If you’re an avid skier like me, you’re likely wondering what the next ski season will look like at Whistler. But, beyond the usual speculation about snowfall, the 2020/21 season is susceptible to where the current pandemic will leave us.
It has been clear, for the last couple years under the new Vail Resorts ownership, that their primary target market has increasingly shifted towards international destination travelers – specifically the Epic pass holder taking advantage of a destination holiday in Canada, through their multi-resort access pass. Vail’s marketing of the full access Epic pass at a discounted rate, paired with an outrageously priced single day window ticket has worked from a business perspective, but it has left many locals out in the cold, the mountain having become no longer financially accessible, especially for families.
Why does this matter for next ski season?
Because Vail has staked their skier visits and accompanying week long stays tied to accommodation and additional resort spend, to a group of customers that are unlikely to be able to get to the mountain next season: Visiting American’s with an Epic pass. Not to mention the countless Australian’s between 18-30 years old who come to Canada every winter to run the place. In 2020/21 Whistler is going to need customers and staff. And both of those are likely going to have to come from the domestic market.
The Tourism Industry Association via government sources, currently estimate that there is 25% chance of the US border opening by Sept/Oct. That only increases to a 60% chance come December. If you were in Vegas, I’m not sure you’d play those odds on the customer base you’ve staked your success on.
I’m an optimistic person, but I’m also a realist. A second wave of the pandemic is expected in the fall and winter. With a politically hot situation south of the border, where leadership appears driven by votes more than safety, achieving the “trust and absence of fear” required to open the US border, becomes more elusive each day. Regardless of political affiliations, it would be foolish to not consider what a Whistler ski season might look like without Americans and international traffic allowed in.
And even if the border does open in time for the ski season, we’ve still got the economic punch of a recession that is yet to land. With unemployment numbers continuing to climb and government aid likely to be running dry come fall/winter, the thought of a discretionary income enabled ski holiday goes out the window. If we see American tourists in Whistler this winter, there will be far fewer of them. Most outside of Washington state will need to fly here too. With fewer flights and even less demand to be held captive in a communal sausage in the air, the appeal just isn’t there. And that’s before a 14 day quarantine upon return home is even considered, following international travel.
Will Vail have the appetite to “kiss and make up” with locals, since they would be the ones who could save the season? So much good will has already been squandered with prohibitively priced day tickets and passes for families, in addition to an abrupt end to the 2019/20 season with only a partial credit for unused days. And that’s on top of countless days last season where Vail simply didn’t open alpine terrain for weeks on end. While there were persistent weak layers in the snow pack last season which limited alpine days, Vail apparently continued patrol staffing levels at the previous years capacity. However, there is a persistent perception shared by locals in Whistler, that avalanche control suffered due to cost cutting measures. But either way you toss the snowball, at over $160 for a one-off day ticket at the window, people don’t want to stand in lines mid mountain. The value equation isn’t there.
Ok you get it. I might just be a disgruntled local, longing for the days before Vail Resorts tried to make Whistler into Aspen, blacking out American holiday discounts, and giving us the weather report in Fahrenheit. But with so much ill will towards the very people who could save them, and much unknown about traditional traffic and staffing, the whole season becomes a huge gamble – and that’s before you even toss in the wrinkles that come with being Covid-19 compliant.
What might next season look like? Here’s a good guess, based on some early indications of how Vail is handling operations in Victoria and NSW in Australia, as well as announced plans at Mt Buller this winter, the first resort in the state of Victoria confirmed to open on June 22. While the winter ski season usually kicks off in early June down under, this year Mt Buller will open a bit later, to give the resort time to put measures in place, and hire local staff, instead of the usually available international employees.
Here’s how those changes could look for Whistler…
A refund on your Epic Pass?
Down under, Vail announced on May 19 that they were canning the Epic pass, and will be “re-issuing a new pass product.” Details are yet to come, but it is expected to be tied to the need to control skier day counts and tracking. That is pretty much impossible with an open ticket access. This could explain the “marketing spin” wording about being covered for cancelation for any reason. In the end it might not be about protecting your pass from personal job loss, injury, sickness or and early closure of the mountain. It just might be about protecting themselves with the ability to issue a new product before the season starts if need be. Single and multi-day passes will be the new normal. They’ve already stated that the refund on the 2020/21 Epic pass is zero, if you use 7 days. Not many, I suspect have read the weasel words, but it’s there if you want to look. If they don’t do something like this, Epic pass holders will have to have a way to book days and be held accountable for them. It’s the only way they can control limiting mountain numbers with an otherwise “unlimited use” pass.
Book your ski days
Get ready to be way more organized in 2020/21. The only way they can track on mountain numbers, ensure physical distancing and enable contact tracing of Covid-19 cases, is to have a tightly controlled system. Expect to need to commit ahead of time. And expect that some days may reach a maximum before you get in. We’ll all be watching for powder days, and trying to limit any possibility of skiing in the rain. Paying $160 to ski in a plastic bag is not the goal. I would expect they will enable a booking system via their website and an app, which will also double as a contact tracing and notification system, in addition to RFID tracking on the mountain, which exists already.
