Pats Peak prepares for a ski season that will (unfortunately) be unlike any other

  • Newly built cabanas at the base of Pats Peak in response to Covid-19 restrictions ALLIE ST PETER—Monitor Staff

  • New cabanas were built at the base of Pats Peak in response to COVID-19 restrictions ALLIE ST PETER / Monitor staff

  • Newly built cabana at the base of Pats Peak in response to Covid-19 restrictions ALLIE ST PETER—Monitor Staff

  • ABOVE: A new outdoor area at Pats Peak in Henniker is equipped with two large heaters placed overhead and two propane heaters on the ground. BELOW: A sign at the ski area entrance asks customers to wear masks. ALLIE ST PETER photos / Monitor Staff

  • Newly built cabanas at the base of Pats Peak in response to Covid-19 restrictions ALLIE ST PETER—Monitor Staff

  • Inside newly built igloo at the base of Pats Peak in response to Covid-19 restrictions ALLIE ST PETER—Monitor Staff

  • Newly built igloo at the base of Pats Peak in response to Covid-19 restrictions ALLIE ST PETER—Monitor Staff

  • New outdoor area on deck equipped with two large heaters placed overhead and three propane heaters on the ground with socially distanced furniture ALLIE ST PETER—Monitor Staff

  • Entrance to Pats Peak with a sign out front asking patrons to wear a mask ALLIE ST PETER—Monitor Staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/30/2020 4:22:02 PM

Skiers will notice plenty of changes at Pats Peak this season due to COVID-19, and that includes porta-potties. But at least they’ll be nice ones.

“We’ve rented some high-end, wedding-quality porta-potties, to be located at base of the Valley and Summit chairs,” said Kris Blomback, general manager of the Henniker ski area, working his way through a long list of additions, subtractions and alterations being made in preparation for what is likely to be a difficult winter for the industry.

The year has already been difficult for Pats Peak, which, like every ski area as well as every business catering to the public, has seen its income plummet. Problems began immediately when the lockdown in March drove off snowsports fans in the final weeks of the season and, more importantly, right before the April 1 deadline for early purchases of season passes.

“Those (purchases) provide the working capital for the summer months, and that was off substantially,” Blomback said.

Next to be hit was the off-season business that Pats Peak has been bolstering in recent years. “The first half of the summer was hit pretty hard. We had to refund approximately 16 weddings. … We were able to move a substantial amount to the following year and pretty successful in pulling them off, the ones that stayed for the second half of (the summer).”

But it’s the three to four months of the ski season that really matters to Pats Peak, which as an independent, family-owned area doesn’t have corporate support to fall back on. Pats Peak will be operating under the rules imposed by the state Reopening Taskforce, such as recommendations not to share chairlifts with strangers. Those guidelines might change if the coronavirus spreads.

“We won’t know the true effect of what the COVID situation is until we get into the next ski season,” said Blomback. “Pre-season sales are a little on the softer side, but that kind of comes and goes with the headlines.”

School ski programs, a big part of life at local areas like Pats, are on hold and nobody knows whether they’ll take place, depending on how much of a COVID-19 resurgence is seen in the state.

This unpleasant picture has an equally unpleasant flip side since as income has fallen, costs have risen.

Some extra costs are minor, like making sure somebody is on staff to tell people not to enter the lodge on days when it exceeds social-distancing occupancy numbers (half the lodge furniture has been removed). Some are bigger, such as buying cabanas to cover some picnic tables for outdoor dining, or buying enough masks, gloves and other PPE.

And then there are the really big ones involving a change to workflows and business practices that have been around since the area opened in 1963 – such as equipment rentals. The days of strolling up at the last minute to rent a snowboard or ski equipment are over, at least for this year.

“You will have to pre-purchase online the night before. A concierge will bring the rentals to your car,” said Blomback. “We spent a tremendous amount of money with our e-commerce system to make this happen.”

The casual bar scene, a big and profitable part of the ski-area experience, is another COVID victim.

Apres-ski will be radically different,” said Blomback. The barstools have been removed and the area has table service only. “We’re not encouraging people to hang out. They’ll sit down at a table, order food and move on, maybe have a couple beers.”

As for food, including their famous oversized cookies, Pats Peak still has the kitchen but has installed a to-go window “so if people want to avoid the lodge completely, they can order food on their phone, pick it up, eat outside.”

“You’re going to use your car as your personal base lodge. Buildings will be open for business but you can’t just jump in like you used to on the very busy days,” he said.

Eating outside or using a porta-potty may not sound all that attractive in mid-winter, Blomback admits.

“In a 100-day ski season, there are (on average) 30 days where you’re probably not going to be able to use the outside, 30 days where it’s no problem, it’s 30 degrees and sunny. The battleground is really those other 40 days. We’re going to use wind barriers, propane heaters, other efforts to reclaim the lion’s share of those 40 days,” he said.

All this, of course, assumes that COVID-19 won’t come roaring back and force another lockdown.

“Did you ever take a car and drive into a Jersey barrier doing 30 miles an hour – that’s the analogy I’ve been using. … But we’re still here, we’re coping,” Blomback said.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com.)

  




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