The Brave New Resort

The world is rapidly changing and the best ski resorts are keeping up with pressing societal and environmental issues. Here’s how they are handling coronavirus protocols, climate change, and diversity and hiring practices.

As days grow shorter and temperatures trend colder, anticipation for winter builds. Skiers and snowboarders are dusting off their gear, while ski areas and resorts have already immersed themselves in planning for the approaching season. On top of deciding how to implement coronavirus protocols, ongoing discussions about inclusivity and climate change remain on agendas. 

Here’s a glimpse at how some ski areas across the Mountain West are confronting the topics.

COVID-19 Protocols 

In the next few weeks, more ski resorts will start publicizing policies and procedures related to the coronavirus pandemic, if they haven’t already. It’s possible that, like last year, protocols applied at the start of the season will change as health professionals update recommendations.

For sure this year, Epic passholders will no longer be required to make reservations ahead of their visit. Vail Resorts plans to operate lifts and gondolas at all 37 locations in the U.S., Canada, and Australia at normal capacity to optimize the flow of people, says Lindsay Hogan, director of communications and resort marketing. She adds that face coverings will be required indoors, such as in restrooms, hotels, retail and rental locations, restaurants, and on buses.

So far, Alterra Mountain Company seems to be leaving it up to destinations to decide policies, such as whether Ikon passholders need to make a reservation or not. But both Solitude Mountain Resort in Utah and Winter Park Resort in Colorado say they don’t plan on mandating reservations this season.

Now with vaccines widely available, some resorts, like Taos Ski Valley, are making the tough call whether to require vaccinations of staff members. “We haven’t gotten there quite yet,” says Dawn Boulware, vice president of sustainability and diversity for New Mexico’s Taos Ski Valley, which is privately owned. “We are concerned we might lose some staff because of it. But we also need to really look at our local community, which has a very limited hospital base within a state with not a ton of resources.”

For the most recent information regarding pandemic procedures, check resorts’ respective websites and social media accounts. “It’s still very much a know-before-you-go method,” says Jen Miller, public relations and communication manager at Winter Park Resort.

SOS Outreach
Photo courtesy SOS Outreach

Inclusivity and Diversity

The ski industry continues to grapple with and address its lack of diversity and inclusivity. Data from the National Ski Area Association shows that the majority of visitors to U.S. ski areas are white, with smaller percentages of visitors identifying as Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and people of color.

“Though we’ve made significant progress and championed major change around gender diversity … we recognize that we have significant work to do when it comes to racial diversity within our company, industry, and sport,” says Hogan, of Vail Resorts. “There are elements of ski and snowboard culture that clearly are not inviting to newcomers and we have not done enough to solve for that.”

Vail Resorts created a multi-year roadmap in the hopes of making meaningful shifts within the industry and company, she says. The corporation recently launched a leadership development program called Leading Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to, in part, set the expectation that leaders must build an understanding of DEI terminology, cultural contexts, and unconscious bias. Former CEO and new chairman of the board Robert Katz joined the Colorado Inclusive Economy, a collection of business leaders working to rebuild the state’s economy in a way that works for everyone. Employees were also invited to review and sign the I ACT ON Pledge to drive inclusive behavior.

vail resort
Open to All: Vail Resorts has partnered with SOS Outreach. Photo by Chris McLenna, courtesy of Vail Resorts 

To encourage a diverse workforce, Taos Ski Valley, the first ski resort designated a B Corporation, raised its starting wage to $15 based on the MIT Living Wage Calculator, Boulware says. The company just started offering paid health days to its employees after New Mexico’s governor signed a bill earlier this year requiring employers to offer paid sick leave. The law won’t go into effect until July 2022; Taos decided to start early. 

Because the Taos community is inherently diverse, employee demographics look different than the ski industry as a whole: 35% identify as a person of color, while 40% identify as a woman. “We are based in a very diverse community,” Boulware says. “Obviously we want to hire as much locally as we can, so that has really been a part of us since our inception.”

Other mountain towns are historically cost-prohibitive to live in and visit, but destinations like Winter Park Resort and Solitude Mountain Resort are recognizing their part in representing all identities. “There are people who are passionate about the outdoors at all levels of means, and we want to enable ourselves to partner with those people and employ them,” says Solitude Communications Manager Sara Huey. Both Winter Park Resort and Solitude Mountain Resort pay employees a starting rate of $15.

Miller says Winter Park Resort hired a consultant to lead conversations among department heads to learn how the mountain can evolve in its inclusivity efforts. “We are on public lands and they are for everyone,” Miller says. She adds that two skiers who consider Winter Park one of their home mountains are helping inform initiatives: Trevor Kennison, a sit-skier, and Connor Ryan, a skier who’s part of the Hunkpapa Lakota Tribe.

And Huey says Solitude is increasing representation in marketing and posting job openings to diverse job boards. Beyond that, she says they’re also studying demographics data to help with goal-setting “I think that it will anchor the conversation and help us understand which efforts are moving the needle,” Huey says.

Climate Change

As temperatures continue to shift and weather becomes more unpredictable, ski resorts are confronting the impacts of climate change. Many locations, including Taos, Vail, Crested Butte, Winter Park, and Park City, open mountain biking trails and keep the lifts running for hikers in the off-season to support year-round business. 

But destinations are also examining their carbon footprint and contributions to climate change. Snowpack has decreased by 41% and ski seasons have shrunk by an average of 34 days since the 1980s, according to a study published in Geophysical Research Letters.

In June, the four largest ski leaders—Alterra Mountain Company, Vail Resorts, POWDR, and Boyne Resorts—announced the Climate Collaborative Charter. It’s a unified effort by the ski industry to combat climate change by sharing commitments around sustainability and advocacy. Some commitments include reducing energy use and waste, pursuing renewable energy sources, and using the platform to advocate for climate protection.

Winter Park and Solitude Mountain resorts, both owned by Alterra, have different focuses at the moment. Miller says Winter Park’s local energy provider, Mountain Parks Electric, currently gets 30% of energy from alternative sources and they’re working to increase that to 50%. She says they recycle all cooking and industrial oil, scrap metal, and even asphalt, and have forthcoming announcements about the reduction of paper and single-plastic waste. 

Meanwhile two years ago, Solitude launched a comprehensive transportation package to incentivize carpooling and bus riding. Everyone with an Ikon pass can take the bus in Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons for free, which is something Huey says Solitude subsidizes.

Separately, Taos Ski Valley has a number of climate-friendly initiatives. Taos was awarded its third Golden Eagle Award by the NSAA for its work collaborating with community stakeholders to mitigate the risk of wildfires and endure the health of the Rio Grande River. Taos also trained employees in wildfire mitigation and management, Boulware says.

Additionally, Taos built a silver-LEED-certified Blake Hotel to accommodate events, invested in high-efficiency snow guns that use less water and energy, and installed a bioprotect composter that can process up to 200 pounds of food waste into soil. They offset the carbon of an airline that brings in visitors and use an employee shuttle to reduce emissions on the mountain.

Boulware says they plan to expand electric vehicle parking spots and reach net zero by 2030 with the help of a newly hired manager. Examining how Taos’ supply chain can be more centralized and sustainable is also at the top of the to-do list. 

“We’re doing great things, but we always can be doing more,” says Boulware. 

Cover photo by Liam Doran

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