American ski resorts were on track for their fourth best season in history before coronavirus forced closures, according to data released today by the National Ski Areas Association. Spring traditionally accounts for about 20 percent of total visitation and the shortened season yielded a total of 51.1 million skier days. On the heels of 59.3 million skiers in 2018/19, 2019/20 will go down as the worst season since 2011/12 and second worst since 1991/92.
Despite visitation declining in all six NSAA regions, there is reason for optimism. “To have two years in a row potentially rank in the top five seasons ever shows the strength of the industry,” said NSAA President and CEO Kelly Pawlak, referring to the 2018/19 winter and truncated 2019/20 season. “That being said, it is astounding how quickly this season went from promising to a complete disappointment.” The impact of snowfall, traditionally a major factor in visitation, was difficult to assess this year due to many resorts ending reporting in mid-March.
The Kottke National End of Season Survey also revealed six fewer operational areas in 2019/20 with a total of 470. Each resort was open an average of only 99 days, down from 121 in the 2018/19 season. That means each resort averaged about 108,000 visits. A skier visit is defined as a skiing or snowboarding guest visiting a resort for any part of a day.
The industry group estimates COVID-19 will cost resorts at least $2 billion and as much as $5 billion depending on continued impacts during the 2020/21 season. Within weeks of closing early, many resorts opted to delay capital projects such as new lifts planned for next winter. At least nine major projects were postponed in the month of April. As of today, new lift orders are pacing almost 30 percent below last year.
When Vail Resorts spelled out its suspension of operations in mid-March, the shutdown was hoped to last only a week. Fifty days later, all 37 resorts remain shuttered and the company has borrowed more than a billion dollars to weather a possible extended recession.
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
Almost immediately, Vail Resorts postponed discretionary capital improvement projects including seven new chairlifts. Vail is just one of numerous operators of lifts facing epic challenges due to COVID-19. The impacts trickle down to suppliers, particularly global suppliers of large machinery like the Leitner Group and Doppelmayr. While the two major lift manufacturers are of similar size and structure, their customers are incredibly diverse, from mom and pop outfits to governments, NGOs and Fortune 100 companies.
As regular readers of this blog know, the lift business is not the same as the ski business. Leitner-Poma, Skytrac and Doppelmayr USA have all completed projects for non-ski venues recently such as theme parks, zoos, stadiums and cruise ports. Not only are these projects making up an increasing share of contracts, they tend to be large in scope and often include lucrative operation and maintenance deals. Some of these non-traditional customers are in even worse shape than the ski business, more dependent on high guest densities and air travel. Put another way, there is little chance the Walt Disney Company, Carnival Corporation or the Miami Dolphins would have signed to build their recent lift projects in today’s environment. So-called “point of interest” projects may disappear entirely for a few years.
Aerial view of likely all Disney Skyliner gondolas. Stored for an extended period at the Caribbean Beach station. All Walt Disney World parks and resorts are closed due to #COVID19pic.twitter.com/gqd924ANu9
One bright spot could be urban transport. The Portland Aerial Tram and Roosevelt Island Tramway have both remained operational throughout the pandemic, albeit at reduced capacity (the Portland Tram carries health care workers to three different hospitals and is about as essential as it gets.) Large aerial tramways have been ceding market share to monocable, 2S and 3S gondolas, a trend which will probably accelerate with new personal space concerns. With gondolas, each person or family can take their own cabin unlike on trains or buses. There are lots of great concepts for urban gondolas in North America and infrastructure spending programs could finally get one or two off the ground. Mexico already has a large urban gondola system in operation with two more under construction.
This year saw installation of 43 new and 7 used lifts across North America, numbers similar to the last two seasons. 43 may seem like a modest number for newly-manufactured lifts on an entire continent but that number is a 54 percent increase from the start of the decade and the highest single year total since 2004. Only seven resorts opted to install used lifts, mostly late model fixed grip chairlifts but also a detachable quad and one T-Bar.
