COVID-19 on the slopes: Lockdown insurance, contactless tickets and the end of 'apres ski'
Skiers ride a chairlift at a ski hill. (Pexels/PhotoMIX Company)
TORONTO -- As colder weather pushes more people indoors in the coming months, Canada’s ski resorts could become the go-to pandemic escape.
Since early in the crisis, health officials have urged Canadians to avoid gathering indoors where the virus that causes COVID-19 can more easily spread.
But the slopes won’t be immune to the “new normals” of the coronavirus era. Canadians should expect a different kind of skiing experience, involving all the indoor masking, physical distancing and contactless payments that have become part of the global health crisis.
It also likely means the end of “après ski” culture, warming up and socializing over hot chocolate in crowded chalet cafeterias.
“This is not going to be a great year for après,” said Robert Huter, general manager at Ontario’s Mount St. Louis Moonstone, which plans to open in December. “We’re going to have to wait another year for the big après ski [experience] again.”
Resort operators know that the coming season will look different, but are still optimistic that it will happen for Canadians eager to get outside.
“A lot of people in the winter time [will not] be able to go anywhere,” Huter said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca on Thursday. “This will be their escape to get outside and do something. If we can get our doors open and show everyone that it’s a safe product, we’re going to be alright.”
Ski businesses across Canada have been developing protocols for reopening the slopes, which for some could happen in less than two months’ time. In Alberta, both the Sunshine Village and Lake Louise ski resorts plan to open in early November with new safety measures in place.
“We think it’s important to be able to give people who are struggling with pandemic fatigue a place [for recreation],” Kendra Scurfield, brand and communications director for Sunshine Village, told CTV News Calgary earlier this month.
Most resorts will require face masks indoors, on chairlifts or gondolas and in lineups, and will implement frequent cleaning procedures for common spaces.
Though many are still developing polices for the upcoming season, here are some of the other changes Canadians might see at ski hills.
TICKETS AND RENTALS
More resorts will likely move to reservations and online-only sales to avoid face-to-face payments. At some resorts, pass holders will be given priority access during portions of the ski season. Vail Resorts, which operates Whistler Blackcomb in B.C. and several other mountains in North America, will be implementing a reservation system across all its locations through its Epic Pass online system.
The days of paper-and-wire ticket wickets are numbered as more resorts adopt “RFID” (radio-frequency identification) chip systems in recent years that enhance contactless payment. At Mount St. Louis Moonstone in Ontario, guests will purchase re-loadable tickets online, pick them up at kiosks on site and swipe them to gain access to chair lifts. Equipment rentals will also be facilitated online, and the resort may provide specific times for guests to pick their order up at the shop.
Though many of Canada’s ski hills can host thousands of guests a day, operators expect to reduce those numbers, though it’s unclear by how much. Alterra Mountain Company, which operates Blue Mountain in Ontario and Mont Tremblant in Quebec, among others, said it plans to prioritize season pass holders and “tightly regulate” the number of daily tickets available online.
Huter expects capacity levels could be at 65 per cent of what they typically are. During a regular season, Mount St. Louis Moonstone could host close to 7,000 people throughout a single day, he said. The resort might delay opening by a week or so in order to open with as many trails as possible to enhance physical distancing on the slopes.
Much still remains in flux as coronavirus cases spike around the country. On Thursday, Quebec and Ontario alone recorded nearly 800 new cases of COVID-19 after several summer weeks in the double digits. The same day, Ontario announced it would reduce indoor and outdoor gathering limits in three hot spots to Stage 2 levels.
If ski resorts end up closing down during a “second wave,” some operators have already developed guidelines to refund passes. At Mount St. Louis Moonstone, a COVID-19 “assurance policy” says that if a new lockdown closes the resort for longer than 14 consecutive days, they will give the pass holder some credit toward passes during the next season.
“Just to give them them some assurances that if the government closes everything down that they’re not going to be out their investment,” said Huter.
LESSONS, SCHOOL TRIPS
Ski resorts have long been a popular destination for school trips, but Huter expects there will be “next to none” visiting his hills season. With the exception of last year, which was affected by “work to rule” action, a normal season sees some 22,000 to 25,000 school kids visiting the hills.
Similarly, there might not be any ski or snowboard lessons at Mount St. Louis Moonstone, which typically offers an eight-week instructional class. Resort staff are still considering in what capacity, if at all, they will offer lessons.
Though much is still in the works at Canada’s ski resorts, operators like Huter are trying to stay positive.
“To be in the ski business, you have to think that the glass is always half full,” he said.