Boyne Resorts and Doppelmayr have reached an agreement to delay construction of two major lifts due to the Coronavirus emergency. Both Swift Current 6 at Big Sky Resort and Kancamagus 8 at Loon Mountain will now be constructed in 2021. “Proceeding with a complex and deadline sensitive construction project during the COVID-19 emergency would not be a prudent decision,” stated Troy Nedved, General Manager at Big Sky Resort. “Concerns about construction worker health and the unknowns related to the construction supply chain make the project too risky to undertake in 2020,” he continued.
Site preparation and limited construction may proceed this summer if public health conditions permit. Manufacturing of Swift Current’s components is nearly complete and the lift will be stored either in Wolfurt, Salt Lake or the Bozeman-Big Sky area until next year. When completed in 2021, Swifty will become the fastest six place chairlift in North America.
At Loon Mountain, skiers and riders will have to wait another year to ride the east’s first eight passenger chairlift, Kancamagus 8. “Although significant investment has already been made, we cannot proceed with a project of this scale knowing the COVID-19 situation could further complicate its installation – potentially cutting off the Governor Adams Lodge and base area from the rest of the resort next winter,” said Loon General Manager Jay Scambio in a letter to season passholders. “This postponement allows us to better support our team, our guests, and the greater Loon community at a time when it is needed most.” Permitting and planning will continue in preparation for 2021 installation.
I spoke with Boyne Resorts President Stephen Kircher this morning about the decision and his outlook during this challenging time. The company will closely monitor impacts on summer business as well as season pass sales and proceed accordingly. “We are going to be assessing our capital projects each week,” said Kircher. “We’ve got milestones on every single project and last possible start dates to meet deadlines for next winter. We’re optimistic we are going to be executing a number of projects but we need to see clarity.”
As long duration, all-or-nothing projects, the two D-Line lifts had to wait. Boyne knew it needed to be underway this week at Loon and within two weeks at Big Sky in order to meet aggressive construction schedules. Bubble lifts by definition include carrier storage buildings that are as complex to build as the lifts themselves. “What happens if work stoppages occur again in the middle of summer or the fall?” lamented Kircher. “Once we tear the existing lifts down, we’re at risk. We would be dead in the water [without Swift Current or Kancamagus.] The second worst thing other than this shutdown would be not having a key lift coming out of the base next winter.”
Boyne’s decision is the second such deferral among North American multi-resort operators this week. On Wednesday, Vail Resorts delayed seven different lift projects with two different manufacturers in order to cut costs. Kircher acknowledged his decision was difficult for both customer and supplier but in some ways proved clear. “We are working with a great partner in Doppelmayr. Obviously they are dealing with a lot of difficult conversations across the planet,” he said. “We talked through what the best scenario was for both companies. They don’t want to be in a situation where they can’t finish a lift either. I want to install a lift that we own and is sitting in warehouses more than anybody but it’s just not prudent.”
Ski industry fallout from the global pandemic continues. Vail Resorts today announced the deferral of lift construction projects slated for Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Okemo due to a dramatic decline in revenue, which is expected to continue into fiscal year 2021. The suite of projects was first announced last December, the same month COVID-19 first appeared in Wuhan, China. While the virus spread across Asia, lift manufacturers were gearing up to build lifts that now won’t happen this year. Beaver Creek had planned a major expansion into McCoy Park and Okemo earmarked a new bubble six pack for Jackson Gore. Both Breckenridge and Keystone planned new chairlifts to increase uphill capacity in high traffic areas.
Vail said weeks ago coronavirus will cost the company between $180 and 200 million in March and April alone. Eliminating lift construction, terrain expansions and discretionary base area improvements will save the publicly-traded company $80 to 85 million while allowing the vast majority of maintenance capital projects to proceed. “The circumstances surrounding COVID-19 are unprecedented and the financial impact to our Company and the broader travel industry has been significant,” noted Rob Katz, Chief Executive Officer of Vail Resorts. “We are taking proactive steps to align our capital spending and return of capital approach to ensure that we remain positioned for long-term success.” Other steps revealed today include the furlough of nearly all year-round hourly employees, suspension of the company’s shareholder dividend, salary reductions for non-hourly employees and elimination of cash compensation for the CEO and board of directors.
As the impacts from COVID-19 continue, it's becoming less clear when our business may reopen. Because of this and to ensure we navigate the financial challenges ahead, we have made some difficult decisions that affect our employees. More from our CEO: https://t.co/7EmbUl3v0cpic.twitter.com/CDcwtUYqQ7
The decision to postpone lifts is a blow to both major lift manufacturers but particularly Leitner-Poma, which like Vail itself, is Colorado-based. The firm had been awarded contracts to build three detachable chairlifts and move another this summer. Doppelmayr USA had planned to install the two machines at Beaver Creek.
