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Vail Mountain boss: resort plans to open all lifts, terrain

Mountain COO Howard: Company has learned a lot from summer operations, winter in Australia

Gondola One cabins are loaded with people and equipment for opening day at Vail on Nov. 15, 2019. Vail Mountain Chief Operating Officer Beth Howard said operations this summer have given the company important insights in how to operate lifts, restaurants and other amenities safely as the COVID-19 pandemic persists.
Chris Dillmann | cdillmann@vaildaily.com
Mark your calendars Vail Mountain’s opening date is Nov. 15.

Vail Mountain will open on time, and with full terrain and lifts — conditions permitting, of course.

In a recent telephone interview, Vail Mountain Chief Operating Officer Beth Howard said operations this summer have given the company important insights in how to operate lifts, restaurants and other amenities safely as the COVID-19 pandemic persists. Winter is the focus now, she said.

“Summer’s been great,” Howard said. “It’s terrific to be up and running … we’ve been pleased with how it’s going.”

But now it’s time to focus on the coming winter.

Pinch points

Howard noted that lessons learned this summer from running chairlifts and gondolas have given company officials information about physical distancing between guests, particularly at pinch points including ticket windows, lift lines and on-mountain restaurants and other amenities.

Those pinch points fill quickly, Howard said. Scaling up for winter crowds will require more work.

Vail Resorts operates three resorts in Australia — Perisher, Hotham and Falls Creek. Of those, only Perisher is open. Howard said the other two resorts are shut down primarily due to local restrictions.

Vail Mountain Chief Operating Officer Beth Howard.
Vail Resorts

Having an active ski resort right now has been good education for Vail Resorts’ American resorts, Howard said.

Full effort on hiring

While the world can change quickly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Howard said Vail Resorts is moving ahead as if the coming ski season will operate somewhat normally. That means the company is going full-bore with winter hiring efforts.

With the expectation of running all lifts, “a full staff is our goal,” Howard said. And, while it’s early, the company’s recruitment efforts are moving forward.

The pandemic may force a shift at some resorts from destination to drive-up guests. Howard said Vail Resorts’ portfolio of resorts is geared toward drive markets in many areas, including Colorado, the Lake Tahoe area and resorts in the Northeastern United States.

Longtime local real estate broker Tye Stockton said the plan to fully open the resort “sends a message of confidence” to both locals and visitors.

“You have to show a high level of optimism,” Stockton said.

Keeping us informed

Howard said she’s working to keep the town’s residents and business community informed. She said she’s on several community forums every week, and talks regularly with town of Vail officials.

Venture Sports owner Mike Brumbaugh was recently on a call that included Howard.

Brumbaugh said he liked the fact Howard was on the call. But, he added, it’s “disconcerting” that Vail Resorts hasn’t shared more of its winter plans.

“Everybody in this town … we’re all attached to the Vail Resorts course.” Brumbaugh said, adding that more information would help his company make decisions about inventory, staffing, and similar issues.

Brumbaugh said it would be “beneficial” if Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz provided some insight into the company’s plans.

“Nobody local can say anything other than ‘we’re going to open — trust us,’” he said. “That doesn’t work for anybody else.”

Buzz Schleper, owners of Buzz’s Boards in Vail, said he’s excited for the coming season. Schleper said he believes the facilities on Vail Mountain can stay open with social distancing guidelines in place.

“Luckily we have big cafeterias,” Schleper said. “There’s plenty of room, generally, and people don’t all show up at noon for lunch.”

Schleper said he’s being “super cautious” about ordering, particularly skis.

“We have a lot of leftover skis we’re carrying forward,” Schleper said. But, he added, his store is still ordering snowboards, and hasn’t returned any backcountry gear.

While snow will remain the ultimate component in the coming ski season, there are many other unknowns.

Howard said Vail Resorts leadership is “trying to anticipate all the possible challenges. With that as our goal, then we go into scenario planning.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com.


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