A season like no other: Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. reflects on changes, tumult and success in difficult year
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A 2020-21 ski season at Steamboat Resort was never a guarantee.
After the 2019-20 season was cut short in March 2020, the community quickly began to wonder how long COVID-19 restrictions would last and if people would be allowed to return to the mountain. Local leaders and health officials held meetings with Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. and continually asked what everyone was thinking: Could a new season happen, how could it happen safely and what would have to change?
The answer largely rested in the ability of local officials, the resort and the community to work together in slowing the spread.
“We started having those conversations very early,” Ski Corp. President and COO Rob Perlman said. “The only way we were going to get through this season to protect our staff, to protect our community, was to get open and to stay open.”
And that’s what the resort did, holding a successful Opening Day on Dec. 1, 2020, and will close the season Sunday.
It aptly called its marketing campaign for staying open and mitigating spread “The Trail Forward.”
“It was about giving everyone peace of mind and getting the word out about our expectations and our rules,” said Katie Brown, vice president of sales and marketing for Ski Corp.
The campaign, which included new signage and messaging, reminded guests to wear masks and practice social distancing but still fit Steamboat’s brand.
“Guests and employees and the community can see what we’re doing, what the expectations are and how we’re going to get through it,” Brown said. “I think that’s why it resonated with a lot of people, it resonated with who Steamboat is and what we’re about and it stayed true to our brand.”
Making tough decisions
As other resorts around the state were contemplating the same questions, Ski Corp. chose to take a route different from most — to not require reservations for Ikon passholders. Copper Mountain joined Steamboat as the only Colorado resorts on the Ikon Pass to take that direction.
Loryn Duke, Ski Corp. director of communications, said that specific decision was made to prioritize the local community.
“We want our locals to have access to our mountain, and a reservation system would mean that locals and non-locals would be vying for the same reservation spots on the mountain,” Duke said in a February interview.
Looking back, Perlman said it was the right decision, despite a few bumps along the road.
“Anecdotally, I hear we’ve followed protocols better than our competitors and other resorts around the country and the state,” Perlman said.
While there were longer lines, that was due to the resort enforcing its policy to not allow parties from different households to ride the gondola together and having no more than three people on a chairlift.
A particular line that was seen in a widely circulated social media post from February was an outlier.
“The lines have not been as bad as people have been led to believe on social media,” said Brett Mason, Ski Corp. director of security and transportation. “We’ve had very few complaints about people crowding in on each other.”
The resort also adopted a policy of requiring prepurchased, single-day lift tickets. So many people wanted to ski Steamboat that employees had to stop selling tickets days before one of the busiest times, President’s Day weekend.
As a result of ensuring a safe season — and that many people opted not to travel during COVID-19 — the resort ended up taking a financial hit, with ticket sales for 2020-21 down 30%.
“We knew this was not going to be a record year for us financially — that wasn’t the goal for this year,” Perlman said. “Our goal was not to bring a bunch of people here. It was to maintain our service levels for guest services, maintain our community and have a good time while still following protocols.”
Enforcing the rules
Protecting visitors to the mountain not only meant a financial upset for the resort, it also put some employees in a precarious situation when it came to enforcement.
While employees agreed the vast majority of guests followed COVID-19 protocols without issue, many said on-the-ground employees faced harassment, and sometimes worse, in trying to enforce mask-wearing and appropriate social distancing.
As director of security Mason made sure to increase the number of employees on his team at the beginning of the season as staff anticipated longer lines and potentially more problems. In a normal year, Mason said his team is more reactive than proactive, meaning that security officials tend to arrive at a problem after the problem has started. This year, though, Mason said security guards were stationed every 100 feet, diligently watching for concerns.
“Most people … were just thankful to have us be open,” Mason said.
Some, however, weren’t as appreciative.
Mason and his team had to deal with several people throughout the season who refused to comply with rules and grew violent when asked to leave. Most incidents that resulted in violence or aggression involved alcohol, Mason said.
Earlier in the season, Mason saw a man not wearing a mask who was clearly intoxicated and told the man he either needed to put on a mask or leave the property. The man hit Mason in the face with his skis and refused to leave. Mason called the Steamboat Springs Police Department, who dealt with the man from there.
Mason’s team responded to a few other incidents. In one case, a man in line asked another man to put his mask on properly, as he was not wearing it properly. The man not wearing the mask then punched the other guest in the face. Police cited the man for assault and he was trespassed from the resort.
“Most people were really compliant and extremely grateful, but it’s always the ugly ones that feel more oppressive and impactful,” said Christina Gumbiner, on-mountain food and beverage director. “Every frontline worker here dealt with a lot of stressors.”
Gumbiner, who worked inside all of the resort’s on-mountain dining operations this season, said most of the issues facing food workers involved verbal harassment.
“You can’t imagine what some of us have been called and shouted at,” Gumbiner said. “These kids that we hire to be bussers and food runners were the brunt of all sorts of mean and ugliness.”
While Gumbiner emphasized almost all guests followed rules without question, dealing with those who didn’t proved to be a challenge, even if those instances were rare.
“Our mission is to be the friendliest and most welcoming resort in the entire world, so the way we react to them has to stay consistent and kind,” Gumbiner said. “But gosh, that’s hard to do sometimes.”
Adjusting to changes
As Routt County floated between COVID-19 levels as cases rose and dropped throughout the season, resort employees said they had plans in place to adjust accordingly, but many felt whiplash changing rules and policies every few weeks.
“We went from planning to open and crafting our whole story to having to serve food and drinks outside only,” Gumbiner said. “From the day we opened till the middle of December, we were outside only.”
Besides the masks and social distancing, guests and employees transitioned to watching a virtual line for the gondola, using touchless kiosks to pick up tickets and ordering food and drinks through the mobile app and scanning QR codes.
“As much as we could, we tried to use new technologies and new ideas,” Brown said. “We’ve just been adapting with whatever comes our way and it’s been really good overall.”
While guests had to adapt to changes, employees, particularly returning employees who were used to in-person socialization with other employees and maskless interactions with guests also had to overcome learning curves.
“It was a lot of changes for everyone,” said Trish Sullivan, vice president of human resources for Ski Corp.
Employees wanting to move into The Ponds, the apartment complex owned by Ski Corp. in Steamboat, were required to show a negative COVID-19 test before moving in. While living in the apartment, employees were also required to follow strict social distancing guidelines. There were constant reminders and encouragement.
Ski Corp. normally holds in-person social events for its employees to get to know one another, but due to COVID-19, such events were held virtually.
Though sometimes feeling inferior to in-person events, several employees said this season provided opportunities to work with departments and employees they may never had encountered.
“The difference in this year would be the amount of team work and camaraderie that we’ve seen between departments,” Mason said. “We’ve come together as a team like I’ve never seen before.”
Duncan Draper, a ski patrol supervisor, said while this was in many ways the most difficult season, it also brought many rewards and gave him a chance to reflect on normalcy as the resort, and the world, look towards a brighter future without COVID-19.
“I would tell people who had issues ’Brother, I love you, we’re going to make this work,’” he said. “We’re going to get through this, there will be better days ahead.”
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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