Dressed in a chambray button-up shirt and blue jeans and wearing a faint smile, Deirdra Walsh looks relaxed as she sits in a no-frills conference room on the second floor of a brick building in the Mountain Village of the Park City Mountain Resort. After the late-August sun finishes climbing over the ski area’s hills, it peeks through the windows, casting the resort’s new vice president and chief operating officer in a warm glow.
It’s the calm before the winter.
This ski and snowboarding season, PCMR plans to put into place some of its most contentious changes since 2015 when it took over operation of The Canyons and became the largest ski area in North America. While Walsh did not initiate many of the resort’s new policies for the 2022-23 season — like charging for daily parking in the Mountain Village lots and capping the sale of walk-up lift tickets — it will be her job to usher them in.
Armed with roots in the community and a history of creating consonance, Walsh believes she’s up for the challenge.
“I didn’t come in, certainly, to the resort unprepared for the challenges. And there have been some things that have been more surprising than others,” she said. “But certainly that doesn’t deter me.
“Right now, the only way is forward.”
When she officially stepped into her new role in May after holding the same position at Northstar Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe, Calif., since 2019, Walsh waded right into the muck. Just two weeks after the 44-year-old took the resort’s reins from Mike Goar, the Park City Planning Commission voted to block PCMR from upgrading two lifts — one of which was planned to be Vail Resorts’ first eight-pack — after four Parkites raised concerns about overcrowding and the equation the resort uses to determine comfortable carrying capacity.
Walsh’s first official statements as the head of PCMR came in the form of a rebuke.
“We are fundamentally concerned with, and confused by, the City blocking this significant investment in the guest experience at Park City Mountain,” she said in a prepared statement in June.
Vail Resorts, which counts PCMR among its 41 ski areas, has since filed an appeal with a Summit County district court. Meanwhile, it announced Wednesday that the lifts would be shipped to Canada for installation at Whistler Blackcomb, another Vail Resorts property, next year. If Park City is granted permission to install lifts in 2023, it will have to order new ones.
The hubub over the lifts exposed a long festering rift in trust between community members and the resort.
That rift can be mended, Walsh said.
“I think,” she said, “there’s an opportunity to reset right now.”
Walsh said she has received “a really warm welcome” from the Park City community. Part of that she credits to her history in the area. Originally from Missouri, she moved with her then-boyfriend, now husband, Rob, to Park City in 2004. She learned to snowboard at Park City Mountain and got her first job in the ski industry there in 2007, when she was hired in conference sales.
Nudged by the support of her female superiors throughout her career — she’s one of three women currently at the helm of a Utah resort — the mother of two young children worked her way up to director and then senior director of the mountain dining division. So when Park City Mountain was combined with The Canyons in 2015, it was up to her to merge their dining operations.
“I think the actual integration of resorts was probably one of the most challenging and exciting things that I was a part of,” she said.
She started the conversation between the two groups by asking one question:
“What do we have in common?” she said. “And if we can start there, then I know that we can create something that feels true to us being one team.”
Her approach to leading PCMR is similar. She said she spent most of her first months at the helm having coffee or lunch or the occasional glass of wine with elected officials and community members and other stakeholders. She used those conversations in part, she said, to find common ground.
Hopefully it’s also solid ground, because those relationships are likely to be tested by the ticket and parking policies PCMR intends to institute this winter.
As part of a Vail Resorts-wide initiative, PCMR will cap online and walk-up lift ticket sales every day of the season, expanding on a pilot program last year that limited ticket sales during holidays. The hope is the cap will keep the slopes and restaurants from becoming overcrowded — which was one of the main criticisms levied against PCMR last year. Vail Resorts’ effort to bolster the workforce, and therefore the amount of terrain and services it can offer, by adding employee housing and raising the minimum wage to $20/hour should also give guests more space.
However, capping daily tickets has been criticized as a tactic employed by resorts to cajole people into buying passes and committing early to visiting a specific ski area. In addition, it can be a point of frustration for locals as they look for last-minute tickets to take advantage of powder days that might otherwise be blacked out on their passes or to entertain out-of-town visitors. (PCMR has said it will allow Epic Pass holders to purchase buddy tickets even on capped days.)
“So you can never just decide to go on a trip…,” wrote one Twitter user, responding to a post about the caps, “you have to be a super planner.”
A metrics team will determine when the cap should be employed, Walsh said, using “a lot of inputs.”
The ticket cap has garnered little attention, however, compared to the angst generated by the resort’s new parking plan.
From Dec. 12 to April 2, PCMR will require reservations and a $25 fee to park in its Mountain Village lots — Main, First Time and Silver King — every day between 8:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Carpoolers with four or more people in a vehicle can park for free but still must have a reservation. Parking outside of those hours does not require a reservation and is free regardless of vehicle occupancy. Visitors can also park for free daily at The Canyons in the Cabriolet lot and on weekends and holidays at Park City High.
Its intent, in part, is to reduce the traffic congestion around the main village and deter people from visiting the area if they don’t have reservations, which is expected to cut down on vehicles parking in neighborhoods. It’s also a way of coaxing people to carpool or take the bus.
PCMR will be the first of the three Park City resorts to charge for parking, but it’s a tool used by most of the Cottonwood Canyons resorts as well as Sundance Resort.
Some locals have applauded the program and PCMR for making an effort to curb traffic issues. To many Utah skiers and snowboarders, however, parking policy comes off as a money grab. And it hits especially hard in the wake of Utah Transit Authority’s announcement Wednesday that it will be cutting back bus service between Salt Lake City and Park City this winter.
(Once skiers and riders get to Kimball Junction, however, they can jump on one of High Valley Transit’s buses, which will run no-fare routes to The Canyons and PCMR’s Mountain Village daily on 15-minute intervals, according to Summit County Planning Director Caroline Rodriguez.)
“Well, since greed runs this resort, they had to make up for limiting skiiers (sic),” wrote a commenter on a Tribune story announcing the paid parking. “At 25$ (sic) a car, they will make a hefty profit they could have gotten for the skiiers they turn away. Skiing is too expensive for most locals anyway. This resort is for out of towners willing to pay.”
Walsh wants to change that perception.
Her big-picture goal is to make a resort that encompasses 7,300 acres, 43 lifts and 330 trails more intimate. Doing that will take more capital investment, though she didn’t elaborate on where that investment is most needed, and attention to detail. The end result, she said, should be a memorable, enjoyable experience for visitors, regardless of where they hail from or how much they paid for a ticket.
“I try to think about the guest experience, and every single person that steps on a lift is a guest,” she said. “And I think all tides rise together, so a better guest experience is a better guest experience, whoever it is.”
It’s setting up to be a harsh winter for Walsh, but she’s confident she can weather it with some good conversation … and some good wine. And maybe as soon as next summer she’ll be sitting back and basking in a warm glow — one created by a closer connection between her resort and its community.
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