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Utah ski areas expect surge in popularity due to COVID-19 this winter

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Zachory Houston wears a face mask as he skis at Park City on opening day on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020.

The proliferation of leaf peepers convinced Scott Curry.

Curry, the marketing director at Eagle Point Resort, already had an inkling the small ski resort about a half-hour’s drive east from Beaver was going to attract more visitors than usual this winter. Then, in early October, people began arriving in droves to see the Tushar Mountains show off their colorful coat of leaves. Typically a quiet shoulder season for the resort, this year it became an event for which guests seeking lodging needed advanced reservations.

“We really just attribute that to people who want to get away but their European trip got canceled or their Hawaii trip got canceled,” Curry said. “And people want to get outdoors.”

The surge isn’t unique to Eagle Point. Nor is it expected to stop when the snowflakes start falling. This winter — despite a spike in COVID-19 cases and the pile of restrictions resorts have put in place to prevent outbreaks — ski areas throughout Utah are bracing for an avalanche of interest.

“I think we’re not as worried about demand,” said Ski Utah CEO Nathan Rafferty, “as we are supply.”

At first blush, this pandemic-plagued ski season has too much stacked against it to get within six feet of success.

After COVID-19 caused a near-industry-wide closure March 14 — in the middle of the spring-break blitz — resorts have had to completely rejigger their operations. They sunk money and people power into reconfiguring lift lines, installing Plexiglass barriers in rental shops and creating outdoor order windows in restaurants. Even with such protocols in place, they run the risk of having local governments shut them down again if coronavirus case numbers climb too high whether at the resort or in the adjacent municipalities.

Plus there’s the human factor. People have been asked to shelter-in-place to prevent the spread of the disease. Eight months in, many are reluctant to go to the grocery store, much less sit in a ski lodge during the lunch rush. And any form of travel, other than to a grocery story, testing site or maybe work, seems like a distant dream.

But people are growing weary of being cooped up. And as anyone looking for some solitude on a hike this summer can attest, they’re turning to The Great Outdoors for an escape.

“It’s one thing you can do with your family is get outside,” said Dave Fields, Snowbird’s general manager. “We’re excited to get out and ski.”

Pair that open-air appeal with more flexible cancellation policies on lodging and tickets than resorts have previously offered, and a mountain vacation starts calling to even the most cautious of skiers and snowboarders.

Drive

Eagle Point just wrapped up its busiest summer in nearly 50 years of operations, according to Curry. In addition, he said lodging for this winter is already half full and season pass sales are “up significantly.” Even its As You Wish program, in which the entire resort can be rented on a weekday for a base price of $10,000, has seen an uptick in interest. Though it’s not an option until January, Curry said 23 days have already been reserved. That is about twice as many as through all of last season.

Several factors play into this shift. One of the most significant is that Utah’s businesses and borders have remained more open than some of its neighbors. New Mexico, for example, has eight ski areas. It also has governor’s orders that have prevented any of them from opening in addition to requiring a 14-day quarantine for almost anyone wanting to enter the state.

Similar governmental restrictions could restrict the season in California as well. The state’s public health department told SF Gate last week that “ski resorts are not permitted to operate,” though a couple resorts, including Mammoth Mountain, have already fired up their lifts.

Ski resort shutdowns in other states aren’t necessarily a boon for Utah’s ski businesses, according to Rafferty. He said they create a domino effect that puts pressure on other resorts to pack the lifts more tightly than the industry’s coronavirus guidelines recommend.

“I’m just as worried that a California ski area stays open as I am a Utah ski area,” he said. “Because we need it to be spread out and safe for everybody.”

Curry attributed much of the interest to Eagle Point to people wanting to spread out. The small, remote resort sits on 650 acres and has no high-speed lifts and few crowds. Beaver Mountain, Brian Head Resort and Cherry Peak Resort — all of which have fewer than 1,000 skiable acres and are among the state’s most remote ski areas — also expect to see an increase in visitors. It will be driven, they believe, by their typical lack of crowds as well as, well, their drivability.

“They’re definitely not getting on an airplane or going on a cruise that’s going to Cancun,” said Dustin Hansen, owner of Cherry Peak, the smallest of the state’s 15 resorts. “We’ve got to make up for all those people who would normally fly in by plane. But people are going to drive, and they’re going to drive to the nearest place that they can find to ski.”

One in every three people expects to take a road trip of 500 or more miles this holiday season, according to a Bridgestone Americas survey. That follows a strong push for road trips this summer, when AAA estimated 97% of all Americans would drive to their vacation spots. And even in a non-COVID year, Utah’s resorts have visitors regularly make the haul from California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona and Idaho, among other states.

Small resorts don’t have the corner market on drivability, though.

Ski Utah, the marketing arm of the Utah Ski & Snowboard Association, focused more of its attention this year on drive markets, whether they’re coming from Colorado or Salt Lake City. Several of Utah’s bigger resorts, meanwhile, have altered their own strategies to appeal to that clientele.

Take Deer Valley for example. It counts destination travelers as 80% of its clientele and regularly spends most of its ad money in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta and Dallas. In 2020, though, the Park City resort expects to break with tradition and for the first time try to lure in skiers within the region.

