After hounding resort officials for the last month, we wanted to see what our friends at some of our favorite ski brands had to say as well about the COVID-19 pandemic and the impending ski season.
With rumors flying about the upcoming ski season, it seems that every potential solution is still on the table. Ideas ranging from black out dates for locals, to time slots and reservation systems, as well as limited lift capacities, are echoing through the conversations. Basically, even at the highest levels, resort and government officials are scrambling to figure out best protocols for the upcoming ski season.
People can talk all they want, but we all know that there will be snow, and we will be skiing. “2020 has been a wild and crazy ride, but we’ve seen strong pre-season orders and… we’re all feeling a pent-up demand to get back out on snow this season,” said Meier Skis’ Ted Eynon. “Most of us feel we got screwed out of our spring skiing. We believe the strong demand for outdoor recreation this summer will carry over into the fall and winter, and we’re ramping up production to make sure we can meet the anticipated demand.”
Another industry insider was even predicting that multi-pass programs—Ikon Pass, Mountain Collective and Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass—could be cancelled or limited, due to out-of-state and out-of-country travel restrictions. There’s also a liability of spreading germs to small mountain communities via visiting skiers, and a liability for keeping employees protected. And publicly traded companies like Vail Resorts could be affected by travel limitations, cost overhead and—potentially—liability concerns, if another wave of coronavirus comes this winter.
On the other hand, ski brands across the industry have endured many ups-and-downs since March, when the COVID-19 outbreak began sweeping across the globe. These are brands that support the athletes, events, innovation and media—the brands that help us live out our best skiing days by designing our favorite gear and apparel.
We wanted to get a different set of perspectives on the past five months and what’s to come this winter, so we reached out to folks at ski brands—big and small—hoping to better understand the situation. From global players like K2 and HEAD, to more local makers like Colorado’s Icelantic Skis, here’s what some of our favorite brands are thinking and doing right now.
How have global ski brands fared during the pandemic?
When it comes to big ski brands in the U.S., one of the first that came to mind was K2. When we called, Marketing Manager Ben Falkson picked up the phone. “The pandemic has required us to be pretty nimble, but also showed how capable our team really is. Some on-snow projects that were slated for the end of the season were canceled for safety concerns and because people couldn’t travel; but from a product production standpoint, we’re in a good spot,” Falkson said. “It wasn’t easy, but we were watching things unfold before the global lockdown took place, and we were prepared for what the future could hold.”
Falkson continued, “Even with the pandemic causing chaos, our pre-season orders from retailers were pretty solid. In the last few years, we’ve done a very good job of building excitement for future seasons’ releases, which translates to helping retailers decide to amp up their orders to keep up with demand. We’ve struck a nice balance of promoting what’s new and next without taking away from the current line.”
So what is K2 as a brand encouraging people to do? “Our customers’ health individually translates to our health as a company,” Falkson explained. “Hopefully, everyone who loves skiing is taking the pandemic seriously and doing their part to help slow the spread.” He suggested “not to sleep” a decision to pick up a new model because demand may be high. The Reckoner line is all-new for 2021 from K2, and the full collection features K2’s patent-pending Spectral Braid construction that the Mindbender series made famous last year. The versatility of the skis in the Reckoner line looks promising for a wide range of settings and skier types.
Marker Dalbello Völkl’s (MDV) Geoff Curtis also offered some insights. “We’re optimistic. Being in New Hampshire, it’s been a pretty safe environment, we’ve been able to work in our office and have some good conversations. At MDV, we’re hopeful and optimistic about the upcoming season. We are blessed by the fact that our sport takes place outdoors, and with timely introductions from all three brands in our suite, we’re ready to provide the right gear for any skier no matter which way the season goes.”
Andrew “Coup” Couperthwait, North American marketing director for HEAD skis and Tyrolia bindings, echoed Falkson’s sentiments. “Our fans can help support HEAD/Tyrolia and, most importantly, the sport of skiing… by staying safe and adhering to local guidelines as best as possible. It is our collective effort that will help us move past this challenge. We’ve worked extremely hard to keep our production and supply chains open, and provide our partners and customers with the latest technology for maximum enjoyment on the slopes.”
Coup’s biggest piece of advice for the upcoming season? Plan ahead. “It will take a little more planning this year to enjoy our sport. Try and get as much info from the ski areas before arriving and make sure you have all your bases covered.”
