How world class ski resorts adapt to COVID-19

How ski resorts adapt to COVID-19 is going to make or break the 2020/21 ski season.

What do you do when you’re in the middle of a global pandemic and you have hundreds of people convening at the same time at the same ski mountain? It just so happens that these people are also looking for lift tickets, equipment rentals, food, drink, a place to warm up, and most importantly a place to go to the bathroom. When most of these activities are typically available indoors, you adapt. 

We already know the 2020/21 ski season is going to be different than any ski season we’ve ever experienced. Ski resorts around the world are being forced to adapt to a new normal. And it’s for your own good. But how exactly will ski resorts adapt to COVID-19?

I recently had the opportunity to be a part of a live interview with Mike Kaplan, CEO of Aspen Ski Co. I’d like to share some of the specific measures a world class ski destination like Aspen Snowmass is taking this ski season to keep staff and guests safe. Each mountain has the right to handle the specifics in their own way, as long as they are meeting CDC, state, and local guidelines. Aspen’s updates should help give you an idea of how ski resorts are adapting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

How do ski resorts adapt to COVID-19?

The biggest focus point for Aspen and most mountains in North America is major pinch points. Which locations on the mountain are large groups of people most likely convening at the same time?  Think about things like lift ticket windows, equipment rental shops, dining establishments, drinking establishments, places to warm up, and bathrooms. Also, what about the base of the mountain at the beginning of the day? At most mountains, this area is usually pretty congested between the hours of 9AM and 10:30AM.

Touchless technology

Aspen already had a seamless technology system in the long term plans for guests. The key phrase there is long term. It was scheduled to be rolled out two or three years down the road. Well, global pandemics force businesses to think quickly and adapt! So, they pulled the schedule forward by a few years.

In terms of technology, we are talking about totally seamless, touchless transactions from your phone, for everything. The Aspen app will allow you to do it all. Think about transactions that usually require face to face interaction: purchasing lift tickets, ordering food, and renting equipment. The app will make all of this available to you at your fingertips. You’ll purchase your lift tickets from your phone, pre-order food, and make appointments to pick up rental equipment. You can even see what’s going on around the mountain from your phone. Talk about ski resorts adapting to COVID-19!

Chairlift uploading

To help ski resorts adapt to COVID-19, they have to think about pinch points. The biggest pinch point every day is at the base of the mountain. It is usually most crowded in the mornings between the hours of 9AM and 10:30AM, when everyone is starting their day. Aspen plans to get people up the mountain as fast as possible so the skiers and snowboarders can spread out. 

At ski resorts like Aspen and many others in North America, as you go further up the mountain, there are more chairlift options and they are quite spread out. This helps dissipate crowds. That’s why the biggest concern is at the base of the mountain, in the mornings when crowds are at their peak. It’s the biggest pinch point.

Chairlift capacity will also be reduced, per chair. Known parties who are skiing and riding together will ride at full capacity. Those who aren’t together will have at a minimum one space, and in most cases two spaces in between them. In translation, let’s say there is a 6-person chairlift. If there are two couples who do know each other, they could ride together (if they want), with two open spaces between them.

That being said, if unknown parties do not want to ride with one another, they can ride alone. This applies to singles as well! 

There will also be six feet of spacing enforced between unknown groups in chairlift lines. Groups traveling together will be able to stand as a group. Known groups will be physically distanced (by six feet) from the unknown groups ahead, behind, and to the side of them. 

Lastly, each day, Aspen is going to try and open all chairlifts as early as possible and keep them open as long as possible. This will help keep crowds dissipated all day long.

Ski school

This one is pretty simple. Private lessons will go on as normal. Group lessons will be limited to 5 per group. So, if a guest feels more comfortable in a private setting, they have the option to do that. Otherwise, they can have some peace of mind knowing their group will be limited to 5 skiers or riders, maximum.

Snowcat powder skiing

Aspen is known for their backcountry snowcat skiing. Many resorts in the western US offer this. For those who are not familiar, a snowcat takes a group of up to 10 people into the untouched backcountry for a powder tour. The group goes with a trained backcountry guide or two in search of smooth powder turns and some of the most epic skiing you’ll ever do!

Normally, you can rent out an entire cat, or you can buy an individual seat and go with people you don’t know. This year, Aspen is accepting known parties only, for obvious reasons. This means single skiers or riders will not be able to reserve spots with people they don’t know. So, all groups regardless of size will have to rent out the entire snowcat.

