In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, Australian snow resorts are making preparations to open for the ski season, which officially starts in about 10 weeks.
The resorts, including Mount Buller, Falls Creek, Mount Hotham, Perisher and Thredbo, are getting ready to open if COVID-19 social distancing rules and travel restrictions are lifted or eased by governments and health authorities.
“The fact is that this year’s season is in the hands of the authorities,” said Colin Hackworth, chief executive of the Australian Ski Areas Association. It’s too early to tell if there will be a season, or even a partial season, he said.
“We will listen to the advice of the authorities and we will act according to what the government mandates. It’s got to be safe and manageable for people and within the guidelines of what the government tells us.”
Mr Hackworth said resorts were continuing “as normal” with repairs and maintenance on slopes and were starting to look for future staff.
The ski industry across Australia employs about 23,000 people, many of them on a seasonal basis in regional areas. Jobs include lift attendants, instructors, ticket sellers, ski hire technicians, waiters, kitchen hands, chefs and cleaners.
Job offers are usually made in the next four to six weeks, in time for the official season opening on the Queen’s Birthday weekend (June 6, 2020).
“The ski industry is very agile and has been dealing with variable opening dates since Adam was a boy,” said Mr Hackworth. “The resorts are very experienced at mobilising large workforces in a short period of time.
“The reality is that the resorts can’t make a firm commitment to staff now, but they are most definitely going to stay flexible to bring on people when needed. They will double down on getting staff up there to open, when the time comes.”
Mr Hackworth said the resorts wanted to be part of the solution to get Australians back into jobs.
The ski industry is a big part of Australia’s tourism landscape, with an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 people taking part in snow sport. The industry is worth $2.4 billion in economic benefit to the country.
Bookings across the ski fields are down, but Mr Hackworth said the resorts were amending booking policies and cancellation clauses to encourage more people to make a booking.
“If the season doesn’t happen or is delayed, people won’t be financially disadvantaged,” he said.
Mr Hackworth said the industry was resilient (weathering good and bad snowfall seasons) and he was confident it would be able to bounce back. He noted the mountains had already lost their summer trade because of Australia’s bushfire crisis and, in NSW, the Selwyn resort was so badly burnt it needs to be rebuilt.
Neil Ritchie, managing director of Auski ski shops, said the length and severity of the COVID-19 lockdown was the defining factor.
“If Australia can control the spread, there could be a chance of opening this season. But if Australians don’t stick by the rules, a lot more jobs will be lost, and a lot of retail stores will close forever.”
Mr Ritchie said ski suppliers were working with manufacturers to cancel orders or delay deliveries of snow equipment and gear to shops.
“I have heard of one company turning a container around before it arrived into the country,” he said.
“What we need more than ever is that when skiers and boarders return to the snow they go into their local store and buy product, a pair of gloves will help, or a thermal; keeping the industry viable is incredibly important.”
COVID-19 has already wreaked havoc on the ski industry in North America, where most resorts we forced to close early.
That includes Aspen in Colorado where nine Australian skiers tested positive for coronavirus. Some of the skiers were later accused of flouting self-isolation directives in the US, as well as when they returned to Australia.
Vail Resorts, which owns and operates 37 ski resorts in the US, Canada and Australia, also closed most of its mountains in mid-March, at least four weeks ahead of schedule.
“While it is incredibly disappointing for our company to mark the end of the season so early, we know it is the most responsible path forward,” said Rob Katz, the company’s chairman and CEO.
At the time, Mr Katz floated the possibility of some resorts re-opening in late April or early May, depending on the situation with COVID-19 as well as weather and snow conditions.
Melanie Mills, the CEO of Colorado Ski Country, which represents 23 ski areas across the state, told The New York Times that March was one of the resorts’ busiest times. Some generated up to 30 per cent of their revenue during the month: “It’s a body blow.”
The mountains owned by Vail Resorts in Australia are Perisher, Falls Creek and Mount Hotham.
The window for the Australian snow season is from the start of June until early October.