COVID-19: Innovating a New Approach to Service

By Tom Kelly Jan 4, 2021
After eight months of COVID restrictions, it’s quite liberating to stand atop a mountain and point your ski tips down into the powder. In this episode of Last Chair, we look at the pioneering innovations Ski Utah resorts have been making to get open, stay open and provide guests with a great and safe experience.
COVID-19: Innovating a New Approach to Service

Have you been skiing or riding this year? If so, you've experienced a new sensation - standing atop a snow-covered ridgeline, soaking in the alpine peaks and feeling a small freedom from the COVID-19 restrictions that have ruled your life for eight months. Utah's resorts have been busy since last March, innovating ways to get open, stay open and provide a safe and meaningful experience for guests. In this episode of Last Chair, we visited some of Utah's iconic resorts to learn how they are managing changes to stay open and provide the best guest experience possible.

It's pretty clear that the minds have been spinning. It's a new look at resorts from parking to passes to lunch. But what all resorts share in common is a passion for providing an opportunity for all of us to ski and ride - and to do it safely.

Snowbird App

When you're driving up Little Cottonwood daydreaming about that ride up the tram and dropping your tips into the Cirque, the last thing you want to be thinking about is where you're going to park. Amidst the challenges of reduced capacity during COVID, Snowbird has a solution with app-based reserved parking. The Bird's Sara Sherman talks us through the simplicity of reserving your own spot. With no parking stress on your mind, you'll have more time to daydream about that first glory fun of the morning.

BaseCamp Food Truck

If you wanna ski, you gotta eat. Ski area parking lots are seeing a lot more tailgaters this year. Alta Ski Area has you covered with innovative new food trucks in both the Wildcat and Albion parking lots. Alta's Brandon Ott gave us the food truck tour with Last Chair checking out Base Camp Kitchen in the Wildcat lot. Wow, those were good burritos. Just grab one, stuff it into your pocket and dine on the Collins lift on your way up to Ballroom.

Snowbasin Resort

Snowbasin Resort is a big mountain, with a ton of terrain. While lodges are open to provide restrooms and food, skiers and riders need a little warmth after a couple hours of top-of-mountain runs. Taking some tips it learned from Southern Hemisphere resorts, Snowbasin has added a Yurt Village at the base of the Middle Bowl lift to provide skier's with a heated haven to warm up before heading back out for more. Snowbasin GM Davy Ratchford gave us an insider's tour as the Yurt Village was finished up in time for the holidays.

It's an innovative time for resorts. What we found was that resorts and guests are all assuming their respective COVID responsibilities and providing a truly liberating experience.

Check out this special episode of Ski Utah's Last Chair to learn more.

  • What app do I download to reserve a free parking spot at Snowbird?
  • What's the best burrito to tuck into your parka pocket at Alta's Base Camp Kitchen?
  • Where can you dine in a snow globe?
  • What's the best new spot to stay warm at Snowbasin Resort?

Tune in to Last Chair: The Ski Utah Podcast presented by High West Distillery and Saloon on your favorite podcast platform. Subscribe to get first access to every episode.

Transcript - S2 Ep 6


Tom Kelly: |00:00:36|Hi, Sarah, how are you doing today?

Sarah Sherman: |00:00:38|Great, Tom. How are you? Welcome to Snowbird.

Tom Kelly: |00:00:41|Thank you. I'm with Sarah Sherman from Snowbird. We are here at the first entry, actually. What entry portal are we out here today?

Sarah Sherman: |00:00:48|We are at entry one. It's one of four. And right next to us, they are checking in guests with their parking reservations to allow them to park at Snowbird for the day.

Tom Kelly: |00:00:58|This is a great program. This means you can actually drive up the canyon knowing you have a parking place.

Sarah Sherman: |00:01:03|Exactly. Whether you're leaving at seven a.m. or 10 a.m., you have your spot for the day. So it's a little bit less of a rush for you in the morning if you're more of a casual, relaxed morning person.

Tom Kelly: |00:01:14|Well, we're going to get back to that in just a minute. But, Sarah, the season is well under way. You've got about a month under your belt right now. What have you done up on the mountain relative to your dining and other guest services to accommodate for the pandemic situation and still allow your guests to have a great time here at Snowbird.

