Colorado mountain resorts slash summer offerings as labor crisis persists

The Aspen Skiing Co. Canopy Tour, which was built by Bonsai, in Snowmass is usually booked all summer.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times Archive

Vail Resorts announced its summer plans at its major resorts last week and one thing was conspicuously missing. Ziplining and canopy tours, once the backbone of an industry-wide expansion of summer amenities, have been dropped from the resort operator’s offerings in Vail and Breckenridge, reportedly victimized of the labor crisis which is strangling the ski areas.

Company officials said individual stations could restart ziplines this summer if they can hire enough staff. Across Colorado’s resort landscape, the boom in the development of summer trails, ziplines and alpine slides has slowed. The recent labor slump sees most businesses in the tourism and service sectors slash their labour-intensive offerings. And few amenities require more work than ziplines.

“I think ziplines can be tricky for employers because they require a higher skill level and more training,” said Thaddeus Schrader, whose Grand Junction-based Bonsai Design built Vail Resorts zipline courses and trained employees in Vail, Breckenridge, Park City. and heavenly seaside resorts. “If a company is expecting to hire only 60% or 70% of their staff that they used to get without a problem, resorts are probably looking closely at operating costs and… I guess ziplines don’t make the cut.”

Not all stations suspend zip lines. Telluride and Arapahoe Basin will continue their canopy tours this summer. The Aspen Skiing Canopy Tour at Snowmass, which was built by Bonsai, is usually booked all summer.

Canopy tours at Snowmass are “super popular,” said Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle. “It is very labor intensive and can be an operational challenge, but we are happy with it and our customers are happy with it and we will continue.”

Bonsai, which has installed approximately 70 zipline courses across the country, is building a new zipline tour at Crystal Mountain in Washington State, which is owned by Alterra Mountain Co. Even with a downturn in installations at ski resorts, Schrader said resorts are still buying zip lines.

“The industry has seen the writing on the wall and that it’s not just ski resorts, it’s mountain destinations and summer is a big part of that year-round appeal,” said said Schrader.

Vail Resorts leads the resort industry with investments in off-season attractions and year-round business strategies. The company’s Epic Discovery plan was launched in 2015 with a $25 million investment in roller coasters, ziplines, canopy tours and trails in Vail and Breckenridge, as well as Heavenly at Lake Tahoe in California and possibly Park City Mountain Resort in Utah. A company spokeswoman said Heavenly and Park City plan to offer the zipline this summer, but have not finalized plans or begun taking reservations.

Each resort weighs “operational considerations” when scheduling summer activities, company spokeswoman Sara Olson said.

“These considerations include staffing, employee and customer safety and expected customer demand and may be different from station to station,” she said. “In general, we are excited to see all the more our stations will have to offer this summer as the momentum around the pandemic improves.”

The company’s summer operations for 2022 are similar to activities offered last year and in 2020, when ziplines did not open at most Vail Resorts ski areas. (This year, the company is replacing the Game Creek Express chairlift, which would impact zipline activities in the bowl.)

Summer Investment in 2015 sparked national investment in summer recreation at resorts on federal lands. The summer shift to year-round playground development stems from the 2011 Ski Area Recreation Enhancement Act, which gave the Forest Service more leeway when approving projects at resorts. which were originally built to accommodate skiers only.

The idea was to generate more year-round activity in resort communities. Legislation has seen ski areas funnel investment into alpine slides, canopy tours, trails and events. It worked. Summer is busier than ever at ski resorts.

The investment helped Vail Resorts stem losses during the summer months, when it always loses money. All ski resorts lose money in the summer. New trails, zip lines and other summer facilities are intended to slow this financial haemorrhage.

This first year of increased summer operations, from May to October 2015, Vail Resorts recorded a loss of mountain operations revenue of $99.5 million. (In 2015, Vail Resorts had nine ski areas in Colorado, California and Australia at the time, not including two urban ski hills in Minnesota and Michigan.)

The company’s earnings reports from May to October in 2015 included $32.1 million in season ticket sales and the payment of $98 million to employees. In the same six months of 2019, Vail Resorts — which then had 37 ski areas — said it lost $145.3 million in mountain operations, of which the company earned $76 million from subscription sales. season and paid employees $182.1 million.

For example, Vail Resorts’ labor costs during the summer months rose 86% from 2015 to 2019 and the company’s losses increased 46% as its resort portfolio more than quadrupled. (The company does not detail resort revenues and did not highlight fourth-quarter performance for 2020 and 2021, telling investors that resort closures during the pandemic have limited operations.)

An injury, a lawsuit and a death

Vail Resorts’ track record when it comes to ziplines isn’t perfect. The company’s Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont suspended canopy tours in September last year when an employee was killed on the mountain’s zipline. The Vermont Department of Labor and the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration are investigating this accident and a final report is pending.

In 2020, a U.S. District Court judge in Denver dismissed the lawsuit of a woman injured on a zipline in 2017 in Vail Ski Area’s Game Creek Bowl. Lisa Cowles sued Vail Resorts and Bonsai Designs for negligence when she crashed into a tower, but judge William Martinez denied her claim, citing liability waivers she signed before joining the tour.

The Colorado Division of Petroleum and Public Safety regulates zipline operators, as well as all amusement parks in the state. The division requires third-party inspections of zip lines annually. In 2012, the division issued licenses to 14 commercial zipline operators. The number of licensed operators increased to 27 in 2019 and 22 in 2022. The division has investigated 17 injuries on licensed ziplines since 2012, resulting in four fines.

Several of those injuries — which are not detailed in state reports — were from zip lines operated by rafting companies and four were at ski resorts.

Ziplines are exceptionally labor-intensive, with specially trained guides located on towers between long stretches of cable. In the summer, regular thunderstorms and lightning force guests to descend from the towers, take shuttles to the lodges to wait, and then return to the towers when the storms pass, a process that requires even more workers.

The Colorado Forest Service has seen a slowdown in resorts offering new summer developments in recent years. Don Dressler, who manages the agency’s mountain resort program for his Rocky Mountain region, said the pause in summer planning is tied to reduced spending during the pandemic, but he hears from resorts struggling with d Other challenges include supply chain issues and hiring troubles.

“I think the early adopters of summer activities are here to stay while others are still focused on trails and events,” said Dressler, who expects resorts to continue exploring activities. throughout the year as they draft plans for future development on federal lands. “Long term, I still see the door open when it comes to master planning.”

A worker at the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park prepares customers for a zipline trip over the Royal Gorge canyon on April 8, 2022, near Cañon City. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Outdoor businesses adapt to operate more efficiently

Ziplines began to proliferate in Colorado more than a decade ago, as drought rafting companies sought more land-based activities when the rivers weren’t flowing.

As Duke Bradford prepares its summer plans, the owner of Arkansas Valley Adventures is adjusting rafting schedules but not necessarily reducing its zipline and via ferrata courses in Buena Vista and Idaho Springs.

To allow staff to run less labor-intensive daily rafting trips during its busiest month of July, it is reducing its offerings of overnight trips that require more guides working longer hours. .

“We make adjustments when the work is so difficult,” said Bradford, who has hired about 82% of the staff he needs for the summer and does not expect to reach full strength.

“We are offering products that we can use more efficiently to meet demand,” he said. “I imagine it’s the same story for all companies right now.”

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