INTERVIEW: Thredbo GM, Stuart Diver, answers Covid season questions

SnowsBest sat down with Thredbo GM, Stuart Diver, to get the backstory on the 2020 season decisions during the global pandemic.

The bridge between the resort and the village will have fewer footprints this year. Photo credit: Thredbo Media

Thredbo announced on Thursday that the resort would be opening on June 22 with some major operational changes in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic and government and health authority restrictions.

There is no doubt now that this season will look like no other, with the resort operating at 50% capacity, season pass refunds in favour of day and multi day pass purchases to ensure daily skier caps, social distancing, reduced capacity on chairlifts and more.

The announcements had a mixed reaction on social media. Many happy to have a season, others not as happy to hand back their season pass. The announcement on Friday that season pass holders would be receiving both a refund and up to 75% off day and multi day passes, plus a daily allocation for season pass holders in the new booking system, certainly took the sting out, for some.

Yet this is a season like no other, operating in the middle of a global pandemic with extreme restrictions, an impending recession, lost jobs and decimated businesses. All tourism is suffering badly and we’re lucky to have a season of any description this year.  

There are winners and there are losers from the amended operating plans for this season. Wholesalers and travel agents have been informed they will need to refund lift passes and won’t be able to sell lift passes this season, and now accommodation providers will also be unable to guarantee lift passes with their bookings.

While one Thredbo tourism operator revealed to SnowsBest that he had received way more bookings than cancellations when the news of the June 22 opening was announced, Ski Rider Hotel over on the road to Perisher announced they would not open their 340 room hotel for 2020.

Having a season at all in both New South Wales and Victoria will certainly reduce the inevitable economic damage to come from Covid-19, but it won’t stop it. No doubt the ski industry, the resorts and related operators included, all hope the capped numbers will be for 2020 only, and that 2021 will come with more revenue guarantee for the wider industry. 

SnowsBest sat down with Thredbo General Manager, Stuart Diver, on Friday for a tele-chat, transcribed below. We’ve kept it as a straight Q&A for transparency and context, and only edited for flow.

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SB: Was there any time that you thought Thredbo wouldn’t open?

SD: There’s been plenty of times over the last couple of months where the advice we’ve been getting is that it was going to be very difficult to open, just through government regulation rather than operationally for us. But we’ve managed to work really, really hard with government and with all the relevant stakeholders and get a great result. 

It’s the great unknown is what has been killing everyone at the moment. So to have a date and to have some clarity in the marketplace about what we’re doing and how the season’s going to look, I think, yeah, it’s a good thing.

It allows people’s minds to adjust to what’s going on. There’s definitely a few people who probably hadn’t come to the reality of what the season was going to look like yet and they definitely did yesterday [Thursday]. So that was why it was so good to get that message out about how it is going to look to give our guests enough time to adjust (and our staff and everyone else) to what this season’s really going to look like.

I think the reaction was fantastic from a resorts point of view, I think everyone was just happy that we are going to be open. I think the realists know that it was going to look different, this season was definitely going to look different to previous ones. And so, the fact that we are just opening in some form and guests will be able to come down and hopefully do some turns this winter, I think, it’s a really positive, we got a lot of really positive feedback on that.

Thredbo
Thredbo Resort and the alpine village. Photo credit: Thredbo media

SB: At a 50% capacity are you running at a loss, break even or profit? 

SD: I’m not going to give any financials out, but yeah, we’re opening with the hope of breaking even obviously. 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.

And 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.

Jindabyne, the service town to the New South Wales ski resorts. A tourist destination directly impacted by this years bushfires and the COVID crisis. Photo credit: Taras Vyshnya/Shutterstock

So, it really is crucial that we opened and that was really good that we’re able to, especially work with the Deputy Premier on that point, he knew how important it was to the local economy across the board in New South Wales health as well.

They had some, and they still do have, some really big concerns, as they do in the rest of the state, but with mental health issues with people being out of work for long times and the economic pressures that that puts on families and everything else.

