Reflecting on Our First Week of Operations

Well, we’ve just concluded a week of winter operations under COVID guidelines.  Wow – a whole lot of time, money and resources went into getting to this point.  We are so proud that we made it and that things went mostly well.  Our leadership team has been debriefing daily on what worked, what needs tweaking, how we plan to bring Mt. Ellen online, and then how to get ready for the holiday period.  We’ve heard from a lot of you over the course of the last week – the majority overwhelmingly positive. 

A lot of thank you’s and nice jobs poured in via email, phone, and in person smiles and virtual high-fives on the walk-ways to and from the resort.  Thank you for that, those gestures mean a whole lot right now.  If you feel this way, please keep them coming.  We all need to hear and say positive things during this crisis, it’s important for mental wellbeing. 

But we also fielded phone calls and emails from others who were less than impressed with our opening operations, and the primary areas of concern these folks had surrounded: a) the number of out of state plates in our parking lots, b) enforcement of the out of state travel policies, c) long lift lines, and d) mask usage.  So let’s unpack these areas of concern and see if we can’t help clear up any misunderstandings and let you know what we’re planning to do to help address them in the go forward.  Our hope is that you, our guests, will stay in conversation with us throughout this season as we all continue to navigate and pivot through these unprecedented times.

Out of State Plates

First, the out of state plates.  The reality is that the Mad River Valley is a large second home owner community.  And what we know to be true from various local outlets is that many of these homes that are normally vacated midweek/non-holiday are now full and have been since the pandemic started.  Our mountain utility company saw a 20% increase in usage this summer alone.  In addition, the mountain has traditionally employed a lot of staff from out of state who come here to spend the winter with us.  As well as the many Chittenden County colleges that are still in session, all of whom have sweet pass deals with us. 

On this topic of out of state plates, we’ve been taking our cue from the Governor who in his press conference last Friday addressed this concern specifically, “Asked about the out-of-state car license plates that are a common feature at ski area parking lots…With no way of knowing who has quarantined as required, and who hasn’t, Scott recommended not jumping to any conclusions.  Some have second homes in Vermont; some have moved here and stayed here because it’s a safe place and they can work remotely, he said.  Watching the data every day is a more accurate way to determine how people are behaving, he said.  I haven’t seen hardly any out-of-state mentions of those who are positive, he said.” 

The reality is right now, the COVID numbers in Vermont are a result of Vermonters socially gathering with friends and family.  It’s simply not the result of out-of-staters.  Nor are Vermont’s current numbers the result of folks catching the virus as a result of time spent in industry sectors like restaurants, gyms or ski resorts.  If that were true, these sectors would likely not be open.  However, we get that this could change and that we must continue to monitor our performance very closely.

For those who were concerned we didn’t manage capacity over the weekend, we wanted you to know that only 5% of our skier visits over the weekend were from ticketed guests.  The remainder were passholders, the majority (well over 70%) who are registered in our system with Vermont zip codes.  Keep in mind these actual “local” or “Vermonter” passholder numbers are likely even higher when you add in the various school kids and second homeowners who are now living here for the season. 

We also hear questions on why we are not using a reservation system to control capacity and the reality is – we most definitely are.  While some resorts are managing via parking reservations (with no limits on the number per car).  And others are managing by controlling passholder visits in exchange for the ability to sell more lucrative day tickets.  At Sugarbush, we have opted for this latter model but instead of controlling passholder visits, we instead opted to drastically reduce our day ticket sales – on most days by as much as 75%.

Out of State Travel Policies

We also heard from folks who were interested in how we are going to “enforce” or “police” the out of state travel guidelines.  Again, in this regard we are taking our cue from Governor Scott when he said in last week’s conference, “…how individuals should respond to others possibly unsafe behavior: without confrontation. Unless we have specific information to prove that somebody has not (followed protocols), it’s hard to go after folks.”  And that’s how we are handling this topic here at Sugarbush. 

Keep in mind, other than the lodging sector which requires a signed compliance letter from their guests, the ski industry is the only other sector in the State being asked to do a similar thing.  And our industry has spent an enormous amount of time and money getting what is now referred to as The Attestation, in place.  In order to ski/ride in Vermont this year, all guests are being asked to Attest or agree (at Sugarbush we are doing this via electronic or paper waivers) that they are complying with Vermont’s Cross State Travel and Quarantining Guidelines. 

However, once our guests sign these documents, we are not going to monitor their at-home behaviors.  To be honest, we think most people are doing the right thing.  And we know that roughly 30% of our passholders have inquired about our Adventure Assurance Program, which until April 11th enables them to roll the value of their pass to the following season.