“Historically we really haven’t spent any of our media or focus in the drive market,” said Susie English, Deer Valley’s assistant director of marketing. “So, this is a new thing for us.”

That’s not to say the conveyors at Salt Lake City’s new airport, designed to carry oversized luggage like skis and snowboards, will sit idle this winter. In fact, one study indicates it will be just the opposite.

Destination

Last spring, Park City held its own among some of the nation’s most recognizable cities, but not in a good way. It had one of the highest occurrences of COVID-19 cases per capita.

This winter, Park City again finds itself being compared to New York and L.A., but for an entirely different reason. This time, it’s where people most want to be.

Park City has replaced New York as the No. 1 destination for Christmas travelers, according to analysis by TripIt. The company looked at both vacation rental and flight reservations with check-in dates between Nov. 27 and Dec. 25. Last winter, Park City ranked 20th among destinations. This year, it moved up 19 spots to unseat New York City, which plummeted to No. 11.

“Since the ranking was based on the total number of reservations — and Park City still came out on top over large metro areas, which likely have more vacation rentals available — this underscores the larger trend we see, which is a shift away from large metros this winter,” Kelly Soderlund, a TripIt travel trends expert, said in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Other ski towns made big jumps as well. Breckenridge, Colo., moved up six spots to No. 5; Leavenworth, Wash., climbed 21 spots to No. 6 and Mammoth Lakes leapt 25 spots to No. 16.

Park City moved up to No. 1 as a winter holiday vacation destination from 20th in 2019.

Sonderlund said the data didn’t indicate whether people were flying or driving to reach their lodging. She did point out, however, that car-rental and flight reservations at Salt Lake’s airport have gone up compared to other destinations around the U.S. this winter. She also noted that while reservations for Park City accommodations as a whole have skyrocketed for that time period, Salt Lake City’s has remained flat.

“Skiers are adventurous,” Rafferty reasoned, “and I think we’re gonna see plenty of people come out and get on a plane and go skiing. It’s just not going to be our normal mix of destination traffic.”

One way it will be different: Those who are coming to Utah to ski are staying longer.

Thanks to the boom in telecommuting and remote education during the pandemic, people have more flexibility with how long they can be away from home. So during the winter break, twice as many people are staying at their destination for more than a week than they were in 2019, according to the TripIt analysis. The number of people staying 4-7 days increased 21%.

Mayor Andy Beerman considers that good news when it comes to keeping Park City off the top of those less-desirable, virus-related lists. In fact, it goes hand-in-hand with another ski town trend. Beerman said two-thirds of the properties in the town are second homes, but many owners made those their more permanent residences when the pandemic hit.

“That’s a little bit more stable for us,” he said, “in terms of you’re not cycling as many people through your community and risking as much infection.”

And that, especially given the havoc the virus wreaked on the ski industry last spring, is why the uptick in interest isn’t necessarily good news for resorts.

There is some nervousness

The ski industry nationwide was on track to record its fourth-best season in the past 40 years when COVID-19 outbreaks at resorts and in ski towns caused it to shudder to a stop last March. Instead of a banner year, the National Ski Areas Association reported the industry lost between $2 billion and $5 billion. Skier visits dropped 14% across all regions, to 51.1 million, as about 20 days were lopped off the season.

Vail Resorts, the only publicly traded multi-resort company and the owner of Park City Mountain Resort, reported a 47.8% drop in net income in the third quarter compared to 2018-19. Total net revenue fell 27.5% to $ $263.9 million.

The industry doesn’t take those losses lightly. Hence, the implementation of headache-inducing policies like requiring reservations to ski or park, eliminating the walk-up ticket and regulating who can ride with others on a chairlift.

So, yes, having hordes of skiers and snowboarders and their entourages makes them excited. It also makes them nervous.

If most of those people really do stick around longer and spread out their ski days, opting to ride on weekdays more than weekends, they could actually make back some of those losses this season. If they follow recommended health practices and stay home when they have a cough, this could be a comeback tale for the ages.

If, instead, they all try to cram into the resorts on the weekends, and they don’t take personal responsibility for keeping themselves and others well, it could be a catastrophe.

“I feel like it’s going to be as strong as we can allow it to be with the protocols that are in place,” Rafferty said. “You know, it doesn’t matter if everybody in the world wanted to ski here. We can only accommodate so many people safely. And the overarching goals for this year is to offer a product that’s already proven to be incredible, but do it in a safe manner.”

Skiers and snowboarders for the most part apparently either feel that what resorts are doing is enough to mitigate the danger, or they don’t care and just want access to the slopes.

At least one, however, has decided the risk isn’t worth the reward.

Brian Holt, who grew up in Bountiful, had tickets to fly out Friday from Seattle for a combination snowboard and holiday trip. When he saw how fast and wide the coronavirus is spreading in Utah — between 3,500 to 5,000 new cases a day and a seven-day rolling average of 23% — he backed out.

“It was just like, you know, there will be another season,” he said. “I know I might not get to go at all this year, but it didn’t seem worth it to have that vector of, No. 1, me getting the coronavirus, especially with having a vaccine so close, and No. 2, be the one that actually gave it to my parents.

“That would just crush me.”

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