(Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series about the state of the snow industry in Utah.)
Skiers and snowboarders in Utah's Wasatch Mountains have had it pretty good for the past couple of decades: consistent snowfall, expanding terrain, high-speed quads, more and better amenities. It seemed like a new chairlift, a fancy lodge, or a back bowl opened up every season.
Built to meet the demand of the baby boom generation, these upgrades now become the legacy of that post-World War II population bulge. The greatest American generation is aging and beginning to give up the sport.
On the other end of the equation, only 15 percent of the people who try the sport stay with it, according to the National Ski Area Association. Annual skier-visits across the United States have plateaued between 50 million and 60 million for the last 30 years. Industry experts recognize that without new participants, this flat demographic will soon head downhill.
Utah has bucked that declining trend for a number of years, but the same concerns worry resort owners and operators in the Wasatch Mountains as anywhere else in snow country. Therefore, the biggest challenge for the industry in the coming years will be attracting newcomers to the slopes - and keeping them there.
That's why resort websites tout so many learn-to-ski packages, family-only lessons, and multi-day deals that encourage beginners to stick around for a few more lessons. The NSAA has made January Learn-to-Ski Month. Ski Utah sponsors an elementary school "passport" program that gives youngsters three free days of skiing and riding at each of the state's 14 areas. Alta lets beginners ski free after 3 p.m. on its Sunnyside lift, and women-only ski weeks can be found at many areas. NSAA figures show that three times as many first-timers strap on a snowboard as opposed to skis, so greater bargains exist for newbie riders.
What does this mean for the veteran skier or snowboarder who heads up into the Wasatch Mountains? For one thing, fiercer competition for their precious winter recreation dollars.
While all resorts want to appeal to everyone, niche marketing is likely to become more intense. Alta and Snowbird will continue to call powder hounds to their steep-and-deep chutes and bowls, while Brighton will draw in the young snowboard crowd with grocery-store ticket discounts and a top-grade terrain park. Deer Valley Resort and Canyons will refine their appeal to the high-end consumer, while Park City Mountain Resort will look to cash in on its Olympic legacy. Powder Mountain will likely ramp up its promotions of backcountry access, while Snowbasin will tempt skiers to try out the 2002 Olympic downhill course. Sundance Resort will keep attracting the artsy crowd, and Solitude will tout its "quietescence."
It's going to take time to see if out-of-state vacationers return to their pre-2007 spending habits. Nationally, the share of overnight visitors flying to any resort dropped 37 percent in 2009-2010, from a peak of 47 percent in the 2006-2007 season. Traffic levels at Salt Lake City International Airport appear to be improving, but it's hard to tell how many of those passengers are heading to the hills. The recently released Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow report strongly encourages more public transportation. More buses and longer routes are now a reality, and the dream of a train up Little Cottonwood Canyon to Snowbird and Alta has been revived.
Utah experienced a flurry of expansions, subdivisions, and upgrades leading up to the Great Recession. Those improvements will stay, but guests shouldn't expect to see much more in the near term. Resort ownership seems to have stabilized, but knowing how deep the pockets run remains to be seen. When recovery does arrive, so will development, but a recent report from an association of Colorado resort towns sees little happening in the Rockies for at least five years.
The Park City area alone has 23,000 beds to fill, and the vacancy rate has risen alarmingly: "Our work now is to increase occupancy without eroding rates too far," said Craig McCarthy, of the Park City Chamber of Commerce.
Pre-recession financing did allow construction of the high-end Montage Deer Valley, St. Regis Park City and Waldorf Astoria, but building of all kinds has ground to a virtual halt in Utah's mountain towns. On the slopes, the most active has been Canyons Resort owner Talisker Corp., with its new Orange Bubble Express and Iron Mountain expansion.
All Manner Of Freestyle
The 2002 Olympics sparked a rise in all manner of freestyle skiing and riding. Visitors can expect to see terrain parks grow and innovate because, as one marketing executive told OnTheSnow, "That's where the newbies are." Winter sports spectators will be able to more easily time their vacations with top-flight competitions, as the World Cup freestyle tour stops regularly in Park City Mountain and Deer Valley, and off-shoot tours like the Winter Dew Tour at Snowbasin and Extreme Freeride Tour at Snowbird. Early-season alpine fans can count on slalom and giant slalom World Cup meets at Park City Mountain, where snowmaking virtually guarantees enough cover.
Snowbasin in the northern Wasatch Mountains is well-positioned for growth, if the oil-rich Holding family (they also own Sun Valley Resort in Idaho) wants to spend some major bucks. The owners threw up lifts and mountain lodges at a frenzied pace to prepare for the 2002 Olympics, but there's still nowhere to stay overnight within walking distance of the base. The Holdings own much of the land around Snowbasin, and have plans for a new base area, overnight lodges, and new lifts on nearly 12,000 acres of private property. When that happens is anyone's guess.
Nearby Powder Mountain opened up more out-of-bounds, snowcat-served terrain this year, now totaling 7,000 acres for adventurous powder hounds. Powder also has a master plan in the works that includes lodging, lifts and upgraded amenities.
Expansion at other Wasatch resorts can be expected to be less grandiose. Deer Valley is approaching built-out of its residential lots on the mountain and condos around the base area. Park City Mountain Resort appears content with its terrain, so its upgrades have been for snowmaking and night lighting.
Alta, Snowbird, Solitude, and Brighton cannot build much beyond where they are, since all but their base areas sit on U.S. Forest Service land. Snowbird does have plans for a second tramway to reach the ridge of Twin Peaks, and another chairlift on the backside. As always, money and politics remain the keys to any expansions.
Perhaps the hottest topic in management meetings these days is the prospect of a European-style experience among seven Wasatch resorts. Skiers already can hire a guide and ski-hike from Canyons all the way to Snowbird, taking runs at Deer Valley, Park City Mountain Resort, Brighton, Solitude, and Alta in between. The idea of riding up the lift out of one town and cruising down into another town has long been an attraction in the Alps of Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and Austria. Now it appears closer than ever in Utah, especially with the commitment to public transportation in the mountains.
"It's a slow-moving beast, but there's more talk than ever now about it," said Ski Utah's Rafferty, who's trade group strongly supports the idea. "It needs to happen here, and I'm confident it will."
Everyone seems to be looking for a silver lining among the recession clouds. One PR guy told OnTheSnow tongue-in-cheek that the answer is more joint replacements: "Get a new knee and get back on the slopes," he said.
There is clearly no single answer as to what the Wasatch will look like in the years to come. Yes, the mountains will still be here and, barring severe climate change, so will the snowfall. No, Alta and Deer Valley won't be welcoming snowboarders anytime soon.
Everything else appears in limbo. Is there a new generation out there that will flood in behind the baby boomers? Will the nationwide learn-to-ski push pay off? Will Generation X decide it's time to buy that second home in the mountains?
Who knows, but stay tuned.
Watch this intrepid group ski every ski area in Utah in one day.