By Karen D. Lorentz
With a target opening day of Nov. 20 for Okemo Mountain Resort, skiers and riders can look forward to several changes that will make getting around the mountain faster and easier.
But before the snow flies, people can enjoy a final fall foliage weekend this Saturday through Monday Oct. 11, which marks the end of Okemo’s summer and fall operations. Scenic Sunburst Six chairlift rides to the summit, lift-served mountain biking, and Okemo’s Adventure Zone — Timber Ripper Mountain Coaster, mini golf, disc golf, Haulback Challenge Course, a mining sluice and bounce house — will be available for outdoor fun.
Lifts, trail, other changes
Part of Okemo’s continuing high-tech upgrade trend, the Quantum Quad lift at Jackson Gore was replaced by a high-speed six-person lift, the new Quantum Six.
The high-speed Quantum Quad replaced the Green Ridge Triple. Renamed the Evergreen Summit Express the lift will provide more weather protection with its bubble and a faster four-minute ride for an upper mountain area.
Senior Director of Mountain Operations Eb Kinney noted the Evergreen lift offers a good alternative to the Sunburst Six for skiing a host of upper mountain trails like Timberline, Sapphire, Tomahawk, and Jolly Green Giant, several tree runs, and some easy greens. Greater usage of this underutilized lift/skiing area will reduce lift waits at the popular Sunburst Six, he added.
The new Green Link trail off the Mountain Road will re-route skiers to the Evergreen’s loading station, shortening the time to access Okemo’s main Summit as well as South Face for those coming from Jackson Gore. (Tip: check the locations of the changes online as Vail Resorts does not print paper trail maps.)
Some snowmaking infrastructure upgrades, a base area refresh, a new Prinoth Bison groomer, and the addition of shuttle bus service to its main parking are among other changes.
Last spring Vail Resorts announced a reduction of Epic Pass prices by 20% to double down on the company’s advance-commitment pass strategy. Epic passes saw a price increase after Labor Day, but all passes remain 20% less than last year’s price for the same purchase period, Okemo Communications Manager Bonnie MacPherson said.
“This bold price reset was implemented to honor pass holder loyalty, incentivize all guests to purchase pass products versus single-day lift tickets, and broaden engagement in the sport. We believe the lowered prices will contribute to the growth and vitality of our sport by taking a step toward making it more accessible to more people.”
Vail Resorts 2021 fiscal report, released Sept. 23, noted sales of pass units and pass dollar revenues through Sept. 17 were up over the prior year, an indication that the strategy is working.
Employee changes, benefits
With the U.S. experiencing labor shortages, the ski industry is no exception.
“Vail Resorts recently announced the largest single investment the company will make ahead of this coming season: a wage increase for many workers,” MacPherson said. “Effective for the 2021-22 winter season, the Vail Resorts hourly minimum wage will increase to $15 per hour at 10 of its resorts across Colorado, California, Utah and Washington. The company will also be increasing the minimum entry wage an average of 37% across its Eastern resorts. This includes raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour at destination resorts in New York and Vermont — Hunter, Stowe, Okemo and Mt. Snow — in line with the rates set for U.S. resorts in the Rockies and the West.”
The company also will be “adjusting earnings for hourly employees who earn just above minimum wage to account for the raise across its properties,” MacPherson noted.
(Killington also recently announced that “non-tipped positions will start at $15 per hour beginning Oct. 2, 2021.”)
In another change, paid sick time off will be offered to “all seasonal full-time employees who are not already eligible, which is in addition to Covid-19 Emergency Sick Leave (ESL). This means all seasonal full-time employees in the U.S. will have the same paid Sick Time Off benefits as year-round full-time employees,” MacPherson noted.
This enhancement to wages and sick leave joins an array of benefits and perks for Vail Resorts employees, from wellness program to scholarships to passes and discounts.
Inclusion and diversity
Another industry wide concern is the sustainability of the ski business with a trend brewing to attract a more diverse group of skiers and riders.
As part of Vail Resorts commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, MacPherson said that Okemo established a new company core value last October. The “Be Inclusive” effort means welcoming everyone to our company, resorts and communities. That includes all races, gender identities, sexual orientations, abilities and other differences, she said, adding, “We hold ourselves accountable for living this foundational value every day, in everything we do, from our work on the mountains to the board room.”
In October 2020, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz became the first CEO in the ski industry to sign the CEO Action Pledge for Diversity & Inclusion, joining America’s top business leaders to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. Employees were also encouraged to review and sign an “I Act On” Pledge to drive inclusive behavior in everyday life.
“Vail Resorts prioritizes the health and safety of its guests,employees and communities and will continue to monitor public health guidance surrounding Covid-19 in determining necessary safety protocols for the 2021-22 ski and ride season. At this time, Vail Resorts does not plan to have a mountain access reservation system,” MacPherson said, but operating plans are subject to both state of Vermont guidelines and the evolving nature of the pandemic.