The season from hell is coming to an end for Australia’s domestic snow sports industry, worth an estimated $2.4 billion and a direct contributor to 23,000 jobs in a normal year.
However 2020 was anything but normal, especially in Victoria where government COVID travel restrictions meant the three main resorts of Mt Buller, Mt Hotham and Falls Creek were barely able to operate.
Colin Hackworth from the Australian Ski Areas Association, says season 2020 has been “extremely difficult in NSW and a complete disaster in Victoria.
“Buller was open for 43 days but in very limited fashion.”
He says the negatives “actually doubled down by probably being the worst snow season on record, and Hotham and Falls (both owned by Vail Resorts) were open five days.” Total.
There was much emotion when Australia’s Vail Resorts boss Peter Brulisauer announced the Victorian resort closures on July 9.
“I have heard concerns that we made this decision purely for financial reasons,” Brulisauer said in a letter to staff on July 14.
“There is no doubt that the Stay at Home orders in Melbourne would have drastically reduced guests to the resorts but, it still might have been possible to remain profitable at a smaller scale.”
However, that was not how this decision was made, Brulisauer said.
“When we voluntarily closed our resorts in North America (in March) it came at a massive financial cost to the Company, one which we accepted because we believed it was the right decision. The same is true here.”
Vail Resorts was however able to open Perisher, its main income earner and Australia’s largest resort, on June 24 and keep it running throughout the season.
Thredbo, which in a good year can make up to $25 million pre-tax profit, also operated at 50 per cent capacity from June 22 with the hope that it would break even.
“I’m not going to give any financials out, but yeah, we’re opening with the hope of breaking even obviously,” Thredbo General Manager Stuart Diver told the Snows Best website on May 31.
“We understand resorts and the economic benefit that us opening brings to the entire snow and mountain region. And so therefore, we need to open, not just for us, but for everyone else.
“That’s always been my plan the whole way through, but yeah, some of our planning was based around possibly opening in August, then possibly opening in September, depending how it all looked.
“And even if we were to open in only September, I was still going to open the resort, and we definitely wouldn’t have been making any money then.
“Obviously it’s about us, we’ve got to look after our staff but the Thredbo community’s hugely important to us as well as Jindabyne and everywhere else.”
“The industry’s pretty resilient and quite happy to tolerate quite large variances in business because of weather conditions but not a COVID induced variation like we’ve had this year,”says Hackworth from ASAA.
“The NSW resorts have done the best because they were able to open in late June and were able to remain open.
“They’ve done well, they’ve had to deal with 50 per cent capacity constraints but other that they’ve been able to march along quite well.”
Joan Bird from Snow Escape Holidays in the snow holiday hub of Jindabyne, NSW, has been “absolutely blown away” by season 2020 with everyone working together to ensure it went ahead.
“We didn’t know three weeks prior whether were were going to open or not with all that was going on,” said Bird.
“We’ve done really well considering, we’re actually really pleasantly surprised.”
“We’ve worked really hard to develop protocols needed for safe opening across on everybody’s part.
“Whether you were providing accommodation, whether you were a resort, a restaurant, a cafe, service stations, all that sort of stuff, this snow sports community has done incredibly well and should be congratulated.
“The fact we had up to 10,000 visitors plus the thousands of seasonal staff that come in every year to this community, Jindabyne, which is relatively small, to not have any community transmission of COVID is unbelievable. And that’s kudos to everybody.”
She jokes that lots of visitors “leave their brain cells at McDonald’s in Goulburn – they’re in holiday mode so it’s been up to the industry and the community to keep everybody safe.
“And the fact that we have is absolutely remarkable.”
Also remarkable has been the sustained demand for skiing and snowboarding, even during a pandemic and with inflated lift ticket prices of $152 at Perisher and $159 at Thredbo.
Tickets allocations have regularly sold out and there are smiles in abundance across both resorts, which are planning to stay open until October 5.
Sometimes you just have to break the shackles and do a few turns.