A note to readers: The news cycle is rapidly evolving, and we may continue to update this post. For continual updates on ski resort closures, you can follow our post, “In Progress: Ski Areas That Are Now Closed.”
Last updated, 11:10AM PT, 3/14/2020: We have corrected this article to attribute the NASJA quote to Jeff Blumenfeld, president of the North American Snowsports Journalists Association.
Another event postponement cancellation: The World Ski & Snowboard Festival is on pause due to COVID-19.
I keep rewriting this story. Just when I’m ready to hit SEND, a headline or an email or a phone call makes me stop, sigh, and start over.
Here’s the latest. Yesterday, I wrote, “The North American Snowsports Journalists Association, NASJA, is on. It has no plans to cancel its late-March meeting in Sun Valley.”
But I didn’t hit SEND. Good thing. From Jeff Blumenfeld, NASJA’s president, this just in: “Earlier this week, it appeared as if we could safely schedule NASJA’s Sun Valley annual meeting as planned. But in a rapidly evolving national crisis, that is no longer the case. Yesterday, your NASJA board decided to join the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and the International Skiing History Association, in cancelling its pre-trip to Tamarack and Brundage, and its week in Sun Valley.”
Blumenfeld added, “Frankly, I’m personally relieved as I’m sure many of you are as well.”
As I’ve followed these rapid-fire changes, I realized that the snowsports industry was finally joining the rest of world and American tourism by responding to the coronavirus pandemic with something more than, “At [FILL IN THE BLANK], the health and safety of our guests and employees is our top priority.”
By now, we all know how coronavirus is affecting tourism — companies cancelling conferences, airlines cancelling flights, Japan closing the Tokyo Zoo and reconsidering the Summer Olympics, and (again, today) Princess Cruises cancelling all cruises. But there’s been much less information on how it’s impacting the ski business. So, I asked around. Here’s what I found…
The first event cancelled was the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, which has been held in Snowmass for the past 30-some years. This year it’s been canceled thanks to coronavirus. But note — that decision was made not by the ski industry but by the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
Then midday March 13, the annual Mountain Travel Symposium announced their cancellation, or rather, potential postponement. Organizers describe it as “the single largest and longest-running annual gathering of mountain travel professionals in the world.” Prior to postponement they had revised their attendance policy: “At this time, we will not be permitting those residing in or having travelled to/from the areas the CDC defines as Warning Level 3 to attend MTS.”
Some events are sitting uncomfortably on the fence. “With Outdoor Retailer Summer 2020 more than four months away, it is too early and the situation too dynamic to predict what will be happening in June. We are actively planning the Summer show for June 23-25 in Denver.”
Not Just Events – How About Ski Resorts?
But there are a number of ski resorts that appear to be running as usual. Robert Mulcahy, retired president of Smugglers’ Notch, writes, “The marketing folks at Smuggs have not seen any impact to date. Also, most of our guests drive to Smuggs so they are not concerned about airports and airline issues.”
Mulcahy wryly adds, “I suggest you encourage folks to visit Vermont and forget all the mega resorts which will have a higher propensity for risk!!”
From another locals’ favorite Montana mountain, Lisa Jones writes, “We are just skiing as usual in Whitefish, still not crowded and no worries. Probably about 2,000 people on the hill today under partly sunny skies and a 124″ settled base (skiing is good!).”
Brian Schott, also of Whitefish, adds, “Gloves and ski masks are on! ;-)”
On March 11, the Montana Department of Commerce put this out: “Montana currently has no cases of COVID-19. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services is closely monitoring this rapidly evolving public health situation and is updating its website daily.”
And yes, as of March 13, Montana now has one case.
When I asked Vail Resorts how the coronavirus is affecting skiing, I got no less than three answers. Barrett Burghard, director of mountain ops at Park City, says, “Seems busier than ever here at Park City.”
Vail’s Colorado Director of Communications, Ryan Huff writes, “We have no reported cases of coronavirus at any of our resorts. We are, however, following health department guidelines and preparing contingency plans so we can make our resorts as safe as possible,” adding in italics, “At Vail Resorts, the health and safety of our guests and employees is our top priority. We’re closely monitoring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization’s statements regarding the novel coronavirus (COVID-2019) cases and following the guidelines from these agencies and local health departments.”
But, probably because he’s on the front line, Erik Austin, Vail Resorts VP of Reservations, tells me there are a “growing number of calls with concerns, asking what the policies are for cancellations. No significant cancellations at the moment but staying close to the trend day to day.”
That’s Vail; what about Aspen? Jeff Hanle, Aspen’s Director of Public Relations reports, “We have seen a handful of cancellations and numerous phone calls from guests checking in. We lost one large piece of group business, but we have also been continuing to book new business for the ski season—at a slower pace than last year.”
Hanle cautions, “We are continuing to monitor the situation closely, working with the local medical community. We are communicating best practices to our employees and sharing information with them that they can share with guests as needed. At this point it’s still unsure what impact this will have on the current ski season.”
