Ski mountains across the Berkshires are gearing up for a season full of social distancing and capacity limits, but also “magical moments” at revamped après ski areas designed to fit the times.
Leaders from Berkshire East Mountain Resort in Charlemont, Bousquet Mountain in Pittsfield, Catamount Mountain Resort in Hillsdale, Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock, and Ski Butternut in Great Barrington recently detailed how they’ll keep skiers and employees safe this season amid the coronavirus pandemic. Though the state has not yet released the winter guidelines for the industry, staff members at the mountains are already busy preparing.
“We’ve bought fog machines, we’ve got hand sanitizers, we’ve got plexiglass,” said Dillon Mahon, Ski Butternut’s director of marketing, at a Berkshire Outdoor Recreation Summit webinar. “I mean, all the PPE you can think of.”
Skiers should plan ahead due to possible capacity limits this year. For example, though Bousquet currently does not have restrictions for season pass holders, there will be capacity constraints on full-day tickets, four-hour tickets, and nighttime tickets, said Kevin McMillan, general manager at Bousquet.
“We’re going to start off conservatively, with a conservative amount of capacity so that we get an understanding of how the winter is playing and how our operations work, and then we’ll increase capacity as we get a little bit more familiar with all the new processes,” he said.
Many ski resorts realize these are uncertain times and have taken that into account when it comes to ticketing, Mahon said. Ski Butternut is offering a free pass protection plan on season passes this year. The Berkshire Summit Pass, a combination pass to Berkshire East, Catamount, and Bousquet, has a deferral policy this year in case the resorts are shut down due to the global health crisis.
“I think most of us have put out some type of reassurance that if anything were to go awry — [we know] that you want to ski, we want you to ski — and if anything happens, we want to make good on that purchase,” Mahon said.
Après ski at Bousquet has been totally revamped and moved outside, according to McMillan.
“Our plan is to create a marketplace around the outside area of the lodge,” he said.
The marketplace, designed to create “memorable moments” for skiers, will include a food truck, cabanas, a s’mores and hot chocolate station beside the tubing area, a bar and fire pit with Adirondack chairs, a pizza oven, and a BBQ area.
“We’re looking for smaller, shorter, more focused experiences for folks,” McMillan said. “So that they boot up, ski, have a drink, maybe grab something to eat, and then leave, so that we don’t have big crowds congregating.”
Jon Schaefer, Berkshire East and Catamount owner and general manager, said ticketing and customer service at his mountains have been moved from the lodges to an outside box office trailer in an effort to keep people outside. Also, skiers renting equipment will get their boots fitted at an isolated area inside but receive their skis outside.
“There’s a new relationship which will have to occur between everybody at a ski area to make sure that the season goes off without a hitch,” Schaefer said. “Guests will have to be on their best behavior, and staff will have to be on their best behavior in terms of hygiene and sanitization so that we make sure that the season is effective, efficient, and as healthy as possible.”
Bathrooms will have capacity restrictions, Schaefer said, and added outdoor trailers will relieve congestion as well.
“We have some pretty cool capacity counters that we found,” he said. “So we’re going to rely heavily on those to be visual indicators to our guests.”
As for how lift lines will work, that remains to be seen, said Tyler Fairbank, CEO of The Fairbank Group, which manages Jiminy Peak as well as Cranmore Mountain Resort in North Conway, N.H., and Bromley Mountain in Peru, Vermont.
“I think we’ve all probably, ad nauseam, had conversations on this topic and we’re waiting to get guidance from the state as to exactly what it looks like,” he said.
“If you are in a social group or family group that is comfortable riding the chair together, you’re probably going to be allowed to ride the chair together in Massachusetts this year,” Schaefer said. “And, if you’re not, the mountain will not be able to force people to group-up to ride the lift.”
It’s important that ski resorts remain flexible this season, McMillan said.
“You can have as many plans as you need but you need to be flexible and you need to keep shifting and changing,” McMillan said. “Our focus is on keeping the guests safe and keeping the employees safe and I think if you always keep that front and center then it’s pretty easy to figure out what the next thing to do is.”
Mahon said Butternut has devised creative ways to keep customers safe during its current sale on gear, which lasts through Nov. 29.
Customers must shop by reservation, clothes are steam-cleaned and racked for 24 hours in between tryings, barriers have been installed at boot fitting locations, and customers wear shower caps when trying on helmets and plastic gloves when trying on ski gloves, he said.
“We’re looking forward to a great winter season,” McMillan said. “We are focused on creating some condensed, magic moments for folks.”
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