Good luck getting tickets this holiday period if you want to ski in Massachusetts. A combination of pent-up energy, early season snowfall and tough COVID restrictions in other New England states has pushed demand through the roof.
“As we headed into this season, we anticipated demand for skiing and snowboarding to be higher than normal,” said Tom Meyers, Director of Marketing at the Wachusett Mountain Ski Area in Princeton. “We saw anecdotally throughout the summer and fall hiking on Wachusett Mountain was probably at an all time high. And I think it was evidence of people’s desire to get outdoors for a socially distant, healthy recreational activity and we anticipated that would carry into skiing for the winter.”
In this year of COVID, officials at ski areas across the state aren’t sure whether to laugh or cry. The weather has been great — lots of early season snow and cold evening temperatures have enabled the snowmakers to do their thing. And, because of the pandemic, people are desperate to get outdoors for recreation and a sense of normalcy. But then there’s the pandemic itself: Because of state-mandated occupancy limits, it will be much harder for the mountains to make money from food and drinks, or their ski shops.
At Wachusett, which opened a month ago, demand has been so heavy that skiers and snowboarders can’t buy a full day or night pass. The mountain created what they call “sessions,” breaking the day up into four parts with 3 – 4 hours of skiing in each. Many of those sessions have already sold out this season.
Berkshire East in Charlemont and Catamount in Sheffield have done something similar, though owner Jon Schaefer said they also allow customers to buy an all-day pass.
“We opened with a snowstorm, so we started off with a bang last week,” Schaefer said from a chairlift at his Berkshire East Mountain Resort. “Our team’s been adapting. It’s obviously a very different playing board from previous years, but we’re working through it.”
COVID restrictions mean that lodges can only be at 25 percent capacity. Resorts will post monitors at the doors to count comings and goings. And they’ve cautioned skiers that lodge access is restricted, so they should plan on storing items in their vehicles and eating outside.
To that end, Berkshire East created 100 “ski cabanas,” so people can reserve their own mini lodges with tables and heaters. The cabanas are designed for 6-8 people.
Schaefer said he did a lot of math this fall to figure out how many people the mountain can — and should — hold to at least break even. He’s optimistic, in part because of strict quarantine rules in nearby states. Vermont, for example, requires people to quarantine for two-weeks before going into the state, or quarantine for a week and show a negative COVID test.
“We’ve seen a lot of new faces,” Schaefer said, referring to both his Berkshire East and Catamount resorts. “These are community ski areas, and it’s like old home days whenever you open. And I would say this year more than ever there’s a lot of new people.”