{Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series on the "state of the ski industry" in the Beehive State. See Part Two Feb. 22, 2011)

The winter-sports consumer has always found Utah convenient: quick access to the resorts, a ton of lodging choices, plenty of slopeside real estate for sale and, of course, some of the trademarked "greatest snow on the earth."

Nowadays, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, those millions of skiers and snowboarders who still ride the lifts, eat the hamburgers, and sleep in the beds find themselves courted more heavily than ever to come on up to the Wasatch Mountains.

The state's ski and snowboard areas enjoyed unprecedented growth in the past couple of decades, carving out a larger and larger piece of a flattening national market. Nearly two million people live along the Wasatch front, and the population is younger and more fit than most others.

Salt Lake City International Airport services eight airlines with more than 800 flights each day. Thousands of acres of powdery terrain lie within an hour's drive. Overnight guests get to choose from bare-bones motels in the valley to mint-on-the-pillow luxury on the mountain. There's no shortage of places to eat and drink, either.

An Olympic Bounce

The televised Winter Olympics in 2002 introduced millions worldwide to the convenience and diversity of winter sports in Utah. In response, lift ticket sales grew 25 percent in the next four years, topping out at a record 4.2 million in 2007-2008. They were divided up equally between visitors and locals. All areas felt the growth: Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude in the Cottonwood canyons; Park City Mountain Resort, Deer Valley Resort, and Canyons around the historic mining town of Park City; Sundance near Provo; and, Snowbasin and Powder Mountain above Ogden.

The legacy of the Olympics came not only in the form of more visitors, but also in world-class competitions. Park City Mountain Resort remained one of the first stops on the international World Cup alpine tour, while that resort and Deer Valley jumped onto the World Cup freestyle tour. Terrain parks blossomed and grew all over the Wasatch.

Great Recession Hits

Then along came the Great Recession. All of Utah's resorts took a hit, combining to lose more than 5 percent of their visitors. In the highly integrated winter resort business, that meant less money at the ticket windows, rental shops, lunch spots and bars, ski schools, and lodges. Everyone from property managers to shuttle drivers to espresso baristas suffered from the decline. Resort real estate prices fell but attracted few buyers.

The trend somewhat reversed itself in 2009-2010, and Utah joined all regions but the Northeast in recouping about half of the skier-visits lost in the previous two years, according to the National Ski Area Association. Salt Lake City International Airport reported nearly 3 percent more passenger traffic in 2010 as in 2009. Real estate prices may have bottomed out. Winter sports promoters see these upticks as indications of a recovering economy.

Industry observers credit much of the recent turnaround to the stubborn passion that skiers and snowboarders have for their sport. They just can't stand to stay off their favorite hill any longer, but now more than ever, they are looking for the least expensive way to do it.

"Anecdotally, we hear of people cramming into one room rather than two, renting the basic package rather than demos, taking a group lesson rather than a private," said Nathan Rafferty, head of Ski Utah, a trade association. "But they are still finding a way to ski or ride."

Consumers Win

What this means to the consumers are deals, deals, and more deals, both in town and up on the mountain.

Valley supermarkets sell discounted tickets, and foothills ski shops lure customers in for rentals and retail before they head up the canyons. Down-valley hotels and motels compete mightily for the overnight business, and county and city transportation systems have ramped up their low-cost scheduled runs up to the mountains.

Most resorts offer cut-rate season passes if purchased before the season. Mountain lodges have ramped up the savings for multi-day stays. Slopeside rental shops push demo skis at regular prices. Word is that even the wealthy are shopping for deals, bargaining with such top-enders as St. Regis Deer Valley, Montage Deer Valley, and Waldorf Astoria Park City for the best overnight rate. Resorts like Snowbird, Solitude and Sundance that own hotels and condos tout one-stop shopping and deep discounts, since an empty bed doesn't help anyone.

"If you're not on the mountain, none of us can prosper," said Nick Como, marketing director at Solitude Resort. "So we will have to work harder to get you up here to stay for a while."

Offers shuffle on and off the Internet at frequent intervals. The growth of Facebook, Twitter and resort apps now makes it possible to check the snow conditions and latest deals while still on the airport tarmac, then reserve a room, and purchase a lift ticket while waiting at baggage claim. Blogs abound with up-to-the-minute tips and ways to save a buck.

"The urgency to book a room a year ahead for next Christmas isn't there anymore," said Rafferty. "You can get rooms as little as two weeks out now."

Competition Heats Up

The ratcheted-up competition has put greater emphasis on customer service on the slopes. Visitors might be surprised to have their ticket punched old-style at new-look Canyons, but management wants more face-to-face interaction between employees and guests. Deer Valley promotes its on-the-slope guides who help skiers get to where they want to go. Park City Mountain Resort hosts greet arrivals in the parking lots, station themselves by trail maps, and lead historic tours. Mountain managers have made sure that the grumpy liftee or surly server is a thing of the past.

Pressure from the resort and tourism industries has finally loosened the state's grip on liquor consumption. Now, more than ever, ordering a beer or cocktail in the Beehive State resembles other Rocky Mountain destinations. Apres-ski imbibers no longer have to buy a club membership to drink. They now can get a draught beer directly from a bartender and don't have to be eating to drink it.

Real estate markets at Utah resorts may have finally found sanity, too, after years of booming construction and ever-higher prices. This is good news for anyone who still has money and a friendly mortgage banker. The recession removed most buyers from the market but, as is common in resort economies, many sellers also left after finding they couldn't recoup their original investment. The fractional, time-share market has nearly disappeared, and property management is going through its most challenging period.

Some property owners were forced into foreclosure. Park City's current sales include about 30 percent short sales or foreclosures, according to the Park City Board of Realtors. On average prices for homes and condos are off 25-30 percent from their mid-decade high. Buildable lots dropped even further, as much as 50-60 percent, according to the board. Yet, it appears that buyers are tiptoeing back. Patrick Giblin, president of the Park City board, said that local Realtors see more activity and more interest, a precursor to a recovery in sales.

"We can't say the bottom is here," Giblin said, "but there's still value in Park City. We'll know more in about six months."

It's a buyer's market right now, no matter where you go in snow country. The resorts have to get more people on the lifts, that's the bottom line. So while there's less cash and credit out there to be spent, the price-conscious skier or snowboarder can usually scrape together enough to take advantage of what the Wasatch Mountain resorts have always had to offer.

Or at least that's what everyone is banking on.

Here's a video of the Opening Ceremonies of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics to bring back some memories: