What this is: This is the second in a series of short conversations exploring the fallout to the ski industry from the COVID-19-forced closure of nearly every ski area on the continent in March 2020. This is not a typical Storm Skiing Podcast, and the format, tone, and focus is intentionally different from those lengthier shows. My goal is to help the community understand why the shutdown was necessary and what it means to our sport in the short and long term. You can listen to the first one, with author and industry veteran Chris Diamond, here.
Who: Stephen Kircher, President and CEO of Boyne Resorts
Why I interviewed him: As the head of the third largest ski company in North America by skier visits, Kircher had to make the wrenching and consequential decision to bring his whole sprawling empire to a sudden, complete stop on March 15 to help halt the spread of COVID-19. You’re talking about monster resorts here, like Sugarloaf and Sunday River and Big Sky, suddenly freezing the lifts in place at the end of a midwinter weekend and sending everyone home, from employees to guests. The fallout is enormous, not just to those groups and to that mountain, but to the surrounding communities that rely on those resorts to power their whole economy. The consequences of not closing down, however, would have been much greater. I wanted to hear how and when he arrived at the incredible decision to cease operations, how Boyne is managing the fallout, and how the company hopes to recover for the future.
What we talked about: Boyne only has one confirmed COVID-19 case among its 10,000 employees; how the exodus from cities to mountain town vacation homes accelerated the shutdown; they had to shut down because “if customers can ski, they’ll ski”; how the virus hit locally in Northern Michigan; Boyne doesn’t have a Broomfield-style HQ and so its employees are accustomed to working together across the breadth of the continent; they backed the trucks up after the shutdown to fill them with medical supplies for the hospitals and food for employees and local food kitchens; other ways they’re helping the effort to fight COVID; how federal leadership failed and how companies and local governments had to step in to make patchwork decisions; when the company began taking extra safety measures; Boyne was already working on a phased shutdown plan before any mountains had closed anywhere; how everything snowballed and blew up those plans; when “it became increasingly clear that if we’re going to maintain a safe outcome here, then we’re going to have to have an orderly shutdown”; when they had planned to close each mountain; how everything went completely sideways for the whole industry on Saturday, March 14; how the big industry players communicated with one another as all this was unfolding; how being in Europe when all this was going down made him feel like a discombobulated time traveler; why the industry was lucky this happened toward the end of the season; how their employees are holding up and how the Congressional relief bill is helping to ease their sudden layoffs; everyone just figured out that business interruption insurance doesn’t cover pandemics and why that’s an enormous problem; what that insurance does cover and how Boyne has used it in the past; how many millions in revenue Boyne estimates it lost in the shutdown; the factors the company is considering as it decides whether to move forward with major capital projects like the Kanc 8 at Loon; whether any of Boyne’s mountains could re-open this season and why they probably won’t; which mountains could open if they do
Helpful additional context: Stephen mentions the COVID hotspot of Ischgl, referring to an Austrian ski town from which the virus erupted across the continent. You can read more about that here. He also said, “this hasn’t happened since 1918,” referring to the last global pandemic. If you are still somehow not aware of this even now, here you go.
Background vocal credits: Logan Winchester, age 3
Recorded on: April 1, 2020
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COVID-19 and Skiing Podcasts: Author and Industry Veteran Chris Diamond
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