Podcast #43: NSAA President & CEO Kelly Pawlak

How the NSAA unified the ski industry to save the 2020-21 ski season

  
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Who

National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) President and CEO Kelly Pawlak

Recorded on

April 6, 2021

Why I interviewed her

Because the NSAA saved our 2020-21 ski season. They did this by creating the Ski Well, Be Well standards, which united hundreds of ski areas and millions of skiers under a shared understanding of what safe, socially distant skiing would look like. They did it by helping individual ski area operators understand which streams of the overlapping and bewildering layers of government aide they qualified for and shepherding them through the application processes. They did it by presenting a compelling alternative to full shutdowns for state-level regulators. And they did it all through tireless coalition-building among all the entities that manage this monster called lift-served skiing, landing on firm but clear operating guidelines that, while imperfect, did what they were designed to do: create consistency and order in a weather-dependent business often defined by chaos and improvisation. Leading the organization and the industry through this was Pawlak. I wanted to understand how the NSAA coordinated and executed the tectonic effort to make sure American lift-served skiing opened and stayed open for a full 2020-21 ski season.  

What we talked about

Putting the challenge of adapting to Covid in historical context; if skiing can handle this, it can handle anything; where do you even begin when Covid nukes your entire industry?; developing and rolling out the Ski Well, Be Well guidelines that helped ski areas operate in the midst of the pandemic; getting every ski area in the country to agree to require masks; the importance of state ski area associations; how the NSAA helped states develop ski area operating guidelines; the complexity of agreeing on how to load chairlifts; why politics didn’t derail 2020-21 ski area operations; when she started to believe Covid-era skiing could work; how the U.S. ski industry got through the season without a single shutdown; why mask-wearing worked both for ski area employees and skiers; Covid operating changes that may become permanent after the pandemic fades; which regions of the country best weathered the pandemic from a business point of view; helping ski areas take advantage of various rounds of federal and state assistance; how many ski areas sat out the 2020-21 season and what those operations had in common; why every ski area felt so much busier than normal; liftlines; the surge in season pass sales; whether pass refund and deferral policies and other consumer-friendly pass attributes like payment plans are here to stay; are the Epic and Ikon Passes good for skiing and small ski areas?; reaction to Vail and Alterra’s statements on diversity; the NSAA’s diversity initiatives; the importance of pipeline programs to diversify skiers and ski industry workers; skiing’s “Jerry” problem; how the declining season pass prices help more people feel like part of the ski community.

Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview

Because we did it. We had a ski season. Winding toward mid-April, the ski areas that we would expect to be shut are shut and the ones we would expect to be open are open and they are making these decisions on their own, as melt-outs or slowing business stop the lifts. There was nothing inevitable about this. Skiing barely happened in Europe. Canada has weathered successive waves of shutdowns across multiple provinces. Southern Hemisphere skiing was a disaster in 2020. There is no doubt a cultural element to America’s stubbornness here - shutdowns are out of favor, politically. But the fact that skiing stayed open while so many other sorts of gathering - from concerts to sports to movie theaters - remained closed or curtailed is a testament to the efficacy of the NSAA’s Ski Well, Be Well standards. They were good conceptually and they were good practically – I visited 34 ski areas this season, and I only observed one instance of an unmasked mountain employee. I did not see any brazen instances of skier disobedience in mask compliance (I did see plenty of accidental ones). I experienced few issues with lift loading. I found the car-as-a-baselodge concept surprisingly enjoyable. The shift to ecommerce was welcome. Mostly, though, I found a sense of stability and normalcy as pandemic-induced isolation is catalyzing a massive mental health crisis. I didn’t have to hole up inside, away from the world – I was skiing twice a week, out there, adventuring. This seemed like a great time to reflect on these facts with the person perhaps most responsible for making them a reality.

Additional reading


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 | NSAA Director of Risk & Regulatory Affairs Dave Byrd | Schweitzer Mountain President and CEO Tom Chasse | Ski Vermont President Molly Mahar

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 | Indy Pass Founder Doug Fish | National Brotherhood of Skiers President Henri Rivers | Winter 4 Kids & National Winter Activity Center President & CEO Schone Malliet | Vail Veterans Program President & Founder Cheryl Jensen | Mountain Gazette Owner & Editor Mike Rogge | Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows President & CMO Ron Cohen | Aspiring Olympian Benjamin Alexander | Sugarloaf GM Karl Strand – Parts One & Two | Cannon GM John DeVivo | Fairbank Group Chairman Brian Fairbank | Jay Peak GM Steve Wright | Sugarbush President & GM John Hammond | Mount Snow GM Tracy Bartels | Saddleback CEO & GM Andy Shepard | Bousquet owners and management | Hermitage Club GM Bill Benneyan | Powder Magazine Editor-in-Chief Sierra Shafer | Gunstock GM Tom Day | Bolton Valley President Lindsay DesLauriers | Windham President Chip Seamans | Sunday River GM Brian Heon | Waterville Valley GM Tim Smith | Granite Peak GM Greg Fisher | Montage Mountain Managing Owner Charles Jefferson | Author and journalist Eric Wilbur | Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory |