finally, skiers should anticipate busing changes. Right now, Sugarbush is following busing capacity guidelines from the state. “A month ago, it was only 50%. Now it’s 75% capacity on buses. That’s what we’ll be running with,” said Hammond.