#1: Vail Suspends Lift Operations at Hotham Mountain Resort and Falls Creek Due to Covid-19 Concerns:
This week, we’re taking an incremental approach to the news as we start out with the worst of it and gradually find relief as our topics trend away from current events and towards more interesting topics of ski conversation. Unfortunately though, that means we’re starting out with the worst of it. This week, Vail Resorts announced that it would be suspending lift operations at Hotham Alpine Resort and Falls Creek ski areas in Victoria, Australia. The move comes as Victorian premier Daniel Andrews has ordered the city of Melbourne to be locked down until August 19th in response to a recent spike in Covid-19 cases within the city. While both resorts are located approximately 4.5 hours away from the city via car, Vail has made clear time and time again that it’s taking the Covid-19 situation very seriously, ultimately deciding this time around to follow the lead of the Victorian premier and shut down lift operations until August 19th. What’s slightly different this time around however, is that the resorts aren’t entirely closed. Instead, a number of on hill activities and services are still available for visitors, such as cross country skiing, uphill skiing, ski patrol, and amenities. In other words, It’s simply the use of chairlifts that’s been suspended.
Interestingly, one specific word caught our attention more than any other as we researched this story. In the Falls Creek official update regarding the current resort status, the very first sentence reads, “Irrespective of Vail Resorts decision to suspend lifting operations at Falls Creek, The Falls Creek Alpine Resort Management Board (FCARMB) has resolved to continue a range of activations during the period up until August 19th.” Irrespective. Perhaps we’re reading too far into this word, and there’s a strong chance that its connotation differs slightly in Australia, but from our vantage point, the use of that particular word gives this statement some edge. While we don’t want to dive too deeply into assumption-land, the idea that ski resorts might push back against directives issued at the corporate level is a concept worth taking note of and keeping in mind as ski seasons across the world progress.
Ultimately this story provides us with a wealth of new information about how Vail will look to handle operations in the upcoming season, while simultaneously creating a number of new questions. For example, we now know for sure that Vail is willing to close resorts mid-season should a nearby population center go into lockdown. What remains to be seen though is how each individual resort will handle this news. If Hotham and Falls Creeks’ responses are any indication, there’s a chance that resorts will be able to continue offering services and uphill access in particular, meaning next season could result in on-trail, uphill skiing access during peak season. For those with touring setups, that’s a heck of a silver lining. For those without, it’s frustrating news. Finally, for those who’ve been considering jumping on the uphill bandwagon, it means there’s never been a better time to get on board. If you’re in this third group, we sincerely suggest putting together your setu sooner rather than later as a run on touring equipment seems quite likely in the months ahead. For more on this, check out Vail’s press release via Hotham Alpine Resort, the Mt. Hotham Alpine Resort Management Board’s announcement, or Falls Creek’s announcement. For added perspective, give this article from The Guardian a read, which provides current numbers for the outbreak in Melbourne.
#2: Park City and Deer Valley COOs Give Their Take on Recent Restrictions on International Work Visas:
Next up this week is another topic that provides further insight into the challenges facing ski resorts in the season ahead. Just two weeks ago, on June 26th, we shared the news that the Trump Administration had suspended the use of H-2B and J-1 work visas until at least December 31, 2019. As a quick reminder, these two programs allow ski areas to hire international seasonal workers for roles such as lift operators, ski instructors, and hospitality services. Traditionally, these employees have played a crucial role in the operations of large ski resorts, often filling jobs that are tough to fill with domestic workers due to their seasonality, location, limited pay, and limited benefits. As a result of Trump’s announcement, many in the ski industry, most notably the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), immediately pushed back, indicating that they’d fight to have an exemption made for ski areas at the very least.
This week however, we learned that ski areas aren’t necessarily in unanimous agreement in regards to the vitality of these programs. In an article published by Park City’s the Park Record, we’ve learned of comments that were made by Park City’s Chief Operating Officer Mike Goar and Deer Valley’s Chief Operating Officer, Todd Shallan at an online city hall meeting that actually predates Trump’s announcement. In that meeting, both Goar and Shallan indicated that due to a number of factors, ranging from travel restrictions and the potential spread of the virus, to domestic unemployment rates, both Park City and Deer Valley are actively working on plans that anticipate dramatically fewer international employees, if any. While the article does a good job of touching on a number of factors that play into this conclusion, one comment that really drives the point home comes from Shallan, in which he indicates that while for most seasons Deer Valley hires international employees in five categories of employment, the resort is currently only considering just one category for next year. Of course one factor playing in the favor of both of these resorts that demands mentioning, is the fact that they’re in the relatively unique position of being in close proximity to approximately 1.2 million people as the Salt Lake City metropolitan area is just about a 30 minute drive down I-80. For ski resorts in more remote vicinities, it’s likely that the suspension of these two visa programs will create much more significant difficulties. For more on this story, check out the report from the Park Record.
