‘Our industry came together’: Resort officials outline 2021-22 plans
With cooler temperatures, resorts firing up snowmaking, and some beginning to spin lifts, leadership from Palisades Tahoe, Northstar California Resort, and Sugar Bowl Resort provided updates on what skiers and riders can expect going into the 2021-22 season.
NORTHSTAR CALIFORNIA RESORT
Northstar California Resort is set to open for operations next Friday.
The area’s Vail operated resorts — Northstar California Resort, Heavenly Mountain Resort, and Kirkwood Mountain Resort — began snowmaking operations last weekend for the first time this season.
During Tuesday’s Good Morning Truckee meeting, Deirdra Walsh, general manager and president of Northstar California Resort, highlighted Vail Resorts’ EpicPromise program, which recently donated $19.4 million to 150 organizations across its 34 North American resorts to support food and housing assistance, childcare, and forest health. Of those pledged funds, approximately $1.8 million will go to South Tahoe programs and more than $800,000 will go to the North Tahoe area.
“I have worked with many of the nonprofits and the community stakeholders … the amount of respect that I have for all those that are working in these fields is deeply felt and deeply appreciated,” said Walsh during Tuesday’s Good Morning Truckee session.
Additionally, Walsh said that more than $400,000 in direct grants have been supplied by Vail to support employees and others displaced by the Caldor Fire.
“Really was able to demonstrate how EpicPromise can really impact our communities in so many ways, and ways that are unexpected and yet are there as a safety net to help our employees overall,” said Walsh.
The Epic Pass, which was launched in 2008 and provides access to Vail operated resorts, has sought to push skiers and riders from purchasing day lift tickets to season pass holders.
“We’re not shy about our strategy at Vail Resorts that our intent and our passion is to create a legacy for our industry in ensuring lifelong skiers and riders, and we want to have more guests on our pass product versus lift tickets because we think that’s a better way for stability, for our company, and for our industry, overall,” added Walsh.
Last spring, Vail announced a season pass reduction by 20%, which, according to a September earnings call, has resulted in a 42% increase in season pass purchases compared to last year and a 67% jump compared to the 2019-20 season.
Improvements across Vail operated resorts include more than $300 million in upgrades to lifts, including an upgraded Comstock Express, which now will hold six people instead of four.
“That is completely and really focused on the number of guests coming to our resorts,” said Walsh. “And wanting to make sure that we can be as efficient as we can at our key and most popular lifts.”
On the COVID-19 front, the resort is mandating employees be vaccinated by Monday.
“We think this is the best thing for their own safety, for the safety of each other,” said Walsh. “And for the protection of our guests and our communities as a whole.”
Unlike last year, Northstar won’t require reservations by pass holders and those looking for a day ticket. Face coverings will be required indoors, including buses but not on gondolas. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination will be required by those ages 12 and older looking to dine indoors, including at the resort’s cafeteria-style eateries. Walsh said the reason for vaccination proof is due to people being served for long-term periods of time and at communal tables.
“We think this is the right path for us at Vail Resorts and here at Northstar,” she said.
Lifts will be loaded at capacity this season. Skiing and riding school, as well as the ice skating rink and tubing, will be back in full force along with the resort’s traditional s’mores and Tost fairs.
“It’s not just going back on the hill and turning all the switches and just bringing back everything the way that it was, but really for, myself and the team here, thinking about all this through a lens of reimagined,” concluded Walsh.
Newly branded Palisades Tahoe has a similar approach compared to Vail’s locally operated resorts, but will not follow mask policies aligned with Placer County.
Employees will also be required to be vaccinated.
“As much as we are competitors … we’re also, I think, partners and so we share so much of the same philosophies,” said Dee Byrne, president and COO of Palisades Tahoe. “It’s fun to think about working in a healthy, competitive environment, but striving for, ultimately, the same goals.”
Byrne, who was named president in August, addressed the recent resort name change. The resort in September dropped part of its title — Squaw Valley — deemed discriminatory toward Native Americans.
“I would say that most people … a lot of our guests that were angered, have moved to acceptance and we’re getting a lot less criticism and a lot more adoption,” said Byrne. “It’s starting to roll off the tongues of our community. We’re really pleased. I think, that this move, this change, indicates who we are as a company. We’re kind to people, and ‘Squaw’ was a bad name. That doesn’t represent who we are.”
Byrne indicated the resort is working with the county and Washoe Tribe of California and Nevada to rename other geographic locations in the area like Squaw Peak, Squaw Valley, and Squaw Creek. Additionally, the resort’s Squaw One lift has been renamed Wa She Shu, which means Washoe People.
As far as improvements go, the resort has installed a 150-foot magic carpet for beginners at its High Camp area on the Olympic Valley side, along with a new healthy eating option, the Sun Bowl Acai & Poke.
