The snow didn’t get good until way late in the season, prompting many powder-spoiled Utahns to steer clear of the ski slopes this winter.
But enough destination visitors were undeterred by the early-season drought, observed Ski Utah President Nathan Rafferty, that Utah’s resorts were “surprised on the revenue side how well they did.”
“Destination guests came, had a good time and spent money,” said Rafferty, whose organization is the marketing arm of the state’s 14 resorts and its $1.1 billion-a-year industry.
And with some creativity, he added, the resorts apparently made up for less-than-stellar snow conditions with alternative activities that left guests satisfied that their ski vacations were as fun as usual, just a little different.
There were food-tasting events. Art classes. Fly fishing. Games for kids. And an abundance of live music to keep people hanging out and just enjoying themselves when midafternoon snow conditions slipped due to unseasonably warm temperatures under clear blue skies.
“For most months this year, our guest satisfaction scores were higher than last year [a snowy one],” said Dave Fields, Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort’s general manager.
Often, that’s because tourists prefer bluebird days to the powder days that many Utahns live for.
“Locals, we want a foot of new snow every third day. We’re harder to please,” said Rafferty, a Salt Lake County native. “But with destination skiers, as long as the runs are groomed, if it’s 40 degrees and sunny, it’s all just fine.”
More than any other season, this winter exemplified the importance of snowmaking to help resorts keep even a few runs open when nature was stingy with precipitation.
“Without it, several resorts wouldn’t have opened until February. It’s absolutely critical to have it,” Rafferty said. “So many businesses in Park City are dependent on those ski resorts having product to ski on that it would be an economic disaster if they couldn’t open.”
Vail Resorts managed to “consistently open terrain in the early season and maintain terrain throughout,” said Park City Mountain spokeswoman Margo Van Ness, noting the resort operated all 41 of its lifts this winter, serving 290 trails, a third of which were groomed nightly.
“That doesn’t happen without a serious investment in infrastructure,” Rafferty said.
Snowmaking alone was insufficient at most resorts, requiring many to indulge in the painstaking task of moving snow from peripheral positions to essential strips where persistent skier traffic chips away at the base.
One of the state’s lower-elevation ski areas, Sundance Mountain Resort, compensated for the slow start to winter with nonskiing programs.
“Our zip line had a record winter. We put tons of people on the river for fly fishing. Art classes and naturalist snowshoe tours had record visits,” said Czar Johnson, director of mountain operations at Robert Redford’s resort up Provo Canyon.
He also noticed that “marginal [snow] conditions and limited open terrain caused families who would have otherwise divided and conquered because of their ability levels [actually] stuck together,” he said, noting that once it started snowing, Sundance ended up with its second best February on record – and its best March.
At Solitude Mountain Resort, General Manager Kim Mayhew responded to the limited snow over the Christmas holidays by “beefing up the apres ski activities for our guests, especially activities for the kids. It really paid off in terms of broadening the experiences for our guests to make memories other than on the slopes.”
She felt Solitude also benefited from a strong previous winter that “spurred guests to book their next trip sooner, and it paid off for us. Our occupancy in the [Solitude] Village overall for the season is pacing up at 10 percent over last year. And, in a low-snow year, that is great news as those guests tend to book [ski] lessons, rentals and dine in our restaurants.”
Over the ridge at Alta, which almost always gets more snow than any Utah resort, the season started two weeks later than usual — on machine-made snow. The sputtering start continued though January, when the 143 inches of snow that had fallen there was just 51 percent of normal.
“Our skier visits also lagged,” said Alta General Manager Mike Maughan, but picked up markedly with the flurry of storms since mid-February. “We estimate that by the end of the season, our skier visit numbers will be down single digits compared to last season. This will still be a profitable and good business year at Alta.”
A similar scenario unfolded down south at Brian Head Resort above Parowan. Heavy late-season snowfalls left Brian Head with 24 percent more skier visits in March than in the same month a year earlier, said vice president and general manager Burke Wilkerson.
Still, Rafferty acknowledged, business would have been a lot simpler this year if the weather had been more cooperative late last fall.
“The big diesel engine of the ski season takes time to get going,” he said. “So much of it is timing, and having a good start to the season, which we missed out on this year. It’s too bad. If you have a big December and January, you can coast to the finish line.”
The 2017-18 ski season will continue through:
• April 15 at Alta, Solitude, Snowbasin, Powder Mountain and Brian Head. Alta will reopen April 20-22, April 27-19 and May 4-6.
• April 22 at Brighton
• To be determined at Snowbird.