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Sunlight Mountain Resort
Sunlight Mountain Resort. Courtesy of Colorado Ski Country USA
Adventure

Amidst Unprecedented Uncertainty, Visitors Still Flocked to Colorado’s Independent Ski Areas

Despite the pandemic and a low snow year, independent mountains in Colorado did more than just survive. Some hills will likely see record visitation—and if trends continue, the coming years will be a boon for smaller ski areas.

In March 2020, Monarch Mountain near Salida was on the cusp of something big. It had just announced its ski season would extend deep into April and record visitation numbers were well within reach. Then, on March 14, Governor Jared Polis ordered all ski areas to close in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, effectively ending the season on the eve of spring break.

“Last year when the music stopped, we were on pace for a record year by a lot,” says Dan Bender, vice president of sales and marketing for Monarch. Had the season not been cut short, Monarch likely would have surpassed 200,000 skier visits for the first time in the mountain’s history. The previous high, from the 2018-’19 season, was 193,022. 

By the time lifts started spinning again this fall, Bender and the Monarch team had implemented a plan common among its peers: reservations for visitors without season passes, limited food and beverage service, and mask and social distancing requirements. If all went well, they hoped to accommodate about 184,000 skiers this season. Despite the pandemic and significantly less snowfall than average, Bender says the mountain is on pace for about 180,000—an encouraging number, all things considered. 

Some small mountains, however, have still hit records despite the pandemic, including Sunlight Mountain Resort in Glenwood Springs. “We’re seeing a really strong season, and barring some last-minute surprises we’re going to see some record business,” says Troy Hawks, marketing and sales director for Sunlight. Hawks won’t say precisely how many skiers the mountain typically hosts annually—it’s fewer than 100,000—but he says in early March the mountain was up about 50 percent in season pass visits from last year and was hosting more out-of-state visitors than normal. 

“Seeing folks from Texas on a non-holiday weekend was relatively rare in seasons past,” he says. “But it’s every weekend this season.” 

It’s hard to say exactly why skier visits were up this year at some mountains. Hawks suspects remote work allowed out-of-state families to take longer vacations, and he also notes that because the pandemic limited so much other activity, some people just wanted to be back in the mountains. It’s possible, too, that certain skiers were worried about the crowded experience at larger resorts (Epic and Ikon pass sales did remain strong this year), and instead opted to explore independent mountains.

“It was a season with a lot of emphasis on visiting smaller ski areas. They’re just a little easier to navigate with the situation at hand,” Hawks says. “But I also think it’s a trend we’ve been seeing for a while. We’re hearing more folks saying they’re enjoying the smaller experience.”  

Dana Johnson, director of marketing and sales at Ski Cooper outside of Leadville, draws similar conclusions. “I think people are really appreciating the wide open spaces,” she says. Johnson notes that Ski Cooper—which opened new terrain in 2019—is also on track to set record visitation this year. She did not disclose specific numbers, but noted that weekday visitation is up and they’ve sold a record number of season passes. Had last season not been cut short, she says, Cooper would have established records then as well.

But the pandemic, combined with a winter that brought little snow in the early months, did set some mountains back. John Sellers, Loveland Ski Area’s marketing director, says visitation numbers and overall revenue are down this year—which he attributes entirely to the impact of COVID-19. 

“It has everything to do with our limited capacity,” he says. Though Loveland doesn’t release visitor numbers year-over-year, Sellers says that COVID-19 guidelines have forced the mountain—one of the most popular independent ski areas in the state—to limit capacity to approximately 75 percent of the skiers it normally would on a peak day. (Loveland did not provide more specific data about average daily visitors.) And while a dip in visitors was expected, Sellers says the mountain is still selling out of available tickets almost every weekend. 

Looking forward to the 2021-’22 ski season, which should mark a return to relative normalcy, Sellers and others are predicting growth in line with the trends that emerged prior to 2020. In the five seasons preceding the pandemic, many independent ski areas were breaking records annually in visitation, pass sales, and revenue. Now, coming out of the pandemic, Sellers expects consumer confidence to skyrocket, which he thinks could be huge for the industry. 

How huge it will be remains to be seen, but as Hawks from Sunlight puts it: “There’s an appetite for the small ski area experience.” 

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