Snow Bowl calls the winter of COVID a success
We are a local mountain, by and large... That has worked in our favor this year for sure. In fact, it may have been the key to our success. The customers wanted to be here and wanted to see us stay open.
— Mike Hussey, Middlebury Snow Bowl
HANCOCK — Last March, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Middlebury College Snow Bowl to shut down early with the hopes of returning to normal the following winter.
Nine months later, uncertainty still loomed in the air around opening the ski mountain. On a brisk December morning, the Snow Bowl started spinning it’s lifts again — but with the knowledge that this season would have to be unlike any other.
“Sometimes you deem a successful season in how much money you make, how the college ski team did, or how many lessons we had. There are so many phases of gauging what a successful season is,” said John Nuceder, the assistant manager of the Snow Bowl.
“I think we had one this year purely because we were not only able to open, but we were able to stay open. We were able to provide a service for our community when there wasn’t a lot for people to do otherwise.”
While pass and ticket sales were down significantly, due mainly to Middlebury College students being off-campus from Thanksgiving through the end of February and operating a five-day week instead of seven days, more local residents were at the mountain Wednesdays through Sunday. The beginner’s area — the magic carpet and the Sheehan Lift — were as busier than ever as more area residents seem to take up the sport looking for some activity to do safely outside.
Other changes were made to the daily operations of the ski area including the closing of the Bailey Falls chair located on the backside, the five-day operating schedule, and limited access to the lodge to use the restrooms. With those changes and fewer staff needed in operations, overall operating expenses were reduced.
Financial and operational challenges aside, the community responded favorably to the Snow Bowl’s schedule and services.
“We are a local mountain, by and large… That has worked in our favor this year for sure. In fact, it may have been the key to our success. The customers wanted to be here and wanted to see us stay open,” said Mike Hussey, general manager of the Snow Bowl and Rikert Nordic Center, the latter is located just a few miles down the road. “The challenge was certainly getting started and navigating all of the COVID-19-based issues,” but once those obstacles were figured out, he added, the season went well.
The historic lodge at the Snow Bowl remained closed to the public, except for the use of bathrooms, grab-and-go food items, and a pop-up extension of the rental shop. The mobile food options, which included pizza and chili, were available to those looking for a bite to eat between runs. The Middlebury Ski Club donated a collection of outside fireplaces to be utilized on the outdoor decks as an alternative to warming up in the lodge. Consequently, the decks at lunch-time were often filled to capacity, often adding to the sense of added activity around the lodge and Worth Mountain Chair Lift.
“Another dramatic change for us was no racing, actually no events at all. The downside to that is the college ski team didn’t race and we didn’t have a number of events here. The upside is we were able to groom for the general public. Trails that are normally race surface — hard ice — were soft, manageable and lovely,” Hussey said.
Many of the Middlebury Ski Club members spent their free time at the Bowl despite not racing, and the general public was pleased with the efforts of the groomers and the style change.
“As a more recreational skier, I have enjoyed the way that the Bowl has treated the trails,” said Fyn Fernandez, a Weybridge local who has skied at the Snow Bowl for over a decade. “This year, the conditions were ideal for skiers like me. I think a lot of people really appreciated the focus around making conditions fun for everybody.”
The grooming style was not the only adjustment the Snow Bowl had to make. The snow school was forced to limit their offerings and instructors were unable to ride the chairlift with students. This presented a challenge for instructors, as they had to rely on a family member being present during the lesson for those who needed chairlift assistance.
“We were unable to offer our programs this year as well as no group lessons. That was hard on a lot of families, not having that group experience for their kids. But we did see a lot of beginners and did well with private lessons,” said Daphne Diego, co-director of the snow school.
The ski area saw more than 1,800 reservations for the beginner zone alone. This uptick came as a result of locals of all ages using the area to build their skills and introduce loved ones to the sport.
COLLEGE STAFF RISES TO THE OCCASION
Middlebury College relocated many of its employees from campus to the Snow Bowl while the college was between semesters. Individuals were thrown into roles far from their normal duties. Workers from food services learned how to run the Sun Kid conveyor belt lift- known by many as the carpet, fit lease equipment and park cars.
“A lot of credit goes to the staff working here that followed the guidelines, stayed healthy and took care of themselves. We have our own challenges in running a ski area but say nothing about a pandemic. They all just rose to the challenge and made it a great season,” Nuceder said.
Derrick Cram, business manager of the ski shop and Ralph Myhre golf course, arrived at the Snow Bowl already knowing how to work in an adapted environment.
“Unlike the rest of the crew up here, I was coming out of golf season, so I had already experienced business operations in the time of COVID with changes in procedures and different restrictions in place,” said Cram. “The challenge up here was dealing with reduced capacities in the rental shop which is an enclosed space. We were only able to have two unrelated individuals, one family unit, or up to a total of five people maximum inside the shop. That really put a bottleneck on this part of the operations. On a busy Saturday when everybody wants to come skiing, we had lines at some points that were up to an hour long.”
A new program was created in an effort to reduce the number of customers in the rental shop.
“We implemented a reservation system for our season lease program housed in the Kirk Alumni Center located on campus. It was great. It really allowed us to focus more on specific customers during an allotted time slot. We were able to give those customers our undivided attention and make sure they were taken care of. It was a better experience overall, and we received raving reviews from the customers. I would love to continue to use a modified version of this program into future seasons,” Cram said.
While some community members took advantage of the season lease program, others turned to ordering new uphill equipment to be used on the backside of the Bowl. Skiers could purchase an uphill ticket, a trend that has taken over the ski industry in recent years, and hike the trails tucked away on the backside.
“Access to uphill ski trails and the Long Trail has also made it possible to get the backcountry experience that other mountains are unable to provide. The Bowl was able to optimize full access to the mountain, even if they were only running two chairlifts this year,” Fernandez said.
“For every downside, there has been some silver-lining too,” Hussey said.
The Snow Bowl team has worked collaboratively and tirelessly to create a safe and welcoming place for the community to spend their time this winter. Although many challenges were thrown their way, team members say they continued to adapt and work toward their goal of hosting a memorable season.
“The staff here really worked well together and had the same goals in mind. We were all very cognizant of our customers, giving them a good service and making this work through COVID. That was really important to all of us and I think our customers saw that,” Diego said.
“The greater Addison County community was very fortunate that the college ultimately made the decision to run a ski area that was virtually not supporting the college community or the race team. It was a huge offer to the community that a lot of people are appreciative of,” Nuceder said.
The Snow Bowl will close down at the end of March, having achieved its goal of successfully making it to the end of the 2020-2021 season. This coming Sunday, March 28, will mark the 71st day of operations for the ski area, falling short of an average season by 35 days. Hussey contributes the difference to warm temperatures early on (they weren’t able to open this year until mid-December) and a reduction in daily operations to five days a week.
“It was a challenging year,” Hussey said,” but the vibe here was always positive. I am glad we were able to provide a safe place for the community to be outside doing what they love. This year was definitely unlike any other, but we look forward to building what worked really well into next year.”
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