What are your plans for the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. three-day holiday?
Well, if you are a snowsports enthusiast looking forward to time on the slopes, but are not a season-pass holder, hopefully you have reserved your lift tickets by now.
Don’t have a lift ticket yet? You could be out of luck. As many skiers learned last month, advanced reservations online are the name of the game these days. At many areas, the walk-up ticket window is a thing of the past.
Take Gore, for example. If you had planned to go during the Christmas-to-New Year’s week, but didn’t reserve prior to Dec. 15, you were closed out. With COVID -19 capacity limitations in place, there were no more tickets available for sale well ahead of the holiday. Throughout the Northeast, a lot of people who had made lodging reservations found themselves without tickets to ride when they got to the slopes.
In a typical ski season that runs from early December through March, there are three periods that are especially popular: Christmas-to-New Year’s, the MLK Jr. holiday and the school vacation period in February. Access to the lifts at your area of choice was never a concern in the past, but it is these days. This year, because of travel limitations and quarantine requirements, skiing locally — or at least in state — has a special appeal for New Yorkers. That has made the three areas operated by the Olympic Regional Development Authority — Belleayre, Gore and Whiteface — especially popular. Season-pass sales were up at least 25% over previous years with skiers looking to guarantee themselves a spot on the hill.
For others who didn’t want to shell out pass dollars months before the snow fell, it was buy as you go. Has that ever created a problem in the past?
“No. Never,” according to Scott Brandi, longtime President of SKY/NY, the state’s ski areas association.
Until this year.
So what can those who did not buy before the season do to get sliding? At the smaller areas that draw mainly a local crowd, there doesn’t appear to be a major issue. The problem seems to be at the larger areas that draw from farther afield.
HOW ORDA SETS CAPACITY
Mike Pratt is ORDA’s chief executive. Before taking that post four years ago, he had more than 30 years in management at Gore. He knows the ski business, and he is ultimately the person who interprets the state guidelines that determine how many people can ski each day at each area.
Pratt’s understanding of the challenge today is simple and straightforward: “Provide a great experience in a safe environment.”
So how many get to ski on any day? Tomorrow?
The number is determined by a combination of things.
“Lodge capacity is the easiest factor,” Pratt said recently. “We know how many seats we have and can fill.”
Other factors are a bit fuzzy.
“There is chair-lift capacity and the amount of terrain that is open — and how many seasons-pass holders are expected to show up? All that goes into the mix,” Pratt said. “Then, we set the number of tickets that will be available for sale. Since all ticket sales are done online, when we reach our limit for a given day, no more are sold.”
Even though ORDA and other ski operators rely on past experience to help set limits, there is a lot of guesswork involved. For instance, there were significantly more ski passes sold this year than in the past. And the amount of terrain open and lifts operating is always changing.
Then, there is the weather. New snow will bring more people to the slopes. Rain or extreme cold will keep them home.
Limits mid-week generally do not come into play. There is plenty of capacity. Weekends and holidays are a different matter.
Pratt acknowledges the challenges are new this year: “Our world has changed with this pandemic.”
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Skiers are learning that area websites and social media need to be monitored. What Pratt calls “ticket inventory” continues to change, based largely on area conditions.
He’s optimistic: “We expect to increase the number of tickets available as the winter goes on.”
How will skiers know?
All ski areas are grappling with that. Some, like Okemo and Stowe in Vermont, reach out to their skiers with regular updates. Locally, West Mountain has done a good job with that. Others are more passive, relying primarily on skiers checking websites to keep informed.
So far, the skiing this winter has been surprisingly good despite little cooperation from Mother Nature. The combination of snowmaking and grooming has kept trail conditions favorable and moderate weather has helped make the skier experience very good.
But keep in mind, if you are planning to take advantage of the outdoors by skiing this winter, you need to plan ahead.
Hunter Mountain was owned by the Slutzky family from its early days in the 1960s through 2015. After being owned for a short period by Peak Resorts, Hunter was bought last year by the nation’s largest ski area owner, Colorado-based Vail Resorts.
During the Slutzky years, the ski patrol — many of its members volunteers — were very well treated, with family pass privileges and more.
Such perks have been cut back or gone away altogether under Vail ownership. As expected, unpaid volunteer patrollers, many of them with years of service, were not pleased.
One consequence was that when a COVID-19 incident occurred recently and a sufficient number of paid patrollers were unavailable, not enough from the volunteer patrol ranks could be recruited to fill in on short notice. The ski area had to close for two days last week.
The price to pay for pulled perks?
SKI SHOP BENEFITS CUT
There has always been a close relationship between ski shops who provide products that skiers need and the ski areas where people ski. Historically, one of the benefits of working in a shop is discounted skiing at nearby areas; the shops would use that perk as a way to recruit and retain staff and, in return, would provide support for activities at those areas.
Well, most special events at ski areas have been canceled this winter and, in early December, ORDA notified shops that the employee discount program it offered in the past would be eliminated. These arrangements commonly exist with many other areas, but ORDA’s decision after seasonal staff was already in place took ski shop operators by surprise.
The amount of ski terrain open at West Mountain took a big jump last weekend with the trails on its Northwest layout opening for the season. The expanded ski acreage means greater capacity for the area, which means increased availability of ski tickets going forward this winter.
Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected].