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What will winter 20/21 bring for the snow sports industry?

How will the resorts, mountain towns, retailers, and gear-makers fare in this winter of COVID? We go deep.

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Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, the travel slush fund will save skiing this winter. Unable or unwilling to book expensive air-travel vacations to the Alps (Americans need not apply), Canadian Rockies (ditto because we’re such maskless hosers), and perhaps even the Mountain West (come, but sleep in your Tacoma), skiers and snowboarders will instead use that cache of expendable income to buy season passes and load up on the gear they need to enjoy day-trip shredding or extended “no touch” mountain road trips.

With customers thus equipped in fresh new schwag, resorts will run at their new Covid restricted capacities, passing burritos through windows, and using race department bamboo to beat lift lines into six-foot distances. Everyone’s neck tubes will be pulled up to their goggles, but the crowds will come. And with gyms scary and petri-dish-like, and sporting events and concerts still on hold, a backcountry and Nordic gear and apparel boom will keep still more people outdoors. In this worldview, resort visits and gear and apparel sales will be close to flat for the winter of 20/21.

That’s what the upcoming winter looks like through rose-tinted spherical lenses, anyway. The darker take? The pandemic will intensify. Resorts will close. Consumers will bury their cash in their yards. And it won’t snow.

Here’s the realist’s take. Most of the ski companies expect to be flat to down 15 to 20 percent compared to last year. But industry analysts like Snowsports Industries America’s (SIA) president Nick Sargent are slightly more bullish: “I’ve seen the 20 percent projections from companies, but in my opinion flat would be a fair assessment and a safe starting point,” says Sargent. “The excitement around being outdoors this spring and summer will carry over.” With the big resorts at least, they’re looking at a 20 to 30 percent hit to top-line revenue and perhaps a similar percentage downturn in visits and lodging. Much of that hit will come from losses in food and beverage, events, conferences, and anything that involves larger groups.

The lifts will spin

Here’s what we kind of know on the ski area front. Full season passholders (no restrictions) most everywhere will get first dibs on skiing, followed by premier passholders like Ikon, Epic, and Mountain Collective. If your home hill is a mega resort, or even if it’s small but routinely gets overcrowded, you might need to reserve your day of skiing like you would book a tee time. This will make skipping work to catch a powder day difficult.

SIA event with people skiing
The ski season this year will no doubt be different. But it will happen.Courtesy

With second homeowners occupying their mountain properties full-time—a national trend—there will be fewer short-term vacation rentals on the market, further driving down skier visits. But, hotel-style ski area lodging is expected to run close to capacity. On the hill, outdoor dining beneath heat lamps will be the norm, and we’ll see fewer guests in enclosed cabins (trams, gondolas, and perhaps bubble chairs). Without question, the après ski scene will be dramatically subdued if not canceled altogether in some locales.

The upside is that outside the lodges, skiing will look a lot like it always did—if you’re the type of person that boots up in the lot and carries lunch in a sack. Because we’re on skis, we’ve always stood six feet apart in lift lines. And almost everyone wears a neck tube or mask anyway—this year it will just be required. “Spreading people out around the mountain. The pre-booking of lift tickets. Creating as many touchless transactions as possible. Those are all initiatives we’ve been working on for years,” says Mike Kaplan, CEO of Aspen Snowmass: “The winter of 20/21 has only accelerated that. We won’t be at 100-percent capacity in enclosed lifts or dining halls, but we think we can manage social distancing elsewhere.”

The gear is stocked

On the gear side, some quick background is key. Last winter (about a week before spring to be precise) when ski areas shut down en masse not knowing how contagious Covid is outdoors, ski retailers were still in the midst of their buying seasons. That meant they were still able to work with their reps to adjust their orders. Many did so in response to the dramatic spike they were witnessing in the backcountry category. Others simply decreased their inbounds buys.

Backcountry lives for winter as exemplified by part of their ski selection from last year. (Photo: Alex Pullen)
Skiers who normally spend money on travel might find themselves upgrading their gear instead.Alex Pullen

The temporary shuttering of factories gave some ski builders the chance to pause and to shift production accordingly. Others stayed the course. In the months that followed, some large retailers—including Vail Resorts, the largest—either cut their retail orders entirely (Vail Resorts), or dramatically scaled back. This range of responses was also true with apparel makers. Flylow Gear saw its preseason orders dip by $1 million.

Most of this pullback was occurring while bike shops were getting stampeded by customers, denuding shelves of product. Which might make the initial winter sports bearish response sound illogical. To be fair there’s more nuance at play.

While resorts do well in retail, their primary business is still moving people uphill and selling them $22 cheeseburgers. The resorts had to ensure they had the cash flow on hand to maintain operations come November. Locking up capital in gear that might not sell was not seen as worth the risk.

As for some of the bigger brick-and-mortar chain retailers that might not have been open when “essential” bike shops were, they faced different challenges. “Most of those businesses have incredible inventory systems,” says Flylow’s co-founder Dan Abrams. “In normal times that allows them to keep 80 percent of their inventory on showroom floors, but still sell that product between stores or online. But when those stores closed down they lost access to that inventory. It took some time for that to get cleared up.”

And that gets us to now, the fall of 2020. For the past few months the ski industry as a whole (resorts, apparel, gear) has been trying to crystal ball what the winter will look like while at the same time protecting their business from a pandemic-imposed instant depression. Now we finally have some early reporting to help forecast—at least in the near term.

Vail Resorts’ season pass sales are reportedly up significantly despite coronavirus. So, too, with privately owned mountains like Whitefish in Montana, which just set a new all-time season pass sales record. Rossignol’s Nick Castagnoli is getting reports of retail customers pre-purchasing skis from specialty shops to ensure they don’t miss out on their dream gear, like so many did this past summer with mountain bikes.

Shops are beginning to respond to this by adjusting their buys back up, hoping to secure the small amount of gear still on hand. Nationwide in the colder climates, wholesale Nordic gear sales may never have been this strong. My local ski shop here in Missoula, Gull Ski, was reporting November-like sales—in early October. And in Tahoe, shops report that only serious customers are coming into stores. Meaning they’re there to buy, not look.

When the world gets bored, the world goes skiing

Another promising note? The travel slush fund is real, and there’s no reason to believe some of it won’t get allocated to gear. And while the surge of second homeowners moving to the mountains on a permanent or semi-permanent basis might displace some vacationers, that group also constitutes a new customer base in many ways. Locals ski more. “There’s a sense that these folks might be kitting themselves out in new gear,” says Blizzard Tecnica’s North American President Sam Cook. “The old gear might stay at home.” That same dynamic played out across all outdoor categories in mountain towns this past summer.

"Skier in red jacket with cobalt blue sky in background"
Skiing is a great antidote to boredom.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

All of which is to say that the enthusiasm is out there. The gear is on the shelves. The dining tents are going up. Beyond snow, it’s now up to the retailers to follow the resorts and create safe experiences for their customers.

At Vermont’s Northern Ski Works, store manager Tom Favro and his team are doing exactly that, boosting sanitization, switching boot fitting to appointment only, and keeping their online storefront up-to-date so that customers can spend less time in-store.

Living with changing occupancy restrictions will remain a challenge, but Favro is optimistic that as a drive-to destination—Okemo and Killington are nearby—the skiers will come. “From everybody I’m talking to in the industry, and the impetus that’s out there for people to get outside,” says Favro, “as long as the stars align and there’s no second COVID wave, the business is going to be up. People want to ski this season. People are bored.”