Summertime on the Slopes

Cathleen Calkins


August 1, 2019

summer ski slopes

For ski resorts, unsurprisingly, business has traditionally been confined to the winter season. But that began to change in 2014 with the enactment of the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, which expanded the services that could be offered in ski areas operating on public land—an estimated 60% of U.S. ski resorts. Rather than business grinding to a halt for six months, ski resort owners can now capitalize on their existing infrastructure to provide activities for summer visitors as well. And business is booming. Resorts have been rebranding as year-round destinations, introducing a number of new, high-risk adventures, such as mountain roller coasters, climbing walls, ziplines, bungee trampolines, via ferratas (technical trails that scale cliffs using climbing protection), downhill mountain biking and chairlift-accessed hiking. They are even growing their not-so-risky endeavors too, like offering scenic chairlift rides and hosting concerts, private events and festivals that focus on everything from yoga and beer to mac and cheese.

Since the directive was signed in 2014, David Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs for the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), estimates that approximately 75% of all U.S. ski areas have expanded their business operations to include some type of non-winter activity. Summertime activities have become a hit with many customers, but the expansion of ski resort operations has also meant that operators now have to identify and manage new risks. “While the ski industry is dialed in for sliding on snow, summer business and the multitude of activities that are offered are not as easy to understand,” Byrd said.

When businesses expand, one of the biggest challenges risk managers face is customer education. Traditionally, ski areas have had to focus on one distinct type of consumer doing one specific activity and the message to those customers was similarly singular. But in summer, this evolution of operations has created a consumer base that is as diverse as the number of high-risk activities resorts are offering. Effectively communicating the risks to every customer type presents an interesting challenge for resort managers.

For example, the summer ski area guest tends to be less experienced, less athletic, and less familiar with mountain environments. They also sustain injuries not normally seen on winter ski slopes ranging from snake bites and bee stings experienced by hikers to bloody trauma incurred by mountain bikers to twisted ankles suffered by wedding guests wearing leather-soled shoes and high heels on uneven terrain.

When guests get injured, even getting them to safety is more complicated, takes longer and uses more staff. Instead of toboggans that easily slide on snow to get to base-area ambulances, summer rescues employ wheeled gurneys, quad-style utility vehicles equipped with litters, and flat-bed trucks to navigate the steep terrain. “We have to pay attention because the tools are different,” Byrd said. The bottom line is that ski area risk managers now have to navigate the nuances of an expanding business, and to do so, they must get creative.

One of the first steps is retaining winter personnel to fill summer roles. Cameron Bordner, founding partner of Molsby & Bordner, LLP, a law firm specializing in ski industry litigation, believes in the value of this consistency and advocates training year-round employees, from chairlift operators and ski patrollers to cashiers and office staff, to become frontline risk mitigation experts. For example, ski patrol is trained to deal with and investigate serious risk-related issues, and so what used to be a strictly seasonal position is now a year-round opportunity.

Beyond retaining seasonal staff familiar with operations and offering them the opportunity for employment year-round, ski resorts are finding other ways to adapt. Ski area risk managers are using many strategies to identify and mitigate risk in this evolving industry, including:
Invest in Training

Risk management and mitigation knowledge does not come easy, said CJ Svela, vice president for the Association of Professional Patrollers (APP), a non-profit organization that provides training, education and certification in safety and risk management for ski patrollers. A veteran flight paramedic and professional ski patroller at Timberline Lodge Ski Area on Oregon’s Mt. Hood, Svela is happy to see more resorts move into four-season operations, but stresses that it is critical for personnel to learn about risk management.

“APP’s core mission is to elevate a patroller’s ability to manage and assess risk,” he said. “APP offers patrollers, risk managers and mountain managers the opportunity to heighten their awareness when it comes to on-mountain risks, whether that’s related to winter or summer activities. Regardless of surface, the terrain is the same and so are the challenges.”

NSAA also offers a robust schedule of summer-centric conferences aimed at frontline ski area staff and supervisors, including a yearly mountain bike summit, an annual lift maintenance seminar and an education series that includes a module on managing risk in a non-winter environment.

From a legal perspective, training is important. “Any time individuals engage in more training to help them do their job better, it is beneficial,” Bordner said. For example, training can help qualify a person’s skills in court should an incident end up in litigation.
Mine the Data

Managing risk at a ski resort during summer months is complicated. “It’s unlike winter—there could be 15 different activities going on all at once,” Byrd said. Because summer operations are complex, it challenges risk managers to look at all the resources available in a new way, like analyzing data.

John Postlewaite, director of ski patrol and risk management at Bogus Basin Mountain Resort in Idaho, decided to coordinate with the local hospital to get a better sense of what injuries were occurring and when. “We wanted to use data to see anomalies,” he explained. While he understood the range of injuries that occurred, Postlewaite wanted a way to visualize the irregularities. Was there a spike in injuries related to a certain mountain feature? Were chairlift incidents more frequent for first-time users? Was time-of-day a factor?

