Nature & Outdoors

Keeping the Gates Open—The Winter of COVID-19

By Tom McAuliffe

Following the success of High Country recreational and hospitality industries during the uncertain summer of 2020, the North Carolina Ski Areas Association (NCSAA), in conjunction with the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), has made it clear their adopted safety protocols and procedures are soundly in place for the upcoming ski season. There’s a lot on the line for the state’s six ski resorts, Sky Valley, Cataloochee, Wolf Ridge, Appalachian Ski Mountain, Sugar and Beech Mountain, who together deliver a $228 million economic boost to the region—in terms of dollars and taxes—not to mention the physical and mental well-being of many people.

“Shutting down the ski industry would be devastating to the local economy,” said Appalachian Ski Mountain President Brad Moretz. “We’ve left no stone unturned to make skiing and snowboarding safer for our customers and employees.”

Nowhere has the successful and safe conduction of summertime activities in the High Country been more evident than in the unparalleled growth in lodging taxes. Visitors from southeastern states’ urban centers have flocked to the sanctuary of the Appalachian Mountains in record numbers since last spring.

The state’s ski areas of course are keen on a similar success, and have gone to great lengths to prove they are good wardens of public health. The NCSAA’s “Ski Well—Be Well” guidelines for its member resorts were put together by association president and Sugar Mountain Marketing Director Kim Jochl. “I thought it was the perfect document,” she said of the of the national association’s recommendations. “Input came in from one end of the country to the other to promote the safe pursuit of winter sports. We all want to go skiing.”

Occupancy taxes, better known in metropolitan areas as the province of visitor and convention bureaus, are included in short-term rental home and hotel fees. Tourism Development Authorities on Beech Mountain, Sugar Mountain, Blowing Rock and Watauga County collect the taxes and spend them promoting and improving the offerings of their respective jurisdictions. The numbers portend a similar, if not greater, economic windfall for their respective constituencies this winter.

In Watauga County, occupation tax figures from June through September exceeded record collections by an average of 65 percent. At the destination resort towns of Beech Mountain and Sugar Mountain, the increases in lodging revenue was even higher—much higher in fact.

Sugar Mountain Tourism Development Authority Chairperson Jim Fitzpatrick reported that half the town’s annual TDA budget was met in the two months of July and August. The two-month occupancy tax average was 136 percent over the village’s record highs for collections. The autumn months, normally ‘slow down’ months in the mountain economy, set new records as well.

“These taxes don’t burden our property owners,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s an elective expense for visitors and helps us keep property taxes in line and funds many improvements to the Village of Sugar Mountain.”

Kate Gavenus, in her seventh year as Beech Mountain’s Director of Tourism and Economic Development, reacted to Sugar Mountain’s numbers. “The same thing is happening here,” she said, reporting a 143 percent increase over the previous record high last July and August. “The numbers are crazy but we’re offering outdoor recreation and maybe you’re safer in the fresh air than if you were inside some building with lots of other people.”

It’s that success that puts all eyes on the state’s ski industry. Golf, tennis, cycling, hiking and whitewater rafting enjoyed record seasons in the year of COVID. And the industry’s wholehearted adoption of necessary safety protocols is testament to the serious nature of the virus. Gavenus and others in the travel, recreation, and hospitality industries of the High Country believe the winter season can mirror the success shown last summer and fall.

“People have more flexibility,” she said. “Coming to the mountains is not just a Saturday or Sunday event today. Wherever I go I see more people on the trails and outdoors. It’s healthy for the body and healthy for the soul.”

As the saying goes, “If you’re lucky enough to be in the mountains, you’re lucky enough.”

Sugar Mountain Does It Again

“The more things change the more they stay the same.” – Alphonse Karr

In the face of uncertain times, social upheaval, and a pandemic, it was strangely calming to see the 2020 ski season open November 19 at Sugar Mountain. The sounds of the snow guns were heard three days earlier, with a re-energized Beech Mountain adding to the hopeful cacophony. But as impressive as Beech Mountain’s effort was, showing more snowmaking muscle than ever before, they pulled over to await a more sustaining Arctic Clipper as Sugar revved up the Summit Express to get the party started.

“You know how hard it is to get going,” Sugar Mountain’s Gunther Jochl said. “But it means a lot for people to see we’re starting up, especially in times like these.”

November start-ups have been the rule since 1976, when Sugar Mountain shocked the skiing establishment by opening on November 5.  Sometimes those early openings are short-lived.

“Its our way to get the machinery running, people to work, and start working on the base,” Jochl said. “Sometimes it goes away, but we should be okay. I’m going skiing today and that’s all I know.”.