How did the smaller ski brands make out so far during the pandemic?
“The most common question we’ve been asked by our clients since Covid hit is, ‘Do you think there will be a ski season?,’ said Ted Eynon, owner of Meier Skis in downtown Denver. “We weren’t sure how to answer that question back in the spring, but now we feel very confident that ski season will happen. We’ve been hearing consistently positive messages from both high-ranking government officials as well as industry leaders, such as Alterra (Ikon Pass) and Vail Resorts (Epic Pass) as well as the many amazing independent ski areas throughout North America.”
“We’ve all seen the steady growth to backcountry skiing, and we’re anticipating that backcountry will see a significant uptick. Obviously, the most popular and easily accessible [mountain] passes such as Teton, Loveland and Berthoud are likely to be more packed than ever, but we believe people will get more adventurous and spread out in the mountains to find their own solace and slice of pow heaven,” Eynon said. “We’ve already seen a lot of [interest in] our Prospector backcountry line, and we’ve doubled-down on tech/touring bindings, skins and we’re even [going to sell] ski boots, so we’ll be a one stop shop for backcountry skiing.”
“There is a lot of uncertainty about how the resorts will operate this winter, but people are still excited to get back out on the snow and will find a way to do so,” said Morgan Weinberg, founder of ROMP Skis in Crested Butte. “The biggest impact we’ve experienced is losing sales from spring break visitors.”
Down in Telluride, interestingly enough, Pete Wagner said his custom ski shop wasn’t really affected, in terms of dramatic changes in the face of the pandemic. “Our focus on selling skis direct to skiers through our website and our next-to-the-chairlift ski factory in Telluride has strengthened. We keep refining our process for fitting people into their perfect skis and now offer over 300 material (ski construction) combinations and an infinite number of shapes. It sounds overwhelming, but our process makes everything really easy.” But like everyone, Wagner did say he expects to sell more uphill and alpine touring skis this winter.
So that’s big and small, but what about all the medium-sized ski makers out there?
When it comes to homegrown ski brands that have become formidable medium-sized global players, there’s one that immediately comes to mind: Golden’s Icelantic Skis and its co-founder, Annelise Loevlie.
“The past five months have been a wild ride, to say the least. The timing for the ski industry wasn’t ideal but it could have been a lot worse. Luckily, we had solid sell-through, so we were sitting on minimal inventory when the closing bell rang,” she explained. “As the days, weeks, and months progressed, and I reflect now, I can honestly say that this experience—COVID, BLM, all of it—has been uncomfortable but, overall, positive and evolutionary for Icelantic.”
“Since lockdown, we’ve been meeting weekly, as a whole team on Zoom. Prior to this, we’d get together as a team once or twice a year if we were lucky. We now have a greater awareness of all aspects of the business, and it’s provided an opportunity for us all to connect as humans on a regular basis. Our connection is strong,” she noted.
“We saw a significant decrease in pre-season wholesale bookings, but we were intent on keeping our team intact and everybody employed,” continued Loevlie, who is often hailed as a visionary leader within a male-dominated industry. “With this in mind, we’ve challenged ourselves to think outside of the box on creative ways to increase direct sales, dream up different revenue sources, reduce expenses—a big lesson learned in quarantine is ‘do what you can with what you’ve got’—and we are psyched to see what we can do on a shoestring.” Like everyone we talked to, she pointed to the boom in outdoor recreation this summer, and what that might mean for the upcoming winter.
“The barriers to entry are obviously higher in snowsports, but I predict that people will be hungry for outdoor activities, and to support their favorite brands and ski areas. Skiing could be a pleasant experience here in Colorado as out-of-state tourism is expected to be down, and ski areas may have to limit the number of skiers in a day. Maybe I-70 won’t be gridlocked three days of the week?” she speculated.
But Loevlie is still concerned about the increase in backcountry usage, in the event people are uneducated and unprepared. There’s not a single person in this industry who isn’t worried about an increase in avalanches, injuries and deaths — and increased risk and exposure for rescuers. If resorts don’t open, if they open and can’t operate safely, if people start getting sick and they shut down, then the popular trailheads are going to be a mess. That’s something we need to acknowledge now, rather than later.
