In a pandemic-era holiday season, many popular winter activities are adopting new safety protocols.
While COVID-19-related mandates and individual concerns regarding group assembly sizes remain top of mind this winter, many of the state’s most popular winter-fun pursuits are making adjustments to seasonal offerings.
Hitting the slopes
North Carolina’s snow-sports industry generates $228 million annually and supports more than 1,500 full- and part-time jobs, according to the North Carolina Ski Areas Association. The organization represents six areas across five western N.C. counties where snow sports and mountain activities dominate local economies.
“Safe, fun, outdoor family activities are central for our guests year-round, particularly during the winter,” says Kim Jochl, director of marketing and communications at Sugar Mountain Resort in Avery County, one of the state’s most popular ski areas. “We experienced a very solid summer season with our summit crawls [hikes from base to top of mountain], lift rides, and mountain biking. People have been very compassionate and gracious in their compliance with the COVID-safety protocols we’ve put in place.”
Jochl, who also is president of the state ski association, notes Sugar Mountain Resort and five other local ski centers have adopted COVID-specific operating procedures, following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines such as line spacing at ski-lift lines and inside ski lodges and restricting ski-lift chair sharing to family members.
“Together, we’ve developed a collective approach and guide to safe operations,” Jochl says. The association’s “Ski Well, Be Well” program addresses face coverings, social distancing, employee wellness, training protocols, lift queue/loading/unloading practices, cleaning, sanitizing, group sizes and touchless transaction measures.
“Following these safety protocols, we’re operating business as usual,” Jochl says, noting the resort anticipates a noticeable shift to more midweek volume as skiers look to avoid weekend crowds. “Ours is such a weather-dependent business. People don’t book far in advance; it’s more spontaneous. People look at the weather and if they see snow coming, they make plans for that weekend.”
With safety plans in place and a hungrier-than-usual appetite for outdoor escapes due to pandemic restrictions, area operators anticipate a strong season. “We have every reason to believe that the success of this summer will carry over to our winter season,” says Ryan Costin, president of Beech Mountain, another popular resort that is in both Avery and Watauga counties.
Christmas trees: Choose now, cut later
North Carolina families searching for a cut-your-own Christmas tree may find themselves out of luck if they didn’t start their quest in October.
“With COVID, we made the decision early in our season to establish and encourage a ‘Choose now, cut later’ program in order to regulate the flow of guests,” says Gary Edwards, co-owner of Elk River Evergreens in Elk Park. Edwards operates two farms here, just 7 miles outside Banner Elk. He began welcoming families the third weekend in October to select the perfect tree and tag it for harvest and pickup around Thanksgiving. Trees range from $35 to $220 depending on size.
North Carolina has more than 850 growers producing 50 million trees on 38,000 acres, according to the N.C. Christmas Tree Association. The state ranked second in the nation for Christmas trees harvested and receipts for trees sold in 2017, totaling $86 million in sales.
“There is a Christmas tree shortage nationwide after the oversupply several years back led to a subsequent drop in plantings,” says Edwards, who sold 3,500 trees last year. “I’m seeing a huge appetite from consumers for agricultural products such as apples and pumpkins [from other pick-your-own farms] and believe this year could be our best ever for tree sales.”
Elk River Evergreens welcomes visitors looking for same-day tree selection during its seven-day weekly seasonal schedule and has set up outdoor cash registers to keep people appropriately distanced. While its website lists Dec. 13 as its final day of the season, Edwards anticipates he’ll sell out and likely close by the first weekend in December.
The Blue Ridge’s Biltmore
High on the holiday-destination list for many regional travelers is America’s largest home, the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. The estate typically sees more than 400,000 visitors over the eight-week holiday season that runs from Nov. 6 to Jan. 10, according to LeeAnn Donnelly, senior public relations manager.
Known for spectacular holiday decor, dozens of hand-decorated Christmas trees, elaborate formal gardens, horse-drawn carriage rides, an award-winning winery, extensive shopping, and on-property accommodations, Biltmore Estate is one of the state’s most visited attractions with 1.5 million guests annually. In 2018, Biltmore Estate ranked ninth in a TripAdvisor survey of top U.S. landmarks.
“We’ve been impacted by the pandemic like every business,” Donnelly says. “The health and safety of our guests and employees is our top priority, and as we have since early this spring, we are following CDC guidelines and the state’s recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19. This includes limiting the number of guests inside Biltmore House and other buildings and requiring reservations.”
Guests can be assured holiday grandeur awaits this season, though it may experience subtle changes.
“We’ll have 55 hand-decorated Christmas trees designed by a floral team in the home and more than 100 hand-decorated trees across the entire estate including a 35-foot Fraser fir in the banquet hall,” says Donnelly, who notes the trees hold more than 25,000 ornaments. “We’ll have 100,000 holiday lights, 6,000 feet of garland, [and] 1,200 traditional poinsettias in and around the house.”
Donnelly says the most significant shift is not hosting the traditional Christmas tree-raising event. “In years past, the lavish ceremony saw us bringing in our 35-foot tree on a horse-drawn wagon surrounded by carolers, a marching band and great fanfare,” Donnelly says. Instead,
Biltmore Estate is creating a mini-documentary and a behind-the-scenes look at the tree raising for its YouTube channel.
National Gingerbread House Competition
The neighboring Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville is also taking a more virtual approach in hosting its annual National Gingerbread House Competition, a COVID-related shift after 27 years of public display. The event, which has raised more than $535,000 for local not-for-profit organizations, has attracted foodie celebrities such as Food Network star Carla Hall and been featured on Good Morning America and the Travel Channel.
“This annual holiday event attracts thousands of people to the hotel and is so important for the region,” says Susan Rotante, the inn’s director of public relations and community outreach. “Under the new normal, we rethought how to celebrate this legacy. Conducting a virtual competition allows us to capture the spirit.”
Rotante anticipates the occupancy rate over the holidays to reach 60%, with the hotel offering overnight guests many holiday-themed activities including a transformed Great Hall with a life-sized gingerbread house modeled after the historic property. ■