Its been a typical off season at Sugar, home to the south’s biggest vertical drop of 1,200 ft. and the Flying Mile. Most of the upgrades and improvements go unseen by visitors, such as the replacement of culverts, drainage pipes and other infrastructure in need of upgrade. The already beefy snowmaking system added more guns, driving the need for more reservoir space—three big Airless guns on wheels and two mounted on tall towers. To that end, excavators dredged a large pond on the golf course property increasing its reservoir capacity by millions of gallons, and at the same time improving the overall health of the stream-fed ecosystem by removing years of silt accumulation.

The ski and snowboard rental area, built for 1970 demand, has been completely overhauled and features new equipment from Head Ski Company of Austria, and, in the words of rental operations director at the resort, Dick Casey, “will greatly improve the flow, cutting down on wait time and getting our customers on the snow quicker.”

This is Casey’s second stint on the mountain. After years as a key leader in the Sugar Mountain Race team development program, he returns from a career on the South Carolina coast to boost the offerings on his favorite mountain. He rejoins Ski School director Len Bauer, Mountain Managers Erich Schmidinger and Andrew Jochl, Food Service Director Keith Lane, and snow making lead man Dave McManus on a crew where the average tenure in all the resort’s key positions exceeds thirty years. Mike Thomas, who spent three decades as store manager of Alpine Ski Center’s Johnson City branch, has taken the helm of the resort’s Sports Shop.

That experience is particularly critical this year, which has been anything but typical.

“I question my sanity,” Jochl said, with only a slight touch of humor. “This is a pandemic year and there’s so much uncertainty. The trend in much of our industry is to stop spending with so many travel restrictions looming. But we’re following the rules and will open up smart, implement all the regulations to make things as safe as we can so people can enjoy the mountain.”

For Jochl and his counterparts in the North Carolina Ski Areas Association, the goal is to enjoy the growth of their industry in the face of the COVID-19 threat in the same fashion the golf industry enjoyed record levels of participation last summer. Once labeled an “essential industry,” the Sugar Mountain Golf Club posted a banner season.

“The seriousness of this has not gone by me,” Jochl noted. “My 94-year-old mother had it (COVID) after going through surgery in Germany. My daughter contracted it in Austria. They got through it. It is not necessarily a death sentence. Since the beginning of the pandemic people have been coming to the mountains, leaving the cities behind to go out and play.”

Sugar Mountain’s Vice-President of Marketing Kim Jochl, Gunther’s partner and wife, directed a pro-active mitigation campaign as President of the North Carolina Ski Areas Association. Beech Mountain’s Ryan Costin and Appalachian Ski Mountain’s Brad Moretz served on the six-strong resorts’ board of directors of the organization. Titled “Ski Well—Be Well,” the NCSAA lays out practices and procedures of physical distancing and operating procedures all members have endorsed. The proactive effort is to show local and state governments that every safeguard is in place to insure safe operation.

“Our commitment to providing a healthy and fun environment is stronger than ever,” Gunther Jochl stated.

At Sugar, old flooring in the ski school and the nursery are being pulled up and replaced with non-absorbent materials for easier cleaning and disinfecting. In the food service areas, long tables are being replaced with four tops so family groups can be together and not, as Food Service director Keith Lane said, “not be sharing an eight-top with folks from out of state they do not know.” Current state mandates limit occupancy to 50 percent of normal capacity. Outdoor seating on the base lodge’s expansive deck will be expanded to improve spacing of customers.

In no small irony, the Ski Well-Be Well guidelines adopt the standard of “physical distancing” versus the familiar mandate to social distance. “Physical distancing in lift queues occurs organically due to the length of skis and snowboards,” the manual states, much like the guy wearing the halo of swim noodles in the line at Wal-Mart. A mountain tagline says, “Six feet of separation has never felt so good.”

“Guests will be asked to self-group and load in the chair with their traveling party,” the guidelines state.

Face coverings are mandatory for skiers, the most popular being the neck gaiter pull-up.

“Employees will be trained in the new guidelines,” Jochl said. “I have a bunch of guys who have put their heads together to follow a preset program. My guys can handle it.”

Beech Mountain Continues to Impress

Eastern America’s highest resort continues its resurgence in the eleventh year under general manager Ryan Costin’s aggressive agenda. Capacity in two off-site lakes has been doubled and a new pumping station installed to drive up to 4,000 gallons per minute to the resort’s primary reservoir at the base of its ski slopes. The second phase of a three-phase plan—the first was the addition of 75 snow making machines over the past three seasons—has, according to Costin, “jncreased our snowmaking capacity by at least 50 percent.” Costin’s attention to snowmaking and grooming from day one of his administration has not gone unnoticed by the skiing public.

Constant off-season upgrades of systems and features are the hallmark of High Country ski areas, and with Costin’s arrival in 2009, Beech Mountain has shown to be a willing participant in perhaps the most competitive regional industries in America.