Sarah Sherman: |00:01:33| You know, we took a lot of time this summer to really look at each of our systems and protocols and think of how can we best adapt these to keep our guests, our communities and our employees safe this winter. So there's a lot of different things we're doing around the resort. You might see we're abiding by the National Ski Areas Association Ski Well, Be Well Plan, which includes requiring all guests and employees, anyone on the property to wear a face covering. We are encouraging physical distancing wherever possible. We've actually adapted a lot of our indoor spaces that were once used for other things to allow for additional guests seating and spacing indoors. We have two new food trucks that will be outside this season for guests who don't want to go indoors if they want to dine. And we're also doing things like not requiring guests to load full chairs. So if you're up here skiing by yourself will load you onto the chair by yourself to allow you to feel safe and comfortable wherever you are on the mountain. We really want people to feel comfortable coming up to Snowbird this season.

Tom Kelly: |00:02:33| One of the things that I found is just skiing around at all the different Ski Utah resorts, including Snowbird, is that skiers are pretty much respecting this and everybody's working together to ensure that we can keep skiing and snowboarding this year.

Sarah Sherman: |00:02:45| Exactly. I think it really takes an effort from our entire community to come together, as I think it's been said before. Don't be the reason we lose the ski season. People want to be here. They want to ski and ride. And that experience itself hasn't changed. But we just have to adapt a little bit around that experience to make sure we can keep doing it.

Tom Kelly: |00:03:05| You know, driving up today in Little Cottonwood Canyon, I was thinking about how amazing it is that I can drive up the canyon and have a parking place reserved for me. Talk a little bit about this system that you've put in place with Park was to allow skiers to make a reservation for parking at Snowbird.

Sarah Sherman: |00:03:25| Yeah, I think each resort has a unique opportunity here to look at what they can do to provide a great guest experience this season. And we looked at, you know, what we're doing here at Snowbird. And we thought the best way to ensure that we are hitting a capacity every day that we're comfortable with that won't result in overcrowding is to monitor our parking spaces. Like you said, normally we are so heavily promoting carpooling and ride share. And this season with covid, it's just not something we felt comfortable talking about. So so this season, we really thought critically about how we could provide a great guest experience without making it too crowded, maintaining a self, a safe and healthy environment for our guests. And we decided upon a parking reservation system. It's completely free. Anyone can make one if they're over the age of 16 and you only need one parking reservation per household. So again, we're not promoting ride sharing or carpooling this season. We want everyone to stay healthy and safe. But if you have a roommate or a member of your family, you only need one reservation per car coming up for the day. Your reservation is valid from seven a.m. to four p.m. when we start, stop scanning. So like you said, you can leave at 10 a.m.. Know you have your spot, not have that morning rush and come enjoy your day on the mountain.

Tom Kelly: |00:04:40| So where do I make a reservation for parking? Can I do it on your website or do you have a mobile app?

Sarah Sherman: |00:04:46| So you can make a parking reservation at Snowbird dot com slash parking, you'll see a calendar, you can choose your day or you can download the Park Whiz app, which is the word PARK and then W-H-I-Z. They're a third party vendor that we're working with and it's worked great with our system thus far. And it's a really great way to not only make a reservation but manage it if you need to cancel your reservation.

Tom Kelly: |00:05:10| How's it been going so far? You've got about a month under your belt right now. Are the skiers appreciating this opportunity?

Sarah Sherman: |00:05:17| I think for those people who have had their reservation, they're really grateful to know that when they leave their house, they have a spot at Snowbird already. It's set in stone. They can drive up here with confidence. It's been a huge learning experience for us. We're adapting and changing almost every day, I think, as the situation changes. But we're really. Hoping to continue growing the system and improving it, creating more parking reservations as terrain continues to open on the mountain as conditions allow. It's been very dynamic so far.

Tom Kelly: |00:05:47| So I know that you're new to Snowbird, but if you had enough time to get out there to find some of your favorite spots here.

Sarah Sherman: |00:05:53| Oh, my gosh, I have been loving Gad Valley this early season. It's been really fun. Off Gad 2, we had a powder day last week. That was incredible. I think the whole mountain's just been really fun. And I'm excited for Mineral Basin to open up. I've been on the tram a couple times. It's been really cool to explore.

Tom Kelly: |00:06:11| Sarah, thanks for joining us to talk a little bit about the parking program. I'm going to go up and make some laughs.

