The big ski mountain that drives Jackson Hole’s winter business took a big hit from the coronavirus shutdown, and the effects are likely to last well into the future.
But the president of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort said last week that the worst expectations of company officials have recently been assuaged by an upturn in summer tourist interest and sales.
Mary Kate Buckley told a Zoom audience that she’s hopeful but that adjusting to the abrupt end of the ski season more than a month early will mean tight budgeting and, most prominently, delays in planned capital projects.
The Zoom talk was arranged by Jackson Hole Real Estate Associates, the Christie’s affiliate in Jackson. It was the second recently focused on how COVID-19 is affecting the business of Jackson Hole.
Buckley said the “instantaneous and complete” closing of all the Mountain Resort business on March 15 was “especially painful” because it came right at the time of the season when the resort usually reaches the point of having paid its expenses and is headed into the time it starts to make some money.
“We were just at that time of hitting that corner when we would see a lot of profitability,” she said.
The company laid off 1,415 seasonal employees a month early, paying them for two weeks of their lost time. It also worked to return 91 foreign workers to their home countries within a couple of weeks. It shut its restaurants and its Teton Village sports shops. The resort company made it clear that it was closed for the winter so that there wouldn’t be people “hanging around” thinking the closure might last only a week or two.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, owned by the Kemmerer family, decided not to release skier counts this spring. But Buckley pointed to National Ski Area Association numbers to indicate just how badly the ski business suffered from the pandemic. During the 2019-20 winter the NSAA reported 24.4 million skier days in its Rocky Mountain region, but this year’s number is put at 20.1 million, down 17.6%. The national skier day count is down from 59.3 million to 51 million, a drop of 13.9%. Members of the association reported they were open an average of 99 days in the past season, compared with 120 the year before.
Most ski resorts, Jackson Hole included, are privately held, Buckley said, but the publicly owned Vail Resorts reported its income would be down $140 million for the quarter and that it would cut $85 million from its capital spending.
Buckley said that was “representative of the hit so many ski areas took.”
As Jackson Hole Mountain Resort entered offseason, Buckley said, it prepared for two likely summers: One was a reopening by mid-July, what she called a “rosy scenario” that saw the company operating at half speed and with income down 75%; and the second in which the resort would not open at all.
She said, though, that the unexpectedly early reopening of Grand Teton National Park on May 18 proved dire expectations ungrounded. The resort began with limited operations May 30, running the Bridger Gondola and its three retail sports stores, and is “starting to see traffic pick up in the Village.”
The shops have seen “robust retail business” by offering discounts of up to 70% and more on winter gear, though “the problem is that it’s not profitable because the discounts are so high.”
On Saturday the resort opened its via ferrata, its bungee trampoline attraction and climbing wall, and will also reopen its kids summer camps.
The company will forgo major capital work, with that decision’s most obvious sign being a cancellation of the planned July start of new employee housing at its Powderhorn project, near the former Kmart building in Jackson. The three buildings there now house about 100 employees, and a new building had been set to go in July.
The resort will continue its involvement with the Rabbit Row project, already underway, where it has a long lease on 12 two-bedroom townhouses intended for middle management.
Long-term plans for two chairlift replacements — Thunder and Sublette — won’t happen before the summer of 2021, Buckley said, though trail work around both chairs and elsewhere on the mountain will be done this year.
Planned improvements to the mountain snowmaking system will go ahead.
Next winter’s business is uncertain, Buckley said, given the unknowns of how the pandemic will develop. In general, she said, “we really have no idea” what to expect next winter, though the company “is planning for our business to be down.”
One major part of Jackson’s business, visitors from overseas, is going to suffer, she said, because of public fears and government restrictions. The usual 15% of ski business that comes from abroad won’t be back soon: “We will have little to no international visitors this winter,” Buckley said.
One sign of public confidence has been ski pass sales for the coming season. They’ve been unexpectedly strong, pushed partly by prorated discounts based on this year’s short season.
“We’re very much encouraged to see the rate at which people are buying passes,” Buckley said. “We’re down a little bit, but not nearly what we projected.”
And while it’s not the solution to mountain and parking lot crowding that anyone wanted, Buckley said that when local skiers might go out there next winter “you might feel you have the whole mountain to yourself.”