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Covid Threatened Our Ski Season—Here’s What Actually Happened

With the ski season wrapping up from coast to coast, we take a look at how it went off around different parts of the country.

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While some resorts are still winding down the 2020-’21 season, and most aren’t releasing official visitation numbers yet, all have grappled with the strangest season on record. From the way lifts were loaded and cars were parked to how tickets and packages were priced and food was sold, everything about this season was set against the backdrop of a global pandemic. 

But for the most part, people were just glad that the resorts were open, the lifts were running, and that the ski season went off at all, even if they did have to wear masks pretty much everywhere.

“I am so, so stoked that everyone was able to make it happen,” says Adrienne Saia Isaac, Director of Marketing and Communications for the National Ski Areas Association. “We’re hearing that visitation was strong across the country, with several ski areas reporting record numbers of skier visits.”

Related: How Your Favorite Resort Is Enduring Covid

However, says Isaac, “we are also expecting to hear about drops in revenue due to restrictions on ancillary activities like dining, large-scale events, and lodging. Of course, this will vary regionally and by state, since some states had more restrictive public health regulations than others.” 

Destination resorts with higher shares of out-of-state and international visitation may report declines in visits as well, she says, but despite that the season was an absolute success. 

“Operators collaborated to find ways to keep the lifts spinning and keep their employees, guests, and communities healthy. Skiing and outdoor recreation were bright spots in an incredibly difficult time and boosted the mental and physical health of people who took to the mountains and hills to play outside,” Isaac says. “We’re also hearing that smaller, drive-to market ski areas had wonderful seasons due to a combination of people wanting to get outside and the ski areas being easier to access.”

7 Major Takeaways

  • Aside from some isolated closures due to staffing, all U.S. ski resorts remained open throughout the season.
  • Most Covid outbreaks at resorts were among staff and spread through employee housing.
  • Smaller ski areas in drive-to markets fared better overall than destination resorts.
  • Almost all ski areas reported, or expect to report, losses due to reduced food and retail sales and lodging bookings.
  • Resorts got creative with non-contact food sales, parking apps, and outdoor après options, some of which will be integrated in their (non-pandemic) operations in future seasons.
  • Ski areas saw increased interest in learning to ski as well as visits by lapsed skiers returning to the sport.
  • In general, season pass sales were steady or up, while day tickets sales were down.

Here’s a snapshot of how the season played out around the U.S.:

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California

California resorts took on the significant challenge of stringent Covid protocols and managed to have a season with no interruption, despite a lack of abundant snowfall overall. Being outside was the respite that we all needed, and season pass holders came out in droves, says Michael Reitzell of Ski California. “Many people chose to use their time at home to get out and try skiing for the first time, which is certainly great to see.” 

Reitzell says demand for visitation was high, but Covid restrictions did have an impact on overall visitation at some, but not all, ski areas in the state. “Our resorts in California had to adhere to capacity restrictions and some resorts were more affected than others by the stay-at-home order and travel restrictions that existed for December and much of January.” Lodging properties were not permitted to take bookings from out-of-town guests and restaurants remained open to local traffic only, though people seemed to travel anyway.

Heavenly and the other Tahoe-area resorts were able to stay open during California’s regional stay-at-home order, but its hotels were not able to lodge out-of-town visitors. Photo: George Rose/Getty Images

He says that mid-week skiing saw an increase in visitation overall due to more flexible work schedules and home schooling, whereas destination resorts were hit harder than drive-to resorts. 

Related: Covid Closed Tahoe to Visitors, But They Came Anyway

Bear Mountain and Snow Summit in Southern California made out well: Those resorts, which see a lot of drive-to visitors from the San Diego area, racked up 140 days of skiing with 139 inches of snowfall—including the snowiest March on record in 20 years.

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Vermont

While season pass holders got out more, day skier visits were down in the Green Mountain state by roughly 40 percent through the end of February, according to Vermont Ski Areas Association president Molly Mahar. The VSAA also said the state’s ski industry may have lost up to $100 million this year. 

Much like Tahoe, Jackson, Wyo., and resort towns of Colorado, Mahar says, due to Covid and the ability to work from home, lots of people relocated to the area for the season, if not permanently, and season pass sales were up for many areas even as overall skier visits were down. VSAA says the three peak weekends, which tend to coincide with family vacations, were off by 35 percent across the state. 

“What that tells me is, a lot of families weren’t able to swing the quarantine,” Mahar told the Eagle Times, referring to Vermont’s pandemic requirement that people quarantine for two weeks upon arrival.