Sarah Sherman: |00:06:16| I hope to see you up there.



Tom Kelly: |00:00:02| Hey, Brandon, how are you doing today?

Brandon Ott: |00:00:04| Tom, it's a powder day. It's so nice to see you.

Tom Kelly: |00:00:07| It is really great to be here. I am with Brandon Ott at Alta Ski area. It is a gorgeous day today. We're just walking down along the line of the Collins lift looking up. We've had a powder dump overnight. I don't know, 18 inches Brandon.

Brandon Ott: |00:00:22| It's a good one. You know, it's the first big powder day that we've had in nine months.

Tom Kelly: |00:00:27| Boy, I tell you, people, you can tell the parking lot was full early this morning, people are ready to go. But, you know, it's beautiful. You look up towards Alf's High Rustler and you can see the powder hanging from the trees. You can see the skiers itching to get up there and get their own runs down. And it's just great to be here and great to be out skiing, isn't it?

Brandon Ott: |00:00:46| So good. And like you said, it's so beautiful to see the trees blocked. And, you know, it's a good sign of a great day when at the end of the day you can ski back to your car and you don't have to click out of your skis. I think it's going to be one of those days.

Tom Kelly: |00:00:58| Yeah, I hope so. I'm anxious to get a few runs in here today. I was here opening day and one of the things that struck me was how respectful everyone was. We're all in this thing together. And it was reassuring to see skiers paying attention to the new parameters. But it's different this year, isn't it?

Brandon Ott: |00:01:16| It really is. You know, up until last month when we opened, we have never skied during a pandemic. So we're figuring this out as we go along. And, you know, that that whole adage of we're all in this together is so true and we're really asking for people. It's almost like a social contract between our employees, our guests and the mountain, and that is to wear a mask socially distance, respectful. And, hey, we can keep skiing.

Tom Kelly: |00:01:44| You know, one of the things that resorts that is challenging. I know. And resorts such as Alta have really come to the fore with new and innovative ideas is food service. And how have you been addressing that up on the mountain?

Brandon Ott: |00:01:56| Absolutely. I think you and I were joking a little bit before, but one of our mottos, we have said you know at Alta because we're all about the skiing, we don't own lodging and we don't have zip lines and all that stuff. So we like to say, come for the skiing, stay for the skiing. But this year we're saying, you know, maybe it should be: come for the skiing, go home for lunch. And with that, you know, we also thought, well, let's not let any pandemic pass us by. So some of the big changes are that around food, you know, in building in-house restaurant capacities are going to be reduced 50 percent or more. So we had to do things differently. We had to get innovative. And two of those to the big things are food trucks and each of our main parking lots. So we have the secret mercantile, which is up in the family-friendly Albion Basin, and then we have Base Camp Kitchen right here in the wildcat parking lot.

Tom Kelly: |00:02:52| You know, I was here on opening day and have been to Alta a couple of times this year. And one of the things that I definitely noticed is there's a lot more tailgating going on and right from breakfast, lunch and apres ski.

Brandon Ott: |00:03:06| Yeah, it's it's really, really fun to think, to see. And it's, you know, it's bacon tailgating, it's hash brown tailgating. Starting in the morning. I've seen families put down blankets in front of their car, you know, as a changing place to get ready for the day. So, you know, being and staying outside is great and really seems to be safe. Riding a chairlift seems to be safe. So we can stay outside and, you know, grab some food from one of these great, you know, food truck options. We've also, you know, on the mountain made some changes as well. So kind of ski up, right. So ski up, grab a cup of coffee, grab a chocolate chip cookie, maybe a banana or something, something kind of light to keep you fueled up and on your way. So we have baldie brews. We have a water ski up window there, which is new. And then we just opened up secret coffee. And that's spelled with a C, you know, it's our little secret up here.

Tom Kelly: |00:04:01| Shhh, don't tell anybody.

Brandon Ott: |00:04:02| Yeah, please. Please don't. You know, you have to know where it is. So Cecret Coffee just opened. And that's that's been really well received. Then, of course, you know, on the album base as well, we have Alta Java, which has been here for a long time, written up in Ski magazine for its famous Suzy's Chai Latte.

