Every year, somebody asks Glenyse Peacock what the ski season will bring.
Her answer to customers at Rocky Valley Bikes and Snow Sports in Mount Beauty rarely varies.
"Every season is different," she said.
"It's like farming; some years are good, some years are bad.
"There's a lot of factors that come into play; how much snow there is and what the economy is like in general."
Last year was the right one to be curtailed by COVID-19; below-average snowfall ground lifts to a halt on July 9 after just four days in operation.
So with resorts opening on June 12 and a dumping of snow this week, there is excitement.
But for their first season in two years, there is more than just the weather to be uncertain about.
Tourist towns have proven their ability to manage crowds; Glenyse and Brian Peacock have been kept busy servicing bike riders since Victoria emerged in November from its second wave.
Opening weekend without Melburnians offers a chance to test how they will manage boot fittings and hires with social distancing and patron limits.
"My understanding is that bookings are strong," Mrs Peacock said.
"For me personally, I think it's probably good to not have Melbourne here this week, as that gives us a chance to have the staff trained without the rush.
"It's essential the season goes ahead.
"We're lucky, but there are some businesses who haven't had any income for 12 months, and if they don't get income this year, it will be devastating."
With the numbers expected this season, there is some concern in town about staffing levels.
"Staff shortages are a factor that we're all having to live with, and I worry that we may not be able to meet customers' expectations," Mrs Peacock said.
"All our staff (at Rocky Valley) are locals, but there are no international workers, and for Alpine Shire, even if we get people from outside to move here, there's no accommodation."
Businesses in Mount Beauty are having to be strategic with their operations so staff don't work 70-hour weeks.
Some hospitality providers are opening for fewer nights and the Mount Beauty Bakery is opening five instead of seven days.
Hospitality workers and tradespeople are in demand across the board.
Nick Cook, who owns the Mount Beauty and Falls Creek Foodworks stores, has enough returning staff for the season but said there were gaps on- and off-mountain.
Itinerant workers have traditionally filled many resort roles, from chefs to ski school trainers.
"Certainly in the last five to 10 years, I think a lot of those positions have been filled by overseas staff," Mr Cook said.
"We work in conjunction with one of the lodges up there, and they employ about six cleaners that I think have traditionally come from Taiwan - they had three of six (locked in to work) prior to the lockdown, and they've now got none.
"They're too scared to come, because there's COVID in Victoria."
Mr Cook said the Victorian government had to move away from its hard line on lockdowns and also recognise the unique situation at ski resorts.
With Foodworks and other staff all living together on the mountain, if they must isolate as close contacts for days, that leaves no one to service visitors.
Mr Cook said quick testing and a targeted approach recognising these factors were needed.
"If we don't get another ski season, for us, it will be extremely painful, but we'll be able to weather the storm ... (but) a lot of people will just go to the wall," he said.
"Where does that factor into this whole decision-making process?
"They say, 'It's worth locking down if we save one life', but you are going to cause a lot more people to have serious mental issues by maintaining this very harsh lockdown line."
The challenges of a pandemic and subsequent staffing and housing gaps have formed part of "one massive roller-coaster" since the fires, Mr Cook said.
"The town was evacuated of tourists and for us, that was a massive impact," he said.
"We had to tighten our belts and make changes to cope with that, then COVID comes.
"For supermarkets, that hasn't been a bad thing, unless you own one in a ski resort.
"Obviously, all of that turnover (for winter) went last year - we did get some access to JobKeeper.
"Since November, it's been good. We probably had our best sales at Falls Creek, and here (in Mount Beauty) for that matter, out of any summer.
"We're seeing a lot of people travelling to regional areas, people who are normally overseas.
"Now, we sit here on the verge of another ski season, and you simply don't know what it's going to be."
COVIDsafe snow play
The traditions that typically take place on the Queen's Birthday long weekend have been postponed at Falls Creek to align with public health measures.
A new date will be announced for these events once restrictions ease, resort management chief executive Stuart Smythe said.
"We are looking forward to welcoming guests back to the resort for the 2021 snow season," he said.
"It will be a quiet start to the season without the usual celebrations and social gatherings, but we acknowledge it is best for all Victorians for it to be done this way.
"There is much anticipation for the season ahead, with all our businesses keen to bounce back."
Visitors to Falls Creek are being urged to buy their resort entry permits ahead of arriving at the snow, a measure supported by a government advisory document published this week.
The Advice for COVIDSafe Management of 2021 Alpine Activities in Victoria states the Victorian Department of Health will make testing available on-mountain at Falls and Hotham.
It recommends that staff staying in dormitory-style accommodation who are awaiting COVID-19 tests results should either leave the resort or isolate in self-contained accommodation.
The Department of Health and Human Services had authorised officers in Mount Beauty last week, inspecting businesses and COVIDsafe plans.
The best thing visitors can do is prepare and plan - that's the advice from Mrs Peacock.
"If people can book and let us know that they're coming, that certainly helps," she said.
"That can be hard, because when it's a lovely day, you think, 'Let's go to the snow', and everybody has that idea.
"So, for us, it's learning how are we going to manage that, how we make sure there aren't too many people in the building and following our COVIDSafe plan."
Interest is strong
Simon Rawlings from Kiewa Valley Snowsports is confident in the industry's ability to adapt.
Opening weekend is always just a warm-up; the season really gets started from school holidays onwards.
"The amount of inquiry that's coming through on the mountain is huge," he said. "We're all looking at a good season, as long as we can have it. We've done everything we can do, with signs and QR codes."
Mr Rawlings thinks North East resorts will be a popular choice for families looking for a new way to holiday.
"I see a lot of Sydney and Melbourne - they come in August," he said.
"I wasn't expecting the lockdown last year to go all winter - I don't think anyone did - so we're pretty excited to get started."
According to Booking.com, more than one third of searches on the platform are for the upcoming winter months, a proportion aligning with searches in 2019.
There are more winter bookings for stays of seven days or more, and Falls Creek, Mount Hotham and Bright were listed in "the top 10 most searched snow destinations".
The COVID-19 cluster in Melbourne did result in some cancellations for this weekend, but it's hoped confidence will return when restrictions lift fully in Victoria.
Douglas Zollo and Noreen Prosser are ecstatic to be welcoming visitors back for their Snowmobile Tours at Falls.
"People are waiting to break the monotony and come up and have a good time," Mr Zollo said.
"Hopefully it's a more normal season."
In their 30 years on the mountain, the pair can't recall a year like 2020; even in low-snow years, Falls Creek's snow-making abilities has enabled the resort to open.
Mr Zollo agreed there were staffing issues and hoped everyone could bounce back this season.
"It's hard to get chefs, and talking to some of the lodge owners they are struggling to get cleaners," he said.
"Last year was very abnormal; it was the perfect season to have an off season.
"So we're excited."
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