Reno-Tahoe ski resorts prepping for unique season ahead in age of COVID | NevadaAppeal.com
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Reno-Tahoe ski resorts prepping for unique season ahead in age of COVID

By Kaleb M. Roedel kroedel@nevadanewsgroup.com

Back on Aug. 24, Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe posted to Instagram a photo of sunbeams breaking through the clouds and splashing its terrain that overlooks Lake Tahoe.

The caption read: “We’re getting ready for clearer skies and cooler temps. It won’t be long before the snow’s falling again!”

On a normal year, the photo — which has 1,300 likes and counting — would trigger reactionary comments ranging from “YASSSS!” to “Stoked!” to “Can’t wait!” punctuated with the full gamut of wintry emojis.

This year, however, has been anything but normal. More than six months into the coronavirus pandemic, which has heavily impacted industries reliant on large crowds, a bulk of the comments are speculations of how, when and to what extent Mt. Rose and other regional ski areas — one of the most crucial draws for winter tourism revenue for the greater Reno-Tahoe region — will open in the winter of COVID-19.

Over the past month, resort operators have been unveiling their plans for the upcoming season, though plans are still not entirely set in stone in the age of social distancing.

“It’s going to be a very different year,” Mike Pierce, director of marketing at Mt. Rose, said in a phone interview with the NNBW.

With the 2020-21 ski season less than two months away — and with the premature shut-down of last season in March still fresh on industry experts’ minds — resort officals are navigating how to manage lift lines, dining options, gondola rides, and crowds amid a pandemic.

‘FIGURE OUT HOW WE OPERATE’

It’s a tricky balance between allowing as many skiers and riders on the mountain as possible while protecting the health of customers, employees and local communities, said Paul Raymore, marketing manager at Incline Village-based Diamond Peak Ski Resort, the only other downhill resort fully in Nevada.

“Even with extra safety protocols, we hope to be able to operate as close to normal as possible,” said Raymore, noting the resort has a tentative opening date of Dec. 10, conditions permitting. “We’re working with our management team now to figure out how we operate all the different departments within the resort under the new guidelines that everybody in the ski industry is operating under.”

Resorts like Mt. Rose and Diamond Peak are following the guidelines laid out by the National Ski Areas Association, which developed a “Ski Well, Be Well” operational best practices based on guidance from public health experts.

Among other protocols, face coverings will be required in congested areas and physical distancing guidelines will also be in place for people waiting for food, rentals and ski lifts. Regarding the latter, skiers will be asked to self-group and load the chair with their traveling party.

Ski California, a nonprofit trade association representing 32 ski resorts in California and Nevada, is helping its members navigate the slopes of implementing new policies.

“We’re really trying to be a lead organization for all of our members, so they have all of the resources they could possibly need to develop their individual plans for the season,” Mike Reitzell, president of Ski California, told the NNBW. “We’re dealing with things that the areas have never dealt with before. Like probably any business that’s been through this, you might actually learn some stuff about your business operations that will be a positive and carry over beyond this particular season.”

FACE COVERINGS AND CAPACITIES

One thing Reitzell, Raymore and Pierce all pointed to is the fact ski areas, consisting of hundreds of acres of land, provide low-risk outdoor recreation. Moreover, most skiers and riders are used to wearing face coverings, goggles and gloves.

“The sport has what we call inherent PPE,” Pierce said. “And it’s a natural outdoor environment. When you’re on the lift, you’re moving through the air rather quickly, so it’s not like you’re just standing there. There are a lot of things about the sport that makes us feel very confident in bringing the public up and having a same experience, not only for our guests, but for our staff.”

How many skiers end up descending upon Reno-Tahoe for ski season this winter remains to be seen. With the pandemic still in full effect, many resorts are capping or pausing season pass sales to limit capacities.

Pierce said Mt. Rose, typically one of the first resorts in the region to open due to its area-high base elevation of 8,260 feet, is capping the number of passes it sells in order to achieve a “comfortable carrying capacity.” Further, the resort is following the industry trend of requiring all tickets and passes to be purchased in advance.

“There won’t be any walk-up ticket sales,” he explained. “We’re going to keep it from getting overcrowded. Those peak times when someone might say, ‘oh, forget it; we’re not going up there, it’s a zoo.’ We’re not going to let that happen.”

Vail Resorts, which regionally operates Northstar, Kirkwood and Heavenly resorts, is going a step further to control crowds. All 34 of its North American properties are requiring pass holders to make a reservation before arriving at the mountain.

“We want to provide assurance to our guests that we will do our very best to minimize crowds at all times — be it a holiday weekend or the unpredictable powder day,” Rob Katz, Vail president and CEO, said in a press release. “We believe this approach will help ensure a safe experience for everyone, while prioritizing access for our pass holders.”

‘CRUCIAL’ TO THE ECONOMY

All told, the snowsports industry generates $55 billion annually toward the U.S. economy, according to NSAA. Reitzell said the ski industry in California generates “billions of dollars,” and roughly half of the cash is spent outside of the ski areas — from restaurants to local shops to hotels.

“If you took that (ski season) away, it would be very challenging on the small communities with resorts,” Reitzell said.

Incline Village, an affluent ski town of roughly 9,000 residents on the lake’s North Shore, is one of those communities.

“… Skiing is a big part of the economy of North Lake Tahoe in the wintertime,” Raymore said. “It’s one of the drivers for visitation, as well as getting second homeowners and residents into the outdoors.”

With greater Reno-Tahoe being home to the highest concentration of ski resorts in North America, Ben McDonald, senior communications manager at the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority, said the winter recreation season is “crucial” to the region’s economy.

“The thing that ski season does is it gets people talking about us, and it gives people something to do in the wintertime,” McDonald said. “The gaming product obviously still has a draw, and it keeps people in the city if they’re on a ski trip. But, right now, until entertainment is allowed to reopen, ski season is going to be the draw.”

To illustrate the impact COVID had on tourism last ski season, McDonald pointed to a 52.5% drop in occupied hotel rooms in March compared to 2019 across greater Reno-Sparks-North Tahoe — plummeting from 234,559 rooms to 111,470.

As a whole, the U.S. ski industry lost at least $2 billion due to the economic slide caused by COVID, according to the NSAA.

Despite resorts limiting the number of tickets sold and fewer people using air travel, resorts in the region are cautiously optimistic it will be able to keep the lifts spinning at a safe and steady clip this winter.

As long as the snow is good, that is.

“That’s certainly the key,” Reitzell said. “I feel like that there will be a strong demand to go skiing and riding this year. California and Nevada are definitely more of a drive market versus a flight destination, which I think will probably help. Right now, people are more interested in going places where they can drive versus having to fly.”

Added Pierce: “Our drive-market guests will probably way overpower our destination market guests; whether people actually get on planes and fly as much this year remains to be seen.”