Tom Kelly: |00:04:21| So Brandon, one of the things I want to explore, are the food truck options. And we're walking right now down to the Wildcat parking lot, which I think was filled by eight thirty this morning on a powder day. A lot of tailgating going on out there. But tell me about the truck option you've got here in the Wildcat.

Brandon Ott: |00:04:35| Really excited. So it's run by Julie and Base Camp Kitchen is the name. You know, she's been around for quite some time. She's a local here. Her brother works as an electrician here at Alta. So wonderful to have her up here in this capacity. She's a skier. She gets it. She knows that grab and go pocket food is the way to go. So, you know, you can't go wrong with any of her burritos. And let's go meet her. I'd love for love to introduce you to her.

Tom Kelly: |00:05:02| Hey, Julie, how are you doing? Brandon and I are getting hungry. I want to take a look at the menu. You've got some great options there.

Julie: |00:05:08| Hi, Tom. Thanks for stopping by. Base Camp Kitchen. So our specialties are the breakfast burritos, but we also have quesadillas for lunch. The Black Diamond is one of our most popular breakfast burritos. I personally like the double black because it has feta and artichoke hearts. The quesadillas: our Collins is one of the most popular. It's got cheese, black beans, green chilies, sour cream carne asada. We also have some grab and go option, some snack bars, cliff bars, whatnot, and all our coffee is local - Rimini Coffee. On days like today with fresh snow, and because the parking is limited, people are getting here almost as early as I am. So as soon as I fire up the grill, people are coming up to get burritos and coffee to sit in their car and wait till someone starts the lift line. And once that gets going, everybody rolls on over.

Julie: |00:05:57| Honestly, most people still go for the breakfast burrito because you can eat half of it in your pocket and eat the other half the next couple chair rides.

Tom Kelly: |00:06:05| Well, Julie, thanks. This menu looks great. Brandon, you ready to order? Yeah, thank you. Thanks for coming by.

Julie: |00:06:10| Oh, I'm always hungry, you know, and that's a good thing. You're out here and it's cold and there's powder to ski and let's let's do it, OK?

Tom Kelly: |00:06:18| What are you going to go with? I think I'm going to go with the towels.

Brandon Ott: |00:06:22| You know, I'm also going to go with the Taos burrito, but I'm going to go gluten free, which also travels pretty darn well. And a few extra jalapenos on that one this morning.

Tom Kelly: |00:06:33| Ok, Julie, you got the order so. Well, while, that's cooking up. You just what are some of your favorite spots on the mountain? You know, you've been working up here for a few years now and you got any secret stashes that you could share with folks?

Brandon Ott: |00:06:48| Come on. You're asking for a lot right now. But, you know, it's so cool. We have five major lives and you have the old double Wildcat, which is true, one of the original places, you know, the original ski terrain at Alta. And I love the slower feel of it and the terrain that it accesses. So I would say Wildcat is my number one choice. It's also closest to my office. But, you know, being a family guy now, I have a ten year old daughter, Grace, and a six year old son, Owen, Supreme is - supremely beautiful with those views down canyon. So you have the views and then a great varied amount of terrain from advanced to intermediate. So family stuff Supreme is where you want to be.

Tom Kelly: |00:07:35| Yeah, I love it over on Supreme.

Tom Kelly: |00:07:37| It's a little bit of a different deal this year in planning your ski trip. You don't just make sure you have your put back ski samples and parka, but you've got a few other things you need to check in advance.

Brandon Ott: |00:07:48| Yeah, you know, this year skiing is just a little bit different. It's the same mountain, it's the same snow. But we are reminding people to know before they go in a few simple things. You know, if you're on Twitter, be plugged in to Alta alerts or just Alta dot com. And what we're doing is forecasting when we expect parking to fill up, if it will fill up that particular day. You know, we are not running at 100 percent capacity for obvious reasons. So things are going to fill up a little bit quicker this year than other days. If you have flexibility, really consider weekdays, you know, powder days and weekends in Little Cottonwood Canyon. It's a beautiful place to be, but all bets are off right now, you know? So plan in advance and check those two resources.

Tom Kelly: |00:08:35| Let's go back in time. You know, I don't know if you ever had the opportunity to meet Alf Engen, but I was honored to know him and to ski with him a few times here. But what I really like about Alta, it's the heritage. It's the legend of this man and the other suits who started this resort like Joe Quinney. But Alf Engen was really quite a legend here.