Stratton Mountain Resort reported an increased interest in learning to ski—and greater participation in everything outside from snowshoeing to Nordic skiing to tubing. “Guests were staying longer,” says Stratton’s marketing and communications manager Myra Foster. “Second homeowners were settling in for the winter. Demand for real estate hit a high.”

"Stratton gondola and iconic clocktower."
Stratton reported an increase in the number of people interested in learning to ski this season. Photo: Courtesy of Stratton Mountain Resort

“Mother Nature brought us three feet of new snow to start the new year, and it kept on snowing,” Foster continues. Stratton had every trail open by January 23, with record base depths recorded. “‘Best day ever’ was heard again and again throughout January, February and March.”

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New Hampshire

Conversely, weather on either end of the season was less than ideal for New Hampshire ski resorts such as Loon Mountain, Bretton Woods, and Attitash, even forcing delayed openings due to an unseasonably warm November and December. March—normally one of the snowiest months—also saw little snowfall. 

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Loon and its nearby New Hampshire resorts benefited from more relaxed Covid restrictions than neighboring Vermont. Photo: Courtesy of Loon Mountain

“All that said, there was still huge demand by people who just wanted to get out of the house and do something fun during the winter months,” says Jessyca Keeler, President of Ski New Hampshire. “The less restrictive guidelines that New Hampshire put out related to the pandemic compared to our neighbors is another factor that helped drive skier visits.” 

Also Read: How We Après in the Age of Covid

Running weekly tallies by participating N.H. ski areas during the season have the Granite State ending about six percent up compared to last year, but down four percent if you stop counting in mid-March when the pandemic shut things down in spring 2020. Like other states, Ski New Hampshire says that because people spent more time outside, resort food sales, typically a major profit driver, were down.

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Utah

Skiing in Utah won’t be fully wrapped up until Snowbird closes toward the end of May, but experts agree the stoke has been high with a safe and successful season. Ski Utah reported a fairly rough start to the season but resorts eventually took advantage of Utah’s lake-effect storms in both Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons to report a season that exceeded expectations, despite reduced skier capacity. Like other resorts we talked to and visited nationwide, Utah ski areas adhered to Covid protocols throughout the season for the safety of guests and employees. 

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Snowbird is still open, but Utah is already reporting a successful 2020-’21 season. Photo: Courtesy of Snowbird

“While we don’t have concrete data to share yet, judging from feedback from our resort partners and our best guess, the ’20-’21 season ended up being one of our best yet,” says Ski Utah Director of Communications Alison Palmintere.

While awaiting official data, Palmintere says season pass sales were up, along with skier days associated with those season passes. “While we likely had fewer destination guests, we anticipate that local skier days are up from previous years.”

Palmintere also says a silver lining from the pandemic season is that resorts lured more “lapsed” skiers back to the sport, as people viewed skiing a safe and COVID-friendly option for socializing and having fun outdoors 

“We hope to hold on to the ‘lapsed’ skier category going into next season,” says Palmintere. 

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Colorado

One of the most prolific states for skier visits, Colorado experienced a range of ups and downs throughout the season as COVID-19 restrictions fluctuated locally county-by-county at various times. But overall, according to Colorado Ski Country USA (representing 22 ski areas in the state, excluding the four Vail Resorts-owned mountains), it was a positive season which is still ongoing until Arapahoe Basin hangs it up sometime in June. (Breckenridge is also currently still open.)

“The frontline employees are really the story of the season here in Colorado,” says CSCUSA spokesperson Chris Linsmayer. “They kept our resorts open for guests, following COVID-19 policies all with a smile on their masked faces in some very challenging circumstances.” 

Linsmayer also says resorts learned many lessons about how to continue to improve the guest experience through technology, such as “order-ahead” food and beverage and rental equipment, parking apps, and other features that many resorts will look to build on in the future. “We’re proud of the effort that went into making this season possible and looking forward to welcoming guests back to our world-class ski areas in the future,” he says.

Breckenridge Ski Resort COVID social distancing
Breckenridge required reservations all season, but Vail Resorts announced in March that it does not plan to institute a reservation policy for next season, health conditions permitting. Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Closing out the season on April 11, Steamboat Resort ran its gondola for the very last time. This summer the resort will begin the largest construction project at the base of the mountain since it opened in 1963 with a new gondola terminal several hundred feet to the east (over Burgess Creek where the magic carpets are now). According to the Steamboat Pilot, this will allow the resort to redevelop the square over the next three years, adding more dining, an ice rink, fire pits, and communal spaces.