We’ll employ probably about 70% of our normal staffing body, which is still in the 700+ mark. So yeah, we’re pretty happy that we’re doing our part.

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SB: Did you feel a responsibility to ensure you did open something?

SD: I think yesterday (Thursday) after people realised, “Oh, the season pass thing looks a bit different. Oh, I’m going to have to get a ticket and I’ll need to get a ticket before I come down.” I think people actually also just realized, “Ooh, actually I’m just happy to be going skiing.”

And that was my aim, to get open, whatever the model looked like, to try and look after every single stakeholder because they’re all really important to Thredbo, whether you’re a property owner all the way down to the young kid who jumps in his car and finishes his bar shift and drives down to do a few turns on a Saturday morning.

I mean, we tried to get a model that would look after everyone, but still obviously make the business financially viable. So yeah, there’s a huge amount of responsibility that comes back onto both of the big resorts, and to Charlotte Pass as well.

And that’s why this has been one where I’ve worked really, really closely with Pete Brulisauer and with Josh Elliot as well and government on this plan and making sure that we got the resorts up and open in a form that will still be able to be financially viable, but just because we know how important it is to that local area.

SB: How will tickets purchases work? Will you release all at once?

SD: The plan at the moment is to release as many tickets as we can, but given we don’t know what snow conditions will be and what capacity will be, there’ll probably be more releases throughout the season.

So that means that people will have to watch.  We’ve redesigned our online store. So it will have a day by day inventory pool on that store, so you’ll be able to see, “Ah, Wednesday next week, there’s still a thousand tickets available so I might duck down for a day” or “Every Saturday for the whole season, there’s nothing available” or whatever it ends up being.

And then it may be that that following week we open up a bit more terrain, so I’m able to add another 500 tickets on, we’ll just go out on socials saying, “Another 500 tickets available at this point.” And away you go.

People will get one day, won’t get the next day, all of that sort of stuff. That’s just, grab a set of snow shoes, go for wander, do something else. It’s just that sort of season. I think that if I was a customer this year, I would just be really, really happy that I’m able to do some turns in Australia and go skiing.

SB: What about families wanting to buy tickets together?

SD: If you’re in [the site] and buying your passes, you’ll be in the store and you’ll be able to click on, at the same time your pass, your kid’s pass, and away you go. As long as your kids are linked in with your profile, which they should be, then you’ll be able to purchase that within the store at that point.

SB: How do you stop scalping?

SD: Yeah, because it’s illegal and we will call the police. 

And just so everyone knows, there’s going to be an enormous amount of police around this year. 

And their presence will be in Thredbo every day, visual presence, walking around. They’ll be helping us, obviously with social distancing, they’ll also be helping us with any of that other stuff that goes on as well.

SB: If you’ve already booked accommodation why can’t you get ticket preference?

SD: That’s a really hard one, but if you look at it like this – so if I only have a limited part of the mountain open, and I’m skiing a maximum capacity on that day of 400 people [example only], how do I prioritise 400 tickets into an accommodation base of two and a half thousand, number one?

Because basically, a lot of the club lodges are deciding not to open because it’s just too hard for them to get their heads around guidelines and all of that sort of stuff. So we’re going to have a couple of thousand commercial beds. There’s just no way you can prioritize that.

How can I [prioritise], when I don’t even know what that capacity may be on a certain day because I don’t know what runs are going to be open? To leave that in with accommodation is just impossible to do, so therefore that’s why our model is jump online, buy your pass.

If you’ve got your pass and have accommodation, and someone say they booked seven days accommodation and then are only able to get five days with the passes, and that’s just the season it’s going to be.

So, I guess just need to get their heads around a very, very different looking season for all business operators, everyone coming down here.

Hopefully we’ll have enough tickets in the marketplace that we’ll be able to make it a success for as many businesses as possible.

But unfortunately, businesses are going to go under.