Brandon Ott: |00:08:56| I didn't have a chance to meet Alf, but I've met his son Alan a number of times and just that whole family just the history that they bring forward. And really, they're the forefathers of skiing here, not only in Alta, but in Utah, truly. And one of the things that has been passed down, that Alf has always told Alta, you know, and employees here is get out of the way and don't mess it up. People are here for the mountains. People are here for the powder skiing. And as we've entered skiing during a pandemic, it was a chance for Alta to really look back and say, you know what, we got this. We're just about the skiing and let's keep it about the skiing. And that's why, you know, just some of these little pivots food trucks here now and again are great. But we can mask up, you know, the people we arrive with, we ride with on the chairlifts and we can keep skiing and get out of the way and people can do what they love.

Tom Kelly: |00:09:51| Yeah, that's the spirit of the place.

Julie: |00:09:53| Tom and Brandon, your burritos are ready.

Tom Kelly: |00:09:54| That's Julie in the background.

Tom Kelly: |00:09:55| It sounds like our burritos are ready. Brandon, thanks for showing me around. A little bit, I'm going to stick this burrito in my pocket and let's head up the left and get a little POW.

Brandon Ott: |00:10:04| Tom, it's been a pleasure having you here. Come back soon. Come back often and cheers.



Tom Kelly: |00:00:00| Hey, Davy, how are you doing today?

Davy Ratchford: |00:00:01| Tom? It's great to see you. Thanks for coming up.

Tom Kelly: |00:00:03| Oh, happy to be here. Were with Davy Ratchford, the general manager of Snowbasin. We are up at what is this, the Yurt Village.

Davy Ratchford: |00:00:11| Yeah. All sorts of innovation going on around the ski industry these days.

Tom Kelly: |00:00:14| It's been interesting to talk to different resorts about what was done over the summer to prepare a ski area in a different environment to ensure the enjoyment and also the safety of guests. And you guys have been busy at Snowbasin.

Davy Ratchford: |00:00:26| Yeah, really, since the end of March, we got together as a team and thought, what can we do? We knew we wanted to open and get open, stay open. That's all we're thinking about. And it required a lot of innovation and thoughtful approaches to things. And the Yurt Village here, as we look at it, is one of those ideas.

Tom Kelly: |00:00:41| Before we get to talking more about the yurts that you've installed, food service has been the challenge for all resorts. And it's been fascinating to see how they're addressing it down at the base area. I saw some of your new food service slope side dining that you have where somebody can grab something to go or sit down and one of the tables. Tell us a little bit about what you've engineered around the mountain to help with food service.

Davy Ratchford: |00:01:06| Sure. So across the board, whether it's here or other skiers, it's at least a 50 percent reduction in overall capacity inside these buildings. So we created the slope-side dining units as a way to get people to get food, grab and go, make it easy. And we have two near the base here, one at the Wildcat lot, one down at near Earl's and then one that's out at Strawberry. And the idea being people want to still eat, want to grab their hot cocoa or a beer or chili or a burger, and let's do a fast and easy so they don't have to come into a building and they can sit outside and eat it. They can go to a building if they like. But with those being at a reduced capacity, sometimes there's a wait. And a lot of people, you know, they want to, they want to hit the snow. So grab them a quick burger and it works out really well. We've seen a huge amount of people using that and we think it's great. And for us, it's something we can use in the future doesn't have to be just related to COVID.

Tom Kelly: |00:01:57| Well, what's interesting to me in looking at the solutions resorts are coming up with, there's a lot of more you say, wow, that's just a great idea. Regardless of COVID.

Davy Ratchford: |00:02:07| Yeah. Why didn't we do that before? Yeah. So much of that it was. And I will say there's a huge amount of innovation that will come from this that we will take with us in the future. I will tell you, I hope some of them we don't ever take with us either. But there are some like these that are great and they really, really help all of us out and help our guests out, too, because they can grab food and go quick, as are many people, that that's what they want. So why not give them what they want?

Tom Kelly: |00:02:29| So you've put in a number of portable yurts. And let's start with the base area. One that I found fascinating when I saw today was the work that you've installed for ticket sales to help distribute people as they guess as they come into your resort.