While 2018 saw a record number of gondolas, multiple bubble chairs and a Telemix, 2019’s projects trended smaller with 22 fixed grip chairlifts and five surface lifts. That’s the most platters and T-Bars built in the last 15 years. Two of them anchor terrain expansions while another two service youth racing programs. Loading carpets were included on five new fixed quad lifts, allowing them to run at slightly faster speeds.
After two huge years, gondola construction fell to two new installations in Colorado, one in New Hampshire and pulse versions in New York and Florida. Detachable chairlift construction was just above the decade average of ten per year. Only one of this year’s high speed chairlifts included bubbles and another heated seats.
With 52 new ropeways servicing ski slopes, fairgrounds and theme parks, 2018 marks the fifth straight year of lift construction growth that began in 2014. All manufacturers did well this year and numbers were particularly strong in the Eastern United States and Canada. With North America’s first eight passenger chairlift, pioneering double loading gondolas, the first direct drives from two manufacturers and the first D-Line detachables, 2018 will be remembered as a pivotal year for North American lift building.
Forty three lifts were brand new this year while nine were relocated. Killington moved two lifts to new spots on the mountain, Doppelmayr relocated high speed quads at Whistler Blackcomb and Big Sky while Skytrac reinstalled Poma fixed grips at Catamount, New York and Spider Mountain, Texas.
Months ago I nicknamed 2018 the year of the gondola with a record ten new installations including combination chair/gondola lifts at Bromont, Quebec and Copper, Colorado. New gondolas sprouted coast to coast in both the United States and Canada in a year that won’t soon be repeated.
Bubble chairlift construction also surged with big installations this winter at Big Sky, Copper Mountain and Killington. The new American Flyer is the longest bubble lift in the world with 182 six place chairs set to carry skiers and snowboarders very soon. Copper, Winter Park and Big Sky’s new lifts are the first in North America with direct drives that cut gearboxes out of the equation for increased reliability.
It’s finished! The new longest lift in the world, spanning a ridiculous 26,000 linear feet with just six intermediate towers, is undergoing testing and will open soon off the southern tip of Vietnam. With this latest achievement, the Doppelmayr Garaventa Group breaks its own record held since February 2, 2016 by the Fansipan Legend, a 20,755-foot 3S gondola to the highest summit in Southeast Asia. Before these two 3S lifts launched, the lift length record belonged to the Ba Na Cable Car, a monocable gondola stretching 19,032 feet that opened on March 29, 2013 in, you guessed it, Vietnam. With completion of the Hon Thom-Phu Quoc 3S, Da Nang-based Sun Group now operates the three longest gondolas in the world as well as the planet’s largest aerial tramway with the tallest ropeway towers. Silver Mountain’s gondola, the world’s longest when it opened in June 1990, is now fourth at 16,350′. The lengthiest gondola in multiple sections remains the Bursa-Uludag three stage system built by Leitner in 2014 at almost 29,000 feet.
The new record-breaking gondola hopscotches from the large Phu Quoc Island over two smaller ones to an emerald isle called Hon Thom (Pineapple Island), previously undeveloped and encircled by white sand beaches. $458 million of development is planned for the area which currently is a small fishing community with a state-of-the-art gondola station.
Setting aside its length, the rest of the gondola’s stats are also remarkable. Hon Thom-Phu Quoc is the world’s fastest gondola, with cabins transiting at 8.5 m/s or 1,673 feet a minute (another Doppelmayr 3S built for the Sochi Olympics can also go 8.5.) Sun Group’s latest system has more cabins than any other 3S – 70 CWA Taris models for 30 passengers each. At 3,500 passengers per hour per direction, it would be the fourth highest capacity gondola in North America (Peak 2 Peak, the only 3S in the Americas, moves 2,050 an hour.) A ride will take only 15.6 minutes at full speed and the lift’s six towers reach up to 525 feet above the Gulf of Thailand. Four track ropes supplied by Fatzer are a crazy 58.5 mm thick with a 52 mm diameter haul rope. The haul rope loop is so long that it had to be manufactured in two sections totaling 54,212 feet. The new gondola will open to the public sometime this spring and we’ll see what Sun Group and Doppelmayr come up with next as they push the boundaries of ropeway technology in Vietnam.
