The secret formula that ski resorts rely on, and why four Park City residents want to expose it

Battle with Vail Resorts over more than just lift upgrades and parking.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Park City Mountain Resort employees move parts designated for the resort's new Eagle lift, Thursday, July 7, 2022. Residents last month temporarily blocked the resort from being able to install the lift because of discrepancies in resort capacities by two firms.

The fight wasn’t about Park City NIMBYs looking to freeze all development at Park City Mountain Resort. Nor was it, they say, about sticking it to Vail Resorts, the mega-corporation that owns PCMR and 36 other North American ski areas and has a relationship with the community that can best be described as rocky. It wasn’t even really about parking, or the lack of it.

When four Park City locals last month successfully blocked Vail Resorts’ plan to upgrade two lifts at PCMR over the summer, they say they really just wanted one thing:

The secret formula.

One single mathematical equation, called Comfortable Carrying Capacity, determines the ideal number of people a ski area can accommodate on a typical winter day without feeling overrun. It has become the industry standard around the world, including for most, if not all, ski areas in Utah.

But, the exact equation is a well-guarded secret. Over the past 60 years, an entire industry has been built around businesses that have developed proprietary CCC algorithms and used them to help resorts plan their growth. So, when two of those resort planners had conflicting results while assessing the lift upgrades at PCMR, and the local residents wanted to know how they got their figures, it became a problem.

Do residents of resort towns, many of whom have increasingly been feeling the pinch of overcrowding as the ski industry has boomed in recent years, have a right to see how the sausage is made? Should they be able to verify that resorts aren’t fudging capacity numbers in order to increase their profits or, as was implied in the case of PCMR, to get out of building more efficient parking or transportation plans?

Undeniably, said Angela Moschetta, an Old Town resident and one of the four Parkites who filed the appeal with the Park City Planning Commission to temporarily halt Vail Resort’s intended upgrades to the Eagle and Silverlode chairs at PCMR.

“I think what we’ve done is exposed flaws in the system,” Moschetta said. “It’s a little wild that one company created a proprietary model and is the only one with access to that model.”

What is comfortable carrying capacity?

Comfortable Carrying Capacity forms the backbone of any medium to large ski resort in the United States and most worldwide. It comes into play even before a new resort breaks ground as the determinate for how big to build the restaurants or how many lockers to put in the locker room. Established ski areas, meanwhile, frequently tinker with the inputs to find ways to, say, decrease lift lines while also increasing visitation.

At its simplest, the CCC equation is vertical supply divided by vertical demand. Vertical supply is the number of skiers or riders carried up a hill each day. Vertical demand? Basically, it’s how many laps a skier or snowboarder can make to that lift per day. But it’s a little more nuanced than that. The number of laps generally increases with the difficulty of the terrain (because black diamond runs attract better, faster skiers), but factors like the length of the run or whether a lodge is nearby — and with it the temptation of stopping for a hot toddy — can also factor in.

That’s why vertical demand is the part of the CCC equation that is the most dynamic and the most closely guarded. For companies like SE Group, which created the CCC in the 1960s and has assessed most of Utah’s bigger resorts, including PCMR, Snowbird and Alta, their vertical demand algorithm is the equivalent of KFC’s secret blend of 11 herbs and spices.

“The secret sauce,” said Chris Cushing, an owner and lead designer at SE Group and the son of one of its founders, US Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame inductee Joe Cushing. “That’s exactly it.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Park City Mountain Resort employees move parts designated for the resort's new Eagle lift, Thursday, July 7, 2022. Residents last month temporarily blocked the resort from being able to install the lift because of discrepancies in resort capacities by two firms.

Maybe more important than what CCC is, though, is what it isn’t. It isn’t a set-in-stone maximum capacity of a resort.

“It’s not: This is a cap,” said Cushing, who operates out of SE Group’s Salt Lake City offices. “It’s something that’s an evolving number based on evolving circumstances at the resort.”

The CCC changes, he said, as a resort adds or removes lifts, restrooms or other amenities that affect a skier’s flow through an area. During the crux of the COVID pandemic, for example, SE Group helped resorts plan for significantly lower capacities due to their desire to space people out on the lifts and in dining areas.

But not everyone views the CCC as a fluid number (a reason, Cushing said, why many ski areas are reluctant to advertise theirs). And that can lead to problems. Take, for example, the confusion and consternation in Park City this spring.

‘Chairlift tourism’

Things are bad when an Instagram account heckling your lift lines gains almost 50,000 followers in one season. Such was the case for EpicLiftLines, which mocked and spotlighted rows of skiers and snowboarders fanning out like streamers on a Huffy from a lift at any number of Vail Resorts’ properties, including PCMR.

Another sign of trouble: During a surprise outburst in February, the Park City mayor and City Council sat through approximately 80 minutes of comments against either PCMR or Vail Resorts. Nothing concerning the resort was on the agenda.

Many of the crowding issues last season stemmed from the intersection of fallout from the pandemic, such as a worker shortage, and a somewhat unexpected rise in visitor numbers across the industry (though critics would rightfully point out that Vail Resorts also sold a record number of its Epic Pass multi-resort passes, which didn’t help its cause). Perhaps showing it had learned from its mistakes, Vail Resorts this year floated a raft of changes, including raising its minimum wage to $20 across the board, adding employee housing and upgrading or replacing 19 chair lifts across 14 resorts to improve resort flow.