Go Deeper: Steamboat Explains No Reservation Policy After Lift Line Photo Goes Viral

For its part, Vail Resorts reimagined the entire resort experience with safety protocols across lifts, dining, rental shops, base facilities, and ski schools. Vail Mountain opened the season with more than 200 acres top-to-bottom from three base areas thanks to its massive and enhanced snowmaking efforts, which was a North American record and also helped keep people spread out. 

Keystone, which opened on Nov. 6,  was the first Front Range resort to open this season. With Breckenridge scheduled to operate through Memorial Day (as weather and conditions permit), VR offers Epic Pass holders one of the longest ski seasons in the country. 

Related: The Epic Pass Price Cut Just Made Your Next Season Pass Decision More Interesting

“We were the first ski company to implement a reservation system and were pleased to continue to offer our guests the experience of a lifetime through unprecedented challenges—so much of which we owe to our dedicated employees who worked hard to ensure a successful season,” says Quinn Kelsey, Director of Communications and Resort Marketing. “We’re extremely proud of what our teams have accomplished while operating during a winter season like no other.” 

Aspen Snowmass dealt with some of the most stringent rules as Pitkin County ping-ponged between different colors on the Covid dial throughout the season, at one point notching the highest number of cases in the state. Back in December, visitors to the county were required to show a negative Covid test or quarantine for 10 days, making Aspen Snowmass the only Colorado resort with such restrictions. That was lifted in March, and as of early May, the county is reporting its lowest case numbers, just in time for the summer hiking season. The outdoor mask mandate for downtown Aspen was lifted at the end of April.

In the Southern Rockies, Telluride, Purgatory, and Wolf Creek faced some weather challenges from La Niña as well as reduced capacity both on-mountain and with lodging and dining due to COVID. But nearby Silverton reported an essentially normal season with near-average snowpack all winter. 

“We hovered just below or at average with steady snowfall all season,” says Silverton Mountain co-owner Jen Brill. “It was a fantastic season, and ‘average’ at Silverton is quite good!” 

She says January’s big dumps led to a very snowy March, which made for a banner unguided season (and for the $39 spring heli run season for season pass holders). Silverton also remained mostly unaffected by the pandemic due to its vast acreage and fewer skier visits overall. 

“We were able to run normally and the town of Silverton avoided any skiing related COVID outbreaks as well,” Brill says. “We are lucky to get great snow from the northwest and the southwest. It was a great year!”

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New York

Ski resorts in the Empire State benefited both from the more restrictive policies of neighboring ski states like Vermont as well as skiers choosing to stay closer to home rather than flying to destinations out West. Preliminary numbers show increased skier days at most N.Y. ski areas, with Whiteface, in the Adirondacks, reporting an impressive 10.65 percent jump, and Gore Mountain, in the Catskills, with a 9.83 percent increase according to the Olympic Regional Development Authority, which operates both areas.

According to SKI/NY president Scott Brandi, the state’s ski areas will likely report close to 4 million skier and snowboarder visits this winter, up from 3.7 million the season before.

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Whiteface Mountain saw a 10-percent increase in skier visits over last season. Photo: Courtesy of Whiteface Mountain
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Oregon

Ore.’s Mt. Bachelor has one of the longest seasons in the country, and this year’s reported snowfall to date was 374 inches (measured at the West Village base), where 56 inches are still hanging around at the bottom of the hill. The season runs through Sunday, May 30, and its theme this year was, for obvious reasons, “Back to Basics.” 

"mt Bachelor Resort Guide 2020"
Bachelor’s overnight RV camping enjoyed a surge a popularity this season. The resort is open through mid-May. Photo: Courtesy of Mt. Bachelor

A major component of the season, not just in Oregon but nationwide, was the encouragement of people to eat and hang out at their vehicles versus in the lodges, which, somewhat ironically, actually helped promote the camaraderie and socialization that skiers were craving. Mt. Bachelor’s overnight RV camping saw a surge in popularity as more people traveled overland and took advantage of the chance to spend the night slopeside rather than a half hour away in Bend or Sunriver. 

Also Read: With Lifts Spinning Into May or Beyond at These 10 Resorts, You Can Keep Your Bike in the Garage A Bit Longer

In one last nod to normalcy, Bachelor’s spring scene is in (somewhat) full effect right now. Even as it reduces terrain from 4,323 acres to just over 3,500 acres, skiers are logging their bucket list Summit hikes where they drop the cornice or off the backside because visibility is high and winds tend to be lower. 

“This year we hosted pop-up pubs on the mountain to spread out guests, and the final four weekends we are having our 10 Barrel Snow Beach events in the base with a massive beer garden and music,” says the resort’s marketing director Leigh Capozzi. “We’re so grateful to still be stacking days on snow.”