Thick flurries fall from the sky as eager riders wait their turn for the lift to swiftly carry them greater than 50 feet into the air. On a good day, the summit offers a jaw-dropping view of the snow-packed Oregon cascades and nearby frozen lakes. But on a day like today, inexperienced and advanced skiers and snowboarders alike are just excited to have a day out of the house.
Despite poor weather and pricey tickets, lift lines snake all the way down to the main lodge, colliding with the hours-long rentals line moving at a snail’s pace. With most indoor activities shuttered and winter weather limiting outdoor possibilities, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused increased interest in skiing and snowboarding, one of few sports in which interpersonal contact is uncharacteristic.
“The lines have been bad any day with good snow, even if it’s not a weekend or holiday, which never happened last year,” said Jake Mueller, a frequent skier at Mt. Bachelor and student at the University of Oregon. “More people have free time due to online work and school, and skiing is a great and comparatively safe way to be social and get exercise.”
From individuals’ renewed curiosity to newfound time, the ski industry is one of the few that has had increased revenue due to a global health crisis causing the closure of nearly everything else. In addition to heavy coats and wool socks, riders are required to don masks and social distance in line – two limitations the freezing cold and elongated equipment almost naturally facilitate.
"After the dust settled in that week in March, we got started collaborating with different folks to come up with pandemic best practices," said Adrienne Saia Isaac, Director of Marketing and Communications for the National Ski Area Association (NSAA).
The NSAA is a trade association for ski area owners and operators, providing resources and guidance for resort regulation. The organization’s focus is on educating their members in safety, offering maintenance and operation guidance, and advocating on behalf of the industry, representing over 75 percent of active ski areas in the US.
Soon after the pandemic closures, the NSAA created “Ski Well, Be Well,” a set of best practices for ski areas that highlights many common COVID regulations: wearing masks, social distancing, and riding with those in your bubble.
“We went into the season with a united front,” said Isaac. “The strong demand this year has been a pleasant surprise.”
After Governor Brown’s Executive Order 20-12 in March, which forced the closure of certain businesses in Oregon, including ski resorts, many areas struggled to close out the season strong. What looked like a record year for Hoodoo Ski Area, a small resort near Sisters, Oregon, quickly turned into expenses up to half a million dollars due to ongoing operation costs and paying employees through the season.
Mt. Hood Skibowl, a resort to the north near Government Camp, Oregon, closed a month earlier than usual, expecting to reopen but being shuttered by the Executive Order through the end of the 2020 season.
“It was a scary time for everybody,” said Mike Quinn, General Manager at Skibowl. “We ended up laying off all of our seasonal employees, probably 150-200 employees."
Come the following winter, however, both resorts experienced a sizable uptick in skiers and riders that had at least somewhat offset financial losses of the last season, even despite hefty costs associated with sanitization and PPE.
“This year has just exploded, our best year by far,” said Chuck Shepard, owner of Hoodoo. The resort opened up a rental shop, Hoodoo Hillside Ski & Sports, in Sisters to help ease the long rental lines common at the resort and to cater to their customers in the Central Oregon/Bend area, accounting for upwards of 25 percent of their visitation.
“We’ve had more rentals this year than ever before,” said Shepard. “[The new shop] has taken away a little bit of the pressure. I know that’s going to be a good real estate purchase.”
In addition to opening the Hillside store, Hoodoo plans to put in 100 new parking spots and 20 new RV spots to accommodate the increase in guests.
And up north: "We've had a very solid season," said Quinn. “I think it's a combination of having a good snow year, having pent-up demand, and being an outdoor experience where people feel relatively safe."
Quinn noted this opportunity has likely been due to remote working and remote learning providing more time for people over all seven days of the week, accounting for Mt. Hood Skibowl’s increase in visitation despite limited capacity.
For the ski industry, the pandemic has changed some operations for the better.
"It's forced all of us to look at our operations in a new light and get creative," said Quinn. He mentioned changes such as bringing food to guests, grab-and-go takeout dining, and limiting overcrowding has enhanced guest experiences this season.
Isaac, from the NSAA, also noted the pandemic forced some operators and guests to adopt new technologies, such as touchless transactions, purchasing lift and parking reservations in advance, and mobile ordering and takeout for food service, almost all of which have garnered positive feedback from visitors.
The ski industry, which brings in $55 billion annually for the US economy and provides over 533,000 jobs nationwide according to the NSAA, has likely experienced this advantageous season in large part due to the collaboration of the trade and its honorable leadership.
“The ski industry is very close,” said Jordan Elliott, President of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association (PNSAA), a regional chapter of the NSAA. "We've not had an outbreak because of skiing, and there's a lot of credit that needs to go toward ski area operators."
Elliott, who used to be a chairlift operator himself, mentioned ski area operators defending their employees whenever there is pushback to the new regulations, and commending their strict adherence to the recommendations from organizations like NSAA.
“Touchless transactions and pre-purchasing were really successful and really well-received,” said Elliott. “The feedback we've gotten from 99 percent of guests is gratitude and compliance.”
"It was not just important for us to open and stay open, but to do it in a way that demonstrated the value that we put on people's health and safety,” said Isaac of the NSAA’s quick actions.
Elliott noted the likelihood of the 2021 season extending into April and May if the snowfall and demand remain abundant, and is hopeful that next season will be just as prosperous.
“All indications point toward the demand remaining high," said Elliott. "If people got into it this year, I think they were hooked and they’re going to come again next year." Elliott mentioned that even lapsed skiers, those who used to ski but stopped, also came back.
"We're going into [next season] optimistically,” said Shepard of Hoodoo. “We keep growing year after year, and we've had such good feedback from people. We think we're going to keep on getting people as long as we can keep the lines down and the parking reasonable."
With novel technologies in place and more efficient operations enacted, the 2022 season looks promising for both the ski industry and skiers and riders new and old.
"I'm hoping there is a newfound interest and love for outdoor recreation in general," said Isaac, noting that being in nature often has the added benefit of turning people into conservationists.
"[This season] has brought some strength into the business and what we're doing," said Quinn. "Reviewing your protocols and operations on a regular basis is a healthy thing to do. This forces us into doing that."