Philip Keeve, a skier from South Jordan who has had an Epic Pass since 2014, said he felt “relief, frankly” when he heard about PCMR’s intended lift upgrades. They include installing just the third high-speed, eight-person lift in the United States at Silverlode — a common mid-mountain choke point, which Keeve has avoided at all costs — and also combining and rerouting the seldom-used Eagle and Eaglet lifts, which rise out of the main parking lot.

“Park City’s base is a teeming sea of madness on a lot of busy days,” he said. “And having additional ways to get out of there, I think, is great.”

That’s what PCMR’s top brass thought, too. But at least four Park City residents disagreed.

After those four won their appeal to have the upgrades go through the Planning Commission rather than be approved by city staff, Deirdra Walsh, PCMR’s new vice president and chief operating officer, said resort operators were “fundamentally confused” by the decision.

“Those opposed to these important enhancements to the guest experience have created a false narrative that the replacement of aged infrastructure with modernized lifts will draw crowds,” Walsh said in a press statement. “Chairlift tourism does not exist — skiers and riders just want to spend more time on Park City Mountain’s vast terrain and less time in line. Investment in infrastructure is a critical part of the guest experience at Park City Mountain — and we are deeply disappointed that the City is now blocking that investment at the last minute.”

This wasn’t Moschetta’s first interaction with Vail Resorts. In 2016 she mobilized locals to block PCMR from trademarking the words “Park City” in reference to other mountain resorts. Yet she said she and her fellow appellants — Clive Bush, Deborah Rentfrow and Mark Stemler — aren’t NIMBYs, and they do want PCMR to evolve.

They just don’t trust the resort operators.

Which is why they called into question some of the numbers in PCMR’s lift upgrade permit proposal. One difference could be found in the amount of traffic the revised Eagle chair would bring to PCMR. The SE Group estimated it would have almost no impact on the resort’s overall capacity because it mostly serves as a conduit to other parts of the resort. A planning firm hired by the city, British Colombia-based Ecosign, meanwhile, estimated the lift would create somewhat more visitor traffic in the base area because it includes a midstation.

Another discrepancy concerned the overall capacity of the resort. PCMR marked it at 12,570 in its proposal. That’s compared to the 13,700 skiers per day that had been set as the overall CCC in 1998 when resort operators and Park City’s government agreed on a Master Upgrade Plan that outlined intended improvements.

“They say they changed how they do the calculations, but no one knows how they do it,” Moschetta said. “We needed to get clear about how they get these numbers.”

But wait, you might be thinking, why would locals be upset that PCMR lowered its capacity? Doesn’t that mean less crowding?

Mostly, it means less parking.

Parking vs. planning

According to the agreement with the city, PCMR has to provide adequate parking to meet its capacity or risk having the city step in to manage ticket sales. If its CCC were a hard cap, a number at which the resort had to stop allowing skiers and snowboarders onto its lifts, the parking would probably be adequate (even Ecosign’s report came to that conclusion). But, it’s not a hard cap. In fact, Cushing said the overall capacity really just represents the number of patrons a resort should have on its 10th busiest day of the season, not over the holidays or on a powder Saturday.

“You don’t design a church for Easter Sunday, right?” he said. “You don’t design your resort for the peak day.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People navigate a full parking lot at Park City Mountain Resort as clear skies and some recent fresh snow draws the crowds on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.

That means cars circling the main parking lot for hours. It means overflow of the resort’s overflow parking lot at Park City High, which was only intended to be used on weekends but has become a de facto lot for the resort pretty much anytime it snows. And it means that while it may encourage carpooling or alternative transportation in the long run, PCMR’s plans to require paid reservations for its main lot this winter could in the short run push even more cars into neighborhood streets and business parking lots.

So, Moschetta said, if the resort’s capacity mysteriously drops, she feels the people impacted by that deserve to know why.

“If you build a house or a bowling alley or a golf course, everyone is bound by code. The 1998 development plan set the code in this case,” she said. “… We just need to know that Vail is operating within code.”

Cushing attributes the capacity reduction to improvements in ski technology and infrastructure since the 1998 assessment. The merger with Canyons in 2014-15, for example, opened up new terrain and skiers and boarders can go faster and longer than they could 25 years ago. He said he stands by the numbers.

“If the implication is that Vail strong-armed us into calculating a lower CCC for Park City, I can tell you in all honesty and with all my professionalism, that’s not the case,” he said. “At all.”

But he’s also not offering to open up SE Group’s ledgers to Parkites who want to do the math themselves — especially when one of his competitors is listening in.

“Look, it was a nightmare last year. It was a zoo. And no one wants that to get worse,” he said. “The thing that’s really hard to portray or to get across is that adding lifts is going to improve the situation, at least at the ski area. … Park City has a serious transportation and parking problem, and it’s not anything that Vail or anyone else can address on their own.”

So perhaps the issue is simpler than complex theories and secret equations.

But Moschetta and some other Parkites still want to do the math themselves.