With snow in the forecast this week and almost four months passed since the initial Berkshire Outdoor Recreation Webinar in early July, Mill Town Capital’s Carrie Holland hosted a panel discussion of local ski area executives to preview what is being done to combat the coronavirus and keep people enjoying the outdoors during a pandemic winter.
The presentation also included notes from a pair of local retail outfitters, a brief chat with Berkshire Regional Planning Commission’s Laurie Brennan and a challenge proposal from Jeffrey Thomas of Lever for entrepreneurs looking to start a business in the Mohawk Trail region that will bring jobs to the area.
The focal point, though, was on the upcoming ski season and what people can expect from Jiminy Peak, Berkshire East, Catamount, Ski Butternut and Mill Town’s newly-acquired Bousquet Mountain in Pittsfield.
“We continue to be really, really lucky here in the Berkshires that we have so much outdoor space and distance that we can keep our transmission levels down,” Holland began, “because we are certainly still in the pandemic mode with lots of restrictions and probably an uncertain winter ahead of us.”
Kevin McMillan was introduced as the new general manager at Bousquet. He came over from Zoar Outdoor in August and has been overseeing a bunch of renovations to the mountain. Butternut marketing director Dillon Mahon, along with Tyler Fairbank, CEO of the Fairbank Group which owns Jiminy Peak, and Jon Schaefer, GM of both Berkshire East and Catamount, made up the panel.
Berkshire East was the first mountain to shut down operations at the start of the pandemic, and Schaefer has since spent time on an Outdoor Recreation Advisory Task Force, serving as chair of Ecotourism, Outdoor Recreation and Rural Economies.
“In May, it was a shock to all of us. We were sitting around waiting for guidance to be written, and then we were asked to help write the guidance,“ said Schaefer, who also manages Zoar. “We essentially ended up building the fire truck on the way to the fire. There was a high sense of urgency.
“With the experience of summer, we’re now looking toward winter.”
He said his team had submitted new written guidance for winter on Friday and they are expecting to hear back from state agencies soon.
Fairbank and McMillan also spoke of how their respective businesses handled the COVID-19 summer.
“The biggest takeaway from summer is you can have as many plans as you need, but you need to be flexible,” McMillan said. “Our focus is on keeping our guests safe and our employees safe. I think if you always keep that front and center, it’s pretty easy to figure out what the next thing to do is.
“This isn’t going to last forever. We can afford to be careful for a year.”
Fairbank said the summer at Jiminy was viable, with self-imposed restrictions that went beyond the state guidelines. He noted those guidelines for winter haven’t arrived yet, so what they are doing now is anticipating and building accordingly.
“In the ski business, we go from 0 to 60 like that. We go from nothing to bam, there are red days, holiday periods and Saturdays. We’re somewhat hopeful that maybe, this might spread some of that out a little bit.”
Fairbank also echoed the sentiment of remaining flexible.
“We’re not going to set it and forget it. We’ll go in with a good plan, but eyes wide open. Go through the first busy period and then, as an industry we’ll say, ‘ok what did we learn, how do we change, modify our approach, what do we do better?’”
As for tangible changes skiers and riders can expect locally, Mahon said there are places northeastern mountains can study. For example: chairlift riding.
“We’re so used to putting as many people as we can on a lift and sending them up, and keeping the capacity going, but our friends in New Zealand and Australia touched on this,” said Butternut’s marketing director. “What we learned from those guys is, it’s not much of an issue. You eliminate the singles line, and if you present as a group, you are a group. If not, you ride with who you’re comfortable with.”
He said it might slow things down slightly, but from there everything is a management problem, which they are more than ready to deal with.
Schaefer detailed changes to things like bathroom capacities, box office trailers for ticketing and food service being moved to outdoor windows. He also referred to the challenge of lift lines as a geometry problem, and guidance is forthcoming.
“I can’t be less than six feet away from you,” Schaefer said. “It’s less about the fore and aft separation, as it is the side-to-side. Your ski tips are going to keep people six feet from you. You’ll have to leave a ghost line, or just do some geometry homework. It’s a TBD, it’ll be an experiment to figure out how it’ll work.”
Finally, the conversation turned to staffing and the face-to-face hospitality that so often goes along with the resort experience.
“This winter is going to be a contract between not only the workforce, but the guests that arrive,” said Schaefer. “There’s a new relationship which will have to occur between everybody at a ski area to ensure that the season goes off without a hitch.”