Utah's ski resorts hoping for a third record year in a row

( Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo ) Ski Utah and resort officials are optimistic that another bountiful winter will fill the parking lots of the state's 15 active ski resorts with skiers and snowboarders, just like they did last year when visitation set an all-time record. Snowboarders walk through a packed parking lot at Solitude Resort in Salt Lake City, Monday, February 15, 2016.

After the seismic shock of the summer — the unforeseen sale of Deer Valley Resort — Utah’s upcoming ski season is shaping up a lot like last year.

It’s mid-November and natural snow is found in only the highest mountain elevations, Ski Utah President Nathan Rafferty observed Tuesday in his annual news conference to kick off the ski season.

But with cold-enough temperatures most every night, snowmaking machinery will allow a handful of resorts to open a few runs for Thanksgiving weekend. And with any luck, he noted, this winter’s storm pattern will duplicate last year’s, producing bountiful mountain snow and another year of record visitation at Utah’s 14 active resorts.

“November is hand-wringing month,” Rafferty said. “But we’re keeping our fingers crossed and looking forward to what we think will be a third record year in a row. Momentum is on our side.”

Momentum has been on the Utah’s ski industry’s side since the winter of 2001-02 — Salt Lake City’s Olympic winter — when just under 3 million skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes. Since then, visitation has blossomed steadily, peaking last winter at a record 4,584,658. That topped the previous record, set just a season earlier, by 125,000.

Ever the optimist, Rafferty said he believes the mid-August purchase of Deer Valley by a company that has yet to select a name reflects positively on the state’s growing reputation as a ski destination.

“It’s indicative of people wanting to do business in Utah,” he said of the sale to the company now challenging Vail Resorts for supremacy in the ski industry.

In just the past year, the unnamed company formed by KSL Capital Partners and Henry Crown and Co. has put together an illustrious group of resorts, including four around Aspen in Colorado, three in the Lake Tahoe area of California and now Deer Valley in Utah.

That gives both industry goliaths a presence in Summit County, where Vail has unified Park City Mountain and Canyons ski areas into the largest resort in the United States.

“Our industry is on a tear,” Rafferty said. “This is the place to be.”

But it’s changing quickly after decades of stability. For years, Utah’s dozen or so resorts were all independently owned. But in the last few years, he noted, six of the seven resorts in the Cottonwood canyons and Summit County have changed owners, the only exception being Alta.

Rumors abound what ownership changes may happen from here on out.

Will the original Deer Valley owners, who still own Solitude Resort, go after Brighton Resort just up Big Cottonwood Canyon? Could they also be interested in taking in Alta, or would that resort’s multitude of owners prefer to hook up with Snowbird, its friendly neighbor just down Little Cottonwood Canyon? Or will Alta and Brighton preserve their independence?

“I know of nothing happening on the horizon,” said Rafferty, quickly adding that he didn’t foresee Deer Valley’s sale either.

He is far more certain that a strong sales pitch is encouraging more out-of-state visitation.

Ski Utah has focused its sales campaign in California, Texas, New York, Australia, France and the United Kingdom, he said. That promotion complements the Utah Office of Tourism’s winter campaign, dubbed “Mountain Time,” which emphasizes how little time is spent reaching resorts from Salt Lake City International Airport, leaving more time for family and friends.

Dave Williams, the office’s associate managing director, said the $3.5 million campaign has been launched digitally in Chicago and East Coast markets — New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. — and will begin later this winter along the West Coast.

Television advertising also is planned in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, he said, with billboards in Las Vegas touting two southwestern Utah resorts, Brian Head and Eagle Point.