How is Vail preparing for winter? |

How is Vail preparing for winter?

Vail Council, business leaders discuss plans for winter, next summer

People anxiously await the opening of Vail in November 2019. Beth Howard of Vail Resorts told the Vail Town Council on Tuesday that resort officials will continue to refine plans and share answers as they become available heading into the ski season.
Chris Dillmann |
By the numbers
  • 40%: Expected decline in Vail summer sales tax collections.
  • 36%: Expected decline in Vail full-year sales tax collections.
  • $18 million: Expected cuts to Vail’s 2020 spending. Most of those cuts are coming from capital projects.

This story has been corrected to reflect Vail Mayor Dave Chapin’s ownership stake in Vendetta’s restaurant. Chapin is a minority partner.

Vail has actually had a pretty successful summer during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s going to take time, effort and money to recover.

The Vail Town Council Tuesday held a morning session talking about the town’s 2021 budget and efforts to revive the town’s economy after its near-total shutdown in March.

Councilmembers held an online discussion with town business leaders to talk about the coming winter and the following summer.

The first speaker was Vail Mountain Chief Operating Officer Beth Howard. Howard said Vail Resorts was “excited” last week to share its plan for the coming winter. That plan will focus on pass holders making reservations for days on the mountains.

“People were looking for some sort of clarity,” Howard said. But, she added, the announcement about the reservation policy raised a “whole other level” of questions.

Howard said those questions will help Vail Resorts refine its plans, adding that the company will share answers to those questions as they become available.

With 11 weeks until the season begins at Vail, the company still has a lot to do on that front, Howard said. But, she added, the company’s focus remains on the safety of employees, guests and the community, having a complete, successful season and putting reservation priority on its pass holders.

Councilmembr Brian Stockmar asked Howard how the company is doing with seasonal hiring after the virtual elimination of the J-1 visa for seasonal work.

“We’re assuming we won’t have (those visas),” Howard said, adding that Vail Resorts in July began a focused search for domestic seasonal employees, focusing first on Colorado.

Howard said there’s been a “good applicant flow” so far. “We’re confident we’re going to get there,” she said.

But will visitors come?

Sonnenalp owner Johannes Faessler said that hotels will probably have to budget for declines of 20% on the lodging side and 30% in food and beverage operations.

Faessler said an additional challenge is a changed approach to forecasting. Old models are no longer reliable, Faessler said, and the booking window is becoming very narrow, even for winter guests.

Faessler noted that even with a reasonably successful summer, the Sonnenalp still operated with 70 fewer employees this summer than in 2019. He’s planning a similar scenario for winter.

Faessler said the summer guest mix has been a combination of both returning and new guests. But international travel has all but vanished,  Faessler said. On the other hand, Faessler noted that while air travel has declined, people are more willing to drive longer distances to come to the Vail Valley. Guests have driven from as far away as Houston, a trip of roughly 1,100 miles.

Once people arrive, Faessler said guests are “extremely satisfied” with the experience.

Given that people driving from hundreds of miles away have a choice of many mountain destinations, maintaining that experience will be essential to attracting people to the valley.

But industry analyst Tom Foley, senior vice president of Business Operations and Analytics for Inntopia, said with destinations selling safety, feeder markets need to be monitored. An outbreak in an important market may require destinations to temporarily back off marketing in those places, Foley said.

Foley added that mountain capacity — as dictated by available terrain or social distancing requirements — also requires new thinking by destinations.

If a mountain is operating at 60% and hotels are full, Foley said destinations need to think about where people will go to recreate aside from ski slopes.

Foley added that the pandemic’s affect on the travel and vacation industries requires destinations to be more flexible. But, he noted, while people are reserving rooms at the relatively last minute, many are staying longer. That’s an opportunity, he said.

Outdoor dining options

Public health orders limiting capacity at restaurants may also have revealed an opportunity to expand outdoor dining.

Town officials and business owners are working on ways to maintain outdoor seating space in the winter by using tents.

Mayor Dave Chapin, a minority partner in Vendetta’s restaurant in Vail Village, said the expanded outdoor seating has been a “smash hit,” adding that he intends to continue the practice, both summer and winter.

Tents may not work for all businesses, Chapin said. But town officials are still working to expand seating for both winter guests and those who come in the summer of 2021.

But the impacts from this year’s pandemic may resonate for some time, perhaps three to five years.

Chapin said Faessler hit the mark when he mentioned the most important things the town can do going forward: Ensuring a quality product, providing a seamless experience between town and mountain and providing quality service.

“We need to make sure the experience is the utmost it can be,” Chapin said.

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