Winter 2020/21: What Lies Ahead? Flexibility, Innovation & Passion
By: The Rhubarb Collective
Depending on where you live in Canada, winter is either here, or very close at hand. It’s time to prepare! Your Rhubarb Collective team wanted to know what lies ahead for operators and visitors in this pandemic winter, so we reached out.
Will They Come?
If summer months are any indicator, Canadian residents will be embracing outdoor activities in spades this winter. Snowbirds staying home who want to be active, families and social bubbles itching to spend time together safely, friends who want to try something new, residents ‘working from anywhere’ in rural areas exploring new winter activities.
The Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC) reports that snowmobile sales, both new and used are in high demand, early permit sales are up year over year and interest from newbies is on the rise.
Coupled with those passionate about winter who usually travel to snow destinations in Canada, the U.S. and Europe now staying closer to home, demand is expected to be high.
Let’s look behind the scenes to see how operations are preparing.
Behind the Operational Curtain
Tourism operations, destinations and communities all continue to work hard to adapt, innovate and respond to the pandemic to deliver a high-quality visitor experience. While each type of operator has a unique starting point, three approaches are common to all:
Adopting the most current international and national guidelines from their sector (attractions, festivals/events, ski resorts, accommodation and more).
Layering on directives from local and provincial health authorities.
Going above and beyond.
And it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, that the guest experience for the upcoming winter will be different. It has to be.
Non-medical masks are the norm
Canadians in all parts of the country are expected to wear masks when indoors or when they can’t properly distance.
‘Disperse and distance’ is at the core of the guest experience
o Rows and sections closed off; seating pods available and assigned for pre-arranged groups
o Digital programs rather than physical programs
o An ‘event walk-through’ poster outlining what to expect at each step along the way.
Ski resorts suggest guests get ready at the car and walk straight to the lift.
OFSC is promoting adoption of their “Snocial Distancing” practices, designed exclusively for how snowmobilers can practice safe snowmobiling. Snowmobilers are encouraged to form ‘riding bubbles’.
Guests are encouraged to ‘keep your distance and wear a mask’ when using indoor change rooms to lace up, warm up or pack up to head home. Same, when using warming huts or public bathrooms. Or better yet, put gear on outside!
Managing capacity/limiting overcrowding
· Advance booking, typically on-line.
· When at capacity - sales stop.
· Lowered capacity to make distancing easier.
o Private ski clubs are only welcoming members this winter. No guest passes available.
o Ski lifts adopting social distancing (2 people on a 4-person Chair) unless they are in the same social bubble/family or in an alpine program with their coach and or instructor.
· Parks pausing services and activities where safe distancing is difficult to manage.
· Timed tickets to manage arrivals for drive-through events, attractions, museums and galleries. Examples include Victoria B.C.’s Christmas Season Timed Entry Tickets
· Visitor experiences available only to established household or social bubbles.
· Advance on-line purchases, food orders
· Cashless and touchless payment
· Physical barriers between staff and guest at any place of contact
· Scanning of lift/trail tickets, passes
· Elimination or reduction of paper-based information or transactions.
Encouraging visitors to be self-sufficient
Many operations including ski hills, trails, provincial and national parks are offering reduced and limited food, retail and other services, so visitors are being told to plan ahead and be self-sufficient:
· Call-ahead same day to confirm what is open and closed
· Bring your own snacks, water and sanitizer
· Snowmobiler riders need to be extra vigilant and carry things like extra gas and food in case things are not open
· Be patient as waits will be longer
Innovation, Energy and Passion Drive the Guest Experience
While some major winter events like the Quebec Winter Carnival and Ottawa’s Winterlude have yet to make final decisions, festivals and events large and small, have been cancelled or replaced with new and different experiences. For example, rather than the traditional Santa Claus parade held on the streets of downtown Toronto, the 116th annual Toronto Santa Claus parade will be held at Canada’s Wonderland for a recorded parade set to air on December 5, 2020 on CTV. The parade will feature 23 floats, special guest performances and celebrity appearances.
Walk-through, Drive-in and Drive-Thru Events are a new ‘thing’! What an easy way for a household or social bubble to participate safely together.
· Gogh by Car Drive In: Immersive Van Gogh Exhibition, Toronto continues to late December 2020
· ‘Polar’ Canada’s first multi-level drive-through holiday experience is hosted in the parkade at none other than Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Running from late November to early January, tickets are $45 per vehicle. Visitors are treated to six levels of themed decorations. Now that is a creative use of big infrastructure!
· Holiday Light Tour at Toronto’s Casa Loma, a self-guided outdoor light tour. $35 per person.
· Winter Wonders at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, a 1.5 km pathway. $18 per adult.
· The Seasky International Light Show, a 1.2 km outdoor trial in Niagara Falls, features 30 lantern installations, which will run from December 9, 2020 to February 28, 2021. $35 per adult.
Ski resorts and winter recreation areas are embracing their wide-open spaces but are limiting interactions throughout the day. Most “après ski” social events will not be available this winter and social directors are looking at more daytime and outdoor options. Innovation is the name of the game - Hiawatha Highlands, outside Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario offers Snowga - snowshoe yoga!
Ski programs are running, but with smaller group sizes. Many have lost indoor restaurant capacity due to local restrictions. And while they are maximizing seating by installing clear plastic barriers between tables, they want more. To expand replaced lost seating capacity resorts such as Beaver Valley Ski Club are extending decks, installing temporary heated tents and using their Alpine Centre at the top of the hill for lunchtime seating. They are offering asimplified menu, along with a new grab and go counter.
Some accommodations are staying open longer, testing out winter visits, but also to capture demand from the domestic market, specific to the upcoming winter season.
Increased Communications Remains Key
Due to its ease of use and flexibility, winter operators are embracing social media as their number one medium to let visitors know that to expect. Posts and updates on websites and other social media platforms provide visitors with most up-to-date information on their operation’s response to local health guidelines, what is open and closed, impacts of weather and when capacity has been reached and more.
Ontario Parks uses revised icons on their websites that include ‘temporarily unavailable’ and ‘available, but with restrictions’. Guests are encouraged to follow social media for the park they are interested in visiting to get the most current information.
Tourism operators of all types have been encouraged to focus on hyper-local to entice visits from nearby residents. Société des établissements de plein air du Québec (Sépac), the voice of Quebec’s provincial parks, natural areas, reserves and a host of tourism establishments have refined their messaging and target audience to speak to area residents, encouraging them to take advantage of their Last-Minute Nature Outings in their own region, rather than travel to another region.
Self-directed activities, that include skating on outdoor ice rinks, hiking, snowshoeing and winter cycling (yes, it’s a thing) are expected to be popular this winter. Many will be trying these activities for the first time. Messaging to help people enjoy the outdoors safely covers a number of points that include dressing for success, using layers to stay warm.
Communications also go on-site in various ways, using temporary signage at strategic locations to manage visitor flow and capacity.
Communications are not just for guests either. OFSC launched an aggressive communications plan early in the pandemic, designed to create confidence, educate volunteers and demonstrate transparency. They also have deployed a weekly press release to riders and stakeholders since August. How are you communicating with all of your stakeholders?
A Closing Thought
Operators and guests are optimistic about the upcoming winter. While there are many unknowns, who can resist those sunny blue bird days, powder snow, smooth ice to glide across and the post activity sauna and hot toddies? Enjoy!