From farther west, Michael Reitzell, president of Ski California (the industry association representing 32 ski areas in California and Nevada): “Like all responsible industries, the ski industry recognizes the developing situation involving COVID-19. To date, authorities have not issued any guidance that is specific to travel in the U.S. and our member resorts are open and operating normally, with the health and safety of guests and employees continuing to be our top priority. We cannot definitively say whether COVID-19 is directly impacting guests’ decision to ski or ride because there are other variables that can affect those decisions. We will continue to closely monitor updates and recommendations from the CDC and encourage our guests and communities to do the same.”
What Do Ski Journalists Think?
OK. We’ve heard from ski resorts in Vermont, Montana, Utah, Colorado and California. What do ski journalists think? Two who know the most are Mary McKhann, publisher of the highly regarded The Snow Industry Letter, and Rick Kahl, editor of Ski Area Management, universally known in the industry as SAM.
On March 10, The Snow Industry Letter led with this ominous headline: COVID-19: BY TOMORROW, IT WILL LIKELY BE WORSE
The article opened, “The effects of the coronavirus on the ski industry and the broader destination travel business are just beginning to be felt, and the long-term impact is impossible to predict at this point. But even though it’s a moving target, we already know it’s going to hurt.”
The article discussed someone who’d been in Italy, then skied Keystone and Vail. He came down with the virus. Vail Resorts responded, “Transmission from asymptomatic people is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” From this apparently reassuring notion, Vail concluded, “Our resorts are fully open and operating normally.”
Ski Area Management asked readers to vote on “WHAT EFFECT WILL THE CORONAVIRUS HAVE ON YOUR SEASON?”
Readers chose from these alternatives:
- A few folks have canceled their plans.
- No impact so far and we don’t expect any.
- We’re seeing an uptick in visits.
- Is there a problem with my favorite beer?
The results? SAM’s Rick Kahl: “We’ve had 33 responses so far. Six said they have seen a clear drop in visits. Two said a few folks have cancelled their plans. Thirteen reported no impact, and two were seeing an uptick in visits. Kahl adds, “FYI, we gave people the choice of responding, ‘Is there a problem with my favorite beer?’ and that has been the second most-clicked option, at nine.”
Kahl concludes, “I’d think that the losers, in this case, are the big, pure destination areas, and the winners are small, less-crowded local hills in regions where there have been no coronavirus infections.”
Could the Ski Industry Be Virtually Unaffected?
Here’s what puzzles me. The rest of the traveling world is seriously affected — South by Southwest and Coachella both cancelled or postponed, March Madness and the NBA shuttered for this season, Milan Fashion Week taking a massive hit, museums locking their doors, airlines cutting back international and American flights — and the ski industry is virtually unaffected? While I trust all the folks I’ve contacted for this story, I find that more than a little hard to believe. How can this be?
Here’s one possible answer — the off-the-record observations of a ski industry marketer who has asked to remain anonymous: “My honest opinion is that it’s not affecting the ski industry. I haven’t heard of one cancellation or trend going in that direction. That said, it’s hitting the U.S. after all the school-break weeks when it’s less crowded anyway. Also, the New York Times posted a story about fresh air being a good antidote to the virus. Open the windows they say. Or, go skiing! I say.”
Some Personal Reports…
Let’s close this ever-changing story with three personal reports. First up, Kristen Ulmer, champion extreme skier and author of The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won’t Work and What to Do Instead. “I’ve been imagining what it’d be like to die from this, it sounds pretty horrible. So, I’ve decided to stop shaking hands, start using wipes, avoid crowds, re-think travel plans.”
Next, Kristen Lummis, better known as the Brave Ski Mom. Her most recent post is titled, Our Family’s Experience with COVID 19. It begins with this chilling sentence: “On Monday of this week, we realized that the “flu” our son was experiencing was probably not the flu.” Lummis continues with this even-more-chilling observation: “Yesterday, Colorado’s Governor Jared Polis announced that our mountain communities were likely to be hardest hit by COVID 19. As reported by the Colorado Sun, Polis noted that mountain communities are particularly risky and vulnerable, citing a lack of medical resources to fight the virus’ spread, high altitude (which has impacts on respiratory health), and the convergence of visitors from diverse places.”
Finally, just as I was gonna hit that SEND button, an email arrived from Iain McMillan, longtime editor of Ski Canada. With mouth agape, I read … “I’m in [expletive deleted] Italy! Beautiful Madonna di Campiglio. Situation extremely quiet but seemingly normal, but we’re headed for the Brenner Pass in a few hours — like the von Trapps without lederhosen. Found a ride to Innsbruck hopefully still going and then train to Zurich.
“Rome is burning but we still did Aperitif Hour with the 10 still at the hotel. Like all ski resorts, today will be the last day of the season, snow is fantastic, sun is back out and I’m missing all next week’s ski-mountaineering adventures. Never got a chance to use my new ice axe.”
What’s coming next? Cross your fingers. Then wash them. And stay tuned.
Jules Older’s skiing ebook is SKIING THE EDGE: Humor, Humiliation, Holiness and Heart.