Like they are all across New South Wales and Australia because of this pandemic and I, as a business, big business operator, am doing everything I can to make sure every business has the best opportunity to succeed. It’s all I can do.

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SB: What about families wanting to sit on a chairlift together or mates on a t-bar?

SD: It has to be managed. It’s a trust thing. We’ve said that parents and kids are allowed to because you can’t put young kids on it without having the supervision. So we’ve always said that. But it may broaden out even bigger than that. And then it just comes down to a trust thing and if someone comes up and says, “This is my brother,” we’re not going to ask them for ID, we’re going to say, “Jump on.”

Because the real risk on the whole mountain thing is actually the gathering areas at the bottom. It’s not riding the chair, the longest lift in Thredbo is seven minutes, and the tipping point is 15 minutes for where is the critical point for transmission.

SB: Will all the terrain be open this season?

SD: Yeah, we are, based on snow conditions. We normally would have been making snow now for three weeks, four weeks, so we’ve gotten no snowmaking, there’s basically no natural snow there, there’s a little bit due next week. Everyone was waiting for this announcement before we start making snow, so we’re obviously starting to make snow next week. 

Thredbo’s Holy Bowly terrain park from 2019. There will be no terrain parks in 2020. Photo credit: Thredbo Media

So we’re a month behind in snowmaking, and the likelihood of getting an amazing base out there, because May is really when we’re getting our good temps now in Australia, is unlikely. The terrain will be what it is and if it ends up just being the Golden Triangle or just the Cruiser’s side of the mountain, then that completely lowers the number of people I’m allowed to have on the hill via the government regulation.

SB: Are you going to have all of the food and beverage open on the mountain?

SD: Yes, we are. All of our venues, obviously within the constraints of social distancing internally in buildings and yeah, that’s probably one of our bigger constraints are the base areas and the buildings are the biggest constraints.

What we’re doing is obviously our bigger venues have been very much takeaway based, anyway, like Friday Flat,  and so they’ll continue in that vein and people will just have to come in, go out, and find somewhere to eat outside.

And they were the ones that obviously were going to cause most concern of congestion and people in buildings, obviously places like Kareela Hutte will open, but it’ll be two sittings for lunch and you’ll have to book, and it has very limited numbers just because of the internal space of the building.

It’s just going to be more exclusive and slightly more expensive probably to make it financially viable.  I think if we’re just booking and taking people’s bookings, it will be a set price, set menu, set price, all that sort of stuff. So yeah, the F&B team are just working through at the moment.

I think the Kareela clientele will be fine with that, but yeah, there won’t be the standard hundred people at 4:00 PM drinking Schnapps in Kareela anymore,  but hopefully we get back there at some point.

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The bistro definitely is a yes, because it’s an approved venue and currently regulations are that you have to sit down so we’ll make sure that that’s adhered to. But yeah, very limited numbers in the bistro. So, probably a quarter of what we would normally do in the bistro.

People are going to have to bring food down, eat in their apartments, do all that sort of stuff. Because there just won’t be the external venues, even with every F&B venue in Thredbo open and we’re working with all the external operators as well to make sure we’ve got a plan. Yeah, we won’t, people will still be eating at home.

SB: What about the Keller?

SD: No. No chance. Alpine Bar, no chance, any of those bar venues, because that’s where we know the greatest risk is.

SB: How can you monitor private parties?

SD: You know what? This is a really good point to make. We are relying hugely on the skiing public being responsible when they come to Thredbo. We cannot control everything. We cannot control social distancing everywhere.

We need the whole skiing fraternity to be responsible for their behavior when they’re here because if they’re not, they will shut us down and no one will go skiing. And that’s how serious it is. They have already said, government will shut us down.

If we cannot show that we can manage social distancing in this environment, we’re basically the first ski resorts in the world going for an operation under this model in any way, shape, or form. The USA have done it a little bit, so we’re the guinea pigs for the world.

If we can’t do it, we’re going to mess it up for everyone.

