Bring Your Own Toilet Paper – Why the 2020-21 Ski Season Might Be Empty, Expensive, and Weird

Re-openings in California and Oregon give us hints of the ski world ahead

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If you haven’t listened to my podcast conversation with Alterra Mountain Company CEO Rusty Gregory yet, you can do it here.

Look out for the new TransPak boot bag, updated with toilet paper holster

Reviewing re-opening plans for the three mountains that have so far cranked their lifts back up to finish out the 2019-20 ski season - Mt. Baldy, Timberline, and Mt. Bachelor – a few operational themes are emerging that are likely to translate to next winter: reservations required, even for passholders; controlled and spaced-out parking; reimagined lift queues that avoid the bunchball combat-ski jostling of the current state; and fewer people allowed even on high-capacity lifts (Beartooth Basin, which is always a summer-only ski area, will open on May 30, and has yet to announce any operating protocol).

Plenty is still to be determined. No one has yet solved the enormous social distancing challenges inherent in operating profit centers such as ski schools or rental sheds, with Timberline and Baldy explicitly saying, in effect, “don’t come skiing unless you are good at skiing.” Food service will be another enormous challenge, with Timberline offering some “grab-and-go” options and the other two mountains forgoing food service all together. I predict a lot of outdoor bars and grills, bouncer-style enforcement of lodge capacity, and most lunch breaks al fresco, with small tables spread across vast plains of base-area snow. Luckily, we are all dressed for it.

But there is gonna be some weird here. Mt. Bachelor’s Covid-19 operations page, for example, includes this helpful advice in the Personal Responsibility section: “The State of Oregon outdoor recreation guidelines suggest bringing your own toilet paper, sanitizer and any and all personal hygiene products that will make you most comfortable.”

The run on toilet paper is of course one of the more bizarre storylines in a wider world turned upside-down over the past two months. But this is somewhat different, as Bachelor is not implying that it won’t be supplying TP in its restrooms (which it is promising to clean hourly). This appears to be more of a transference of the sudden awareness and paranoia that shared surfaces provide an optimal vector for passing germs. In other words, do you really want to pull your next sequence of squares off a roll that someone else just tore from?

Covid-infection-via-community-TP-roll isn’t something I’ve thought about up to this point - I haven’t used a toilet that wasn’t in my apartment in over two months. But when you start to break down the touchpoints in high-traffic shared-use spaces like ski lodges, it soon becomes obvious that ski area operators are going to have to rethink everything, even if BYOTP doesn’t become a thing.

Some of what changes will be welcome. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, skiing on weekends is already crowded, unpleasant, expensive, and filled with people like this:

Ski area managers are going to spend the summer taking their operations down to the studs, re-imagining the flow and experience of every single piece of getting to and being at a ski area. Whether social distancing is mandated by law or the virus ends up evaporating by next winter is right now irrelevant – they must be planning for a worst-case scenario. And the result will be creative destruction on a mass scale, reorienting everything from how we arrive at the ski area to where we boot up to how we line up for the lift.

Some of these processes, once modified, will likely change permanently. This adjustment period is a challenge, but also an opportunity to fix broken things that we all hate and that ski areas have allowed to persist forever because [inserts shrug emoji]. Perhaps they will finally discard the laissez-faire approach to cafeteria management and enforce don’t-pile-your-bags-on-the-tables policies in order to keep those spaces cleaner. A hard look at rental sheds and food service could perhaps make these experiences feel less like cattle runs. Reservation systems that help eliminate day-of ticket lines and allow areas to better track who is skiing and when probably provide too many advantages to dump once built. And some of the season pass policy changes ski areas are orchestrating in response to the Covid shutdown – payment plans, deferral and refund policies, extended early-bird deadlines, lower prices and renewal discounts – are likely to stick in some form or another.

But not all of the changes will be great. When the economy first began tumbling uncontrollably downhill, I started thinking that this could be the end of the $200 lift ticket. Massive job loss, after all, is a poor environment in which to offer such a product, both from a practical and a PR point of view. But I now actually think lift tickets will head in the opposite direction, as capacity limits drive ski area’s pricing power far higher. This is what happened at Baldy, which is normally the bargain boy of the LA ski scene, but had the pricing power to unabashedly ramp lift tickets up to $99 when it became the only option on the continent.

Mountains are probably about to evolve from a limitless-capacity model to something that more closely resembles a stadium, in which there is a practical limit as to how many people can fit inside. That increases prices. This may especially end up being true in the Northeast, where average lift ticket prices even at the most built-up mountains has not approached anything near the averages out west. That, too, may become permanent as Vail and Alterra and the rest gauge how willing the region’s relatively flush skiers are to absorb these cranked-up costs.