As goes Vail, often go others. While I’m hopeful some lifts (and the jobs that come with them) are safe, more deferrals are possible. Rival Alterra Mountain Company planned to add only two lifts this year, both six place chairlifts at Mammoth Mountain. The privately-held group has not announced any changes to its capital plan thus far. In tough times, every company is understandably revisiting capital budgets and commitments, however.
The sudden onset of such deep uncertainty in this critical period of the lift production cycle is unprecedented. With the elimination of Vail Resorts projects for 2020, announced US and Canada complete new lifts stand at 24, fewer than Doppelmayr built by itself last year.
Citing continued losses and economic uncertainty, the owner of Ski Blandford is pulling the plug on one of the oldest ski areas in Massachusetts. Owner Jef Murdock, who also operates Ski Butternut, purchased the closed Blandford in 2017 and invested significant dollars to upgrade the mountain’s lift and snowmaking systems in advance of the 2018-19 season. Prior to that, the nonprofit Springfield Ski Club ran the area for 80 years. “Our goal was to keep the ski area operational and to grow the sport of skiing and riding,” reads a letter to passholders from Murdock and general manager Ronald Crozier. “However, after all of this hard work, we are still losing money. Unfortunately, Butternut cannot continue to support the losses we have experienced at Blandford. When you add present economic uncertainties to the mix, we are forced to make a very hard business decision. With much disappointment, we are announcing the closure of Ski Blandford.”
Ski Blandford featured three Hall chairlifts built in 1969, 1971 and 1978. Two of them recently received new control systems and other upgrades.
West Virginia’s first six passenger chairlift is coming to Timberline Mountain. Despite the coronavirus situation and surrounding uncertainty, Chip Perfect and his team today announced a $10+ million commitment to reopen the mountain by the end of this year. Timberline closed in the middle of the the 2018-19 season following years of financial challenges. Perfect purchased Timberline out of bankruptcy last November and his ownership group brings four decades of experience running Perfect North Slopes, Indiana. The West Virginia mountain is a hidden gem, featuring one of the highest natural snow totals and largest vertical rises in the mid-Atlantic.
The thousand vertical foot six pack will travel from base-to-summit with a ride time under six minutes. A Doppelmayr fixed grip quad will service lower mountain beginner runs, a terrain park and slopeside lodging. Other improvements will include a re-graded learning area with a conveyor carpet lift, extensive upgrades to the snowmaking system, a fully remodeled rental shop, consolidated food service facilities and an updated outdoor arrival area. “We look forward to participating in the economic development of Tucker County and we’re excited to announce the significant investment in Timberline Mountain’s infrastructure that will take place this summer,” said Perfect, who is both President of Perfect North Slopes and CEO of Timberline Mountain. “I believe skiers and snowboarders next season are going to really enjoy the new experience on this very special mountain.”
One positive of the mid-Atlantic’s low-snow winter was the ability for Perfect’s team to get to work quickly. The mountain’s three Borvig and Heron-Poma lifts are already gone with many of the chairs in the hands of loyal Timberline guests. All three new lifts are expected to be complete in time for the mountain’s grand re-opening.
The operator of Canada’s oldest aerial tramway is looking to the future in the form of a major redevelopment and eight passenger gondola. The Jasper SkyTram opened in 1964 and currently carries 30 riders at a time up Whistlers Mountain from March through October. Built by Pohlig-Heckel-Bleichert of Germany, the tram is approaching the end of its operational and economical life with facilities that no longer meet visitor expectations.
A replacement gondola could run in a more environmentally and geologically sound alignment with all new terminal and tower locations. The bottom station would sit along the Icefields Parkway at significantly lower elevation than the current base. Shortly after departing the valley, gondolas would make a sweeping turn and eventually reach a top terminal with a modern interpretive center, restaurants, trails and barrier-free views. The lift would become one of Canada’s largest, rising nearly 4,000 vertical feet over 2.75 miles. The retired access road, stations and tower locations would be allowed to return to a natural state. New terminals would be accessible for visitors of all abilities and the project would include additional parking, transit and bicycle facilities.
I know first hand the limitations of aerial tramways for today’s visitors and Jasper is not the first location to consider alternatives. Heavenly’s scenic aerial tram was effectively replaced by a gondola in 2000 and Grouse Mountain is considering making a similar move. Gondolas are both comfortable and efficient, offering guests their own cabins and secure seating. Under the proposal, lift capacity would increase from 200 per hour to 950 with less waiting and no need for standing in crowded cars. Gondola technology would also enable year round operation.
The concept is just that and no decisions have been made. The SkyTram Partnership and Parks Canada are seeking public feedback, which can be sent to email@example.com.
Skyline Investments, owner of two ski resorts and many other hospitality businesses, reports record revenue but warns Coronavirus will have significant impacts including the possible closure of resorts through summer.