Thredbo, Perisher open in a season like no other amid pandemic, unpredictable snow conditions

Thredbo's general manager Stuart Diver reflects on the challenging ski season so far. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Thredbo's general manager Stuart Diver reflects on the challenging ski season so far. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

The Thredboland centre is shuttered, chairs and tables are piled and taped off in the once-busy eateries and over at Perisher, everyone is told to wear a mask of some kind.

Down at the NSW ski resorts this year, it's a very different kind of snow experience.

Visitor numbers to Perisher and Thredbo are running at an estimated 40 per cent capacity this year but slowly ramping up as more terrain is opened to skiers and boarders.

Nature has been modest in its snow offerings this deep into the season but there's a measured promise of more to come.

The new Merritts Gondola at the Thredbo was a $15 million investment over the summer. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

The new Merritts Gondola at the Thredbo was a $15 million investment over the summer. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

And Australian skiers and boarders are nothing if not "glass half-full" types, hopeful that should the NSW COVID-19 outbreaks stay under control and winter brings more storms, the back end to the season will be a good one.

For Thredbo's general manager Stuart Diver, the sole survivor of the resort's 1997 landslide disaster, this snow season has been one in which simply opening the doors and having the lifts turning was a huge relief.

Thredbo general manager Stuart Diver. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Thredbo general manager Stuart Diver. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic in March/April and the Ruby Princess passenger debacle with NSW cases spiking and travel restrictions in place across the state, he feared the absolute worst.

"For a while there, I honestly thought we wouldn't have a season at all this year; complete zero chance," he admitted.

"Like so many businesses, we just had to watch and wait."

Social distancing on a Thredbo shuttle bus at the Thredbo Alpine Resort. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Social distancing on a Thredbo shuttle bus at the Thredbo Alpine Resort. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

The threat to those two resorts was averted but just over the nearby mountains, Selwyn Snow Resort was smashed by the bushfires and lost all its critical infrastructure, including its power supply. It has been unable to open at all for season 2020.

Down in Victoria, the two "sister" resorts to Perisher also owned and operated by the US consortium Vail Resorts Management Company, Falls Creek and Mt Hotham, have been closed since July 9 and will stay that way to "at least 19 August, consistent with the current stay-at-home directions for metropolitan Melbourne", according to management.

When the green light finally came from the NSW government for the two major resorts to cautiously open their ticket sales online in early June, the massive response from the skiing and snowboarding public overwhelmed and crashed the servers, causing hours and hours of delays or in many cases, just timed people out of the system.

The new Merritts Gondola at the Thredbo. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

The new Merritts Gondola at the Thredbo. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Hundreds of frustrated customers jumped on social media and were openly hostile toward the resort owners. Some were very personal and vitriolic in their attacks on Stuart Diver despite his profuse public apologies about the technology failure.

"I think situations such as that brought out the best and the worst in people," he said.

"This has been a season like no other.

"I felt very sorry that people couldn't get on the system, or couldn't the lift tickets on the days they wanted, or that they had pre-booked accommodation for the school holidays and couldn't get tickets for those days; all that, I understood completely.

"Some of the staff here were in tears.

"They saw the things being said about me on social media and honestly while it [the attacks] didn't worry me personally, the staff knew how hard we had worked as a team to make this season happen."

Thredbo, through its owner Event Hospitality and Entertainment, had invested $15 million over the summer in building Australia's first alpine gondola; a high speed, eight-person enclosed ride to the top of Merritt's spur to replace a double chairlift.

It was by far the most significant infrastructure investment made by either resort for many years, and recouping that investment is now going to take much longer than expected.

One of the most difficult decision Mr Diver had to make was to operate a level playing field on ticket sales.

Season's pass holders, which provide so much important early season revenue for the resort, were given the option of either accepting a refund or hanging in to see what may develop as the season progresses..

Season's pass holders initially weren't given unlimited access nor guaranteed lift tickets on the days they want them, although as of July 18, that restriction has been lifted for Perisher.

At Thredbo, season's pass holders still have to apply for the days they want through a dedicated online request channel, although the broader opening of the mountain now means fewer people are missing out on their requested days.

Mr Diver said that despite all the early difficulties, Thredbo was aiming to break even this season financially.

"We had mapped out three basic scenarios for operating during this pandemic: one was not operating at all, the second was to operate in a reduced way as we are now and gradually opening more areas up, offering more tickets and allowing people to spread out on the mountain more as and when we can, and the third was to be fully open," he said.

"To be honest, I can't see the third option being a reality this year.

"We are planning now for next season; we have to. And that's going to be another different season, too because there are so many unknowns still in how this pandemic will play out."

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Meanwhile, the big ski resorts across Canada and the US are now watching the Australian experience closely, looking for some guidance as to how to best manage guest numbers over their forthcoming winter season.

"Jackson Hole [in Wyoming] have been in contact with us already; they've watched how we have managed this situation and are looking to do something similar," he said.

"But gee, if you look at how the [pandemic] numbers have spiked in the US, there must be a lot of concerned operators over there now."

This story 'A season like no other': the tricky business of running a ski resort during a pandemic first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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