The coronavirus pandemic gave rise to a mantra at ski resorts all over America: don’t be the reason we lose our season.
Stowe Mountain Resort made it through the most chaotic part of the 2020-21 ski season intact, despite bad weather, a slew of new rules and a new reservation system — and people complaining about it all.
“The challenging, but also cool, thing about all of this is we’ve adapted our operations, and guests have adapted to them,” resort vice president and general manager Bobby Murphy said this week. “I’m looking forward for the next two-thirds of the season. I’m really encouraged, but every day brings a new guest, and we can’t remain complacent. You have to be in the moment and focused on what’s in front of you, focused on what’s here today.”
Murphy and communications manager Jeff Wise, during a conference call Tuesday, said there were all kinds of new measures put into place before the resort even opened — and all manner of signs placed around the resort reminding guests of all the new rules. There was also a diminished pool of potential employees to draw from, since North American ski resorts rely heavily on foreign seasonal employees, and international travel to the U.S. is all but non-existent.
“Just getting open was quite a feat,” Wise said. “People are hitting their stride and getting better and better at what they do.”
Guests are getting better at the new normal, too, Murphy said, especially frequent skiers and riders. First-timers still need reminders, but Murphy said resort staff have learned to get over those potentially awkward moments when they have to remind guests to cover their mouths and noses or spread out in line.
“We’re fortunate, living in Vermont, that there’s a real understanding when somebody isn’t wearing their mask, it’s more, ‘thank you for reminding me,’ as opposed to ‘go mind your own business,’ ” Murphy said.
Make your own snow
Adding to the pandemic complications, it’s simply been a cruddy winter for those who favor ultra-cold conditions. Christmas Day was rainy and temperatures neared 60 degrees, obliterating any progress that nature and Stowe Mountain Resort snowmaking crews made on the slopes.
Wise said this kind of weather is far from an anomaly — the 2015-2016 season had an even more abysmal start — but “adding that normal on top of the abnormal is tough.”
Social media chatter over the past month has seen people wondering — some complaining — why the resort hasn’t been making as much snow, and when the crews do make it, it’s often on the Spruce Peak side of the resort instead of Mansfield.
Murphy and Wise said that is very much by design — if the goal during a pandemic is to spread people out as much as possible, then it’s necessary to open up as much terrain as possible.
“Having Mansfield, Spruce and the gondola open has done us well,” Murphy said.
Wise added, “I really give the snowmakers a lot of credit, because when you look at the amount of terrain we have, it’s pretty impressive when you look at the region and what others are able to do.”
Murphy said he’d love to have Liftline (one of Mount Mansfield’s fabled Front Four trails) open, but the last thing management and mountain ops wants to do is blow snow right under all the people “riding up the Quad in marginal conditions, and the snow is sticking to bottoms of their skis and boards.”
He roundly rejected any notions that the resort is having trouble with its snowmaking equipment or crews or trying to cut costs by not blowing snow when it seems opportune.
“That’s not true. When we have the temperatures and the conditions, we’re making snow,” Murphy said. “To not make it as good as possible would run counter to what we do as an industry.”
Scott Braaten, a Stowe resident known, especially within Facebook ski and ride circles, for his in-depth and educational snow reporting — complete with homemade computer models and his own photographs — has also been debunking the snowmaking myths. His most recent “Braatencast” explained how a recent stretch of temperature inversion has led to the “islands in the sky effect,” where the peaks are in or above the clouds and often milder than the valleys.
Braaten also wrote a lengthy social media post in a group debunking the idea some hold that this has been great snowmaking weather; January has started out 12.5 degrees above normal and December was 6-8 degrees warmer than usual. All of this “kicks it out of the snowmaking window,” he said.
“It’s just been ridiculously warm,” Braaten wrote.
Shawn Kerivan, a Stowe English professor and former innkeeper, said his youngest son is a full-time snowmaker, and will come home after work — he’s on the overnight shift — and talk about all the technical aspects of the job. There are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes between the time the lifts shut down for the day and rev up again the next.
“It’s all sort of behind the veil, pardon the pun,” he said. “You just go up skiing and don’t think about what they have to do.”
Despite the seemingly isolated nature of the jobs that happen when guests are away, Kerivan said the snowmaking crews also have to abide by COVID-19 protocols, which can slow things down. It makes their job ever more strategic.
“There’s always that tension between what you want to do for the customer, what you can do, and oh, by the way, Mother Nature,” Kerivan said. “I’ve always marveled at these snowmakers getting the snow where it needs to go.”
Murphy said that means fewer mountain operations people riding together on lifts, groomers and snowmobiles.
“We can’t just put 16 people in a bus cat and drive them up the mountain,” he said. “We can only put so many of them on a lift at the same time.”
Heck, even upper management employees like Murphy and Wise haven’t seen each other in person in months, Murphy said.
“We did wave to each once in the quad line,” Wise added.
There has been grumbling about Stowe’s new reservation system, which requires everyone, from day pass users to season pass holders, to book a spot ahead of time. The grumbling comes largely from longtime locals accustomed to being able to get up on the hill whenever they feel like it.
Lyndall Heyer, who grew up in Stowe and started skiing here half a century ago — she was on the U.S. Ski Team in the 1970s — said she was frustrated and embarrassed recently when she showed up at the lift line and was denied access when her pass didn’t register.
“It’s really unnerving when you think you’ve got everything right and you go up, and it (the pass-scanner) doesn’t make the dinging noise,” she said.
Her anger subsided when she realized she had accidentally reserved for the day prior. She assumed that, by logging on to the reservation system at 10 p.m., the system would obviously recognize the reservation was for the next day, since the lifts had been closed for 6 hours.
“The argument I had with them is, can’t you make the system better designed so you can’t book on the day that just ended?” Heyer said. “Why can’t it get reset at 4 p.m. our time?”
Murphy said there was some tweaking to the reservation system. Initially, skiers had to make their reservations on one particular day of the week; now, one can get online any day and pick a seven-day window.
Wise said Vail had the luxury of rolling out its reservation system early in 2020, since it owns ski resorts in Australia, where ski season starts in June.
“The idea was implementing that in North America would be the best way to assure success here,” Wise said. “From an educational standpoint, we’ve been able to talk about it for months and months and months, rather than having to implement one on the fly.”
Heyer said it would be nice if the resort could implement a half-day reservation system so skiers like her who get up early and leave before the throngs arrive can get their time in, and those who arrive late and stay until the end can, too.
Wise said many people have asked about such split-day plans, but the short answer is the resort wouldn’t be able to know when a morning skier left. Plus, even pre-pandemic, the only half-day pass was for afternoons; there was never a morning half-day pass.
“For both the resort and enterprise-wide, it didn’t make sense,” Wise said.
Murphy said the number one thing skiers and riders can do to make life easier for everyone else is to let the resort know if they aren’t going to show up. If 100 people made reservations a month and a half ago for this coming Saturday, and they know they aren’t coming after all, that’s 100 extra spots for people who might want to go Saturday.
“If I wanted to help people have a seamless reservation system, I would tell people to be diligent about canceling,” Murphy said.
Heyer is going to take a different approach to make sure she doesn’t have to deal with getting shut out — a decidedly locals’ attitude.
“I’m planning on skiing every day it’s below zero and every day it’s raining,” she said. “Because no one’s up there, and I can handle it.”