By Polly Mikula
The annual Killington kickoff for the winter season is usually held with fanfare. Hundreds gather in Killington Resort’s Grand Hotel and complimentary food and drinks are served creating a party-like atmosphere. The purpose is to provide an update for the community — highlighting successes from the past year and providing insights for the season to come. Killington Resort, the town of Killington and Killington Pico Area Association (KPAA) all present updates to area business owners and their employees.
This year, due to Covid, the updates were presented virtually — and with little fanfare.
Killington Resort President Mike Solimano, addressing 144 people online at the start of the Zoom meeting, began with a reminder of the strong 2019-2020 season before the Covid-19 pandemic hit mid-March. Killington had opened for the season on Nov. 2 and Pico on Dec. 7 — its earliest opening in 20 years. Additionally, over Thanksgiving weekend, Killington hosted its largest single day of attendance for the Audi FIS Ski World Cup, with 19,500 fans attending.
Solimano said the resort suffered from losing its ever-popular spring skiing months in addition to nearly all its events through the spring and summer, fall, and likely winter. However, this summer mountain biking was as strong this year as it was the year before, with 36,000 riders visiting the resort’s downhill slopes.
“That was nice to see,” he said, adding that he expects to see lots of visitors this winter, too. “We’re 15% up in season pass sales this year at both Killington and Pico,” he said.
Killington and Pico have historically had fewer season pass holders than some of their bigger competitors (like Vail). Solimano said only about 30-40% of Killington’s visitation is made up by season pass holders. Therefore, the resort is planning to control volume by limiting day ticket sales rather than putting restrictions on pass holders.
Everyone will be required to reserve parking in advance.
Merchant pass holders, college pass holders and other local discount products will now be restricted to mid-week access so as to maximize tourism on the weekends.
“We’re all in this together,” Solimano said.
Solimano estimated that the resort could be 30-40% off on weekends due to limitations to prevent crowds, but might make up some of that if it can transfer some skiers and riders to mid-week. “Mid-week could be up 50-100%” compared to past seasons, he said. “In other resorts worldwide we’ve seen that happening,” he added, pointing to increased remote/flexible work options for many guests.
In order to prevent crowding, the resorts will also be limiting lodge usage. “Treat your car as a lodge,” Solimano said, suggesting skiers and riders boot up at their car. “No bags will be stored in the lodges” and food will be mostly “grab and go.” Tickets will be sold at window counters outside.
“There will be increased cleaning around the resort, of course, but we know that the virus spreads most by air… So reducing crowds is important. The biggest threat, and our focus, will be to prevent airborne spread,” he said. “It’s nice at least that in our industry guests are already used to wearing masks, goggles and gloves.”
There will be no après ski scene or live music at the resorts. Scenic gondola rides are also out, as are all group ski lessons. Only private lessons will be offered beginning Dec. 19.
Killington plans to open for the season on Nov. 14; Pico on Dec. 19. Uphill travel is prohibited on the slopes until opened.
“We are not cutting snowmaking or lift operations. Our priority is to provide as much skiing and riding as possible,” he said, adding that he expects conditions to be quite good, given the new limitations and focus on snow.
Addressing the obvious need for hospitality in a town that relies on tourism, Solimano encouraged listeners not to try to be the Covid police. “Be welcoming rather than upset that people are here,” he said. “Let’s focus on doing the things we know can help prevent spread. At the resort we’ve been focusing on mask-wearing and social distancing, not whether or not someone should be here or not.”
Solimano said he and other Vermont ski resort heads are developing a restart plan to present to the state for approval. “As an industry we think we can be pretty safe, but we all have to do the right thing…We want to get open and stay open, we don’t want tot be the reason to close down skiing in Vermont — not just Killington.”
Town prepares to open public safety building, improve Killington Road
The final touches are being made to the new Public Safety building on Killington Road. Paving is scheduled to begin Monday, Oct. 12 and flooring and painting are underway, said Town Manager Chet Hagenbarth.
Ledge and water supply caused the project to face some challenges financially, but Hagenbarth said he expects the project will come in very close to budget once fully completed and the existing firehouse is sold.
Requests for proposal (RFP) are expected to be published soon. “We have already received significant interest in the building,” Hagenbarth said.
“This contingency option will help close the gap [in the budget],” Hagenbarth continued, adding that he expects the fire department will occupy the new Public Safety Building by November so the former firehouse building could change hands as soon as Dec. 1.
Hagenbarth also presented an overview of the three-mile Killington Road Master Plan, which spans from its intersection with Route 4 to East Mountain Road.
Designs show a walkway on both sides of the road with the western side being a 10-foot wide multi-use path. Additionally, crosswalks, bus pullouts and turn lanes will be added at key intersections.
Hagenbarth said he expects Killington Road will be completely rebuilt in 6-8 years.
Hagenbarth said he’s pursuing multiple grants to help offset the cost to taxpayers.
“The option tax usually brings in about $400,000, on average, to the town,” Hagenbarth explained, but given Covid closures and limitation on local businesses, it’s unclear what effect that might have on collections and future town budgets.
Final designs for the road are nearly complete and will be available on the town’s website in the coming weeks.