For the first time in 19 years, I returned to Sugarbush as a guest rather than owner/president and was pleased with what has been accomplished these past few months preparing for a COVID-19 winter. Ambassadors in their red jackets greeted everyone with wide smiles behind their masks. The signage was informative, and great attention is being paid to safety for both employees and guests. The RFID gate at the entrance is a smart addition so a visitor can check to see if one’s pass is valid before getting to the lift (and being turned away if the COVID attestation has not been submitted). It will take time to get used to the flow of the Gate House, but it works, and one feels safe while indoors. The online reservation and ordering system for food and beverage is convenient but will require planning ahead. The new Lunch Box food trailer near the Schoolhouse and 802 Burritos are smart innovations, as are the additional fire pits and heaters under the eaves. On Saturday, it was nice to see how the new courtyard was being utilized.
The lift corrals are very different, with “ghost lanes” providing social distancing, and lift capacity is at 50% other than for those from the same household. I saw lift attendants politely asking people to either put on their mask or wear it properly if they observed a guest not adhering to correct mask protocol. Once on the mountain, I felt that the early-season conditions were excellent and top-to-bottom skiing was available on fun trails.
I was not part of the final planning or budget process, but did not need to be to know how challenging this season will be. With few exceptions, ski resorts make money in a “normal” year in only three months. Most lose money in the rest of the year, even though the growth in summer activities has helped to reduce those losses somewhat. Spring and fall season pass sales provide the cash to fund summer losses, capital improvements and then ramp up for the winter.
Beginning Christmas week, revenues from day tickets, food and beverage, rentals and repairs, ski school, lodging and retail sales begin. A resort hopes to turn profitable by late January or early February. If too many days are lost due to weather or COVID-19 restrictions, it is difficult to make up lost revenue.
This year, day tickets will be limited, as will ski school programs and lodging. Lodge capacity mandates along with personal concerns will reduce food and beverage revenue significantly. I know Sugarbush plans to make as much snow as ever, run the same lift schedule and groom as usual. More has been invested for safety: plexiglass shields, monitors to limit lodge and bathroom capacity, extra outdoor services and sanitizing and cleaning equipment. With reduced revenue, all resorts are having to make tough choices, none of which they enjoy making. Since many expenses cannot be reduced, resorts need to look to reduce discretionary expenses such as marketing, events, promotion and entertainment. There will not be as many seasonal jobs. Every necessary change may not be understandable to everyone, but I know that decisions are being made deliberatively and with the goal of focusing on both safety and survivability.
When I retired in September, I did so in the belief that the mountain was in very good hands with Alterra Mountain Company. When we came to an abrupt halt on March 14, revenue stopped. It was not clear what the future would bring as Vermont locked down. For seasonal staff, the season ended early. Because Sugarbush was not eligible for programs like PPP, most full-time year-round employees moved to zero hours. Fortunately, they became eligible for the enhanced unemployment benefits offered by the CARES act. Alterra also made the decision to continue all employee benefits including health insurance for those on zero hour status. Belonging to a larger organization, we were able to share ideas and learn from each other. It was also very reassuring knowing that Alterra Mountain Company has the financial strength to survive even the worst-case scenario.
I retired in September believing I was turning the reins over to a very competent management team and, based on my first few days on the mountain, I am reassured of that. This winter we will all have to have greater patience, learn to plan ahead and understand that changes are required for the safety and for the survivability of Sugarbush. We will surely have to be flexible and adjust as needed. However, I am as excited as ever to be back on skis at Sugarbush and look forward to much adventure this winter, though with a bit less of the usual camaraderie.