#3: Bryce Bennett Jumps into the Ring and Shares His Views on the NCAA vs. U.S. Ski Team Debate:
Congratulations! If you’ve made it this far, that means you’ve waded through the heaviest topics of the week and have arrived at the fun half of this week’s updates! If you’ve been following along in recent weeks, you might’ve caught our recap of rising tensions in the world of U.S. ski racing as the NCAA and the U.S. Ski Team have made public their conflicting views on the value of collegiate ski racing. In the weeks that’ve followed our initial sharing of that story, a number of letters to the editor have been published and voices have been heard on the subject. This week however, we read a letter to the editor that stands out enough that we figured it was worth sharing. That letter, sent to Ski Racing Magazine, was written by current U.S. Ski Team (and frequently mentioned on Chairlift Chat) athlete Bryce Bennett.
The letter itself stands out primarily for one significant reason: it gives the perspective of a current U.S. Ski Team athlete who had to make the choice between college and a professional career, and chose a professional career. Of course the writing is ultimately one man’s opinion, a point that’s crystal clear throughout, but the letter remains notable as it gives a glimpse into the mindset of an athlete who’s competing at the highest level. So, what does Bennett have to say about the comparison between World Cup and NCAA racing? Well, in his own words, “Those are two completely different sports, they’re not even comparable.” To back up this assertion, Bennett cites everything from the attention to detail regarding equipment, to the level of competition, difficulty of courses, and even the overall attitudes of the athletes competing at each level. All told, it feels safe to say that Bennett’s opinion is very much in line with Tiger Shaw’s in that World Cup ski racing is for athletes serious about their careers in ski racing, while NCAA racing is for amateurs. We’ll leave this story here and encourage you to give Bryce’s letter a read in full. If you find yourself accepting that recommendation, we’d also highly recommend reading the comments section as it’s full of great takes and additional information.
#4: Ever Dream of Endless Heli Skiing Laps? Well, for $100k, Your Dream Could Come True::
Finally, rounding out this week is a story that’s been blipping on our radar for a little over a month now, but one that we feel compelled to share regardless (Editor’s note: it was either this, or a $7.5 million ski resort being sold in Vermont, so we opted for the more affordable option). In late May, we learned of a new, decidedly different, multi-pass option: Heli. Billed as the first ever heli skiing season pass, the Heli pass promised to offer unlimited, year round heli skiing access just about anywhere in the world, using the platform’s network of guide partners. At the time, further details remained sparse as the intentions behind the pass were released, but the pass itself had yet to hit the market.
This week, the pass hit the market, and we now know quite a bit more about it. First, let’s talk about price. The Heli pass is available in two tiers: the Alpha and the Unlimited. At the cost of $1,000 (USD), the Alpha pass gives holders 10% off all bookings made on the heli.life platform, which offers trips featuring a variety of activities, ranging from skiing and snowboarding to surfing, biking, diving, safariing, and more. To give some quick perspective, ski trips listed on the website offer starting prices ranging from just a few hundred dollars for a single heli trip, to over $100,000 for a week long, private boat based heli trip in Alaska. So, depending on your intentions, a $1,000 Alpha pass could pay itself off quite quickly. The other pass offering is the Unlimited, which could be yours for the reasonable starting price of just $100,000.00. This pass seems much less dialed in, to be perfectly honest. In the product listing, it’s described as, “fully customizable,” and, “can be designed to offer unlimited heliskiing anywhere in the world with no restrictions.” Unfortunately, vague phrases regarding what the pass actually includes are all we get as an official inquiry is required to learn more. Speaking of which, if either of these two pass options sound enticing to you, you can check them out on the Heli.life website. While you’re there, you might as well explore some of their trip offerings as well!