In a season of uncertainty, Beech Mountain is holding course, moving ahead with a complete rebuild of its signature outdoor ice skating rink, expanding its snow tubing platform to provide more area for physical distancing, overhauling its ski rental procedures to offer paperless registration and new ski and snowboard inventory from Rossignol. The reservation system for rentals and lessons is online, with kiosks located on-site. Once in the system, return visits are a snap as users equipment specs are retained.

“The challenge is we’re navigating a landscape that’s a moving target,” Costin said of state regulations that can impose different levels of restrictions with every swing of the pandemic pendulum. “It’s been interesting, but we will accommodate our customers and adapt operations for the safety of everyone.”

Both Sugar and Beech have had the opportunity to test lift operations over the summer, as each resort serves a growing mountain bike crowd. “We’ve already experienced rider concerns,” Costin said.  “We encourage families and friends to ride together, but whatever their comfort levels are, we’ll adapt and accommodate them.”

All the mountains have come to realize that more employees will be required to implement heightened safeguards. “It demands redundancies in your staffing, and shift overlapping to maintain safe protocols,” Costin said. “This season will be extremely labor intensive, in an industry that by nature is already labor intensive.”

But in the end, customers can expect better conditions on the slopes through increased snowmaking, better transport to the summit thanks to two fixed-grip quad lifts, and vastly improved ice skating and snowtubing facilities.

“The biggest challenge is how we manage off-slope activities,” Costin added. “The big issue is providing food and beverages. We’ve banked on providing those services to our customers.”

Currently, the state permits operation at 50% occupancy. The resort operates two food service areas in the village and the Beech Mountain Brewery, and at its satellite offering, The 5506’ SkyBar at the top of the ski slope network.

“During holidays and Saturdays, spacing will be a challenge, but today, with work at home and kids studying online, maybe crowds will not be so weekend driven,” Costin allowed. “Things are changing all the time and we’ll adapt. And we’ll be prepared to scale up when permitted.”

In a season of uncertainty, Beech Mountain stands ready for that welcome eventuality.

Appalachian Ski Mountain Ahead of the Game

Home of the Flex Lift Ticket, which offers visitors nine hours of skiing regardless of their start time, and even residual credit for unused hours, Appalachian Ski Mountain has shown itself as a national leader in ski operation innovation. But resort president Brad Moretz and his marketing director Drew Stanley have conspired to up the ante in the technology game in the age of COVID mitigation.

“People will see some things they won’t see anywhere else,” Moretz said. “We’ve developed the most sophisticated booking platform in America.”

While such a claim invites skepticism, winter enthusiasts have watched time and again as this finely tuned snowmaking giant has delivered the goods year after year.

Reservations for lessons, lift tickets, ski rentals, clothing, helmets, the children’s nursery, and even parking are available online. Touchless payment locations at two dozen kiosks are available if you wish to add on to your slope time or change equipment needs. Even the food service offers point-of-sale ordering that promises lightning fast fulfillment. Over 400 outdoor seats are available to further space customers apart and outdoor grilling becomes a more prevalent offering. “Skiers are already dressed for the cold,” Moretz noted. “Grabbing a box lunch or meal in outdoor seating is a great option.”

“It’s been a rare week when we haven’t come up with a new idea to better space people here,” Moretz added. “People will be surprised in a good way with the improvements.”

You’ll even find “forearm” door handles in the rest areas for hands-free opening and closing.  

All staff will wear multi-layer face covering and the resort has adopted the Disney model asking that all patrons over the age of two wear a suitable face covering.

The online reservation platform has a new feature. When customers book their visit, a drop box will appear with five-minute arrival intervals. This will help spacing further as folks are encouraged to arrive at specific times. And thanks again to the Flex Ticket, patrons will still enjoy the full nine hours of slope time.

“We will do everything we have to to keep our ski areas open,” Moretz said.

And underneath all the protocols is the ski and snowboarding terrain. AppSkiMtn, arguably has more snowmaking capacity per square foot than any resort in the country. The immaculate 25-acre complex is rarely closed down by periods of thaw once its snow base is established. The three terrain parks offer progressions of difficulty, nurturing new riders to greater heights, safely and gradually. More than fifty park features mark the terrain. AppSkiMtn is home to the French-Swiss Ski College, where instruction is available for both skiers and snowboarders of all skill levels.

AppSkiMtn continues with the popular Midnight Madness, where Friday and Saturday ski sessions extend to 10 p.m. This winter, the madness is extended to Sunday nights during Martin Luther King and Presidents’ Day weekends. The outdoor ice rink opened Thanksgiving week.

In the face of the pandemic, Moretz is confident the ski industry will benefit on the strength of its outdoor stage and adherence to safety protocols. “Look at all the things people can’t do in a time like this,” he said. “It funnels all these folks to the things they can do.”  And that, Stanley adds, “portends good things to come for skiing.”

Moretz sees more benefit coming from adapting to the year of COVID. “Once this is past us, all the innovation and improvements made in the name of safety will continue to make for a better guest experience in the years ahead.”

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