Skiing and snowboarding resorts such as Mount Holly and Pine Knob, pictured, have reported strong seasons during the last two years despite the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Skiing and snowboarding resorts such as Mount Holly and Pine Knob, pictured, have reported strong seasons during the last two years despite the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Photo provided by Ann Charles Media

Ski hills see increased attendance through COVID-19

‘Last year, Pine Knob had the biggest crowds I’ve ever seen’

By: Brendan Losinski | Metro | Published December 20, 2021


METRO DETROIT — Although COVID-19 has been a disaster for many businesses, at least one industry has seen improvement as it heads into the second winter of the pandemic: ski resorts.

Ski and snowboard hills have remained safe winter activities throughout the last two years since it is an activity that takes place outside, people are naturally distanced, and many people wear masks while doing it anyway.

“We are seeing higher numbers than pre-COVID years,” said Mary Dawson, the office manager at the Pine Knob Ski Resort in Clarkston. “Our student clubs are growing. As of right now, we don’t require any vaccinations to come here or work, but we do follow state procedures. Most of the staff has been vaccinated. We still are masked when we are in the office. We are still careful not to get sick. We still sanitize the building daily and use hand sanitizer. The beauty of skiing is that people are usually already masked when they are out there.”

Kurt Payne, the ski school director at the Mount Holly Ski and Snowboard Resort in Holly, agreed, saying that their resort also has been seeing increases in business the last two years.

“Going into last year, things were very uncertain. We added staff to make sure we could accommodate people. We have kept that staff increase this year too,” he said. “(Attendance) has been shaping up pretty good this year. Even with the up and down weather we have good snow coverage and we’ve seen a lot of smiling faces right now. Last year, we were still extremely busy. Skiing was one of the few outdoor activities people could do in the winter, so we saw a lot of new skiers. We have seen that interest continue this winter so far too.”

Tom Lining is the head coach of both the Berkley/Troy Athens Composite Ski Team and the Avondale/Troy High United Ski Team. He said he was surprised to see how well his teams and skiing in general were doing while so many other sports and businesses struggled.

“We didn’t see any drop in participation last year or this year,” he said. “Because it’s an outdoor sport, it was one of the things people can do safely in the winter. Last year, Pine Knob had the biggest crowds I’ve ever seen. I don’t think they ever had a problem. Our team actually grew in size this year.”

Of course, skiers and snowboarders still need to come inside to warm up, and both resorts said they are still taking care to observe safety procedures inside their lodges. Pine Knob has tried to alleviate this by adding more heated spaces outdoors.

“We enlarged our seating outside … with a heated patio that has fireplaces so people who are more comfortable outdoors can be served outside,” said Dawson. “Everything is up and running, and we’ve doubled that outdoor space. We have updated some snow gun and snowmaking equipment. We are still dependent on Mother Nature, but we are doing our best in that regard as always.”

Mount Holly produces snow making equipment for itself and other resorts, and Payne said that, too, has kept pace with the increases he has seen during COVID.

“Wisconsin Resorts, which owns Mount Holly, recently acquired another ski area, and we have ramped up snow guns to help accommodate them,” he said. “We have been making them more in the last two years and upgrading them to improve the ski experience at all the resorts, so that’s consistent with the increases we’ve seen.”

He added that the increases have been so noticeable that their ski shop is already running low on certain parts of its inventory.

“There’s definitely a lot of traffic in the ski shops,” remarked Payne. “They’ve already sold through a lot of their products even this early in the season. Skiing is one of the few industries that has seen a bump because of COVID since it is a safe winter activity.”

Last year’s ski season still required a lot of safety protocols, even while out on the slopes, said Lining.

“We had a season last year, and it went really well. There were a lot of COVID protocols in place. I coach in three different districts. We competed and practiced at Pine Knob and they had masks required. The NHSAA limited how many kids could be lined up at once, so it was split in two divisions for racing. For practicing, everything was like the year before.”

This year, he said, procedures are far looser.

“Our race meets are back to normal this year. As far as racing goes, our season doesn’t start until January, but everything is more or less operating as it ordinarily would,” said Lining. “This year, there are no more COVID protocols. I don’t have to check temperatures every day or anything. Masking is optional at Pine Knob. Oakland County Health Department dictates that, so that could change, but right now there are no masks. Last year, they had to get changed outside, and this year they can change inside.”

He added that he’s heard of few problems on ski teams related to COVID.

“Skiing naturally keeps the kids separated. Some kids still wear masks and scarfs, but we’ve had no problems,” Lining said. “We had one COVID case on the team last year, and the kid got it from a camp up north. I haven’t heard of any outbreaks on Detroit-area teams last year or this year.”

For anyone looking to try out a new winter sport and do so in relative safety, ski resorts such as Pine Knob and Mount Holly said they are welcoming people to come in.

“We’re seeing increases in attendance across the board. We saw a lot of families skiing together, in particular,” said Payne. “If anyone hasn’t tried it before, we’re expecting snow during the holidays, so it would be a great time to head out and try skiing or snowboarding.

“Business is on the rise; it’s terrific. We have a lot of new skiers, and I think COVID actually brought out new skiers because there wasn’t anything else for them to do,” added Dawson. “We’re ready for people to come and have fun. Our whole business is about fun and family.”