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Colorado business owners adapt to COVID realities, prepare for future

Covid Chronicles: Tourism
Covid Chronicles: Pandemic hits tourism hard in Colorado and Michigan 09:28

CBS News is chronicling what has changed for the lives of Americans in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The COVID shutdown was a devastating way to start the year for many Colorado businesses reliant on tourism. 

International travel was blocked, locals stayed home, and employees were difficult to maintain — especially when federal unemployment paid more than hourly wages  for many. 

But now, many business owners feel they've survived the worst and are looking forward to winter.

Dustin Dyer, co-owner of Kent Mountain Adventure Center (KMAC) in Estes Park, said business this spring and summer was better than he expected, despite COVID, though still down 30-40% compared to past years.

Dyer said one enduring effect of the pandemic has been difficulty hiring staff, which has put a strain on employees.

"We're kind of working with this skeleton crew," he said.

Dyer's employees are responsible for customer safety, so they require training and certification. The more time that goes by short-staffed, the less time Dyer has to train new employees before a season begins. At this point, he says he still needs more staff, but is ultimately out of time to on-board new members before winter.

Recently, one of his guides sprained an ankle, increasing the burden on the other team members. 
"We're all working so hard. It takes a little thing to create a pretty, pretty major scheduling problem now," he explained.

Dyer isn't alone. Steve Beckley, owner of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park in Glenwood Springs, used to rely on foreign exchange students to staff his park in the late summer. But the J-1 visa program that helped bolster his team was shut down by President Trump in June in an effort to make the job market less crowded for Americans amid COVID. 

Beckley is brainstorming to make up for his employee deficit; he's considering hiring retirees who travel across the country in motorhomes and work seasonal jobs in a practice known as "work camping." Employers provide a campsite for new hires in exchange for their work.

"We're looking at building a dozen RV hookups close to [the park] so they can come in, camp there, and then they have a path [to work]," Beckley explained. 

The park has seen an uptick in homeschooler visits. Beckley says it's a way for adults and children to get outside and learn from Glenwood's caverns and hot springs. Even with new distancing measures, the park had a near-record setting Labor Day weekend.

Beckley, who depends mostly on warm-season traffic, says he feels "very fortunate" to be in his position, even while the business is generating 85% of the revenue it ordinarily would.  

"It's like a clean slate. We're going to redevelop our business model," he said. 

But the prospect of a COVID spike and another shutdown still looms. 

"If it's January, February, March, we might be able to handle that. But if it's June, July and August, it would absolutely devastate us."

Ski towns like Vail and Aspen are home to some of the most sought after slopes in the world. Winter is prime season there, and this will be the first winter businesses have to maneuver around the pandemic. 
Caleb Sample, the director of talent acquisition at Aspen Skiing Company, said that adjustments this summer have "gone off without a hitch," making him optimistic for the future.

"Anything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong this year,  and I think we've still come out the other side feeling confident about this winter," said Sample. 

"There's a joke going around Aspen right now: We're sprinting towards the start. We're making all these plans, really reinventing our business, just to get the season started."

Nearly every aspect of service in Aspen is going to change this year, so much so that new jobs are being created because of it. Sample said face-to-face interactions between customer and employee will shift to contactless delivery or pick-up whenever possible.

"[Ordinarily] you would show up to the ticket office, you would sign all of your waivers, then you would get your photo taken for your pass, and all those sort of things; those kinds of days are over," Sample said. 

Resorts will now ask customers to sign up for everything in advance. Ski or equipment rentals will be left in secure containers for pickup, or delivered to your door. Sample says this change means he'll need more staff to prepare orders and drivers to make deliveries. He'll also hire new positions at restaurants, like "capacity managers" to maintain safe distancing and crowd sizes. 

There will also be cultural changes. Any interaction between unknown parties, like ski school and shared lifts, are off the table this year. Because of this, he expects there to be fewer beginners on the hill. 

And it's unlikely corporate-owned ski resorts will offer day passes this winter as businesses now need advance notice to maintain safety protocols. This might leave locals, who are used to showing up spontaneously when there's fresh powder, looking for new ways to enjoy winter sports. 

Dustin Dyer is preparing for just that. As a local, he's looking at the coming winter and realizing that he doesn't have a schedule that allows him to book in advance before he skis. He also said he and many of his friends are low on money because of COVID. 

But he's now betting on big gains this winter because his business offers backcountry skiing. 

"My head is already in winter. Most of my time nowadays — I'm already in December and onwards," he said. He's hoping that if locals can't go to the resorts on a whim, they'll try something new with KMAC.

On the flip side, Dyer, an avalanche educator, is concerned that an influx in backcountry skiing could turn dangerous. Backcountry skiing takes years of skill development. More inexperienced skiers on the trails could lead to peril. 

"Most people are bracing for one of the worst avalanche fatality seasons we've ever had," he warned. 

Assessing and managing risk is what Dyer does all day as a mountain and climbing guide. High-stakes adventure has made his community and company agile and adaptable, even to COVID, he believes.

But no matter what the future holds, Dyer is ready with multiple plans to scale his operations as needed. 

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