Travel restrictions and recommendations within B.C. will do no favours for business this weekend at Sun Peaks Resort, which will open its winter season on Saturday, Nov. 21, amid the pandemic.
More concerning to the resort and merchants in the community is how much the bottom line will suffer if intra-provincial travel is stifled through the Christmas season.
“If there were travel bans or further restrictions in place, it would have a pretty devastating impact, but the local market would still want to come up and ski,” said Aidan Kelly, chief marketing officer for Sun Peaks Resort. “It would have a massive impact. If you don’t have a good Christmas holiday period, it’s pretty much impossible to dig yourself out of that hole. That’s when such a big chunk of your business comes through.”
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry this week strongly urged all B.C. residents to steer clear of non-essential travel.
“Now there’s a bit more messaging coming out in terms of the non-essential travel throughout B.C. and we’re paying attention because it’s sort of a grey area right now,” Kelly said. “We’re starting to get some people inquiring about what they should do about their Christmas holiday bookings. It’s an interesting dilemma because there are no clear answers.”
On Wednesday, Premier John Horgan said travel restrictions introduced a week-and-a-half ago, which advise against non-essential travel in and out of the Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health regions, will be extended for at least the next two weeks.
Horgan also said people should not be travelling to and from B.C. unless on essential business, a remark that suggests Sun Peaks can expect a drop in visitors from Alberta.
“We were already planning on a bit of a business and revenue hit with the Christmas holiday to begin with,” Kelly said. “If there are further travel restrictions, that will be another component. The impacts will start building up. We are trying to stay optimistic. The demand is out there.”
Sun Peaks’ COVID-19 policy and procedures are posted online at sunpeaksresort.com, including information on daily capacity limitations.
The resort opted to limit the number of season passes sold and is encouraging patrons to purchase lift tickets in advance online. Window ticket sales may not be available for the majority of the season.
“While it might have been more advantageous for us as a company on the mountain to get as much money as we could up front, in terms of the season pass revenue, we didn’t feel that was the best play for the destination from a standpoint of viability of getting through the season,” Kelly said. “We’re not just one individual company. We are a conglomerate of a whole bunch of individual businesses that rely on one another to be successful. We also need to have day visitors coming up. They stay overnight in hotels, eat in restaurants and shop in the stores.”
Kelly said it is likely daily capacity numbers will only be reached during peak times, including the Christmas holidays and the period around Family Day Weekend in February.
“Spring break, we’re typically not super busy up here, but this year it’s a little bit different because people aren’t taking trips to Mexico or Hawaii,” Kelly said. “They’re going to gravitate toward ski resorts. But for the vast majority of the ski season, if you want a ski ticket, you should be able to get one.”
Sun Peaks News publisher Brandi Schier hosted a videoconference on Tuesday that featured Kelly, Nathan Cross, owner of Bottoms Bar and Grill, and Tim Foster, sports programs and activities director for Sun Peaks Resort.
Foster noted most resort programming will proceed as usual, but a dearth of staffing, with fewer international employees available, and physical distancing guidelines have led to the cancellation of Cat Trax Groomer Rides, Bungee Trampoline and the Tube Park.
The West Bowl T-Bar has also been shut down for the season.
Finding housing for resort staffers has been a challenge, with a cut in available accommodation of about 45 per cent, according to Foster.
“We’ve had to make changes to adhere to protocols,” Kelly said. “We have a lower number of beds available. Staffing is tough every year. It’s always a bit of a grind. This year, obviously, is a little bit more challenging, but we’ve been really pro-active.”
Trying to determine how much staffing is required in Sun Peaks businesses is also a vexing task.
“All of your historical visitation data, we learned this in the summer, you can kind of throw it out the window a little bit because in a COVID environment it’s very different,” Kelly said. “We saw very different travel patterns and that is going to carry over into the winter, which makes it a little more of an unknown for all of the businesses.”
Kelly said the resort will do its best to help surrounding businesses project expected visitation numbers, but accurate estimates may be elusive given the ever-changing restrictions and guidelines in an unprecedented environment.
Embracing the unknown has become the norm for Cross, who is concerned about the potential for large lineups at Bottoms, with distancing regulations limiting seating capacity.
A heated patio area and the Bottoms Turnaround Hut, which will operate off the patio, will help the après hot spot keep up with demand.
“Patience will be key,” Cross told Schier, noting employees and customers have become accustomed to contact-tracing practices, sanitizing requirements and distancing rules. “There is going to be longer waits and a lot less seating overall.”
Bottoms is among Sun Peaks businesses getting creative during the pandemic. The dividers between tables will feature local art, some of which can be purchased.
Kelly is pointing customers in the direction of Sun Peaks’ website on Thursday for more information on which lifts and runs will be open.
Lost in the shuffle is what some scientists are predicting to be a snow-filled La Niña season, which received a boost when Sun Peaks got hit with about 35 centimetres of the white stuff last weekend.
The mid-mountain snow base was 88 centimetres on Wednesday.
“I hope all that good snow doesn’t go to waste,” Kelly said. “We are adjusting on a daily basis and trying to do what’s right for the guest, the resort and businesses and trying to respect all of the feedback and information coming from government and health authorities.”