Local bus system 

When ski resorts adapt to COVID-19, they need to think about everything. For many resorts, this includes some sort of public bus or shuttle system to get people around. It may be from the parking lot to the mountain, from one area of the resort to another, or from the resort to the local town.

For those unfamiliar with Aspen Snowmass, the resort is comprised of four separate mountains: Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass. You cannot ski from one to the other. That being said, they have a super convenient bus system (RFTA) that will take you between all of them. It is free and runs regularly throughout the day. 

Because this is public transportation, Aspen will be regulating the capacity on buses. Here is the proposed plan: 

  • For transfer legs 15 minutes or longer (e.g. from Aspen to Snowmass), buses will be capped at 50% capacity. 
  • For transfer legs 15 minutes or shorter (e.g. from Aspen to Highlands), buses will be capped at 75% capacity.

Updates and expansions

Aspen Snowmass is making a clear effort to make things as safe and comfortable as possible for guests this ski season and beyond. They’ve invested millions of dollars into improvements for the upcoming 2020/21 season in various places to enhance the guest experience.

Outdoor dining 

To increase outdoor and open air dining, heaters, picnics tables, and open air tents have been added across all four mountains. They are in places they’ve never been before. Aspen Ski Company invested $2.5M in new tents to make this happen!

In town

Most restaurants in the town of Aspen have expanded and improved outdoor dining options and added heaters to keep guests comfortable. There are also newly added outdoor/open air warming areas in town to keep visitors warm during the cold winter months.


Aspen Ski Company has invested heavily in snowmaking this off-season. The goal was to provide top to bottom skiing at Aspen Mountain as early in the season as possible and expand snowmaking at Snowmass. Here’s how the money was allocated:

  • $4M invested at Aspen Mountain: This resulted in 7,700 feet of new pipe, a pump house, 28 new snow guns, a storage pond, and infrastructure for new lines for the future.
  • $1.6M invested at Snowmass: This will cover about 28 acres of terrain at the expansive and family friendly mountain.


A new 6-pack high speed chairlift was added at Snowmass. This will replace the old Big Burn lift and will help move skiers more efficiently up the mountain. It will eventually have a bubble to keep people warm, but not this year due to COVID safety guidelines.

As ski resorts adapt to COVID-19, it’s going to take money. Likely more than they were planning to spend this season. The resorts who invest in making the experience as seamless and safe as possible for guests this season are going to stand out. This will pay long term benefits. 

Book earlier than you think you should

Mike Kaplan reaffirmed one major sentiment: BOOK EARLY! It’s something that is more important this year than any other year due to the circumstances.

The biggest news related to the 2020/21 ski season for the US and Canada is related to limiting numbers on the mountain.

Epic Pass has implemented a reservation system at all 34 of their North American ski resorts. This is huge news, because limiting daily numbers on the mountain is unheard of in North America anywhere besides, say, Deer Valley. Based on the Epic Pass reservation model, it gives passholders priority when making lift ticket reservations.

IKON Pass (which Aspen is a part of) took a slightly different approach. While their resorts will be taking measures to limit daily numbers on the mountain, not all IKON Pass destinations will be requiring advanced reservations. Some, like Aspen, Big Sky, Jackson Hole, and Loon have announced they will be requiring reservations for IKON Pass holders. Others, like Snowbird, Squaw Valley, Steamboat, and Sugarbush, have announced that reservations will not be required for IKON Pass holders at this time. This is a dynamic situation and could change at any moment, so skiers and riders are encouraged to check each mountain’s policies regularly.

For a detailed synopsis of what to expect this ski season, see my article on the COVID-19 impact on ski resorts. You’ll learn everything you need to know in advance of skiing during this 2020/21 season.

Get a leg up on the general public

I’ll leave you with some closing thoughts from Mike Kaplan. He talked about the value Aspen places in working with travel advisors. He stressed the advantage skiers will have to access the mountain and the best accommodations when working with a travel advisor. Our relationship is very important to them! 

If you want a leg up on the general public this ski season, you’ve come to the right place. We can help you decide on the right destination, secure lift tickets, access the best accommodations (including luxury mountain homes), make exclusive dining reservations, go on an epic powder tour, you name it. Anything you need to make your ski trip extraordinary, we can make it happen! Please don’t hesitate to reach out so we can start planning today!

If you are looking to take incredible ski vacations without all the hassle, you’ve come to the right place! We are a full-service travel company helping luxury ski travelers access the most exceptional ski experiences, stress free. Click the button below to schedule a call and start planning your ski trip today!