“We don’t have any high-speed quads; however, we’ve never had a lift line,” said Scott Curry, Director of Marketing at Utah’s Eagle Point Resort, explaining a predicament many small ski areas find themselves in.
Located in the FIshlake National Forest three-and-a-half hours south of Salt Lake City, Eagle Point offers 650 acres of skiable terrain accessed by five lifts. Like independent ski areas around the United States and Canada, Eagle Point is not part of the high-profile ski passes offered by Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Co., the country’s two major resort operators. This saves them the crowds but also prevents many who might love the place from ever visiting.
With the COVID-19 pandemic impacting everything about the travel and resort business, local, independent ski areas may actually be set for a rebirth this coming winter. Vail and Alterra have announced strict measures to minimize crowding and enhance social distancing in crowded base areas. Without massive hotels and condo properties, and lacking the lift lines and crowded slopes that conglomerate passes tend to bring, these small, independent hills find themselves at an advantage. But even as the coronavirus pandemic forces travelers to consider outdoor options, including skiing, for recreation, independent resorts need all the support they can get.
“It would be difficult to not acknowledge the conglomeration going on in the industry, and obviously that’s here to stay,” Curry said.
Factor in reduced travel due to the pandemic and climate change threatening to make seasons progressively shorter, and it’s on us as skiers and snowboarders to frequent our local hills to keep them a part of our communities.
Local ski hills are important to their communities
Recent data compiled by Snowbrains shows that the vast majority of skiers visit the resorts operated by Vail and Alterra, as each of the 10 most visited resorts in the US is operated by one or the other. But the economic impact of smaller ski areas is undeniable in the communities in which they operate.
“The resort is the second largest employer in the area having created about 25 full-time year-round jobs and over 100 seasonal jobs,” Curry said. “We work with the Beaver County Travel Council and other government entities regularly. Resort ownership’s real estate development activities have created over 50 new tax parcels, which has contributed over six figures in new tax revenue to Beaver County.”
That impact is felt not just in Eagle Point’s coffers but throughout the surrounding community and county, which has a full-time population of just over 6,500. Eagle Point’s season pass and lodging sales are up over last season.
“The resort’s draw of out-of-state visitation is an extremely important contributor to sales tax revenues for the County,” Curry said. “Local businesses including restaurants and hotels in Beaver have all benefited significantly, especially now that we are more of an all-season destination.”
It’s important that the crucial role of these resorts continues. Environmental advocacy organization Protect Our Winters has compiled data showing that skier visits on high-snow years increase by 3.8 million per year across the United States versus low snow years between 2001 and 2016, with those visitors spending $692.9 million and supporting an additional 11,800.
That’s a lot of money and a lot of jobs, albeit seasonal ones in many cases. And as the conglomeration of major ski resorts continues, drawing increasing numbers of skier visits to fewer resorts, it threatens the jobs that still exist at many independent ski areas and which are vital to their communities. Many of these ski hills were born from community ski clubs, foundation grants, or other concepts intended to stimulate an area’s recreation economy while offering a safe place for local families.
Gunstock Mountain Resort in western New Hampshire is one such ski area. “Gunstock Mountain Resort was initially conceived as a way to create jobs and stimulate the economy with money from the Works Progress Administration,” said the ski area’s marketing director, Kristen Lodge. “At our roots, we’re an entity of this community, and as we grow and improve, so does the Lakes Region in both the economy and the overall quality of life.”
It should be noted that, as climate change brings fewer cold days, ski areas are becoming more dependent on snowmaking. While a warming planet poses a major threat to the ski industry as a whole, by spending money at independent ski areas, you’re increasing their ability to invest in their own snow-making capabilities — and helping them combat corporate conglomeration and cope with warmer winters.
Smaller ski areas are a safer choice for families
COVID-19 has upended what ski travel looked like in the past. But smaller ski areas have one big thing going for them — their smaller operations and fewer crowds, meaning their guests are at a lower risk of major outbreaks. At Eagle Point, 95 percent of available on-mountain lodging is ski-in/ski-out, with each unit having a private entrance.
“Guests can stay at the resort steps from the slopes, return to their cabin or condo to use the restroom or enjoy takeout from our restaurant, and hop right back on the slopes,” Curry said. He then touched on how open terrain and lack of crowds can feel safer for family skiers.
“And, for someone who hasn’t been on the mountain in a number of years or has little kids, the ability to go down the trail and to see and anticipate everything in front of you — groomed white — and not have other people clamoring into a base area, is a very freeing experience. I’ve witnessed people fall in love, or re-fall in love, with the sport, because they’re able to experience the mountain without that anxiety level.”
Gunstock has adapted their lift access to be touch-free, on top of direct-to-lift access from the ski area’s parking lot rather than having to hop onto a bus or pass through a crowded lobby.
“One of the benefits of being a medium-sized resort is that our parking lot is located right at the base, so guests are able to walk right up to the summit lift, or to the terrain park,” said Lodge. “With our new winter operating procedures, all of our guests will boot up in their car. And, since they purchased their lift tickets in advance, they can go directly to the lift with our RFID technology.”
Lodge added that once guests are on the mountain they can order food with their phones and pick it up when they’re ready using a touchless payment option the resort is adding this year at its shops and restaurants.
Smaller ski areas are uniting to attract new skiers
“Most of our locals learn to ski and snowboard here and they grow up on the mountain,” Lodge said. “They run and hike here year-round and play at the Adventure Park in the summer, so even though we cater to tourists and visitors from all over, we take the most pride in serving our residents and providing them with a place to breathe deep and enjoy the outdoors as they recreate on our trails.”
Without national and international tourists coming in droves, independent resorts must depend on these local skiers and small alliances formed amongst themselves. The rise of the mega-passes stands to benefit many of these ski areas in an unforeseen way — by bringing them together into their own unions to encourage travel amongst themselves.
Nineteen independent ski areas have banded together for the 2020/21 Powder Alliance which, like the Ikon and Epic passes, allows skiers days at each of the participating resorts. Even beyond organized coops, the purchase of a season pass at most ski areas earns you a few days at a handful of others.
Eagle Point offers its pass holders limited access to other ski areas in Colorado, California, and Utah. More experienced skiers and riders can also take solace in the ample snowfall at many smaller resorts and the lack of people there to track it out.
“There’s also the opportunity for untracked powder,” Curry said. You can be up to your neck in powder and still find untracked lines hours later.”
“We think it’s important for the independent resorts to band together,” Curry said. “We tend to think of ourselves as the heart and soul of skiing still. We serve a regional role in growing the sport, as many of the major resorts have outpriced many families.”