Cataloochee Ski Area isn’t exactly what you’d call COVID proof, but it’s come pretty darn close. This year’s ski season has been overwhelming successful, with skiers across the South hitting the slopes in Haywood County in droves.
So much so, that Cataloochee has actually sold out of lift tickets some weekends — and not just the traditional busy weekends like MLK.
The sold-out days — this Saturday being among them — is partly due to Cataloochee capping capacity on the mountain to prevent overcrowding.
“The number of tickets I’m willing to sell in a day is less than last year, but it’s designed to give people a comfort level,” said Chris Bates, general manager of Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley.
But the busy season is also due to big demand from a pandemic-weary public. While the typical vacation to Disney has been a non-starter for most families, skiing is seen as a safe escape.
“You can get a good day of outdoor recreation in the fresh air,” Bates said.
Indeed, the pandemic seemed to set the stage for a perfect storm in the skiing world.
“You got kids in an untraditional school environment, and you got parents who are able to work from home,” Bates said.
Meanwhile, a reluctance to fly led families to cancel annual ski trips out West and turn to Cataloochee instead.
“In a normal year, they might come to Caltoochee to ski for a weekend to warm up before going out West, but this time they are coming three or four times to Cataloochee,” Bates said.
And thanks to Haywood County’s geography, Cataloochee is the closest drive for Southern skiers from South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Locals have gotten in on the action, as well.
“Season pass sales are up significantly, and that’s the local market,” Bates said.
While weekend tickets have been capped, weekday skiing is up.
One of the biggest do-or-die factors in any ski season ultimately comes down to luck, however.
“The weather has been great,” Bates said. “We’ve actually had two months of winter.”
Revamping the mountain
Pulling off a successful ski season has been no accident.
“We started working on the answer to this in April,” Bates said.
When the pandemic hit last March, Cataloochee closed early for the season.
“We could have skied the mountain until mid-April, but we closed on March 15 because there were so many unknowns and it was the right thing to do,” Bates said.
Over the next several months, Cataloochee put a plan in place to revamp its operations.
“We sat here every day thinking of ways to limit people’s contact,” Bates said.
Changes included: walk-up windows in lieu of coming inside to buy lift tickets; a mobile app for ordering food instead of standing in line at the concession counter; allowing single riders on lift chairs; removing all the seating from the lodge to discourage congregating.
Cataloochee wasn’t alone. The six ski resorts in North Carolina joined forces, in concert with the national ski industry association, to formulate operating procedures. The plan — called “Be well, ski well” — was not only aimed at reassuring the state that ski areas could operate safely, but to have a standardized approach.
“We shared a lot of ideas and came up with one collective plan,” Bates said.
Cataloochee has a no tolerance policy when it comes to masks. They’re required in ticket lines, rental lines, lift lines and indoors at all times, no exceptions.
“We’ve come a long way. Every day gets easier, but it is something we’ve had to work at,” Bates said.
One of the biggest shifts this year was a move to online rentals to avoid the bottleneck of crowds funneling through equipment lines. Staff pull skis and boards the night before for those who ordered rentals in advance online, tag them with a label and line them up outside for customers to grab.
It’s made for a smoother visitor experience all around, with less time spent in the trifecta of lift ticket lines, boot lines and ski lines.
“We have learned a lot from this year about our business and our customers,” Bates said. “It forced us to take some steps we would have taken eventually, but that may not have been a couple more years in the future.
“We’ll be a better business in the future having gone through this because it forced us to think outside the box and make adaptations.”