HAVERHILL –– The pandemic may have largely halted vacation travel, but Ski Bradford has found ways to draw local people — leaving them feeling like they're on a winter getaway right in their own backyard.
Outdoor fire pits and tall, restaurant-style heaters are among the upgrades the ski complex has made to give visitors a comfortable environment while observing COVID-19 safety rules.
Dennis Gauvin, director of marketing and ski patrols at the complex, said it took a cue from outdoor dining strategies used by restaurants coping with COVID-19 social distancing regulations.
"On cold days, we hope people enjoy it outside,'' Gauvin said. "The good news is that when you're here, people are already dressed with hats and gloves, long underwear ... It's not like you're sitting outside at a restaurant downtown on Merrimack Street in Haverhill in the winter. Here the people are coming dressed for the environment.
"So far, people seem to like it,'' he said of the comfort provided by heaters and fire pits in outdoor areas where people can socially distance. "It adds more to the environment rather than just skiing and going into the lodge."
Ski Bradford fired up its snow machines overnight Thursday, Gauvin said, in anticipation of a busy weekend. Two slopes and the beginners' trail are open — part of 15 total ski runs at the complex.
"It's been a rough year weather-wise," Gauvin said. "We know it's not going to be totally busy, but we hope it will be busy enough."
The complex opened to skiers a few days before Christmas. Because of COVID-19 and the lack of snow, Ski Bradford has been forced to get creative.
Due to social gathering limits, after-school ski lesson programs have been cut from five days a week to two, Gauvin said, and the number of lift tickets sold for general use is limited. All ticketing for regular admission to the ski complex and lessons is done online in advance so an accurate headcount can be taken for the lodge, which allows a limited number of people to enter due to COVID-19 rules.
Making Ski Bradford's outdoor areas more comfortable for guests is key because the lodge has a 70-person limit, Gauvin said. The lodge also has a 30-minute time limit per person, giving skiers a chance to warm up but not letting them stay long. Seating has also been altered to a restaurant-style arrangement to promote social distancing.
"Since it's a winter environment, it would be hard to tell a young child they couldn't come in and warm up in the lodge if we have too many people already inside, so we're limiting how many people are here," Gauvin said, explaining the rules force people to rotate in and out of the lodge.
Food service has also changed. Guests place orders with workers at cash registers and then servers bring food to guests' tables in the lodge and at a picnic area which was created outside the lodge to accommodate additional guests. The menu has expanded to include hot chocolate, hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries, sausages, and even muffins and doughnuts on weekends, Gauvin said.
"It's going to be an adjustment for people,'' he said of food service at Ski Bradford. "The good thing is that people have been living in this changed environment since last March, so it shouldn't be too much of a culture shock to them when they get here. Things have definitely changed, but it'll be similar to what people have seen at other restaurants."
Ski Bradford is following many of the same regulations as the major New Hampshire ski hills and resorts, Gauvin said: Masks must be worn by guests at all times unless they are skiing or eating, and only two people are allowed on chair lifts designed to hold three people.
"We're hoping people stay local,'' Gauvin said. "I don't think a lot of people are going to say, 'Let's go skiing in North Conway for the weekend.'
"We're already saying that if it works out after the pandemic, maybe we'll continue doing it," he said of changes such as using heaters and fire pits to make outdoor areas more comfortable for skiers.
Ski Bradford, 60 S. Cross Road, Bradford, is open Wednesday through Friday from noon to 9 p.m.; Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. More information is available at skibradford.com.