Vermont ranks first in the Northeast in terms of the number of skier days and third nationally. A good snow year will draw in excess of four million skier visits to Vermont, and generate north of $600 million in revenue. It’s also an industry whose clientele is split into two categories; first is the group that makes its plans months in advance, the second is spontaneous, they ski when the snow is good and stay home when the slopes feel more like granite than powder. The challenge this ski season will be convincing both groups that it’s safe to come to Vermont, and that the attendant “rules” don’t make the experience more laborious than it’s worth.

The challenge may be steeper than any ski slope we have. In a letter made public last week, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz laid out the rules for the coming ski season, with the obvious priority being the need to provide a safe skiing experience for all visitors. Everyone will be required to wear masks at the resorts. Strangers won’t ride together on the chairlifts. Skiers have to call ahead for reservations. Only so many people will be allowed to ski on the mountain to ensure social distancing. The resort bars will be closed. Restaurants will operate only at limited numbers, etc.

Mr. Katz’s letter carries a lot of weight. Vail Resorts owns 34 resorts nationwide with three of them in Vermont; Stowe, Mount Snow and Okemo. Other resorts may choose their own guidance, but all of them will feel the need to follow the general CDC and state guidelines. No state wants to be seen as the site of a COVID-19 outbreak because a ski resort decided to operate as if the virus didn’t exist.

If, as feared, we are hit by a second wave of the virus, then all bets may be off. The resorts may decide that opening is not worth the cost. And Vermont loses. Big time.

If the second wave does not materialize and the resorts go forward with their plans to open, they have the very real challenge of getting people to the mountains knowing that most of them don’t spend all, or even a majority of their daytime actually skiing. Being told to pack a lunch, and that outdoor seating will be plentiful isn’t the draw you might think it is. Particularly mid-January.

The multi-million-dollar question is whether families will choose to book their traditional Christmas through New Year skiing holidays [or President’s Day. Or spring break. Or Martin Luther King day] knowing the limitations.

Another multi-million-dollar question is whether, or when, Canada decides to open its border to the United States. Canadian skiers make up about half the ski volume at Jay Peak and almost as much at Smugglers.

[These looming questions aside, there is some good news in all of this: If the tourists do not come, and the snow does, Vermonters could have the ski slopes to themselves. Fresh tracks two days after a snow storm. Sweet.]

Any business that depends on Mother Nature is, by definition, risky. Tossing COVID-19 into the mix makes it doubly so. We’ve got $600 million hanging in the balance.

If you think prayers will help...

by Emerson Lynn

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