HIGH COUNTRY — To say that the 2020-21 ski season was an anomaly for snow sports enthusiasts would be an understatement, but despite this, a healthy number of visitors turned out to the snow-covered slopes of area ski and snowboarding attractions to breathe in the crisp air and take part in the thrills of wintertime recreation.
While the resorts were limited in some ways due to the state restrictions that were put in place in order to combat the spread of the coronavirus, there was still plenty of demand, as visitors traveled from across the region and beyond to hit the slopes. In some areas, the resorts even experienced unexpected attendance increases due to the peculiar circumstances, according to Talia Freeman, Director of Marketing at Beech Mountain Resort.
“Our midweek numbers were up considerably, and that was definitely attributed to more flexibility in school and work schedules. We sold out a majority of our Saturdays. Most of that was attributed to capacity constraints, but we did see a high demand on Saturdays. We were able to maintain consistent and quality conditions through the season. The natural snowfall kept coming and the new snowmaking upgrades made a significant difference. We were able to open all of our slopes a majority of the ski season. These were the best and most consistent weather patterns I have seen in years. Natural snow and cold weather always drives traffic,” Freeman said.
Moreover, the regulations presented a challenge to the area ski resorts. The resorts had a limit to the amount of guests that were allowed indoors at a given time. The fact that many guests came from surrounding states and other parts of the country only complicated factors, since different states had varying degrees of severity in regard to the restrictions. However, Beech Mountain Resort took these new challenges in stride.
“This winter season was unprecedented and quite difficult in many ways. Implementing Covid protocols was a challenge, particularly when you are dealing with a clientele from other parts of the country that are accustomed to very different regulations. I think if anything, my hope is that this pandemic has taught people to be patient with one another,” Freeman added. “We are incredibly proud of our staff and grateful for their hard work and dedication through the season. We are also grateful for our loyal season passholders and their patience as we navigated an ever-changing health climate.”
Meanwhile, Beech Mountain Resort is gearing up to open its bike park for the summer and is preparing to implement a few new changes.
“We are looking forward to a summer filled with mountain biking, disc golf, scenic lift rides, yoga and live music,” Freeman said. “The weather makes it more comfortable for people to distance outdoors, so we are excited for our customers to visit. They can comfortably distance outdoors and feel a sense of normalcy. We have a few surprises to announce this May and we are already hard at work on several resort improvements.”
Sugar Mountain Resort was also graced with the benefit of consistent snowfall during the winter months, which provided for a pleasant skiing and snowboarding experience for the multitude of guests who visited the resort.
“Skier visits were above normal due to season long winter-like weather (79.5 inches of natural snowfall and fairly consistent below freezing temperatures). Covid restrictions limited some parts of the operation, but overall guests complied and as a result turnout was strong with an increase in midweek business,” Kim Jochl, Vice President of Sugar Mountain Resort, said.
Even though the winter ski season just came to a clase, Sugar Mountain Resort has already begun improvements for next year with the announcement that beginning at the start of the 2021-22 season, visitors will be able to enjoy a new four-seat, fixed-grip chairlift that will take patrons midway up the mountain. This new 2,000-foot-long Big Birch chairlift, the resort’s fourth installation in six years, doubles in speed over the old triple chair lift and carries 1,792 passengers per hour.
“Moving people seamlessly and efficiently and comfortably from point-to-point is our goal and, most importantly, it makes guests happy,” Sugar Mountain Resort owner Gunther Jochl said.
Meanwhile, the resort will continue following the recommended safety measures as it prepares for the opening of its bike park for the summer season.
“We are looking forward to normal summer operations and will continue implementing all required government mandates and guidelines. All summer activities, programs and events will be posted on skisugar.com by early May,” Kim Jochl said.
While 2020-21 may not have seen record-breaking crowds, given the parameters and circumstances imposed by COVID-19 and the pandemic, this year’s winter sports season has been remarkable, according to Appalachian Ski Mtn owner-manager Brad Moretz.
“Of course the number one thing when it comes to skiing is the weather,” said Moretz. “And we were lucky this year. There were several weeks where not only was it very cold, but we actually had natural snow on our doorsteps. But when you also consider the limitations put on our business by the pandemic circumstances, this was really a very good year.”
Moretz added that Appalachian Ski Mtn also benefited since the state-mandated restrictions that were put in place were not as severe as some other states.
“In North Carolina, we fared better than some states because the restrictions were not as severe,” said Moretz. “Vermont, California, and New Mexico were more onerous. But we really had about six months to prepare in advance for a more restrictive recreation environment, and the steps we took and the investments we made to ensure a safe and protected skiing and snowboarding experience for our customers turned out to be really good. The time-slot reservation system worked exceptionally well, not just for us, but for our guests. There are elements of what we did to stay open during the pandemic that we will extend in our business practices even after things return to normal.”
Overall, Appalachian Ski Mtn fared well business-wise, as it was able to manage the situation and the challenges that were presented, culminating in a successful ski season despite the difficult circumstances.
“Judged against the past, when things were normal, this was an above average year,” Moretz added. “Part of that is the weather. Part of it is because kids were out of school three days a week. And another large part was how we were able to manage the circumstances.”
David Rogers contributed reporting to this story.