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New Hampshire ski areas prepare for a socially-distanced season

  • Downhill ski areas have the luxury of expansive space for plenty of social distancing. Courtesy of Gunstock Mountain

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 8/30/2020 4:40:29 PM

With temperatures still in the 80s in the southern part of the state and 70s as you make your way up north, skiing is not the first thing that comes to mind.

Snow might still be three months away, but people who run alpine and cross-country ski areas in New Hampshire already know this season will look much different than last.

Many areas already got a taste of what can happen with COVID-19 when the novel virus shut down most of the outdoor activities prematurely at the end of the 2019-2020 season. This season, the pandemic is giving many mountains and cross-country areas a new look. Changes will be coming in restaurants, ticket areas, restrooms, rental areas and possibly lift lines in order to help people maintain social distance.

“(The ski season) is a landscape that is changing week by week,” said Kris Blomback, general manager at Pat’s Peak in Henniker. “In the ski business we are eternal optimists anyway. With skiing being in such an outdoor-oriented environment, I think we will be in good shape.”

If the uptick in outdoor recreation during the warmer months is any indication, ski areas might see more people taking advantage of outdoor space to accommodate social distancing.

“I think a lot of people are stir crazy and want to get out of the house and skiing is one of the safer alternatives,” Blomback said. “I think there are a lot of similarities to the boom in mountain biking that occurred this summer. (At) local bike shops you can’t find any equipment. On the flip side will be winter time and skiing.”

Cross-country ski areas are also hoping for a busy season as people look for safe activities.

“We are lucky in cross-country skiing that it is a very socially-distanced sport,” said Ellen Chandler, executive director at Jackson XC Center in Jackson. “Once you get on the trail with skis about six feet long you naturally have six feet from the closest skier – three feet in front of you and three feet behind (for each skier).”

When people arrive at ski areas this winter, their experience will be slightly different. Rather than waiting in line and ordering tickets from an employee behind a glass window, ski areas are encouraging patrons to order online. At the mountain kiosks will be where tickets can be printed, either using a credit or debit card or from a QC code that was emailed after the purchase.

“One thing we looked at was technology,” said Tom Day, general manager at Gunstock Mountain in Gilford. Customers can buy tickets, reserve ski schools and select rentals online so that cash exchanges and in-person interactions are limited, he said.

The technology is widely available, but skiers will have to opt into using it, he said.

“It’s a behavioral thing. They just have to learn to do it.”

Chandler said Jackson XC is encouraging regular riders to buy season passes in order to avoid going through the online purchase process multiple times.

“We are trying to encourage skiers to buy season passes instead of day passes,” she explained. “This way they are not in the building and we can eliminate as much contact as possible.

Chandler added that Jackson is considering having a ticket checker out on the trails so skiers won’t have to print out at kiosks near the building.

The most obvious changes will be inside ski lodges. On a pre-pandemic weekend it is impossible to remain six feet apart, but ski areas have to adhere to parameters set by the State of New Hampshire and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That means food service, personal items and restrooms will all be different from a year ago.

Most ski areas will no longer have buffet options. The majority of areas will have prepared food to eliminate standing around and waiting. Many resorts are looking at setting up kiosks in the food area for ordering and payment in order to avoid person-to-person contact.

Gunstock is taking this a step further and considering utilizing food trucks in the parking lot. Skiers could get their food there and then find a place near the lodge or even go back to their car to eat.

The decision-makers are hoping for plenty of snow but also bright and sunny days so they can take advantage of expansive decks and space in between the lodge and lift areas in order to add outdoor seating.

“We usually have a 110-day season – probably 30 days we are not able to use the outside because the weather tends to be cold and 30 days it is warm and sunny when we can use outside,” Blomback, of Pat’s Peak, explained. “The battleground for space outdoors is the other 40 days.”

Pat’s Peak plans to use decks and add additional outdoor picnic tables to help people spread out. Gunstock is considering closing some decks and having tents with warming areas to help keep people out of the lodge.

“The nice thing about ski areas is we have a ton of acreage,” Day said. “We need to see what the guests want and create that space for them.”

Bars in the lodges are the biggest question mark. That area will have to wait for word from the state and CDC.

Bathrooms will also see a mix of availability in lodges, as well as porta-potties.

“I think there is an expectation that we will have food to sell and bathrooms to use,” Day said. “But I know in whatever form there will be limitations.”

Ski New Hampshire, a trade association that supports 30 Granite State downhill and cross-country areas with advocacy, education, and promotions, is trying to help areas develop policies ahead of the season.

“Ski New Hampshire will be working with government officials to develop guidance that will allow us to open safely for skiers/riders and employees alike,” said Shannon Dunfey-Ball, marketing and communications manager for the organization. “We were involved in looking at guidance for things like outdoor attractions for the summer, and we appreciate the opportunity to be a partner in the conversation (for the winter).”

The shutdown in March costs ski areas up to $1 million for larger destinations, Dunfey-Ball said. This year, it’s critical to keep the ski dollars coming in.

Mt. Washington Valley boasts a wide variety of options with 13 downhill and cross country options.

“Skiing is an important winter economy driver for the Mt Washington Valley,” said Marti Mayne, public relations director for the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce. “Skiers help put heads in beds, and customers in stores and restaurants, too ... All of those that partake in skiing and other winter adventures collectively add to the winter tourism economy in the Valley. With travel trending much more toward drive-in vacations, this bodes well for the ski resorts in the Valley and throughout New Hampshire.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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