With commissioning wrapping on eleven more lifts than last year at this time, 2017 represents an impressive ten-year high for North American lift building. Six-passenger chairlifts, T-Bars and urban gondolas in Mexico and the Caribbean drove much of the growth in a year that saw continued changes in the manufacturer landscape. Compared with 2016, more of this year’s chairlifts were expensive detachable models (12) compared with 17 fixed-grips (in 2016, the split was 7 detachable, 23 fixed.) A total of nine new gondolas and three T-Bars went up in 2017, both increases from the year before. Ten additional lifts were relocated and re-purposed, a three-year high with lifts originally built by Blue Mountain, CTEC, Doppelmayr, Riblet, Roebling, Stadeli and Yan finding new homes. Combined, this year’s new lift class represents a solid 27 percent increase from 2016.
Consistent with last year, about two thirds of the projects in 2017 represented one-for-one replacements in existing alignments. Interestingly, at least six resorts removed older lifts outright without replacing them. At many mountains, the era of building and maintaining extra chairlifts that rarely run is over.
Seventy percent of the 1,277 T-Bars, J-Bars and platter (sometimes called Poma) lifts built in North America to date are no longer in service. That would suggest the traditional surface lift is a dying breed in the age of beginner-friendly carpets, which go in by the dozen every year of late. But over the last two seasons, a bit of a renaissance has emerged, with more mountain resorts adding brand new T-Bars and platters. Four T-Bars being completed right now represent the highest number in North America since 1987. Even more resorts are considering building these classic surface lifts, although the reasons why have little to do with learning to ski.
Yesterday I visited both Burke Mountain, Vermont and Cannon Mountain, New Hampshire, where local ski clubs recently partnered to build dedicated surface lifts on terrain used for racing. In some cases, these types of lifts are open to the public but other times not. New T-Bars are relatively cheap with costs typically covered by donors and/or program fees. Another reason for this application is speed; every T-Bar built since 2011 can move at least 550 feet per minute, significantly faster than most fixed-grip chairlifts. The Franconia Notch Ski Club’s new T was built by LST Ropeways and goes up to 690 fpm; Burke Mountain Academy’s nearly-finished one is a Leitner, shown below.
Eight new eight-passenger chairlifts debuted this ski season, the highest number in history. Twenty years since the technology debuted, Doppelmayr, Garaventa, Leitner and Poma have now built a combined 78 of these mega chairlifts on three continents and in eleven countries. With 2016 seeing the greatest number of eight-passenger chairlifts constructed, a question on everybody’s mind should be: when will the world’s second largest ski market finally build one?
Doppelmayr debuted eight-passenger chair technology in 1997 (in Norway of all places) and continues to be the market leader, having built two-thirds of those operating today. But for the first time ever the Leitner-Poma Group installed more than Doppelmayr and Garaventa combined last year. In 2006, Leitner built the first combined installation with eight-passenger chairs and 10-passenger gondola cabins and there are now seven of these across Europe. Bubble chairs and seat heating came along in 2000 and nearly every new eight-passenger lift features both these days. In total, 60 percent of eight seaters globally have bubbles and half sport heated seats.
Austria is home to over 60 percent of the world’s eight-passenger chairlifts and exactly five have ever made it out of Europe. Australia and Asia each got their first in 2003 but several leading ski markets have never gone there – among them Japan, Canada, China and the United States.
With work wrapping up on 36 new and four used lifts across North America, 2016 will go down as the best year for lift construction since the Great Recession. With Skytrac now a member of the Leitner-Poma Group, the big two manufacturers each supplied exactly the same number of lifts in North America – 17 – with one each for LST and Partek (although Skytrac provided controls for and installed the LST lift.) Doppelmayr and Leitner-Poma also had their best years individually since 2008 and Skytrac its second best in history with five complete lifts and a retrofit terminal for Keystone. These numbers include four gondolas manufactured in Europe by Leitner and Poma installed in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. If only lifts built by Leitner-Poma of America in Grand Junction are counted, Leitner-Poma had its third best year since 2008 with eight new lifts. I call it a tie.
