The Tinto family pause at their Falmouth home while sorting out their ski gear, which they plan to bring up to the condo they are renting at Sugarloaf this winter. From left: Cooper, Michael, Melanie and Aspen. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Melanie Tinto and her family of four have been looking forward to skiing at Sugarloaf, where they’ll rent a condo for weekend getaways. And during the winter of the coronavirus, it will be especially meaningful.

Tinto knows skiers and snowboarders will have to adjust and be patient during the pandemic, and she believes Sugarloafers will work to help others in the ski community.

“It’s such a part of our family. We bought our season passes last season – we do every year,” Tinto said. “We are so excited to get up to the mountain. It’s important to us. We expect to see changed lift protocols.”

Over the past few months, Alpine ski areas in Maine have been planning and implementing modifications to accommodate for social distancing to meet state COVID-19 safety protocols. Many have added or have plans to add new decks, additional rooms, heated tents, spill-over parking areas, food trucks or portable toilets to ensure that skiers and riders will be spread out. And knowing that the bulk of customers come on weekends, some resorts plan to offer special midweek deals to ease crowding on Saturdays and Sundays.

Across the country, some ski areas are taking a different approach to ease crowding, with plans to introduce reservation systems for season pass holders and those buying single-day lift tickets. At least three resorts in Vermont and four in New Hampshire will be opting for reservations this winter.

Many skiers are averse to the idea. With a first-come, first-served system, they feel there is a chance they could get shut out. And few want to schedule ahead for a weekend that might end up with weather conditions unfavorable for skiing. They want the flexibility to head to the slopes when they please.

No ski areas in Maine will begin the season with reservations, though officials at Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley said they will consider instituting them as the season progresses.

Tinto is hoping a reservation system won’t be necessary. As a mother who works full time, not being able to share time on the weekend on the slopes with her husband and children would be hard.

“As far as the reservation system, we’re waiting to see,” she said. “What will that look like, and will we be able to leverage our time at the mountain?”

Of Sunday River’s 18 chairlifts, eight base area lifts, such as the one above, had radio-frequency identification gates installed this summer. At Sugarloaf, four chairlifts at the base of the mountain were equipped with the so-called RFID gates this summer. Nick Lambert photo

Saddleback in Rangeley will open the season without a reservation system, but change to one if needed. And Sunday River in Newry will not institute a reservation system unless required to do so by the state, said communications director Karolyn Castaldo.

“We wanted to make sure there were not going to be capacity limitations from the state, or from guidelines from the CDC,” Castaldo said. “People don’t want to have to make a reservation. That’s why they buy a season pass.”

A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development said state guidelines for restaurants, lodges and retail stores are applicable to ski areas, adding that department officials were working with the ski industry in Maine to establish further guidelines.

“We are working with the industry to adopt national guidelines for outdoor activities on Maine’s ski mountains,” said Kate Foye of DECD. “We will continue to work with Maine’s public health team and the industry to develop any additional appropriate public health and safety protocols as we prepare to welcome ski season in Maine.”

NEW AND DIFFERENT

Alpine skiing in Maine has an estimated economic impact of $1 billion annually, according to Dirk Gouwens, executive director of the Ski Maine Association. That figure is based on an estimated 1.3 million skiers and snowboarders annually.

Skiers enjoy the trails at Carter’s X-C Ski Canter in Bethel. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Industry experts believe the pandemic will lead to greater demand at ski resorts as people look to get outdoors. Given that, the most common new offering at ski areas is likely to be several forms of day passes – from two-hour early-morning passes to a two-hour midday pass, to a two-hour late-day pass – that collectively spread skiers out throughout the day, said Nick Sargent, president of Snowsports Industries America in Park City, Utah. Such day passes also would be more affordable, and could recruit new skiers, Sargent said.

“I think (this winter is) a huge opportunity because there will be a lot of skiers spread around to all these ski areas,” said Saddleback General Manager Andy Shepard. “It will be important for ski areas to think about things differently, to be entrepreneurial, to find new ways of solving problems. If we approach this season right – it’s going to set up all Maine ski areas moving forward.”

Saddleback and other ski areas have been making changes in an effort to help skiers and riders stay safe during the pandemic.

Sunday River, Sugarloaf and Saddleback are among the ski areas that have installed radio frequency-identification technology – or RFID – gates to scan lift tickets or season passes at chairlifts in a touchless fashion, without the need for lift operators to get close to patrons.

Because lodges and restaurants are limited in the number of guests they can have inside during the pandemic, ski areas started planning during the summer for this with expansions in pubs and cafes – and at some, with plans for heated tents outside. Maine’s three biggest ski areas said the new restrictions announced by Gov. Janet Mills two weeks ago – limiting indoor gatherings to no more than 50 people – would not change their operation plans for the season.

The revenue Alpine ski areas can derive from restaurants and bars can be as much as 40 percent, said Gouwens at Ski Maine, although Saddleback and Sugarloaf reported it was more on the order of 8 to 10 percent.

Of Sunday River’s 18 chairlifts, eight base area lifts, such as the one above, had radio-frequency identification gates installed this summer. At Sugarloaf, four chairlifts at the base of the mountain were equipped with the so-called RFID gates this summer. Nick Lambert photo

Two restaurants at Sunday River plan to expand service during COVID-19 with additional rooms or, in the case of The Last Run Room, with “igloos” outside that will seat small family groups, a trend that has become popular during the pandemic. Sunday River also is offering expanded parking at its two hotels to help skiers suit up at their cars and hit the lifts without going to a base lodge. And Sunday River will offer a 20 percent reduction in lodging midweek to encourage those who can work remotely to ski during the week.

