12-26-18 Wildcat ski_get air on polecat

A young skier gets some air near the top of the Upper Polecat trail on Wildcat Mountain on Dec. 28, 2018. (JAMIE GEMMITI PHOTO)

MADISON — New Hampshire’s ski industry could see a return of an estimated 40,000 skiers and riders from Canada if that country and the United States allow the border to fully reopen this winter.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of the border, but with increased vaccinations, Canada announced Monday it would allow fully vaccinated United States residents to visit as of Aug. 9.

While the United States has not announced any plans to allow Canadian citizens to come south as yet, it has the potential to improve tourism in the Granite State this coming winter.

The latest economic development study of the state’s ski industry, conducted by researchers at Plymouth State University, indicated that about 1.9 percent of all overnight visitors to resorts here came from Canada.

Residents of the provinces of Quebec, Ontario, and the Maritimes constitute the largest percentage of visitors to New Hampshire, who come to visit the seashore in summer and view the foliage in fall. But they also come here to ski and snowboard and enjoy winter recreation.

Lessons learned

Officials for a number of resorts in New Hampshire said they hope to see more people return to the slopes in the upcoming season, including Canadians, and plan to retain some of the new protocols long after the pandemic hopefully fades with more people being vaccinated.

Online reservations, food trucks and outdoor seating are expected to continue this coming winter, said ski industry officials who attended the recent annual meeting of Ski New Hampshire, the statewide organization, at King Pine resort in Madison.

The worldwide epidemic that killed almost 1,400 New Hampshire residents did not make for an easy winter for ski areas but many were able to hold their own despite limitations on capacity and revenue.

Kris Blomback, general manager of Pats Peak in Henniker, said virtually every revenue stream inside a doorway, from the rental center to the bar, were negatively impacted.

However, he said the food trucks were a big hit and some outdoor seating will also remain this coming winter.

Finding workers

One of the hardest things was finding adequate staff as many of the traditional employees from around the area were leery about working with the public for their own health and that of their families, and the visa programs which normally help out with seasonal workers were not open last year.

The hope is that those issues will subside and those workers will return this coming winter.

Becca Deschenes, spokesman for Cranmore Mountain Resort in North Conway, said the resort is looking to retain online ticket sales in the 2021-22 season and perhaps limit them to improve the customer experience. She said adding drop-boxes for people who come to go tubing to pick up tickets, thus eliminating a need for staffing ticket booths, will help.

She said the pandemic forced many new guest policies, which included a face-covering mandate, social distancing protocols, pushing everything to advanced online sales, and limiting ticket sales for ski and tubing.

Skiers and riders got used to booting up in their vehicles in the parking lot and there was a lot more advanced communication between guests and management.

Good season

“For the most part, people caught on, were cooperative and were respectful of these changes. We really focused on pre-arrival communication so there were no surprises once guests arrived at the resort. It was helpful that a lot of these changes were consistent across other New Hampshire ski areas. All in all, we had a very successful winter even with the challenges that were thrown our way and finished only slightly behind a ‘normal’ season,” she said.

At the annual meeting of Ski New Hampshire, the organization announced the ski areas saw about 2.2 million visitors, which is about the 10-year average.

This seems to correlate with data from the National Ski Areas Association’s Kottke End-of-Season and Demographic survey which showed 59 million skier visits nationwide, and the fifth-best ski season on record, despite the limitations caused by the coronavirus.

Small ski areas fared well, the survey said, with more people skiing and riding closer to home.

In terms of days, it was actually a longer season from the previous 2019-2020 season which abruptly ended in March due to the pandemic, going from 99 days to 112 in 2020-2021.

Adjustments to limit transmission of the respiratory virus included advanced reservations and limited ticket sales, limited capacity indoors and the elimination of many group lessons, which impacted the bottom line.

Also, skiers and riders were expected to and did wear masks for the most part, officials said.

Resorts that had tubing parks saw a dramatic uptick in business.

Kelly Pawlak, president and chief executive officer for NSAA, said, “Americans yearned for safe outdoor recreation” during the pandemic and “ski areas across the country delivered.”

She said the industry was also impacted by a pause in international visas for workers who normally come to help resorts through the J-1 and H-2b visa programs. And there were differing restrictions on travel posed by various states.

Still, the industry did not have a bad winter.

On June 8, the National Ski Areas Association issued its report showing the past winter was the fifth-best on record with almost 60 million skier visits nationally.

In Vermont, where out-of-state visitors had to first quarantine for 14 days before clicking into their equipment, visitor numbers were down at least 20 percent from an average winter, when those resorts see more than 4 million skier visits, said officials for the Vermont Ski Areas Association.

The closed border with Canada and that state’s policies restricting out-of-state visitation through quarantine had an impact on both the numbers of visitors and corresponding revenue.

Maine, which averages about 1.3 million skier and rider visits a season, has not posted numbers for the year.

It, like New Hampshire, was less restrictive on out-of-state visitors.

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