While everyone knows the East had a horrible season last year, the Pacific states actually showed the softest demand for new lifts in 2016. Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California have steadily declined for more than a decade and just three new lifts went in there, the lowest number since at least 2004. The Mountain region saw 12 installations, virtually the same as last year and the second most since 2008. The Rockies also built the biggest lifts in the country – six-packs at Arizona Snowbowl & Big Sky, high speed quads at Steamboat & Vail and a two-stage gondola at Jackson Hole. The Midwest more than doubled last year’s count, achieving its second best year since 2004 with seven new lifts while the East was well below its ten-year average with six new lifts constructed in 2016. The big shocker: Wisconsin built more new lifts in 2016 than any other state or province with three new Doppelmayr quads at Wilmot Mountain, two Leitner-Poma quads at Cascade Mountain and a Skytrac quad at Christmas Mountain Village.
Canada finished right about average with eight new lifts, all built in the eastern provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Horseshoe Resort and Le Relais both added their first six-place detachables, which are sure to be well-received. Look for Western Canada to rebound next year after struggling since the recession. Perhaps most interesting is the four gondolas built for public transportation and tourism in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. I expect growth in Mexico and the Caribbean to continue as the urban ropeway revolution spreads north from South America (and hopefully to the United States!)
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort stunned the ski world June 24, 2005 announcing the iconic aerial tramway up Rendezvous Mountain would carry its final riders in 2006. The Kemmerer Family, owners of the resort since 1992, decided to retire the 40-year old jig-back at the first concerns about safety. “This decision has been extremely difficult and quite honestly a very sad one,” Jay Kemmerer lamented at the announcement. “We know this may impact our business, business to Jackson Hole and the State, but we must move on.”
JHMR did move on but not in the way many feared. After two years of study, the Kemmerers opted to build a new 100-passenger Garaventa tramway at a cost of $31 million. A bi-cable gondola was cheaper and seriously considered but failed to uphold the tradition set by the original tram in 1966. National Ski Areas Association President Michael Berry said of the 2006 deal with Garaventa, “This huge investment by JHMR ownership to build a new tram stands alone in our industry. The tram at Jackson Hole is recognized around the world as a lift that access some of the most spectacular terrain in North America.” Big Red, as it quickly became known, was the first new tramway built at a U.S. or Canadian ski resort since the Alyeska Tramway in 1992. The next newest tram was Cannon Mountain’s, dating back to 1979. Almost a decade later, only Jackson Hole and Alyeska have built large new aerial tramways in the last 37 years (for this post I’m talking about multi-cable tramways carrying 25+ passengers. Arguably the “beer can” trams at Big Sky and Snowbasin are really reversible gondolas.)
Switzerland is home to 97 large aerial tramways. Italy has 59, Austria 40, France 35 and Germany 18 for a total of 249 in the Alps. Compare that with 21 tramways operating in all of North America: 14 in the United States, 4 in Canada and 3 in Mexico. Only a third of those are directly used for skiing with the rest dedicated to sightseeing or public transportation. More than half the trams operating in North America were built in the 1960s and 1970s with varying degrees of upgrades along the way. As the chart below shows, the aerial tramway staged a slight comeback in the last decade but aside from Jackson Hole and Alyeska, the trend has nothing to do with skiing.
The Royal Gorge Bridge & Park in Colorado hinted at the future of tramways in 2013 when it lost its tram to a wildfire. Instead of rebuilding, the park contracted with Leitner-Poma to build a reversible gondola at a fraction of the cost of a new aerial tramway. Even with just six 8-passenger gondola cabins, the new system can move more passengers than the old tram.