And the other thing is, if they close one resort, they’re not leaving the other one open. It’ll close the entire region.

So I can’t get that message across to our skier base more that we really just need, everyone needs, to be responsible. So we’ll start that with our staff and all of the training of our staff and getting that out and making sure everyone’s on point. And then it will hopefully flow out from that.

But yeah, that’s why we’ve changed our terms and conditions on all our passes. Anyone who’s not abiding by social distancing, we will take their pass and they can just go home.

SB: Do you think two people in the gondola will increase as the season goes on?

SD: I don’t think so. I think social distancing is here to stay in enclosed areas, so gondolas and buildings and stuff. I think external, we might get a few more liberties as the season goes on, but the reality is, if they don’t change social distancing within the structures we are pretty well at our capacity with what we’ve got.

Thredboland is closed for the launch of the 2020 season. Photo credit: Thredbo Media

Yeah, because we’ve had to take spaces up to put staff locker rooms in. Thredboland’s now a staff locker room for ski instructors, all of that sort of stuff. The normal sized sports locker room’s way too small to take even a staffing body of half the number of instructors, it just can’t do it. So, there’s a lot going on.

We’ve moved the Thredbo Medical Center to a bigger premises, but that’s how seriously we’re taking this. At the Leisure Center. 

It’s getting built, in three weeks we’re building an entire medical center.

So stuff like that, that’s a huge cost to the resort, but one that we need to do to be able to be open. And I hope that people understand that as they look and see what we’re doing with our ticketing.

SB: Will the gondola be finished in time?

SD: Doppelmayr and obviously the engineering team have done an unbelievable job. So given the bushfires and then given COVID, we’re only about five days behind in the schedule, which is pretty phenomenal. I’ve just looked out my window, it’s turning now, it’s got all the gondolas on. They’re still under wrap. It’s pretty cool. Load testing Monday, Tuesday, next week. And then it’s fully commissioned.

SB: Do you think you will lose longterm customers from this season? 

SD: No. I mean, I think that if coronavirus was just a Thredbo thing, or COVID-19 was just a Thredbo thing, then yeah, you’d definitely say that. But I think given that it’s a worldwide pandemic, I think everyone’s in the same boat and I know that our customers, Thredbo customers are loyal.

We’re going to do everything we can to look after them. And yeah, I would expect that the majority will come back because we’re a pretty resilient bunch and we love going left and right in the white stuff and having a good party.

So, if it opens up even more next year, I’m sure more people will come back.

SB: Will the resort open early daily for those working the season, and locals?

SD: Yeah, we’ve done a lot of thinking about that, but yeah, it just doesn’t work. Operationally, it doesn’t work because we can’t groom the mountain and get snowmaking done, and do all of that sort of stuff pre that time. And that’s why Thredbo’s never done first tracks. It really does not work in Thredbo the way our mountain is, we’re grooming Friday flat all the way to 08:29 to get it ready to go. And that’s with a double shift starting as soon as the runs close.

So we just can’t and we’ve got a full contingent of ski patrol, full contingent of groomers. So we’re not skimping on any of that stuff, but yeah, you just can’t do it.

SB: What are you looking forward to the most this season?

SD: Going out and skiing with my friends. And if I can have a beer somewhere at the end of that day, then I’ll be happy with that as well.

* * *

Thredbo’s 2020 Lift Passes go on sale from 11.59pm on Wednesday, June 10. One to seven consecutive day lift passes will be available. All the info on Thredbo operations this year can be found here.

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Rachael Oakes-Ash is the name behind @misssnowitall and the founder of SnowsBest.com. A long time travel and lifestyle journalist and ski writer, she's been published in ESPN, TIME, Wallpaper*, Action Asia, Inside Sport, Australian Financial Review, Emirates Open Skies, Conde Nast Traveler and more. She was the Fairfax snow blogger from 2007 to 2017 and the Southern Hemisphere editor for OnTheSnow. Rachael is also a documentary producer, author, radio announcer and humorist.