Jackson Hole Mountain Resort flipped the pages of a “Silver Lining Playbook” of sorts as it sought to make the most of a challenging 2021-22 ski season on the heels of two ski seasons affected by COVID-19, when resort officials had to adjust operations to keep visitors and employees healthy.
Looking back and toward the future, resort President Mary Kate Buckley, in her fourth year at the helm, sat down to discuss what worked during these COVID years and what still needs adjustment.
Overall the resort got relatively high marks from visitors and locals alike, even with the lower snow total of 334 inches, a disappointing number for those who got used to the prior five years, when the resort saw over 500 inches each season.
Nevertheless, Buckley said the past three ski seasons and dealing with the COVID pandemic was a steep learning curve, and there was no business school case study anyone in the industry could turn to. No one could fully prepare or know what was next.
What the data shows is that in 2021-22 season pass holder usage was down by about 15% from the previous year. But in 2020-21 most people in the valley weren’t traveling or leaving the area, and skied at their home mountain, which that season had a great snow year, so usage was up 28%.
Though the resort won’t release the exact number of skiers visits this season, Buckley did say they were down, but customer satisfaction was up.
Even at the start of this ski season, when skiers were hoping for a return to normal, Mother Nature delivered late with her snowfall, and she remained sparse with precipitation throughout the season, something the resort countered with extensive snowmaking operations.
As December and holiday skiers gathered speed, so did the rapid spread of the COVID-19 variant Omicron, and the resort grappled again with how to manage visitors on the mountain from the lifts to the mountain lodges.
Buckley and the resort board resolved to keep the resort operating, and knew they could by constantly looking at the science and health data.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic we looked to our health officials for all of our protocols, everyone from the CEO of St. John’s to a local Ph.D. infectious disease specialist here, to even my brother-in-law who’s a CDC infectious disease doctor, we looked to our local medical authorities who could advise us,” said Buckley, who admitted it has been a challenging few years. “There was no community in America that was able to escape it. There was one faction that would’ve liked us to close down, and another faction that thanked us for staying open as we were an outdoor sport, and this was their social outlet.”
While the masking protocols relaxed this past ski season, and the resort decided to fully load lifts, gondolas and the tram, due largely to COVID vaccines, Buckley and the board decided to continue to control the number of skiers on the mountain with capacity limits. Buckley said that will continue next ski season, as it just may be one of the silver linings they’ve found that works.
The resort will not divulge its capped number, but said it’s a number that changes daily based on the number of lifts operating and even weather.
“We find capping the number just gives all of our guests a better overall experience on the mountain. Even before the pandemic, when I was on the board, I was concerned with how crowded the mountain was getting,” said Buckley, who before becoming president at the resort made the 100-day club twice. “I think skiers noticed our lift lines were down, and the average wait time for tram was about 15 minutes this past season.”
Buckley admits the resort did get some blowback from skiers who could not ski because the resort had hit its limit, and she said this year they’re going to do a better job about communicating that if you want to ski you must have a reservation.
“It really is a matter of planning, only about 6% of skiers bought daily tickets at the window this season,” said Buckley, who also required IKON and Mountain Collective pass holders to have reservations. “We sold out most weekends after Dec. 19, and the holidays.”
Predicting skier numbers is never exact, but Buckley said this past ski season ran much more smoothly than the season before.
“In the ’20-’21 season we did so many equations trying to figure out how many people we should have on the mountain on a daily basis, and estimating how many people would ride a gondola together,” Buckley said. “That year we were really off on our estimations and you just saw very long lines. You might see a group of eight people, and each one of them would each take a separate gondola. So this past season we made sure that if we had to have spatial distancing requirements, then we had to control our numbers.”
Managing the capacity on the mountain also became critical as managers watched other resorts struggle to find enough employees for ski season. Stevens Pass resort in Washington was never fully staffed, and as a result could not open its expert skiing terrain for much of the season.
“Yes, not only there [Stevens Pass], but we saw that in a lot of different resort. It is another reason we set up the capacity limits,” Buckley said.
Jackson Hole was fortunate that it could fully staff this season.
“People need to understand that the more skiers you have on the mountain the more staff you need just to deliver an optimal ski experience,” she said
Housing is top challenge
Still challenges abound for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, with the biggest concern being housing for its 1,700 employees during peak ski season.