We’ll see. Little would surprise me at this point. I have a three-year-old, and so I read a lot of Dr. Seuss books. In all their brilliant weirdness, from mustachioed tree guardians to giant talking cats to landscapes of swirling topography traversed in amazing vehicles, they retain just enough of a resemblance to reality to seem feasible. The world we’re living in now, in which we’re masked and lined up down the block outside grocery stores and wondering if football can happen, seems more bizarre than any of that. It’s a version of reality I would not have believed possible three months ago. Yet here we are. Where we’ll be in six months is impossible to tell, but it’s clear that whatever it is, it will be weird.

Do it, Killington

Interesting that Oregon’s Mt. Bachelor cracked the season back open for a nine-day, zero-profit run, with no day tickets for sale, no ski school, no rentals, and no food and beverage. In other words - no revenue. Only season passholders and others with pre-purchased tickets are allowed. Considering the ski area already presumably lost a substantial sum between its mid-March closing and its reopening on May 16, it’s a bit curious that they would crank up two high-speed quads and bring in the staff to run them and manage the parking lots and tidy up the bathrooms and lose money doing it.

So why would they do it? Well, marketing takes many forms, and the fact that we’re all talking about a ski area in normally-off-the-skidar Oregon proves that this is a form of it that works. Re-opening also buys goodwill with passholders, whom the mountain is currently asking to re-invest in $959 season passes (there’s a do-everything-else-plus-skiing version with an Ikon Base Pass for $1,428).  

What this has to do with Killington is that it means parent company Powdr, which also owns Bachelor, is willing to roll with this sort of fireworks show even if they have to burn through a little cash. It could happen. The glacier is still deep on Superstar, and Vermont Governor Phil Scott recently relaxed the state’s stay-at-home order. Already the East Coast alpha dog of the long season, Killington could become the region’s first five-star general of undisputed Forever Radness if it gifted a few more shredding days to skiers who have been baking zucchini bread and reorganizing their lightbulbs for the past two months. Whatever it cost them, it would be a PR stunt that would never be forgotten.

There is probably a way to do this safely, and there is probably time, if local government orders allow for it and Killington has the willingness to do it. If anyone in the Northeast has the resources, the capability, the snowpack, and the hell-yeah attitude to make skiing happen here again this spring, it’s them, and I would not be at all shocked to see them make a run for it.

Northeast season pass updates – all changes reflected in this chart

Deferral or refund options introduced this week

  • Boyne of course released a substantial update to their New England Pass – good for a season pass at Sugarloaf, Sunday River, and Loon – that guarantees a credit for 2021-22 passes should the combined resorts’ seasons fall short of 150 days, gives skiers until Dec. 10 to request a full rollover of a 2020-21 pass’ value to the following season, and offers modest renewal credits for 2019-20 and/or 2018-19 passholders.

  • Berkshire East and Catamount, which share the Summit Pass and were the first mountains in the country to shut down to help stop the spread of Covid-19, will give 2020-21 season passholders until Dec. 10 to defer the value of their pass to the 2021-22 season. In a cool twist that no one else has done, skiers who defer their passes will be eligible for 30 percent midweek and 20 weekend discounts on lift tickets throughout the 2020-21 season (the website notes that “some restrictions may apply,” but does not specify what those may be). In the event of an in-season state government shutdown, the mountains will also extend a carry-over credit to a 2021-22 pass proportional to the percent of the guaranteed 90-day season lost. 

  • Waterville Valley extended their early-bird deadline to June 30, introduced a four-part payment plan, and is offering full pass refunds for any reason until Oct. 1. The mountain also introduced a pretty cool deferral policy that I haven’t seen elsewhere yet: you can ride for one day and then decide whether you want to defer the value of your 2020-21 pass to the 2021-22 season. That’s incredible, because, as noted above, things might get weird, and if you show up and this socially distant ski experience is worse than no skiing at all, you may want to peace out on the season. Mind you, the mountain’s $897 pass is still over-the-top ridiculous for a relatively unexciting mountain with plenty of good options nearby. Hopefully the White Mountain Superpass, which offers unlimited access to Waterville Valley and Bretton Woods, Cranmore, and Cannon, adopts this same policy, because it is only $102 more and is a far better value.

  • King Pine, New Hampshire, introduced a no-questions-asked full-refund season pass policy up to opening day. They will also extend the $499 early-bird rate to existing passholders until Oct. 1, which is an exception I haven’t seen any other mountain make. The deadline for everyone else is June 1.

  • Burke will provide no-questions-asked refunds on season passes by Oct. 1. This is not new this week, but I just noticed it.

