Resort operators bullish about upcoming ski season

·6 min read

West Kootenay ski resort operators are feeling pretty good about their prospects for the upcoming ski season.

“We are fully booked at all of our lodges for this winter, and there is a great deal of anticipation from our guests,” said Shelly Glasheen of Valkyr Adventures. “They are raring to go!”

“We're seeing huge demand and excitement for heli-skiing,” agrees Kelsey Verboom, Interim Manager of Communications for CMH Heli-Skiing & Summer Adventures. “We moved many cancelled bookings ahead from 2020-21 to this season, so between that and people's renewed desire to travel, our calendar is almost full.”

“We are excited,” says co-owner Jasmin Caton of Valhalla Mountain Touring. “Things are looking strong, people are hungry and ready to come skiing after missing their trips last year. My season is starting a little earlier and ending later than it often does.”

It’s been 18 months lost since COVID-19 kicked the supports out from under the ski industry, with grounded airlines, closed borders and public health restrictions all but shuttering lodges and hills around the world in March 2020.

“I spent last year closing the business down, not hiring staff, so it was just really disappointing last year, a lot of bitter pills to swallow,” says Baldface Lodge’s Jeff Pensiero. “So it just feels good to be getting back into it, preparing everything, and the customers are so excited. There’s a lot of enthusiasm after last year’s disaster.

“And there’s a lot more demand than supply right now.”

Some operations simply closed down last season, like CMH Heli-skiing; others were able to keep the lights on by accepting only local guests.

“I was one of the few that operated last winter, on a smaller number of guests, pared down a lot,” says Valhalla Mountain Touring’s Caton. “So we kind of maintained momentum. It’s exciting we’re entering into another winter, but it also kind of feels normal because we kept chugging last year.”

Many operations spent the last 18 months expanding or improving their facilities for when times got better again.

“Martin and I decided to expand our smallest lodge – the LQ Outpost,” says Glasheen of Valkyr Adventures. “We were impeded by the wildfire situation in our valley and couldn’t get helicopters until late summer. We also had trouble finding carpenters!

“Luckily, we were able to piece together a great crew and we are now to lock-up. Just in time, as winter is on our doorstep.”

“We put new carpet in the lodge, re-did the wood floors, repainted everything,” says Baldface’s Pensiero, “and we completed a build of our office in Nelson. During COVID.

“We were in a rough spot when we pulled the pin on the season,” he admits. “It was a pretty scary time.”

Vaccines mandated

One thing consistent with all operations this season is strict adherence to COVID protocols. Every business contacted by the Valley Voice stressed that all guests had to be double-vaccinated, “like in a restaurant,” as one operator commented.

“Our guests are very happy with this protocol,” says Valkyr’s Glasheen. “It gives all of us one layer of protection against the COVID virus. We will still be vigilant in monitoring everyone’s health and have a plan in place just in case.”

However, there are different approaches to other aspects of lodge life apres-ski.

“We will be masking in close quarters,” says Valhalla Mountain’s Caton. “In the snow cat, and very likely in the lodge when people are up and about. When sitting, eating drinking they can come off, but we’re conscious about social distancing in the lodge, how many people can be in the spaces at any one time.

“We had a campfire going outside last year so people could hang out comfortably and have a beer with a little more fresh-air feeling. We may do that again.”

CMH Heli-skiing opened one of its summer lodges last season to gain experience in operating with the new rules, and it worked well, says Verboom.

“Our protocols have been reviewed by medical experts and align with BC's regulations,” she says. “Although we've had to adjust the way we interact with each other, the core experience remains the same. The mountains haven't changed. The skiing hasn't changed.”

“Last year, everything was changing to the negative” because of COVID, says Pensiero. While he says his crews have worked out scenarios for any COVID-related problems, there’s just a better feeling as this season opens. “This year, everything’s changing kind of to the positive. They’re lifting restrictions, more people getting vaccinated, there’s more acceptance of public health measures… so I think we have a more positive outlook this year.”

Financial fallout

The pandemic has been tough on all operators, some more than others.

“We suffered significant losses in the past year due to COVID restrictions,” says Valkyr’s Glasheen.” We kept our lodges open and staffed for the 2021 ski season even though we had reduced guest numbers. Some weeks remained empty due to cancellations or transfers to this year.”

“When things happened in March 2019… we had to refund a lot of money,” says Caton at Valhalla Mountain Tours. “It was a really scary time for sure. It wasn’t clear how we would manage through the fall or winter.

“But we received a small-to-medium business grant and other provincial programs that helped offset some of the losses. We had 50-60% occupancy, and kept people working mostly last year. Keeping the loyalty and staff retention makes a big difference. So I think we weathered it pretty well.”

“We purchased another business, purchased a piece of land, purchased a building in Nelson and renovated it… and had no revenue for a year,” Baldface’s Pensiero says, now chuckling at the thought. “We did some big moves, and big things, but I have some great banking partners, with lots of understanding. But it has been a stressful year. I’m looking forward to putting some money in the bank and getting back on track.

“We are on the rebuild. If I do everything right, we’ll be in really good shape after this season, but this is a season of rebuilding the business.”

Building back stronger

But Pensiero’s also confident that it will be the kind of season that allows that to happen. He says if anything, the pandemic may have increased ‘brand loyalty’ for the West Kootenay’s ski industry.

“After having a season off, our customers are so excited to come back here. I think it’s a testament to how lucky we all are to live here. A lot of my customers went to Colorado last year, they went to this place or that place, and it didn’t stick. They all want back in.”

“I think people are craving adventures in wide-open spaces and they're looking to get back to doing the things they love doing,” agrees CMH’s Verboom. “So many of us have spent the pandemic dreaming about our bucket-list items, and heli-skiing is a bucket-list dream for many. People want to be outside, and people want to treat themselves and have fun again.”

“I think people really want to do what we have to offer and I don’t thing that’s going to change anytime soon,” predicts Caton. “As long as we can manage risk, keep travel safe, then people want to do this kind of activity. It’s a great release in these stressful times as well.”

John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice

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