Local ski hills carefully planning for a safe ski season during the pandemic are seeing some encouraging early interest, reporting a mini rush on passes and group lessons.
In fact, Mount St. Louis Moonstone has sold out of the limited number of full season passes it has made available, leaving just its weekday/evening ski passes available for sale. Group lessons will also be limited and there will likely be an increased focus on private lessons or family group lessons.
“We’re anticipating a very robust ski season,” said Kathleen Trainor, executive director at Tourism Barrie, adding all outdoor activities are expected to be popular this winter, following a similar trend that occurred this past summer.
There is expectation that many who live in southern Ontario, who typically cross the border for outdoor fun in New York state, will remain in the province instead this year and perhaps head north and west, increasing the potential number of skiers and boarders to hit local slopes and trails.
In addition, local resorts are taking a very measured approach to starting their businesses to ensure a safe environment as COVID-19 continues to be a very real risk in areas where people gather.
“We’ve had a very strong pass sale,” said Robert Huter, general manager at Mount St. Louis Moonstone, adding that no more full season passes are being sold in order to control the number of people who flock to the hill on weekends.
In fact, the northern Simcoe County ski hill is taking a measured approach to opening, which is anticipated to be around the end of November or beginning of December.
There is expectation that the ski industry will experience a steady stream of enthusiasts through the season, similar to the experience local golf courses had in the summer.
Because of the health pandemic, only half the lessons that are usually offered will be available this year and there will be more of a focus on private and semi-private lessons and group lessons consisting of family members.
And he’s expecting to start the season with smaller numbers.
Skiers and boarders will be encouraged to use their vehicles as their base lodge. Washrooms and rentals will still be available, but seating will likely be off limits in the cafeteria with a grab-and-go service available, as well as separate entrance and exit doors to the buildings.
The main message from ski hills this year is to plan ahead.
“If you want to come skiing this year, you’ve got to pre-purchase your ticket,” said Huter. “The days of just showing up and buying a lift ticket and going out, that’s not going to be the case.”
Snow Valley’s approach is very similar, where marketing director Jonathan Palmer reports that pre-season sales have been very strong. And there is a good chance that season passes will soon be cut off, to limit weekend traffic to the Barrie-area ski hill.
Most group lessons are already full and popular weekend dates are also reaching capacity for private and semi-private lessons.
“We want a comfortable carrying capacity” on the hill, explained Palmer. “We’re getting close to that number now.”
Priority, he said, is being given to pass-holders, meaning there may be few if any day tickets available. And they need to be purchased in advance, online.
Knowing that passholders will get priority are pushing up early pass sales at Blue Mountain as well, said Tara Lovell, the Collingwood-area resort's public relations manager.
“We are seeing a strong uptake in pass sales at Blue Mountain. I think that’s partly because we have made our skiers and our riders aware that we will be giving priority to passholders,” she said. “Also I think families want to make sure they can get outside and be active in the wintertime.”
Outdoor activities have been more attractive since the pandemic was declared. And Lovell points out that outdoor winter activities naturally lends itself to a safe environment where people can be physically distant, are fully covered up and often wear masks.
Similar to the other ski hills, Blue is reducing its capacity for lessons as well as rentals, which will both also require advance online reservations.
“I think people are planning on being outside as much as possible for the season. And fortunately that’s part and parcel of what we do at Blue Mountain, is get people outside and active,” she said.
Tourism Barrie will continue to promote hyper local visits, emphasizing safe distancing and respecting health-related rules given the pandemic’s persistence. Businesses still need to operate and generate revenue, said Trainor.
In fact, she said, Barrie had a decent uptake this summer during reopening after the mass shutdown in the spring.
“We need to leverage that to continue to fuel the visitor economy,” Trainor said. “COVID is here; we just have to learn to live with it and we have to be safe.”