Faced with changing winters, ski resorts in the Poconos have learned to adapt by building up resort and dining facilities, and creating year-round features such as waterparks, camping, zip lining, and mountain biking trails.
Now comes a resurgence of COVID-19 cases just as the ski season is about to open with restrictions on dining and lodging. Still, there is some optimism that people will be driven outdoors by the pandemic, providing a bit of a boon for winter sports. In addition, the local real estate market is booming, which could bring new residents to the region in search of winter activities.
Shawn Hauver, managing director for Camelback Resort in Tannersville, Monroe County, said his staff is prepared, having learned how to apply COVID-19 protocols during the summer. So masks, social distancing, and cleaning should not be an issue.
“We got a good amount of practice,” Hauver said.
Due to Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders to limit indoor dining to 50% of capacity, Camelback, owned by KSL Resorts, has invested $700,000 into enhancing outdoor dining, Hauver said. It erected two outdoor tented dining facilities with 150 heaters. Management has installed an outdoor smokehouse for barbecue, and purchased food and beverage trucks.
“We’ve been working on recipes and getting practicing and figuring out how to do this for a couple months and we’re really excited,” Hauver said of the trucks. “We’re trying to turn what could be a potential negative into a positive and creating some new experiences for our skiers and our tubers.”
Hauver said the 50% limitation on accommodations hasn’t been an issue yet because half the resort’s 453 rooms are closed for renovations that are expected to be completed in January. Camelback is also keeping its water park at half-capacity.
Early sales of season tickets look promising, he said. COVID-19 modifications have been expensive, but “we want to make sure that everybody that is in attendance here is in a safe environment that they feel comfortable with. ... We’re putting safety above and beyond any expenses.”
Weather officials are forecasting a warmer-than-normal winter in much of the nation, particularly during December. Camelback spent $2.5 million last year on snow-making equipment that can produce snow in milder temperatures than in the past.
“Last winter was a pretty mild winter,” Hauver said, “and we had the best ski conditions the resort had ever had. ... I’m very optimistic that we’re going to have a great season.”
The number of season-pass holders is on par with past years, and the hotel has bookings for December and January. Snowboarding and tubing have also become popular, helping boost sales.
Ashley Seier, marketing manager at Blue Mountain in Carbon County’s Palmerton, said the level of interest in camping and mountain biking in the summer suggests “pent-up demand for people to get outside.”
“If that’s any indicator ... I think we’re in for a very busy winter,” Seier said.
Typically, Blue Mountain — and most ski areas — target opening day for Black Friday. But because of recent mild weather, that’s been moved. Seier said management hasn’t announced an opening date yet, though it is making snow for a base, which takes about 80 hours to complete.
“We’re just a little behind schedule,” Seier said, “but I would say we’re OK.”
Blue Mountain’s preseason sales have been good, Seier said, and people have been buying tickets in advance for specific dates, indicating that they are planning trips. She said Blue Mountain has also expanded dining options.
“We’ve got new food and beverage software so you can order food from your phone and pick it up at the eatery,” Seier said. “We’re trying to encourage outdoor dining ... and we’re also encouraging tailgating, which is a big part of that dedicated ski culture.”
She said skiers have learned to adapt to conditions on the East Coast, and many prefer warmer days.
A potential plus is also the hundreds of homes for rent through Airbnb, and VRBO — as well as skyrocketing residential sales.
Sales of homes in Carbon County were up 66% in October, according to the most recent data available, compared with October 2019, with at least some buyers seeking to escape urban areas.
Nicole Murray, of the Poconos Mountains Association of Realtors, said the rise is due to a number of factors, including a natural cycle of recovering from the last recession. Her data show a steep climb in sales this year, with a big recent spike — but do not disclose why people buy the properties, or whether they are second homes.
“I don’t have a sense of, for me personally, whether these people are coming in for second homes,” Murray said. “But with COVID we also are seeing a lot more people. We just had a ton of buyers show up. ... We have a lot of people coming in from New York and New Jersey that buy in our marketplace.”
Cindy Kanecht, of Carr Realty of the Poconos, in Monroe County, has worked in real estate for 25 years and had never seen anything like the interest in rentals over the summer, especially from city residents. She said the market looks strong into winter.
“I’m booking up for winter like a normally do,” Kanecht said. “But I’m seeing more long-term rentals. I’m seeing people rent for a month, three months, six months. I guess they feel as if something is going to shut down again, we have somewhere to go. The biggest complaint i’ve hears is someone locked in a city apartment with their children and a spouse. At least here, they can get out.”