The 2020/2021 winter season brings improvements and changes to Crystal Mountain, a Northern Michigan ski hill, many to keep guests and staff safe in the era of COVID-19. We check in with Sammie Lukaskiewicz, the resort’s director of public relations.
Last season was cut short due to COVID-19. What have the past 9 months been like?
We’ve really been flexible with all that we have been doing because we’re all navigating new waters. We implemented a Crystal Clean task force in March comprised of employees from across the resort who meet with industry peers, experts and state and local health officials to compile, craft and implement best practice safety protocols for the entire resort. We safely hosted guests from all over Michigan and parts of the Midwest throughout the summer, so, in many ways, we have been working toward reopening for winter when we closed back in March.
How are you feeling about the 2020/2021 season in 3 words?
Outside never closes.
Is there anything new this season you’re excited about? (Equipment, dining options, instructors, etc.)
We’ve got a lot of things we’re excited about. We continue to invest in the facility by adding RFID gates to our chairlifts, which will get guests on the slopes quicker and more efficiently. It also allows touchless, cashier-less lift transactions to keep staff and guests safe. We also have installed a new, wider snowmaking pipe that will move more water to our snow guns, helping us create better snow faster. (Here’s our winter operations run down.)
Fresh air will be important this winter. So the resort has engineered several clean air solutions inside its public buildings including improving filtering in its air handling units; installing portable, HEPA air purifiers in some areas; opening ventilation dampers to bring in about 20% fresh air; as well as installing air scrubbers that are a spinoff of NASA technology.
How do air scrubbers work? When air passes through a UV light-activated titanium dioxide membrane filter, it causes water vapor in the air to turn into negatively charged hydrogen peroxide ions which can then be directed into room air supply ducts. Because of their electric charge, these ions attach to and can destroy most common bacteria and virus particles in the air and on surfaces. Hydrogen peroxide is generally recognized as a safe antimicrobial agent by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Each room also typically has four to six air changes in an hour, which helps to keep the air clean.
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Have Northern Michigan ski resorts been working together to make this season a success, or even with resorts nationwide?
Both. Our team has been working with other ski resorts from across the country and right here in Michigan, as well as industry and health agencies the National Ski Areas Association, Michigan Snowsports Industries Association and Benzie-Leelanau Health Department on best practices to safely open for winter. NSAA is a national industry and has convened many of us to ensure best safety practices are deployed across the country so all ski areas will have similar policies in place for winter.
Skiing/snowboarding is outdoors and can be socially distanced. It’s the après-ski activities at cafes and bars that could pose a problem. How are you addressing that?
As we approach ski season amid a pandemic, some things at Crystal Mountain, like everywhere else, will look a little different. So we’ve had to reimagine a few things. Social distancing on a wide-open mountain is certainly doable, but the prospect of kicking back in a crowded ski lodge with a drink and big group of friends is just not possible. Aprés ski during COVID-19 will be subdued and likely very limited. We have reduced capacity in our restaurants and our Vista Lounge, which is our main bar for post-ski cocktails. And have moved the indoors outside where fresh air is abundant. Guests will need to social distance and wear masks when they can’t be six feet apart from others—and will need to take their post-ski activities back to their accommodations or reserve a table at Vista Lounge way in advance.
We have basically moved a lot of our operations outside—seating, dining. And are opening up our Crystal Center for additional seating.
Has there been a silver lining, cool idea, lesson—something positive that can be taken from this incredibly difficult time?
There has been a new and renewed interest in outdoor recreation. So we have been incredibly lucky that summer brought us a tremendous amount of guests who were interested in hiking, biking, running and golfing outdoors. And we expect that wave to continue into winter.
Secondly, incredible ideas, imagination and innovation come out of troubling times. We have had an incredible opportunity to reimagine the way we do business, which is rare, and that has made us stronger as a team.
The new RFID gates, which create touchless, cashier-less sales opportunities, will allow us to collect real-time data so we can better manage flow of our guests on the lifts, helping us become more efficient with how we operate. The addition of the air scrubbers, the barriers at our registers and between tables at our restaurants—that we built!—and other engineered solutions have shown us how incredibly talented our team is.
We’ve also built some strong relationships with our peers across the industry, but also with our health officials at the Benzie-Leelanau Health Department. We could not do this without their advice, their guidance and their steadfast commitment to safety.
Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?
We have 1,500 acres of wide-open space for alpine and Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, fat tire biking, hiking and ice skating … We have a lot of fresh air and room to breathe. Outdoor recreation has numerous benefits for physical and mental health and wellness. It’s a community of skiers and riders who look out for each other, and we couldn’t be more excited to safely and smartly get back to winter.