Expect ski industry incentives to deepen as COVID-19 pandemic ravages economy
|Stuart Winchester||Mar 29|| 1|
If you haven’t bought a pass yet, sit tight while everyone figures this one out
With the economy in freefall and the feel-good spring ski season suddenly axed, selling ski passes right now can make you feel like you’re trying to hawk pagers on the sidewalk outside of the Apple store.
On Wednesday, Vail became the first of the large ski companies to acknowledge this, emailing passholders that the company was pushing spring deadlines for auto-renewal charges and the best deals on Epic passes until May. The letter, signed from Vail Resorts Chief Marketing Officer Kirsten Lynch, indicates that more incentives may be coming: “…we are committed to identifying an approach that acknowledges this past season and retains your loyalty for the future,” she wrote, promising more information “by the end of April.”
While whatever they come up with will likely not be enough to appease Angry Ski Bro, it will in all likelihood be appealing to those of us still fortunate enough to be able to afford skiing next year. Alterra will of course likely follow, though they have yet to even cede this season, let alone discuss the next. Boyne got ahead of everyone and pushed the normally constricted deadline for their New England passes out to April 30 before they’d even shut their mountains down. New York’s three ORDA mountains – Belleayre, Gore, and Whiteface – pushed the best-price deadline for their three-area Ski 3 pass from April 22 to Aug. 12.
Later on the same day that Vail made their announcement, Magic became the first independent Northeastern mountain that I’m aware of to similarly flex to the moment, announcing an extension of their early-bird pass pricing from April 15 to June 15. The note, from mountain President Geoff Hatheway, also promised that they would announce lower pass prices on April 15. Magic already has one of the most creative pass schedules in the industry, and, when you consider the Freedom Pass benefit*, they are way ahead of most independent ski areas in the Northeast in creating the kind of value that can help them stay conscious in a fistfight with Vail’s $599 Northeast Value Pass. Magic’s season pass page now also explicitly indicates that skiers will be able to add on an Indy Pass “at a significant discount” when it goes on sale Sept. 1, confirming that Magic not only renewed its Indy Pass deal, but is sinking more deeply into the relationship.
I’m sure other ski areas have pushed out their deadlines or dropped their prices – please let me know of any you are aware of. With nearly 200 ski areas in the region, it’s easy to overlook some.
*I have indications from an industry source that the Freedom Pass may be in trouble of disbanding. I will update this as I learn more.
When COVID-19 is just one of the things that kills you
Ski Blandford, one of four small to mid-sized ski areas rising just off of state highway 23 in Massachusetts, became the first mountain in the Northeast to announce that it will not open for the 2020-21 season.
This is disturbing on a couple of levels. First, while the announcement did not explicitly blame the COVID early-shutdown wave and concomitant revenue loss for forcing the decision, there is almost no way it wasn’t a factor. A well-connected source within the independent ski world recently told me that most small ski areas don’t turn a profit until mid-March. This forced closure wiped out that key late-season revenue, a reality compounded by the fact that what would have been a cash-printing snowstorm dropped on the shuttered ski area last week.
Second, Ski Blandford was considered a case study in how small mountains could adapt to the megapass era without getting sucked into the lost ski areas black hole. Larger neighbor Butternut had purchased Ski Blandford in 2017 to resuscitate the 465-foot bump after 80 years of ownership and declining investment by the Springfield Ski Club. They then made substantial investments to improve the lifts and snowmaking system. Together with Otis Ridge, the three formed a mini-conglomerate that, with their cheap passes, strong local followings, and ability to share resources, seemed poised to thrive over the long term. This closure suggests that scale isn’t always enough.
Third, Butternut owner Jef Murdock had bought Ski Blandford with the specific intent of keeping it open. This was not some disinterested owner, but someone who knew how to successfully operate in the very specific Western Massachusetts market.
From a skier’s point of view, ski areas can seem like cash vacuums, perfectly designed from the ticket window to the rental shed to the cafeteria to transfer money from their wallets to the resort’s money vaults in some secret sub-lodge chamber. In reality, most mountains are operating more like that dude who decided to walk a tightrope between the tops of the twin towers, precariously balanced and always one strong wind gust from catastrophe.
There are echoes here of much-mourned Brodie, the mid-sized Massachusetts ski area purchased and then shuttered by neighbor Jiminy Peak at the turn of this century. The property eventually went up for sale, though its deed prohibited re-development of the 1,250-vertical-foot mountain as a ski area. It is unclear if this restriction would have been transferred to any subsequent buyers, and I’m uncertain whether the property ever sold.
That a ski area as large and naturally suited to skiing as Brodie sits abandoned nearly two decades after closing underscores the imperative of keeping whatever ski areas remain open. As it is, there are only about a dozen ski areas in Massachusetts, and it is nearly impossible to cut new ones.
I hope there is a creative solution that can resurrect Ski Blandford, a small but vital ski area that has served its community since the Great Depression. Perhaps the Schaefers, with their aggressive money-pumping fix-it-up posture, are interested in a third in-state mountain to bolster their Berkshire East-Catamount tandem. Perhaps Blandford is better suited to the Ascutney model of low-key, non-profit, volunteer-driven community center.