“I’m not psyched that we all have to wear masks and we can’t gather and hug and rage at dance parties this summer,” Loevlie said. “However, I am psyched that this experience has slowed us all down. Distractions have decreased and it’s forced us to look at what we have and what’s important. Personally, I’ve also taken this as an opportunity to dream up a new normal—for myself, for our team, our brand, and the legacy we want to leave. Our motto ‘Return to Nature’ is stronger and more important than ever, and I can’t wait to see what evolves from that.”
Another mid-sized shooting star brand we tapped was Black Crows, and North American Marketing Manager Tristan Droppert based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. His prediction is bullish to say the least. “I’m thinking it’s gonna snow 800 inches everywhere and the [snowpack] will be stable all winter. Resorts will open with full ops and ski equipment is going to fly off the shelves. We’re all gonna have a blast and have face coverings plastered with duff for five months straight.”
Seriously though—we asked Droppert how COVID affected the Black Crow business, clearly a rising star, if not lead actor in the current Euro-import ski brand scene here in North America.
“We got hit on our 2020-21 orders a bit, as did everyone, but our sell-in was not a train wreck by any means. It’s time for us to all lean on our strong relationships, support our retailers as well as other partner brands and industry institutions,” he explained. “Our fans have been supporting and engaging with us throughout COVID, but a bright spot has been our DIY Crows Instagram campaign where we have asked our followers to create art featuring our logo. It’s been super fun and a non-transactional way to keep our community engaged.”
Droppert also agreed that crowding at trailheads could definitely be a concern, especially for urban areas with good access such as Salt Lake City, Denver, and the greater Seattle area. “But it could be bad further afield as well, with so many people working remotely or not at all. Crowding will likely accelerate, but that’s a problem we’ve been dealing with the past few years,” Droppert said. “I’m concerned about inexperienced users in the backcountry for safety reasons—but also for the cultural tumult that could ensue. Backcountry and parking lot etiquette is super important to maintaining good vibes in the woods, especially in high use areas, and new users may find themselves in the war path of jaded locals.”
Everyone agrees, the backcountry could be a mess. What now?
To uncover an outlook from a true backcountry-focused brand, we went to the best source we know: Dynafit. According to Ross Herr, sales and marketing manager for Dynafit skis, boots and bindings and POMOCA skins, “I think every year a veteran ski tourer will tell you they’re seeing more and more people in the backcountry. They’re not wrong and this season will be no exception.” He agreed that well-known trailheads will be busier than ever and parking capacity will be met early in the mornings.
“It’s my hope that, when someone sees a packed parking lot, they decide to try a spot further down the road to avoid overcrowding. We’re really lucky in North America that it’s fairly easy to avoid skiing on top of each other. As the activity becomes more popular, we’re all going to need to be more aware of the other groups in our favorite areas. I think a lot of people forget it’s their responsibility to assess the risk of avalanche for both their group as well as others that could be passing below you,” Herr explained.
“It seems like the mood is still very open and willing to invest in ways to get outside and be healthy. At the same time, it’s a tricky time for shops to prepare and buy enough inventory during such uncertain times,” Herr said, adding that customers should research and shop early, as well as be prepared for their local shop to have to special order something for them.
Research and prepare now, Herr says. “Go hike the areas that you hope to ski and get familiar [with them], so you can enjoy that first powder day. Check out if there is debris from previous seasons’ avalanches. Understand the entrance and terrain for your approach and exits. There is no reason to be that grumpy person at the trailhead bitching because someone else got there sooner. Getting the best snow isn’t usually good luck but experience, practice and preparation.”
According to Jonathan Degenhardt, managing director at beacon, pack and apparel maker ORTOVOX, “Simply put, the best way that our fans can support us is by visiting their local retailer and updating their gear. There are always new, innovative products coming out, and by supporting our local communities and purchasing something new and exciting, that also supports us.” And like everyone else, Degenhardt predicts ski touring is going to be huge this year.
“We anticipate crowded trailheads and full parking lots as skiers head into the backcountry to avoid resort crowding and find space. For a brand like ORTOVOX, where avalanche safety and education is such an important pillar of our values, we hope that everyone does so responsibly and we are committed to providing equipment and resources like the ORTOVOX Safety Academy to make sure we all know before we go.”
Freeskier contributor Aaron H. Bible is a veteran outdoor, ski and travel writer based in Nederland, Colorado. Follow his adventures on Instagram.