The major upgrade the resort has been working on — a base-to-base gondola connecting Alpine Meadows to Olympic Valley — won’t be ready this ski season. Instead, officials are targeting the 2022-23 season for the project.
“As hard as we worked, as much overtime as we drove … we couldn’t get that project done in one summer,” said Byrne. “So, we are on hold. It’s buttoned up. It’s winterized for now and we’ll be operational in the following season.”
Issues cited by Byrne include supply chain difficulties, getting concrete, and availability of helicopters, which were used fighting this past season’s fires.
Additionally, the resort is expanding hours of its micro-transit service, which will now connect to the Tahoe Truckee Area Regional Transportation’s system via Tahoe City.
Ski legend and Olympian Daron Rahlves has also joined the resort’s athlete team, a reconnection with an area he cut his teeth at. Rahlves was on the ski team until he was 14, and then he went to the East Coast to attend ski academy Green Mountain Valley School. Rahlves credits his first World Cup win in 1995 to the unique influence of the mountains and athletes of Palisades Tahoe.
“Just before that week in early March I was home skiing … with Shane McConkey and Jonny Moseley,” Rahlves said in a news release. “We had a blast and I wasn’t holding back, even with a few World Cup races left on the schedule. I took that same mindset of fun and flow freeskiing with those guys into the Kvitfjell downhill track and made it mine those two days. That was the culmination of a ton of hard work, and fulfilled a dream to be the best in the world. From then on I realized making it happen on the World Cup was as much about working hard, skiing tactically smart and laying it on the line, as it was to harness the mindset of skiing for fun and feeling the flow.”
Byrne indicated the resort has seen a doubling in season tickets sales compared to 2018-19, and like officials at Vail Resorts, said the idea going into the season is to bring as many to the mountain as possible.
“We, too, embrace the idea of more is better, and we’re not going to be shy to say that, ‘Yeah, we are going to be busy on Fridays, and Saturdays, and Sundays,'” she said. “So, we are doing other things to encourage mid-week visitation inclusive of this Ikon Thursdays program.”
Ikon Pass holders will receive a discount of 25% on lodging Sunday through Thursday nights.
The resort began spinning lifts during Halloween weekend, but due to warmer temperatures and rain had to shutter operations ahead of its scheduled kickoff on Nov. 24. Palisades was, however, able to fire up its snowmaking system on Monday.
“We are interested in skiing and riding as much as we can, when we can,” concluded Byrne. “That will be our operating style.”
Sugar Bowl Resort and Royal Gorge Cross-Country Resort President and CEO Greg Dallas said last season was one of the most challenging faced by ski areas.
“Last year was unbelievably challenging, but our industry came together and worked with California at the top levels to be open for skiing and that would not have happened without the partnership of our Tahoe resorts,” said Dallas. “I just can’t say enough about that.”
Dallas talked about the importance of fire resiliency to resorts on Donner Summit, stating that the forest in the area is much like that affected by the Caldor Fire.
“Clearly we have the same risk, the same forest, that the I-50 corridor has, and so, as we get into winter we start thinking about turns and snow, but I tell you it’s top of mind for us,” said Dallas. “Our forest to the west is a great concern.”
Additionally, Sugar Bowl has spent a significant amount of time developing a master plan — through Placer County, the Donner Summit Association, Forest Service and others.
“It’s really to balance recreation with conservations and restoration,” said Dallas. “It’s been a great effort and there’s a great product and a list of projects that will come out of that.”
Work includes additional parking, trail heads, bathrooms, and a snow play area that would include 15 lanes, and 400-foot carpets with snowmaking capabilities.
“We’ll be building a winter/summer adventure park connected to Sugar Bowl … and we’ll continue to address the snow play issues on both (Highway) 40 and (Interstate) 80 to create a snow play hub and, again, manage the use.”
Ground was broken on the project this fall and will mostly finish up in the summer.
Unlike other resorts, officials at Sugar Bowl have committed to keeping the mountain uncrowded. And while Dallas indicated season tickets will likely sell out, he said the resort’s aim is to “preserve the experience we’ve always been doing, but we really were forced to learn a lot last year.”
Tickets will be available through advanced sales only.
“We don’t like lines,” added Dallas. “We don’t like waiting in lines at Sugar Bowl. We like uncrowded slopes. It’s good for safety, and so, the uncrowded resort experience, we learned a lot last year and we liked a lot about it.”
Employees at Sugar Bowl will be required to be vaccinated by Sunday, said Dallas, but accommodations may be made for those with religious or medical requests. Currently, Dallas said the resort’s staff is 99.5% vaccinated.
The resort is aiming for a Nov. 26 opening.
“It will feel a lot like a normal ski area in a normal winter,” concluded Dallas.
Justin Scacco is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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