Sugarloaf announced it will restrict access to its Base Lodge and close gear storage at rental lockers. It’s also requesting guests to “boot up” at their cars and avoid the lodge when possible. It’s further asking people to get on chairlifts with members of their group or family.

In addition, Sunday River, Sugarloaf and Saddleback all announced they would follow the usual COVID protocols required by the state for restaurants and lodging and retail centers, such as wearing face coverings in all indoor spaces unless sitting down to eat – and outdoors on lift lines and chairlifts. There will also be limited capacity in indoor spaces and tables spaced out to assure physical distancing, and Plexiglas or plastic shields will be used at all point-of-sale counters.

Maine Alpine ski areas big and small would not divulge data on season-pass sales for the winter season, although officials at Sugarloaf and Saddleback said they have exceeded projections. Sugarloaf and Sunday River took season passes off sale in June before resuming them in September as officials gauged the potential for skier traffic during the pandemic.

Shepard, Saddleback’s GM, believes the refurbished ski area will be well positioned to be both busy and safe during the pandemic – despite having been shuttered up the past five years. Many key upgrades have been made at the Saddleback lodge.

Sugarloaf Ski Area was packed on Wednesday, December 30, 2015, with a variety of guests including some who would prefer to ski at Saddleback Mountain, but can’t because the Rangeley ski area is still closed. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Arctaris Impact Fund invested $18 million this year in Saddleback to add a faster high-speed quad lift that seats four rather than two, expanded dining inside, added four new bathrooms in the lodge upstairs, as well as a new HVAC system designed to mitigate the spread of the virus and the flu. The ski area will add a heated tent that easily can seat 50 diners spaced out, and a remote parking area with food trucks to help visitors fuel up and stay safe.

A new lift-ticket pickup box located in downtown Rangeley will further allow skiers to get their ticket in town, park at a remote parking lot, and avoid the busy lodge.

At all three large ski areas, ski rentals will be done inside, but with reduced capacity. At Sunday River, rental pickups this winter will expand to Friday evenings to help further space out foot traffic throughout the week.

Smaller Alpine areas are making changes, too.

Shawnee Peak in Bridgton added another outdoor deck beside its lodge to help skiers spread out. And it, also, installed the RFID ticket gates. Portable toilets likely will be added around the parking area. And Shawnee Peak will do ski rental orders online.

RSVP TO SKI

Changes at Alpine resorts are going on everywhere across the country – but the biggest question at many is around adding a reservation system. There are two schools of thought: A reservation system will help resorts know exactly how many people are on the mountain and better manage social distancing – or reservations will fly in the face of the Alpine culture, and skiers and riders will balk at the concept.

Shawnee Peak ski area in Bridgton expanded its outside deck this summer in preparation for a winter during COVID-19, to help skiers and riders taking breaks have more room to social distance. Other ski areas across Maine made similar modifications. Photo courtesy of Shawnee Peak

“Skiing is not designed for reservations,” said Jeff Handle, a spokesman for Aspen Snowmass Ski Resort in Colorado. “We understand these are new and unprecedented times. But it’s inconvenient for our guests to have to make a reservation. We feel we came up with an alternative. We worked the problem from a different angle.”

At Aspen Snowmass, which has a dozen base lodges, skiers will be offered cheaper tickets during the week – including a new midweek season pass that is half the price of the regular pass. But Handle said the resort is ready to roll out a reservation system if needed. 

At all 37 Vail Resorts in North America – including three in Vermont and four in New Hampshire, such as Wildcat Mountain – the company is instituting a reservation system for the first time. Vail Resorts spokesman Jeff Wise said it helps the resorts avoid a crowded environment and, with that, helps visitors feel safer and assured they won’t ski in crowds. And if any of the resorts need to send out COVID-related announcements via email, they’ll know ahead of time every person who will ski or ride at any of their ski areas on any given day because of the reservations. 

Wise said a huge pent-up demand for skiing caused by the shortened season last spring could lead to overcrowding.

“The Northeast has a huge population of skiers and riders, many who would typically plan a trip or two to fly to Europe or out West. This year they won’t,” Wise said.

Because reservations at any of Vail’s resorts only began a week ago, on Nov. 6, Wise said it’s hard to gauge the reaction from skiers. But so far it’s been “neutral to positive,” he said. 

In Maine, only Sugarloaf is still weighing the options and need for a reservation system.

“We are waiting on evaluating because other resorts in the Southern Hemisphere or out West have implemented them. We’re waiting to hear from the state if we have to have a limit on access to the mountain in a given time,” said Noelle Tuttle, Sugarloaf’s communications director.

Recently, Sugarloaf and Sunday River’s “New England Pass” was offered without Loon Mountain in New Hampshire, as it typically is since all are part of Boyne Resorts. Castaldo, the Sunday River spokesperson, said Loon Mountain officials wanted to control overcrowding there.

Skiers who frequent Maine’s ski areas are dubious about reservations.

Jack and Jennifer Zinn of Windham have been Sugarloaf season pass holders for 20 years, and and mountainside condo owners for the past three years.

“They floated that idea. I hope that’s not the case,” Jack Zinn said of a reservation system. “We love Sugarloaf and we are going to be supportive no matter what they decide. But we’re hoping there’s no reservation system.”

Rob Tegeder of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, plans to buy a Saddleback season pass to support the ski area as it rebuilds and is confident he’ll come to Maine to ski at some point this winter. But Tegeder would bemoan a reservation system.

“I don’t think skiers are thinking about COVID. We’re all wearing masks when we ski,” Tegeder said. “It’s going to be fantastic.”

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