Lift Lines

The feedback on long lift lines is absolutely fair. Lines on Saturday were long and this happened for two reasons: 1) it’s still early season and we had limited terrain open and therefore, only three lifts spinning; and 2) Vermont’s guidelines right now require us to load our lifts with members of the same party or reduce capacity to 50%.  This 50% capacity is no joke, especially when you keep in mind our Heaven’s Gate Triple, which is a fixed grip lift. It meant we could only load 1 person per chair.  (To put this in perspective, right now we are averaging about 25% of our total uphill lift capacity.)  The primary driver for this is that many people are riding lifts by themselves. These factors definitely contributed to longer than normal lift lines. 

So what are we doing to help address this? Coming into this weekend, we plan to open Mt. Ellen Friday – where our Value Passholders will have to ski on Saturdays and Sundays (and holidays) going forward – and at Lincoln Peak we will be bringing online for the weekend our Gate House pod (catering to beginner terrain once we get it groomed out) as well.  By increasing the number of lifts available, we anticipate our guests being able to spread out more across the Resort, thus reducing some of these longer than normal lines. 

Some concerns over physical distancing were also raised in regards to our lift lines.  We built in ghost lanes between all of our guest lanes within each corral setup, this created the 6’ distance to the sides between parties.  And then, when I lay down my two sets of skis on the ground from tip to tail, I measure just about 6’ from mid-binding to mid-binding. So the natural physical distance between two sets of skiers (one in front of another) is pretty spot on. 

But what happened over the weekend was that some of our lift lines exceeded the length of our corral systems and in these instances when folks were outside of our roped areas, we did see creepage on the 6’ between groups.  Again, in this regard we think our expanded terrain this weekend will help.  Additionally, our Lift Operations Manager has been out there every day tweaking the corrals to create more space for queuing and distancing.

Mask Usage

To be fair, the feedback on this has been a bit mixed. Our leadership team was out and about over the weekend and from our vantage point we felt mask compliance was genuinely strong.  But we received feedback yesterday via our guest surveys stating that for some, they felt the mask usage, particularly at the upper mountain lift, wasn’t actually that great.  And on that end, the leadership team agreed we probably focused our compliance efforts this past week more heavily within our indoor areas (where virus transmission is known to be more likely); as well as in the base areas where the larger majority of guests were congregating. 

So this weekend, we plan to have staff walking our lift line ghost lanes to help educate guests on mask usage and keeping them up the entire time they are queueing.  And our President put out a firm reminder today to all of our staff that mask usage is paramount and employees will be held accountable for compliance.  During COVID, mask usage is like the “canary in the coal mine” – if guests don’t feel good about this protocol, they likely won’t feel good about any of our COVID protocols.

A Long 10 Months

This team has worked tremendously hard over the last ten months to get here to opening, and I am incredibly proud of the work we have done.  My colleague, Amy Kretz and I are the self-appointed COVID Queens. It’s what we do now for the bulk of our jobs.  We spend heaps of times with the state/corporate guidelines, on the ACCD/Department of Health/CDC websites, listening to the Governor’s press conferences, chatting with the Department of Health – A LOT, managing compliance requirements, overseeing timelines for sick staff or those in quarantine/isolation, you name it – COVID is what we do.  And I could not feel more confident that what we are doing here at Sugarbush is solid.  I believe whole heartedly in Governor Scott’s guidelines and protocols. They work as a testament to Vermont’s strong performance since March.  We have not seen significant outbreaks in schools or within any industry, including the ski industry, which has been operating in various sectors since May – and that’s a testament to all of the work being put into executing these onerous guidelines. 

In ten months, we’ve only had three employees test positive for COVID.  And all three were the result of exposures that took place outside the work place. I can honestly say there is not a single job at this resort I would be “afraid” to work right now, that’s how confident I am in our COVID protocols and the good work we are doing.  Make no mistake, we fully understand the power of this virus and the threat to all of us if guidelines are not followed.  But for now we stand with Governor Scott and Dr. Mark Levine by focusing on the data and insuring that we are adhering to our guidelines.

We take your feedback seriously.  Every email, every phone call, every comment made in a survey – we listen and read them all.  We feel very strongly in keeping the COVID conversation fluid, transparent and personal.  I went so far to have business cards made with my personal cell phone so that guests could reach out to me at any time with comments/feedback.  We know everyone has a different comfort level with COVID, for some this may be the season you take off.  For others, you may be the ones we are chasing around to put your masks on or stop hanging out in our parking lots with your friends.  (Seriously, please don’t do either.)  Regardless, we invite you to please stay connected to us.  The fact is that opening a ski resort during a pandemic is hard but not opening a ski resort during a pandemic is even harder. 

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