The coronavirus pandemic sent snowboarders and skiers into the 2020-21 season with shelter-at-home directives, travel restrictions and a general wariness of crowds. Then their traditions were rattled by a host of virus-driven on-mountain changes that included everything from reserving ski days to ordering food from their phones and eating it in their cars.
Nonetheless, they flocked to Utah’s slopes in record numbers.
Utah’s resorts set a high-water mark for skier days with more than 5.3 million combined visits last season, according to a report issued Monday exclusively to The Salt Lake Tribune by Ski Utah, the marketing arm of the Utah Ski & Snowboard Association.
A skier day, as defined by the National Ski Areas Association, is a visit to a ski area for any part of a day or night with the purpose of skiing or snowboarding. Utah’s 15 resorts tallied 5,301,766 skier days in 2020-21, according to Ski Utah.
“We bounced from two years ago [having] 5.15 million skiers a day — an all-time record — to 5.3 million this year, which was amazing,” Ski Utah President Nathan Rafferty told The Tribune. “And I think [what’s] especially amazing, too, I can’t remember, ever, a record ski season that didn’t come with exceptional snow.”
Utah recorded about 80% of its median snowfall last year. The majority of that didn’t even show up until January and February, well after the holiday period that typically accounts for the majority of ski-area revenue. By comparison, the 2018-19 season saw the second-highest mean snowpack in state history.
But Utah’s results are in line with those seen throughout most of the country. The 2020-21 season ranked fifth overall for skier visits, according to the NSAA, and had the second-most skier visits in the past 10 seasons. Nationally, 51 resorts reported record seasons.
Ski Utah does not report data on individual resorts, but a spokesperson did say more than half Utah’s resorts reported snapping their skier-visit records.
One of them was Eagle Point. Marketing director Scott Curry said the Beaver-area resort recorded its third straight record-breaking season. About a 3½-hour drive south of Salt Lake City, Eagle Point falls into the category of small and midsize resorts, which experienced the biggest COVID bump locally and nationally.
Curry said what might have previously been considered downfalls of the resort — its remote location, lack of traditional hotels and size — became its biggest assets.
“If we look back in time a little bit about the mindset of people,” he said, “the idea of having their own single-entrance condominium where they could ski-in and ski-out likely influenced people’s planning going into the winter.”
Yet even resorts like Deer Valley, an internationally renowned ski area in Park City, reported an increase in skier days. “We are typically a destination resort, so going into the season we were concerned and really had no idea what to expect,” spokesperson Emily Summers wrote in an email to The Tribune. “Luckily, by spring skiing, people were getting comfortable traveling domestically again and we had a strong spring.”
Ski areas nationwide shut down abruptly in March 2020 when many of their communities became hotbeds for the coronavirus. Most immediately began strategizing how to reopen in the winter. In Utah, Rafferty said, that included sharing plans with local health officials, brainstorming with each other and deciding on a few standard health policies — such as requiring masks in lift lines — to which all of them would adhere.
“We wanted to keep the season going. We all did. And we were able to,” Curry said. “It was what we felt was a minor ask so that we could keep the joy going through the winter.”
Those efforts paid off. With masks, goggles, gloves and fresh air already integrated, skiing and snowboarding became two of the few activities people felt they could safely enjoy. Customer confidence grew as the season wore on and the NSAA reported not a single member lost a day due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
The work-from-home trend also helped the resorts, Rafferty said, as more people came out for fractions of a day and during the week. The NSAA reported 51% of skier visits came from someone with a pass, up from 45%. Midweek skier visits rose 27% and night skiing was up 41%.
“I think we were just really fortunate as Utahns to have this outlet to be outside safely, to be with family and friends,” Rafferty said. “You know, every skier day was a mental health day.”