Limited terrain and days available
It’s very likely that given lower overall skier counts with a decrease in demand, and no international or US traffic, that Vail will look to keep operation costs down. The most logical way to do that would be to limit days available, or limit the terrain. Going to one mountain only might be a solution. It would essentially cut on mountain operation costs in half without a need to staff both mountains, including restaurants, lift attendants, ski lessons and grooming. Blackcomb would be the logical choice, since it has more mid mountain terrain for a variety of ski levels, plus fewer alpine bowls to maintain, and can actually function without so much dependency on a gondola. Although, I’m sure they will be wishing they still had the Solar Coaster chair, instead of the new air tight gondola petri dish. There would be no reason to run the Peak to Peak either.
Another way to limit costs would be to run a reduced week with a couple mid-week days tacked onto the weekend, and a closure for the balance of the week. This would also facilitate safety operations and avalanche blasting with a skeletal staff.
Longer wait times for access
With a cap in skier numbers each day, it might be logical to think that lift lines would be less. But once we add in social distancing, and chairs or gondolas running at 50% capacity, plus continued alpine bowl terrain being limited due to cost cutting like last season, it’s not hard to see how skiers could become compressed again. However, they are also likely to do timed entry (like Machu Picchu does to control crowds), where you have an upload time window of say 8:00-8:15am. This would help control lift lines and potentially add to efficiency. Just hope you don’t leave googles in the car, or need to be encouraging a child to hurry up walking to the lift. Staff will no doubt be subject to health verification regularly, along with temperature checks, and it’s possible this could extend to customers at the base, similar to an airport temperature scan.
Booked times at the on-mountain lodges
Expect the control of skier gathering and limits to extend to the restaurants on mountain as well. While booking your day, you’ll likely be expected to indicate a time window to enter the lodge, much like the upload time window you will have been given. They would control access to the lodges with RFID tracking on your day pass. This will ensure the ability to contact trace if needed.
The boxed lunch and tap to pay
We already know that buffets are so 2019, and will likely never return. 2020 will see the “touchless economy” at scale rolled out in resorts. Food service on the mountain overall will need to be modified to ensure safe handling. Like BC Ferries, I would expect pre-made box lunches to be the new normal, purchased in a cashless check out, with payment made through tapping your day pass tied to a credit card.
While food services will be scaled back, so too could lessons and group activities. I would expect private, semi-private and small groups of 3 to be the norm for lessons. This could well impact the offering of traditionally larger ski school classes for beginners. Remember the “sniffle station” that used to be well stocked with tissue? Other than the fact that Vail often left them empty since taking over, these germ spreading boxes will be gone this coming season. Better pack your own. And while you’re at it, maybe just pack your lunch too and have it in a low stress manner hill side somewhere. I would expect there will be demand for outside dining away from others in closed quarters too.
Personal data access
It goes without saying that there will be contact tracing on the mountain. For legal reasons, there will have to be. And because the resort is American owned, and data will be housed in the US, the use and sharing of that data will be subject to American laws, rather than Canadian. That in itself will be cause for alarm with some, but we made unthinkable compromises in personal data freedoms following 9/11, and this pandemic will be no different. The tracking of people will likely be facilitated by RFID passes, which are already in use, in addition to an app, quite likely tied to their day booking system. While we can all ponder the benefits and drawbacks of personal tracking, there could be greater access to health records associated with this practice in the future.
On the bright side, perhaps they could offer an immunity line pass, to replace the singles line! Just think, if you had immunity, you could be loaded with anyone. Ok, perhaps that’s over the top, but this whole thing starts getting a little surreal once you start to run with it!
Less après skiing
Social distancing and fewer people staying in the village doesn’t bode well for all the fun stuff that happens in Whistler after dark. You’re unlikely to be dancing in a sweaty club, or rocking away in a crowd to a live band. The restaurants that will be open will be less crowded, and there will be no festivals, formal gatherings planned or anything encouraged which would draw a crowd. In short, everything that lends a buzz about town after a day’s skiing is likely to be compromised.
In addition to cleaning and distancing best practices that the whole accommodations industry will no doubt adopt, we could expect there will be increased demand for places that offer in room cooking facilities, for those who will prefer to stay in, rather than dine out. Food delivery services will also likely see an uptake, but for a dramatically decreased group of tourists. For those who do book an overnight accommodation package through Vail, I would expect there would be priority access for day passes too.
Increased sanitation and cleaning
We can of course anticipate increased attention to cleaning and sanitation in public spaces. This will include all touchable surfaces in mountain lodges, the cafeteria and washroom, as well as the village and accommodation properties. While skiers are generally gloved anyway, we could also expect increased use of neck tubes and scarves which would double up as a facial mask, protecting others in closer quarters.
Could this vision be over-estimated? We only need to look to what Vail is doing in Australia right now for hints of what is to come. With the Aussie ski season about to start, some of these measures are exactly the type of things that Vail is considering in that market – just presented here with a local context.
It could well be an epic season if we can get up the mountain and actually enjoy it. Usually the only thing to worry about is the snow pack and when it will begin to arrive. This year, much more is yet to be determined. Let’s hope Vail allows locals to help save the season – and rewards them for that heroic effort. It’s either that, or we may need to wait for them to post the “For Sale” sign at season end, and hope a Canadian buyer can sort out the mess they’ve created. The pandemic will eventually pass. And our love for Whistler will endure despite the current climate. Let’s hope we can get back to it, and put the 2020/21 season behind us as a piece of history.