It is likely that this will not be the only small ski area shoved off the gangplank by a combination of COVID-19 and a mediocre winter. The federal relief package passed last week by Congress does include relief for small businesses, and Blandford’s owners no doubt considered this forthcoming aid when making their announcement, but the fact is that the forced early closures are very likely the least of the damage COVID-19 will inflict. With millions now out of work, early pass sales – crucial revenue to bridge the offseason – are likely to plummet. Even with a huge congressional stimulus, no one knows how long this shutdown of virtually the entire economy will last or when workers will recover enough to feel safe spending money again.
Where some wither, others are reborn
After remaining shuttered for the entire 2019-20 ski season following an abrupt closure in February of last year, Timberline, West Virginia will re-open next season as Timberline Mountain.
The new owners, who also own Perfect North, Indiana, have announced some major upgrades, including snowmaking improvements and a six-pack high-speed lift and a new quad:
Here’s a nice overview of Timberline from skibum.net:
While Snowshoe takes size and quality honors, Timberline is the WV resort that feels closest to a New England style ski area…glades, chutes, and plenty of runs that use the whole 1,000 foot vertical. Another refreshing feature is that it isn’t one of those goofy “upside down” designs in which you more or less ski in a valley. Like most southern ski areas it has an abundance of slopeside condos, houses, blah blah blah, which purists find thoroughly annoying. Trail mix is good — even a glade here — the hotshot has a few things to do, and the wanderer will be relatively happy. Liftlines can get long, but that’s just the way it is. Considering you’re in the south, this is darn fine skiing. Excellent family atmosphere, and the resort takes skiing seriously.
West Virginia skiing – like West Virginia itself – gets overlooked, but with altitudes that rival northern New England and respectable vertical drops, the state is one of the standouts of what is typically characterized as Southeast skiing. My guess is that anyone who can make a ski area work in southern Indiana can make one work anywhere, and Timberline Mountain is going to be worth a roadtrip once they get it moving.
The NSAA pushed for ski industry benefits in the stimulus relief package prior to its passage (it’s unclear as of now how the industry will benefit).
Lookout Pass, Idaho, completed the shutdown of the North American ski industry with a March 26 announcement that it was closing to honor governor Brad Little’s stay-at-home orders. Ski Area Management’s Summit Series podcast gathers industry leaders to discuss the COVID-19 fallout.
Powder: Don’t go skiing. Inside the backcountry overload in Colorado. An interview from the heart of the Italian ski industry shutdown. Avalanche forecasting shuts down in some places and continues in others.
Vermont Ski + Ride: A lot of people are still skinning up mountains, and a lot of other people are mad about that. Vermont doesn’t want you there. How the community united to help the Sugarbush employees whose gear was ripped off.
Shaggy’s Copper Country Skis, a Michigan-based brand with an increasingly national following, has halted production of skis and pivoted to making plastic face masks to aid in the COVID fight.
The High Falutin Ski Bums keep podcasting from quarantine.
I wrote about one of my last ski days of the season on New York Ski Blog, which has been a strong supporter of The Storm since I launched in October.
New England Ski Journal TV at Jay Peak:
This week in not skiing
The entire country seems to be stapled to the couch with nothing to do other than watch Netflix, but I’ve been feeling as busy as ever. This is partially because I’m extremely fortunate to be able to work remotely, and since everyone else in my company is working remotely and no one is taking vacation because honestly there’s nothing to do other than work, we are operating at 100 percent and nothing is stalled until so-and-so is back in the office until April 39th or whatever which is how corporate jobs usually work. Plus I’ve decided to keep up The Storm and I’ve been trying to build up the COVID podcasts, which are taking more time to schedule than actually produce, because it turns out that when you’re trying to interview people who run ski areas at the exact moment they’re shutting down their ski areas with limited personnel in the midst of a global pandemic, it sometimes takes them a little while to fit you into their calendar.
Traffic in New York City has all but evaporated. I drove into Manhattan from Brooklyn at what would normally be rush hour on Friday to pick my daughter up from her mom’s apartment for the weekend, and what normally would have been a 45-minute-to-an-hour halting pain in the ass through heavy traffic was a 20-minute sail through what felt like middle-of-the-night volume. This is what the Upper East Side of Manhattan driving south on Second Avenue toward the 59th Street Bridge looked like at 5:30 p.m. on Friday:
For context, here’s a photo of the same street at rush hour on Friday, March 6:
I have otherwise left the apartment sparingly, including twice to jog through the warehouse district adjacent to my building, which feels like post-apocalyptic abandoned New York during normal times, so it is almost like running in the country. We pick up groceries once per week, and our local stores are not terribly crowded or cleaned out.
Though a few people have urged me to consider leaving the city, I feel like this is the best place for my family to be. Governor Cuomo seems to be doing everything he can to prepare the state for the coming onslaught, even as it’s increasingly clear that no amount of resources exists on planet Earth that can adequately meet the deluge of patients that will soon require intensive care. Our primary goal as a family is to stay as isolated as possible and leave the city’s hospitals to those who need them most. Indoors for more than two weeks at this point, we have passed the most dangerous period and feel safest simply staying put.
And besides, no one wants my New York plates pulling into their town square anytime soon. Though this is not where I’m from, this is my home, and I will remain here as long as it makes sense to do so.
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COVID-19 and Skiing Podcasts: Author and Industry Veteran Chris Diamond
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