With data in hand, Postlewaite met with other mountain operations staff to better identify the circumstances around the injury. “It could be as simple as determining that a [mountain bike trail] corner was hand-raked mid-afternoon to correct an approach,” he said. This approach to understanding the mined data has resulted in reduced injuries at Bogus Basin.
Curate the Experience

When Schweitzer Mountain Resort decided to address the growing interest in electric-powered bikes (e-bikes), it was initially uncomfortable with the risks based on the average guest profile. “After some research, we determined the person interested in dabbling in the world of e-bikes was not your typical mountain biker,” said Scot Auld, human resources director at the resort. “They were someone who hadn’t ridden a bike in a while or were new to the sport and not necessarily in physical shape to pursue mountain biking.”

But these guests were curious, and the resort wanted to find a way to cater to this interest. “We created an e-bike experience for the guest,” Auld said. This  means participants first spend time getting acquainted with the equipment before learning how to handle the bike, then an experienced trail guide with first-aid experience and a radio for communication takes guests on Schweitzer’s e-bike-only trails. “Someone is there with this guest every step of the way,” he said. By creating this experience, Schweitzer was able to better manage an emerging technology and guest profile.
Show, Don’t Tell

When Mattly Trent, director of ski operations and risk management at Bear Valley Resort in California’s western Sierra Nevada mountains, added the risk management role to his ski patrol operations responsibilities, he was asked to give a presentation to the entire management team. To prepare for the presentation, he drafted a long, bullet-pointed list enumerating his daily activities. The management team’s response was surprising. “They had no idea of the scope of a patroller’s duty,” he said.

His presentation connected ski patrol to risk mitigation in a meaningful way and, as a result, created a better working relationship with other managers. “I showed tangible things,” he said, such as training hours and APP certifications his staff had attained.

Auld had a similar experience. Schweitzer does not have a dedicated risk management department and instead uses managers and supervisors to be risk mitigators in their own right. This shared responsibility for risk had an added benefit: It allowed his management team to become less siloed and understand the business holistically. “We now have a safety-conscious team across the organization,” he said.
Promote Direct Engagement

Improving safety and trail or event conditions in real-time is not always easy. But enabling frontline employees to directly engage with the customer places all employees in the role of customer service representative, Trent said. He believes there is a benefit to allowing lift operators and patrol staff to speak with visitors when it comes to risk, whether that is chatting with a guest who is unprepared to handle certain terrain or taking a moment to talk with a customer about their experience. By spreading the risk management responsibility, resort operators increase the ski area’s opportunity to educate, he said. It also humanizes departments like patrol. “It’s valuable to bridge that gap [between guests and patrollers] so that the two meet outside of an injury,” he explained.

Kari Brandt, risk manager at Skypark at Santa’s Village, an entertainment complex in the mountains near Los Angeles, has adopted this strategy as well. Her staff—security, first responders and trail crew—are staged at the top of the mountain bike park and throughout the entertainment complex to help guests better understand their surroundings and the potential risks. “We acknowledge everyone and make them feel welcome,” she said. “When you acknowledge people, they tend to look more closely at what they are doing.”

By helping guests be more mindful of the activity they are engaged in, resort operators have the chance to reduce injuries. “We staff an information tent at the top of the lift with patrollers,” said Josh Endsley, patrol director at Big Bear Mountain Resorts in Southern California. Previously, marketing personnel provided this information, but since patrollers were more familiar with conditions, trails, access and the required skills to navigate these adventures, they made a staffing swap.

“It made sense to man the information booth with seasoned patrollers,” Endsley said. “It made patrol more approachable. We can now better direct guests—whether they’re hiking, biking or sightseeing—to have the best possible experience.”
Collaborate with Marketing

The gap between risk management professionals and marketing is narrowing. “Overall, you see more collaboration between the two departments,” Bordner said. Marketing professionals are starting to acknowledge risk in a very public way, as evidenced by the number of ski resorts that are starting to use short videos to increase awareness of possible dangers. By removing the barriers between guests and risk mitigators, Trent believes resort operators “are providing a conscious warning that the mountains are real.”

Through direct-to-consumer channels like company websites or social media, marketing departments are able to highlight frontline risk mitigators and lend a credible and authentic face to the risks, whether they are explaining the risks of hiking on exposed terrain, how weather and elevation influence safety conditions, the need for proper equipment, how high altitudes increase the need for sun protection, or even the dangers of walking on gravel and mountain terrain to access a base-area festival, mid-mountain wedding or summit concert series.

Bordner recommends providing public-facing, short risk- and education-oriented videos for guests. “There is inherent risk in these summer activities, and identifying and bringing attention to those risks is important,” he said. Such measures demonstrate that a company cares about disseminating accurate information about conditions, and can be helpful in cases where there is still an incident that prompts litigation.

Trent also uses the reach of his resort’s website to offer warnings and information about the mountain on a designated page devoted solely to guest well-being and preparation. “Why not share the same resources management uses to assess conditions?” he said. “We believe communicating with guests includes making those same resources we use available by having a page on our website that directs people to weather information, riding conditions, safety and NSAA information and initiatives. People have an epic day with good information.”
Cathleen Calkins is an Oregon-based freelance writer.