Running list of Northeast mountains offering refunds or deferrals on 2021-22 season passes: Vail/Epic Pass (Stowe, Okemo, Mount Snow, Wildcat, Attitash, Crotched, Mount Sunapee, Hunter, Roundtop, Whitetail, Liberty, Jack Frost, Big Boulder); Alterra/Ikon Pass (Stratton, Sugarbush); Pats Peak, Waterville Valley, Windham, Mount Peter, Plattekill, Jay Peak, Burke, Magic, Bolton Valley, Killington-Pico, Smugglers’ Notch, Boyne 3 (Loon, Sugarloaf, Sunday River), Lost Valley (ME), King Pine (NH), Elk (PA), Blue Mountain (PA), Spring Mountain (PA), Yawgoo (RI), Berkshire East/Catamount

Mountains that have committed to some sort of refund/deferral policy, but have not yet provided details (new category based upon my podcast conversation with Mad River Glen GM Matt Lillard): Mad River Glen

Notable holdouts (I have been told off the record that some of these mountains are working on policies): ORDA 3 (Whiteface, Gore, Belleayre), Greek Peak-Toggenburg, Holiday Valley, Bristol, Fairbanks Group (Bromley, Jiminy Peak, Cranmore), Wachusett, Cannon, Bretton Woods, Gunstock, Black N.H., Ragged, Shawnee Peak, Mt. Abram, Saddleback, Camelback, Seven Springs-Hidden Valley-Laurel

Price adjustments

  • Shawnee Peak increased pass prices from $695 to $725. The next deadline is Sept. 9. I also no longer see any reference to their previously advertised payment plan, so I’m removing that from the chart as a listed benefit. We are starting to see a trend of ski areas classifying the payment plan as an early-bird benefit and killing it when they bump prices up. Ragged did this last week. I believe this is the opposite of what the current moment calls for, and would not be surprised to see these benefits return.

  • Gunstock’s pass price jumped from $519 to $589. Prices increase again Sept. 7. Here’s another one that appears to have dropped its payment plan.

  • Snow Ridge, New York’s season pass jumped from $299 to $390. The next price deadline is Oct. 1.

Additional season pass notes

  • Looks like I had Epic Pass credits wrong. The credit is not based on the current price of the pass. It is based on the cost of the pass that you purchased last year. So if you purchased a 2019-20 Epic Local Pass for $699 and used it five or more days, your credit would be 20 percent of that, or $139.80. You could then deduct the amount of that from the current cost of an Epic Pass of equal or greater value, so the $979 Epic Pass would be $839.20; the $729 Epic Local Pass $589.20. If you buy a lesser-priced pass, such as the Northeast Value or Midweek Pass, then you get a 20 discount rather than the dollar value credit. All totals calculated based upon a credit granted in my personal email from Epic Pass.

  • Once again, the deadline for the combined Labrador/Song pass in New York is listed as May 1, but the $469 pass price still appears to be valid. I’m still LOLing that there are “NO REFUNDS” for “ANY REASON,” because ALL CAPS WRITING IS A POWERFUL FORM OF EXPRESSION AND IF YOU BOLDFACE IT YOU WILL LOOK EVEN MORE SERIOUS AND DON’T MAKE ME PULL OUT MY UNDERLINES SON BECAUSE I WILL SERIOUSLY WRECK YOU I MEAN IT YOU PUNK STAY OUT OF MY TOOL SHED OR I’LL HAVE YOU ARRESTED FOR UNAUTHORIZED USE OF A GASOLINE-POWERED LAWNMOWER AND TO SHOW YOU HOW DEAD-ASS SERIOUS I AM HERE COMES MY EXCLAMATION POINT SHOTGUN FOOL!!!!!!!!!!!!! The internet is amazing. Sometimes in a spectacular way and sometimes in a horrifying one, but mostly in the way it saws people’s skulls open and exposes what’s inside their brains without any kind of editor or filter and saves it forever and ever for anyone anywhere in the world to marvel at now or in the far far future when the digital archeologists of the year 5000 are looking back on our curious age.

  • Blue Knob’s April 30 early-bird deadline passed, but its $299 sale price still appears to be valid.

  • Yawgoo’s season pass page is a mess, with old rates and contradictory dates displayed on the main pass page, and higher rates displayed at click-through. I’ve updated the charts to reflect the higher rate and Oct. 17 deadline, as these appear to be the current price/next applicable deadline.

This week’s Northeast season pass deadlines:

  • May 25: Smugglers’ Notch, Lost Valley (Maine)

Elsewhere

The new Hermitage Club ownership group is “consulting with” the Schaefer brothers, who own Berkshire East/Catamount (Jon is a two-time guest on The Storm Skiing Podcast). If the club is smart, they will just hand management of the place over to the Schaefers – they will do an excellent job running the mountain, and the new board of directors (once it’s in place in October), can focus on finding a sustainable business model.

