Record snowpack isn’t only reason ski areas saw more visitors than ever in 2022-23

Increases in season pass use and investments in staffing and infrastructure played a role.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michael Shaw, Michelle Shuman, and Joseph Frank wear their graduation gowns as they ski at Solitude, on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. The three friends were graduating from the University of Utah MBA program the next day.

Ski areas didn’t just break snowfall records this season. They broke visitation ones, too.

Resorts across the country saw more skiers and snowboarders on their slopes in 2022-23 than ever before, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Ski Areas Association. Included in that is a significant uptick in the visitors to the Rocky Mountain region, which includes Utah as well as Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico.

In all, skiers and snowboarders made 64.7 million trips to the slopes between October and early May — up 6.6% over 2021-22. Of those, more than 40%, or a record 27.9 million visits, occurred in the Rocky Mountain region. That’s more than two million more visits than the region saw last year and seven million more than it saw just five years ago.

The snow played a large and predictable role in the visitation bump. Resorts almost always see more visitors in good snow years, according to NSAA spokesperson Adrienne Saia Isaac, and snowfall was up 30% over the 10-year average of 173 inches across the country. Almost all of Utah’s resorts reported record snowfall. Alta Ski Area added more than 150 inches to its previous best mark with a state-record 903 inches. Snowbird, Solitude, Sundance and Brighton, meanwhile, continue to add to their record totals as they stretch their seasons late into May.

Those long seasons will also boost visitation numbers. Saia Isaac noted that this report just includes preliminary numbers. It also only tracks skier visits — a statistic one person could beef up by getting in a hundred days in a season — rather than skier numbers. Those stats, she said, should be available in June.

“These preliminary numbers will change a little bit as ski areas close,” Saia Isaac said, “but it’s still going to be a record.”

It’s not just due to the snow, though. The residual effects of a pandemic-driven increase in outdoor recreation and investments in infrastructure and staffing by resorts also contributed to drawing in more trips to the slopes this season, Saia Isaac said.

“There’s still that demand for outdoor rec,” she said. “And then couple that with tremendous snow here, record snow here in Utah, and that’s going to increase not just individual visitors but frequency of visits.”

This season is just the third to break the 60-million visitor mark in the 45 years that NSAA has been keeping data. The other two were in 2007-08 (60,000,502) and 2010-11 (60,000,540) — both exceptional snow seasons. Visitation dropped precipitously after 2010-11, which Saia Isaac attributed to a particularly dismal snow year. Yet she said even if the snow barely shows next season, the industry does not expect to see a similar decline in visitors.

Last year’s visitation numbers are the main data point in that theory. Saia Isaac pointed out that even though the snowpack was mediocre at best in 2021-22, ski areas in the United States still set a record for visits. That included a record number of visitors in Utah.

Utah’s visitation numbers for 2022-23, which are compiled by Ski Utah, have not been released.

“Historically, snowfall was the biggest performance indicator,” Saia Isaac said. “So if you had a great snow year, you know your visits are going to be up. That stands to reason. And if the snow is bad or didn’t come or you couldn’t make it, then the number was going to be way down.

“Last year that kind of flipped it on its head where there was still high visitation and record participants but a slightly below average snow year.”

One theory as to why that’s happening? The boom in multi-resort and season-pass sales. If people have already paid for their visits, they’re more likely to go. And according to the NSAA report, this was the fourth consecutive season where more people used a season pass during their visit (50% of all visits) than bought a day ticket (33%). The remainder of the visits were made by off-duty employees, those with comped passes and miscellaneous others.

Despite more people on the slopes, they generally didn’t feel as crowded this season as in 2021-22. Much of that can be attributed to resorts’ concerted efforts to increase their staffing, which had been woefully inadequate. Last season, 81% of ski areas reported being understaffed, but that dropped to 60% this season after many raised wages, offered more benefits and returned to hiring foreign seasonal workers. That additional staff allowed resorts to open more terrain and be more effective at spreading visitors out on their mountains.