Davy Ratchford: |00:02:45| Yeah. So yurts in general allow us to do a couple of things that we didn't think we could do. Getting people outside as much as possible is the key. And we wanted to use our lodges for bathrooms and food. But keeping people outside is the key. So the fact that this is like a spoke of a wheel where you have eight windows and they go in all sorts of different directions and allow you to fill all of those eight windows with people, they're safe inside, you're safe outside and you're spread out. That has been highly innovative for us because it's faster. It's much easier to do those transactions. Our staff are safer, our guests are safer. And so that one in of itself has been a huge win, something that actually we didn't see as how successful it would be until we start operating it. And then we're like, wow, that's really, really effective. And so for us, that one, it'll be interesting to see how we go in the future with that. Do we? You know, we have some nice facilities here at Snowbasin. So does it make sense to bring everyone out to your you know, we hope we're going to learn from this and take some of these innovations forward. So let's go up on the mountain.

Tom Kelly: |00:03:45| You've put in a Yurt Village up on the mountain, one that's not so much designed for food service, but just providing ski or warmth. You're a big mountain. And how did you choose this location and what is the functionality of it?

Davy Ratchford: |00:03:58| Yeah, these are great questions because where we learned this one was actually in some conversations with leaders in the ski industry in the Southern Hemisphere. They had gone through COVID. And one of the big lessons they learned was it's not just about lodges and lifts and these infrastructures. Sometimes people just need to get out of the cold and somewhere warm for a time and come in and just warm up for a bit. So these warming huts are a concept that we learned from other ski areas and we took it Snowbasin. And I know other resorts are doing something similar. So the idea with the old day lodge opening that back up and these three yurts, but the Yurt Village by Middle Bowl, the idea of these was to just allow people to get out of the cold, but they don't have to be in a lodge. And those lodges are precious, right? At that point, every table matters, every bathroom matters, all of those things. So allowing to just go inside and get warm for a couple of minutes for a lot of people to have those kids skiing, as you know, like getting kids around the mountain. That's not easy at times. But allow me to go in and just warm up for a little bit, take a break, sit down, relax.

Davy Ratchford: |00:04:54| It helps with their personal safety skier. Fatigue allows them to get stay warm. And it's a cool idea. It allows people to just take a break mid-mountain and not have to come down to the base area. So we're excited about it. I will tell you, these yurts are amazing. I'm sure so many ski areas have bought yurts this year, it's wild. And we got them in and we're excited about it. I think it's a cool concept.

Tom Kelly: They're nice and toasty warm.

Davy Ratchford: Yeah. Yeah. And in fact, we're tweaking the heating things because with your shirts, you can manage those heating elements quite a bit. So we're looking at electrical and, you know, do we want to bring in fire pits up there and have kind of an outdoor heating experience also? Because it's a beautiful area. It's flat here. You're looking up at Mount Ogden. It's a nice, wide open area. There's a lot of convergence of skier visits. We got the lift right next door. So allowing it to, you know, kind of breathe as a kind of a fun area. And we know we're going to bring up outdoor barbecues and, you know, in the spring, it's a great area for that sort of experience. So we're excited about it. It's exciting.

Tom Kelly: |00:05:49| You guys have been having some fun amidst this coming up with these new ideas, haven't you?

Davy Ratchford: |00:05:53| Yeah, it is my background. My background before this stuff was this is a lot of the things I liked to do. And we were, you know, having our team just let loose on it and, you know, having the Holding family support it. Because these aren't and these initiatives, we were not planning on them. Right. That, you know, back in when we did our budgets and all of those things, it wasn't something we were thinking about. But now they're very you know, they're very helpful to the operation. So we are having fun with it.

Tom Kelly: |00:06:18| One last thing. You celebrated your, what, 80th anniversary on your opening day, November 27th.

Davy Ratchford: |00:06:24| Yeah, the day Mayor Caldwell from Ogden came up and we did the reenactment of that, like, this is Ogden's playground. And yeah, it was really fun. And it's, what, a year to celebrate our 80th anniversary. So much thought going into the experience. Our employees work so hard to create such an experience for our guests. It's not easy wearing, you know, reminding people to wear masks all day isn't the easiest thing to do, but it's a great ski experience. And, you know, we all hope that we can get more snow but it's going to be a great year by everything we can see now.

Tom Kelly: |00:06:58| Good. Well, let's go skiing.

Davy Ratchford: |00:07:00| Yeah, thanks.