B.C. ski resorts prepare for 'old-school' season

Smaller crowds mean more fresh tracks for B.C. skiers. But will it be enough to keep the lifts running?

It may be time to break out the vintage ski suit lurking at the back of your closet: B.C.’s ski resorts are preparing for an old-school season.

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To reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, resorts are beginning to release plans designed to minimize crowds, simplify dining and boil down the ski experience to its essence: A great safe day in the mountains.

“I think it’s going to feel a little like it did in the ’70s or ’80s,” said Michael Ballingall, the senior vice-president of Big White Ski Resort near Kelowna.

At Big White, tickets will need to be purchased online in advance to eliminate person-to-person contact and ensure the mountain can manage guest numbers. Along with other equipment, skiers and boarders will need masks to wear on lifts and in lineups.

“You’ve got something on your feet that’s more than a metre long, so that’s going to help,” said Ballingall.

On-mountain dining will follow the protocols for restaurants laid out by health officials, but there may be more grab-and-go options.

At Big White, ski school will be set up to allow guests to “rent” an instructor to teach their bubble, while the rental shop will require reservations.

Ballingall said Vancouver is Big White’s biggest market, which he hopes will ensure good guest numbers through the winter. Season-pass purchases and bookings have been strong so far, with some people booking several trips this winter, instead of just one, to make the cost of a pass worthwhile.

“People who might take winter trips to Phoenix or Mexico or Hawaii may be staying home this year,” he said.

But it’s unclear if local skiers alone can make it a successful season for the resorts, which take large amounts of capital and labour to operate.

B.C. ski resorts lost several weeks of revenue last year as mountains closed early because of the novel coronavirus outbreak. A report from the U.S. National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) estimated the American industry lost out on about $2 billion as a result of COVID-19.

Destination resorts that rely on international tourists are likely to have a more difficult year.

Vail Resorts spokeswoman Jennifer Smith said Whistler Blackcomb is excited to welcome B.C. residents. Skiers will be met with a “slightly different ski experience this year,” including a new reservation system, but they’ll still have access to the world-class terrain.

“I think you could say that’s a little bit of a win,” she said.

Labour is also expected to be a challenge this year. Smith countered the idea that a large portion of the mountain’s workforce is students from Australia and Europe, pointing to “all kinds of people who take a year out to come and work on the lifts.”

Employees are given access to the mountain, so “if you are a skier, it might be your year to come work at a ski hill,” she said.

Skier Ben Cherniavsky said it is ironic the pandemic has created a situation where Vail Resorts must “come back on their hands and knees to the local market.”

Last winter, the part-time Whistler resident started a petition called “Make Whistler Great Again,” saying the resort had lost touch with locals and that there had been a “steady erosion in value and experience.”

Cherniavsky said he understands the resort will be “managing a difficult situation” this season and will need to turn a profit to survive.

“They need to manage expectations,” he said. “If they’ve sold a season pass and then they only open one mountain, or they don’t open all the lifts, or there are long lineups, people aren’t getting what they paid for. They need to be up front about that now.”

Olympic ski racer Britt Janyk Tilston said she is excited about the ski season.

“It will look different, but I think it will still be great,” she said. “Last weekend, I was hiking on Whistler, and I just got really excited about the ski season. The mountain is what brought and kept me here, and we still get to ski and experience that even in the middle of a pandemic.”

Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton said local businesses were happy to see Vail’s reopening plan as it gives them the ability to plan for the winter.

“It won’t be easy, but we’re a durable community that will rise to the challenge,” he said.

Lauren Everest said Tourism Whistler will be focusing its efforts on the regional B.C. market, as well as Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.

“All four of these provincial markets are key targets when it comes to skiers, but we are also exploring how to cater to the non-skiing customer looking to Whistler for their next winter getaway,” she said in an emailed statement.

Grouse Mountain expects to release its winter plan this week, building on many of the processes that were introduced when the mountain reopened in June, said communications manager Julia Grant. “We’ve had the summer to work on it.”

She said the mountain is not a “destination resort” compared to others and has a solid base of local season pass-holders. A reservation system will be used to manage traffic on the gondola, with pass-holders receiving some kind of advance booking window.

Masks will also be mandatory in some areas, including lineups.

On Vancouver Island, Mount Washington has started selling 2020-21 season passes for skiing and offering a discount in an “early-bird” sale. It is acknowledging that people might be hesitant about buying a pass during a pandemic. “If you’re feeling uneasy about the season ahead after making your purchase,” says a statement on its website, “all Pass Holders will have the option to defer their purchase by a year to be used the following 2021-22 season at no loss, if done so before November 25, 2020.”

— With Times Colonist file

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