The Silver Linings Playbook: Partnership and collaboration has set the table for better times ahead

When the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11 a year ago, it was hard to picture the anxiety, uncertainty and loss that would follow.

Imagining there would be any silver linings from this colossal disruption and the steep learning curve we would need to ascend to survive – let alone thrive – was equally challenging.

Make no mistake: The pandemic has taken unfathomable economic, physical and emotional tolls. But it has also forced us to rapidly pivot and make some changes that are good for business and ourselves.

French President Emmanuel Macron said at the time, “The first day after this will not look at all like the last day before it.”

I think about that last day a lot. I was skiing and somewhat oblivious to the impending global crisis. Then it all changed: Crystal Mountain ceased operations on March 17, 2020. We shut down the hotel, the ski slopes and furloughed 250 employees.

It was eerie; it was scary; it was unprecedented. So began our journey of profound change that Macron alluded to. We needed to act.

Where do we start?

We turned to a Crystal Mountain core value for answers: collaboration and partnerships. Reflecting a year later, this has helped us not only navigate the pandemic, but also to make changes quickly, some of which are beneficial long beyond this immediate crisis.

As the global ski industry closed, leaders stepped up to do what leaders do best: collaborate and form partnerships. Sharing our stories, our knowledge, fears and occasional successes has engendered a spirit of camaraderie that inspires and energizes.

The National Ski Area Association and industry trade publication Ski Area Management convened Zoom “huddles.” These one-hour discussions with peers became our outlet for sharing best practices and support. Though we have not met in-person since early 2020, our industry is now not only better informed, but also better aligned having built stronger relationships (albeit virtually.)

One important take-away from a huddle was a report from ski operators in New Zealand and Australia: The combination of limits on the number of skiers per day and flexibility to work and learn remotely resulted in more midweek visits and less crowding. Happier guests and increased revenue in the Southern Hemisphere gave Northern Hemisphere operators like us a glimmer of hope.

Sharing protocols was another benefit. Resort expectations such as masking, social distancing and capacity limitations were consistent from Colorado to Michigan to Vermont, which helped with compliance.

The calls also offered encouragement. One resort CEO reminded us, “We are a resilient lot and we will get through it.” That served as a nice reminder when we needed it most.

Michigan industry clusters convened and created plans to open and operate safely under Brad Garmon, director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry. Nearly 250 camping and summer outdoor recreation businesses and organizations contributed to the ultimate road map.

Kudos to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan’s COVID response team, who have consistently recognized the physical and mental health benefits of being outdoors. For Michiganders, the outdoors never closes.

Michigan’s ski industry leaders also worked together to create a similar plan. Facilitated by Garmon and Michigan Snowsports Industries Association Director Mickey McWilliams, the outcome was an industry-wide set of protocols “to stay safe to stay open.” Sharing information has created stronger partnerships that will remain post-pandemic … another silver lining.

Common ski area protocols allowed Michigan High School Athletic Association to conduct a full season of high school alpine and Nordic competitions. COVID did not rob our kids and their families from participating in the outdoor winter sports they love.

Collaboration and partnerships weren’t limited to our industry. Within hours of grasping the magnitude of the situation, we turned to our local public health experts, the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department led by Michelle Klein, R.N. They have provided support and guidance, including interpreting executive orders. We trust their judgement and commitment to balance public safety with permissible, prudent activity.

Internally, we needed a game plan for operating in these uncharted and perilous waters and we needed it quickly. Not only were we concerned about meeting our financial obligations, but also the needs of our employees. Crystal Mountain’s culture of collaboration accelerated our ability to respond quickly.

We formed the Crystal Clean Task Force to coordinate company-wide initiatives to redesign, re-engineer, reprocure, retool and retrain our team, all aimed at safe operation in the eye of the storm. The outcome was a “Swiss cheese approach,” with multiple layers of safety protection that, when combined, covered the holes. This allowed us to reopen the majority of resort operations in early June of 2020 and remain open.

Many changes, such as remote working; engineered, indoor air sanitation; touchless and remote transactions and spatial reorganization are improvements that are good for business – and are here to stay.

Under COVID’s threat, when the outdoors is perceived as being safe, many have rekindled their love for recreating in natural settings – hikes on wooded trails and deserted beaches, camping, bike rides, downhill and cross country skiing. It’s also been a catalyst to welcome new participants to experience our Pure Michigan playground.

Another bright side for many has been getting back into cooking. I’m now more likely to pull out a cookbook than scissors and prepare from-scratch meals. And spending more time with my husband, Crystal Mountain CEO Jim MacInnes, already my day-and-night partner, has helped me be even more appreciative of my blessings.

Despite the immense toll COVID caused, there have been some breaks in the clouds. It has been a time of positive change, an opportunity to examine our business and ourselves and prioritize what’s really important. This act of looking to a core value for inspiration and guidance has helped us build partnerships and collaborate, creating long-lasting value with our peers, with our guests and with ourselves.

The opportunity to examine, listen, learn and make changes as a result of working with others has set the table for better times ahead for us all.

Chris MacInnes is the president of Crystal Mountain, a family-owned, four-season resort. In 1985, she and her husband Jim moved from California to join this business and together have led its evolution. She is also active in state, local and industry organizations.