The resort can house about 25% of its employees and is constantly looking for more housing units.
Earlier this year the resort announced the construction of three new apartment-like buildings for its workers, called Powderhorn II. The first phase of Powderhorn has been housing resort employees since 2014. The second phase is expected to be completed for the 2023-24 ski season, and is expected to house 90 people. However, even with Powderhorn II coming online, finding affordable housing is increasingly challenging not only for the resort but for businesses throughout the valley.
“For this past season I know we found a lot of short-term leases, plus we had a couple of places over on the Teton Valley side, across the pass,” Buckley said. “We look at the national standard that rent should be 30% of your wage and we’re constantly getting new data, and we will look at all the data points, from cost of living to food prices. The resort owns various parcels of land, and we want to get housing projects off the ground, and we do have land that we’re looking at, but it’s still under wraps at this point.”
The big news for resort employees this season was the increase of its base wage, which went to $18 this season, double what it was in 2018.
“We were the highest paying resort of all the resorts that publicly declare their wages, when we went up to $18,” Buckley said. “Then in February, Aspen announced they were going to $20, and then in March Vail announced they were going from $15 to $20. We watch all the prices and compensation to be competitive. We’re still evaluating compensation for next year.”
As a whole the resort has been lucky to recruit enough staff to keep its mountain operations going each season, and it attributes that to workers wanting to ski this resort, and its competitive wages.
“Last year we had a 70% return rate among our lift operators, which has to be amongst the highest in the industry,” said Buckley, who hired a compensation consulting firm to help the resort better assess wages and affordable housing issues. “But food and beverage are always a struggle, as it is in town, and all mountain towns, but we are hoping we have competitive wages.”
Like most businesses in the valley the resort also depends on foreign workers, those who can obtain J-1 visas.
Jackson Hole hired 40 J-1 visa workers this winter, and will have 20 more this summer. That’s a sharp decrease from the 2019-20 winter when the resort closed early due to COVID, when they hired 78, J-1 workers. Buckley notes that J-1 visa numbers have not returned to normal levels yet, due to foreign applicants’ nervousness about travel and COVID.
The numbers game
The resort announced its spring sale prices for season passes earlier this month, with the top two passes, the Rendezvous and the Grand Pass, increasing about $200 each.
Daily lift rates have yet to be announced. Buckley said rates will probably be set in July, and she speculates the resort may limit the number of Rendezvous and Grand season passes it sells for this coming ski year.
As with any business, Buckley is charged with finding where the money can come from to increase resort workers’ pay, and not all of it can come from increases in season pass prices.
“I think these are very nominal increases, especially when you consider that we’ve been making big investments in the resort, including our employees,” Buckley said. “Look, it’s not only our lift product, but also the mountain sports school, which is a different guest who really wants that special treatment, and we have retail, rental operations and food and beverage, we have a number of different lines of businesses so it is challenging to make it all pencil out.”
Buckley defends the price increases, noting the Grand Pass only went up 10% from last year, while decreasing the price of the bypass by 10%, in order to incentivize people not to ski on the heaviest ski days, the holiday season, thus enabling the resort to limit skiers on the mountain.
The silver linings
Skiers may be most excited about the new Thunder high-speed quad chairlift that will be ready to spin next ski season on Rendezvous Mountain. It is expected to cut the skier’s lift time in half, and carry an additional 200 skiers up to the top each hour.
Also, additional snowmaking is expected on the mountain, with emphasis on the Crags area.
Summer adventures and activities are other infrastructure projects the resort is investing heavily in, including expansion of the downhill mountain biking trails and the Via Ferrata.
Also new are interpretive signs on the mountain about the alpine environment and a play zone for children at Solitude station.
Buckley said her vision is to see the mountain become more of a year-round resort.
While complaining may be the norm for some locals and skiers, Buckley reminded that Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is still family owned, which allows for better service, compared to the many other corporate resorts that are being gobbled up by ski conglomerates.
“I look at other resorts, and I feel like we’re really pretty lucky,” Buckley said. “Many resorts are owned by big corporations who are not as responsive to their local communities and their needs. We still listen to what skiers are saying and what they want from us, and you don’t always get that with big ski corporations.”
“We still listen to what skiers are saying, and what they want from us, and you don’t always get that with big ski corporations.” — Mary Kate Buckley jackson hole ski resort president