Gunstock made money last season in spite of the early shutdown. Boyne Resorts initiated a private offering of $100 million in senior secured second lien notes – Vail made a similar offering in recent weeks. Both have said that they intend to use the proceeds for “general corporate purposes,” which likely means running the business until revenue streams return to some semblance of normal.

I’m always complaining about the Fairbanks Group’s pass prices, so I’ll also point out something awesome they’re doing, which is hosting a high school graduation via one of their summit chairs to ensure social distancing. Ski Bums keep cranking out podcasts.

Powder continues to cover the lifestyle angle of the shutdown from a mountain/ski town point of view: pro skier Michelle Parker delivers meals to families in need around Tahoe, the eeriness of an empty Aspen in lockdown, and missing your ski buds more than skiing itself.

Some ridiculousness for Matchstick:

This week in not skiing

I really don’t want to be Let’s-Look-On-The-Bright-Side Guy because really this whole pandemic thing is a giant catastrophe both in its boiling death totals and in the economic carnage that the necessary shutdowns are delivering. But since I can’t look reality in the face without blinking I have to admit that there’s a good deal of creative destruction going on here of the sort that I pointed out above that’s ongoing in the ski industry. I don’t actually work in the ski industry but just sort of sit in the peanut gallery saying things about it but I do have an actual job and that job typically requires my daily weekday presence in an office building in Manhattan. And one of the things that everyone realized all at once in America is that office buildings are an expensive and completely unnecessary relic that could evaporate into the ether tomorrow with minimal fallout.

We know this because it just happened. One day we were in the office and the next day tens of millions of us weren’t and everything went on exactly as before because we live in the future and we have video calls and online file sharing and chat tools and a dozen other miracles all jammed onto our computers. And as we realized that a) this isn’t any inconvenience at all, and, b) this is gonna last a while, it helped me to actualize one of the great dreams of my professional life, which is to escape the over-air-conditioned office ecosystem and simply sit outside on my patio all summer long working. I like work as a general rule which I guess is why I created this second unpaid job to complement my time-consuming paid job, but I would really rather not be compelled to travel to an air-conditioned office building in the midst of glorious and fleeting summer to sit in sterile rooms when I can be outside barefoot in my shorts and T-shirt among the birds jumping about on the tree branches above me and with my feet resting on the cool steel of the patio table legs and the fresh air all day long breezy blowing around me even if it’s Brooklyn air with trucks driving past and loud music pounding out of open car windows and street sweepers buzzing by like enormous insects.

With New York City’s stay-at-home order extended until mid-June and the spare likelihood of compulsive train or bus commuting being reinstated this year let alone this summer, it looks as though I will get to do the thing that I have always wanted to do in the summer if I must work in the summer (which given the number of vacation days I take to ski is an unfortunate necessity). And that thing is to never have to step from a pleasant summer morning into a tower in which the temperature has been lowered to optimally simulate polar bear habitat and pass the day in stale cold air looking out the windows at the titanic city angling below and Central Park squatting off to the north and wishing I was down there, somewhere, in it. Instead each day I will haul my computer and external monitor and chargers of all kinds and notebooks and pens and power strip and fans out onto the patio and set up the whole thing and just be outside and if it’s hot well it’s summer and that’s what it’s there for.

So I’m looking forward to that, even as it becomes obvious that the rest of this is going to continue to be a gigantic bummer for a very long time to come.


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COVID-19 & Skiing Podcasts: Author and Industry Veteran Chris Diamond | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | NSAA CEO Kelly Pawlak| Berkshire East/Catamount Owner & Goggles for Docs founder Jon Schaefer | Shaggy’s Copper Country Skis Cofounder Jeff Thompson | Doppelmayr USA President Katharina Schmitz | Mt. Baldy GM Robby Ellingson| Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory|

The Storm Skiing Podcasts: Killington & Pico GM Mike Solimano | Plattekill owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay | New England Lost Ski Areas Project Founder Jeremy Davis | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | Lift Blog Founder Peter Landsman | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Burke Mountain GM Kevin Mack | Liftopia CEO Evan Reece | Berkshire East & Catamount Owner & GM Jon Schaefer| Vermont Ski + Ride and Vermont Sports Co-Publisher & Editor Lisa Lynn| Sugarbush President & COO Win Smith| Loon President & GM Jay Scambio| Sunday River President & GM Dana Bullen| Big Snow & Mountain Creek VP of Sales & Marketing Hugh Reynolds | Mad River Glen GM Matt Lillard