As Northern New Mexico ski areas pack up their skis and transition to summer activities, they look back on a winter season unlike any other, in which adaptations were made, lessons were learned and outbreaks were avoided.
The season began with much uncertainty, with many area resorts forced to delay their openings due to the second wave of COVID and the two-week shutdown imposed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last November.
A rocky start
After deliberation between state ski areas, the governor's office, and Ski New Mexico (a nonprofit organization that promotes skiing in the state), a plan was formulated to allow ski areas to open at 25 percent of uphill lift capacity, and ski area management teams were forced to adapt and change their operations in ways never-before-expected.
"It wasn't a ski season like every other, but it was a ski season. And that is a wonderful thing," said Tania McCormack, director of marketing for Taos Ski Valley, who said TSV was extremely grateful for the ability to open at all.
McCormack said the resort's "highly unusual" operating plan included "extensive COVID-Safe Protocols designed to keep guests, staff and the community's health and well-being top-of-mind. As the largest employer in Taos County, we were very serious about getting this right."
Christiana Hudson, marketing manager for Sipapu Ski & Summer Resort said the season began with many uncertainties. "We didn't know what COVID was going to do to our operations and how people were going to respond to what we were asking them to do, as far as masking up and practicing physical distancing," said Hudson.
Despite the initial challenges to the season, Hudson said she felt good about how it went. "I would say it went about as well as could be expected in terms of COVID and the regulations related to it," she said.
Due to the nature of the pandemic and the restrictions set by the governor, ski areas anticipated having to roll with the punches. "We knew it was going to be challenging going into the season," said Red River Ski Area marketing director Reed Weimer. "But given all that we faced, it was a good season for us."
Weimer said once they settled into the new restrictions, they were able to operate more smoothly. "It was just straightforward and to the point. We stuck with the plan and it paid off. I wouldn't call it easy, but it worked," he said.
Angel Fire Resort marketing director Greg Ralph echoed these statements. "It was a lot more challenging than any other year and I've been through drought years," said Ralph, who has been working at ski areas for 41 seasons.
Many of the changes ski areas were forced to make consisted of cuts to food and beverage operations, as well as lodging and guest services.
Enchanted Circle ski areas adapted to these changes in similar ways, with Taos Ski Valley, Sipapu and Red River cutting all indoor dining and setting up contactless systems for food purchase and pickup. Angel Fire was able to open part of its indoor dining when Colfax County moved to the yellow, and then green phase.
Lodging also took a hit, with hotels and lodges near ski areas limited to 40 percent occupancy in the red phase of the state's reopening plan.
Despite the blows to those parts of the ski industry, many of the resorts said they accomplished their main goal: getting people out on the snow safely during a pandemic.
"People who came commented that it was the first normalcy they had felt in a long time, and provided for a wonderful relief during an incredibly hard year," said McCormack, who spoke about the importance of outdoor activity, especially during a pandemic. "I could see this relief, this thrill, playing out in the eyes of our visitors."
"Getting outdoors is good," said George Brooks, executive director of Ski New Mexico. "In most cases, even in ski areas, you're not close to people. So getting out in the fresh air and having an outlet for being cooped up, I think is extremely good for people, physically and mentally."
"It was really nice to just get out and take some runs without thinking too much about all the stresses we faced earlier in the year," said Weimer about spending time skiing at Red River.
"People are chomping at the bit to go outside and do things and I think the mountains became the number one destination," said Ralph.
Many ski areas pointed out their focus was on the mental health and well-being of their customers rather than profit. "We were really focused less on profit and more on giving people the freedom to ski," said Hudson of Sipapu's efforts. "Our company philosophy is to give people the freedom to ski and to offer an opportunity to be outside in nature. It's something that we all believe in and think is so important in a COVID year, where there just weren't a lot of options."
Limiting the spread
The number of total skier visits was lower than most years - some estimates are around 70 percent of a normal year - but this, along with the socially distanced nature of skiing, may have played to the favor of ski areas' fight to keep infections down.
All of the ski areas throughout Northern New Mexico were able to keep infections to a bare minimum, and Taos Ski Valley pointed out that they had no infections at all among their staff.
Hudson said the fact there were no huge outbreaks in any New Mexico ski areas, "is a huge win, and shows that we can safely operate and have an outdoor environment without indoor dining and those sort of high-risk environments, and do it successfully."
Many of the ski areas saw operational costs increase, as they had to come up with testing protocols for employees, manage social distancing for guests, get new signage printed and construct temporary outdoor shelters.
Ralph said that Angel Fire saw compliance from most of their guests, but occasionally people would complain the season "wasn't like normal," or act belligerent, "but I would say 99 percent of our guests were happy and had a great time."
George Brooks said he feels the ski industry in New Mexico deserves a pat on the back. "The ski industry can feel that they stepped up to the table, and they did the right thing for the right reasons. They kept the community safe and kept their employees safe, and they were able to operate to some extent."
While many of the changes that were made to ski areas over the 2020-2021 season were done to stop the spread of COVID and will likely disappear with the virus, some of the changes implemented may be here to stay, said ski area marketing directors.
Brooks said he thinks some of the actions taken by resorts during the pandemic will stick. "I think ski areas learned during this pandemic to streamline their business and make it more efficient, and I think some of those changes will probably continue on," he said, speaking specifically to the ways in which companies sell tickets and set visitor limits. "It would not surprise me to see some type of self-imposed limitations by ski areas at those times."
Ralph added that he believes Angel Fire will continue to see a demand for advance ticket registrations. "People are going to want to buy their tickets in advance and know they have them." He also said that when ski areas resume normal operations, he doesn't think they will see "those big numbers, the crazy days ... I don't think you're gonna see the long-lift-line days."
Weimer said at Red River Ski Area the biggest takeaway was simplicity. "Consumers expect a lot of flexibility in their travel, so you have to be able to adapt to that flexibility and make things easy and not confusing for people that are choosing to travel," he said, adding they are focusing their efforts on e-commerce. "Making that experience as easy and seamless as possible for [guests] is super important."
Brooks said skiers and riders can hopefully look forward to these changes and a return to normalcy. "I would say it's gonna be much closer to normal," he said of his expectations for next winter. Mostly, Brooks said he is just thankful for the courageous ski area employees and management teams who did their best to make sure people could get on the slopes this season.
"I can't emphasize enough how much we want to thank all of our staff and employees and people that helped us with that process, and also our guests for coming," he said. "I know that we're gonna have a great ski season next year!"