Dear Tripped Up,
I live in Massachusetts and had hoped to ski at Okemo Mountain Resort as much as possible this year. However, in November, Vermont announced a new set of cross-state travel guidelines, which include a mandatory quarantine that makes it all-but-impossible to visit regularly throughout the winter. Despite a blitz of preseason assurances of risk-free booking on seasonal ski passes, Vail Resorts, Okemo’s parent company, is refusing to issue pass refunds for people facing state quarantine requirements. The silence is telling: Where’s the corporate responsibility? Rob
Your travel predicament — about an outdoor, socially distanced activity, the issue of quarantines and the inability to get a refund — is just about as “2020” (whoops, 2021) as it gets.
Ski resorts around the country are open this year, but despite a slew of new safety measures including increased cleaning, capacity limits, timed tickets and off-limits indoor dining, they are not faring well. In an earnings call in December, Vail Resorts announced a net revenue decrease of 51 percent for its first quarter fiscal-year 2021 (the three months ending Oct. 31, 2020).
Vail Resorts, one of the biggest players in the ski industry, has more than 30 resorts across 15 states. Eight of those states, Vermont included, currently have quarantine or testing mandates — and sometimes a combination of both — for out-of-state travelers.
According to Ted Brady, the deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency Commerce and Community Development, Vermont’s new travel restrictions — which require a 14-day quarantine or a seven-day quarantine plus a negative PCR test, either completed at home or in Vermont — have reduced the number of skiers and snowboarders coming into the state this year. He said resorts reported a 50-to-70 percent decline in bookings over the holiday season.
“The State of Vermont issued some of the strictest ski resort guidance in the country,” Mr. Brady said in an emailed statement. “Most notably, this guidance requires all guests to attest that they meet the quarantine requirements and understand that failing to do so could result in the loss of their skiing and riding privileges.”
Vail Resorts’ individual, date-specific lift tickets, rentals and ski-and-ride school lessons are easily refundable. As early as April, the company also announced that its historically nonrefundable Epic Pass, a seasonal pass program, would automatically come with free Epic Coverage, a refund policy that offers protection for a set list of qualifying incidents.
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Epic Coverage grants full or prorated pass refunds in situations like resort closures and personal events like job loss or injury. Mandatory stay-at-home orders in the pass holder’s county, state or country of residence are also covered. Yet state travel advisories are not.
Regional Epic Passes allow skiers and snowboarders to access several mountains over the course of the season. For instance, the Northeast Midweek Pass — the one you purchased, which cost around $450 when it was on sale last year — grants access to 17 resorts in New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Vermont. All of those states currently have travel restrictions, as does your home state of Massachusetts.
In a statement, a Vail Resorts spokeswoman said, “While Vermont’s quarantine requirements may present challenges for some pass holders, they do not prohibit pass holders from accessing our mountains. State and local orders are very fluid. These requirements could be changed again, or even eliminated, as soon as next month.”
She added, “We certainly apologize for any confusion, but we were intentional in specifying ‘mandatory stay-at-home orders’ versus ‘travel restrictions’ on our website and in communications with guests.”
You aren’t alone in feeling like that’s an unfair stipulation. Tim Morse, a New York–based Epic Pass holder, had hoped to go back and forth to Mount Snow in Vermont this winter. A firefighter and parent of two children who attend in-person school five days a week, he is unable to quarantine before every ski weekend.
Given the rising infection rates, he doubts that Vermont’s travel restrictions will lift anytime soon and worries about ski season effectively being over by the time that happens (if that happens).
“I could very easily go to Mount Snow and just say that I’ve quarantined,” Mr. Morse said when I called him this week. “But that is not helping solve this issue. That is why the numbers are as bad as they are.” He feels that Vail Resorts is punishing pass holders who are trying to do the right thing, he added.
Although Epic Coverage is technically a refund policy, and not insurance, Vail Resorts’ stance — that adhering to state travel advisories is a willful decision that consumers must make for themselves — tracks with the insurance industry’s view.
“In general, state quarantine requirements, while inconvenient, do not prevent a trip from taking place as technically the traveler is still able to reach their destination,” said Megan Moncrief, the chief marketing officer at Squaremouth, a travel insurance-comparison website.
Mr. Morse said he’s open to rolling forward his Epic Pass to next ski season — a popular middle ground for travel companies during the pandemic. Although Vail Resorts offered last season’s pass holders credits of at least 20 percent and up to 80 percent when the pandemic cut short the season in March, that isn’t currently an option for this season’s pass holders.
“We have not announced any credit program for the 2020/21 season, but we will be reviewing the season in total and will assess how to retain the loyalty of pass holders, given the unique circumstances of this season,” the spokeswoman said.
Mr. Brady, of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, said he has noticed that most pass deferrals or refunds have generally not been from resorts with multistate, multi-mountain pass products. One notable exception is Alterra Mountain Company’s Ikon Pass, which grants access to 44 ski resorts, including Sugarbush Resort in Vermont. The program’s Adventure Assurance policy allows unused passes to be rolled forward to next season.
But how to handle the shifting nature of state travel restrictions is not an issue specific to ski resorts. When California banned nonessential out-of-state travel last month, some would-have-been Airbnb guests were left fighting, unsuccessfully, for refunds.
On the East Coast, after booking a three-night stay for the presidential inauguration at Moxy Washington, D.C. Downtown, Michelle Ai learned she could not actually attend the inauguration: in deference to the Presidential Inaugural Committee’s warning against travel to Washington, her senator’s office is not giving out tickets.
Ms. Ai spent several weeks battling with the hotel, which is largely sticking to its policies about nonrefundable prepaid rates, until she finally accepted a voucher for a five-night stay to be used within the first half of the year.
Meanwhile, at The St. Regis Washington, D.C., which, like Moxy, is a Marriott hotel, guests can cancel without penalty up to seven days before arrival.
But back to those slopes. The Facebook ski groups I’ve been lurking in are abuzz with reports of impossible-to-crack Vail Resorts customer-service lines and refund requests that seemingly go nowhere. There’s also a palpable sense of bewilderment and outrage. As one New Hampshire–based nurse said to me on the phone this week: “This is an active thing happening everywhere in the United States. Who among us doesn’t know what’s going on?”
In an email, the Vail Resorts spokeswoman said, “The challenges everyone is facing amid this pandemic, our resorts included, are tremendous — and we sincerely understand the frustrations. Because it is a season-long product, and travel restrictions are constantly changing, we will take all of that into consideration and review how the remainder of the season transpires in thinking about how we retain the loyalty of guests such as those you describe.”
To date, Vail Resorts has not provided refunds to pass holders — including you, Rob — because of cross-state travel restrictions.
Which leaves me thinking about something you wrote in an email: “Beyond my own refund, it’s a bit heartbreaking for those on the front lines trying to keep their heads above water, even as so many disregard public guidelines.”
Sarah Firshein is a Brooklyn-based writer. If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to [email protected].
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