Ski Utah preps for big winter season | ParkRecord.com

Ski Utah preps for big winter season

SKYLER BELL, Of the Record staff

After three consecutive record breaking seasons, the excitement for the 2006-07 winter season could not be higher in Park City and throughout the state. But the question remains, just how long will the Olympic pixie dust last, and how high will it let Utah fly?

The answer stems from the "happy thought" that makes the pixie dust work snow.

The National Weather Service, which has an office in Salt Lake City, is reporting a weak-to-moderate El Nino effect for this winter, which can create colder temperatures and more precipitation. Because of its low intensity, however, it seems unlikely to cause a major increase in snowfall.

"We’re in a weak El Nino event and it is just starting to get going," said NWS Meteorologist Randy Graham. "It hasn’t had a big impact on the direction of the jet stream yet. In Utah, we’re just in our normal range. If the El Nino gets stronger it would have a much larger impact on Utah and it can change. It could move toward moderate, which would have more of an impact, but it’s unlikely it will move into the strong category."

Despite a prediction that Utah won’t have a record-breaking snow year, Graham said it is likely that Park City resorts will see more than their average 138 inches of snowfall as well as somewhat higher temperatures.

"As far as putting any kind of numbers on it, you really can’t; all you can say is there is a higher chance for an above-normal snowfall," he said. "We’re not anticipating a huge year, but we’re also not anticipating a down year because of the El Nino. But there’s probably a little bit better chance that it will be slightly warmer than normal in northern Utah, but that has been the trend for the last few years."

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Graham said the weather patterns show Utah should keep cranking out the "Greatest Snow On Earth" with systems that have less moisture than surrounding areas. The northwest winds, he said, help create the drier, low-density snow affectionately called "powder."

Ski Utah President Nathan Rafferty commented on the snow in the annual "State of the Utah Ski Industry Address," pointing out that the most recent Warren Miller film highlights Utah as "Best in Snow."

"I was in Denver last week and looked around as the Colorado skiers were watching Warren Miller and all this Utah powder and the crowd kind of went silent," Rafferty said. "It was a great thing to see."

Rafferty delivered a message of optimism and excitement about the upcoming season in the address given last Tuesday. He cited several signs of success garnered from a recent study conducted by Ski Utah. He compared the numbers to those from the last study, done more than three years ago in 2002-03.

Rafferty said Ski Utah estimates ski tourism brought $692 million to Utah last season, which accounts for everything from transportation to lift tickets, but does not include airfare. That number is up from $650 million by the end of the 2003 season.

"Another thing I noticed was that the likelihood to return was up significantly," Rafferty said. "Fifty-one percent of participants last time we did the survey said they were likely to return in the next two years and this year they said it was 57 percent. The reasons they gave for coming to Utah were snow and access, so no surprises there."

Although about $563 million of last year’s income is from non-resident visitors, with $130 coming from residents, Rafferty said resident skier visits are up from three years ago.

"There are a lot of ways to look at that; a couple years of 600 inches of snow certainly gets locals out to ski," Rafferty said, once again referring to positive weather trends. "We also like to think our fifth- and sixth-grade passport program, and all the programs we have for locals, is really increasing that number of local skiers. If we have another great snow year we hope locals will come out and ski."

Rafferty cited improvements to resort infrastructure as both an indicator of success and a sign that resorts still want more skiers. Resorts throughout Utah have added seven new lift this season, four of which are at Park City resorts. He also made a special note of the new lift at The Canyons that will open 200 acres of virgin terrain.

"I also want to mention Snow Jam," Rafferty said about Ski Utah’s signs of success. "Ski Utah sponsored our first ever ski and snowboard festival downtown and even with somewhat questionable weather we had a great response. There was a ton of media exposure going out throughout that week."

The ultimate sign of success is the opinions of those who visit Utah each year to take advantage of the world-class resorts and famous snow.

"The two big magazines, Ski and Skiing magazines both have readers surveys, so these aren’t the editors or the writers talking about what their favorite resorts are, it’s readers talking about where they like to ski," he said. "We absolutely cleaned up the spots that you want to clean up: snow, access, value, service. Six of the top ten resorts listed for snow were from Utah."

One of the reasons for their continued success is a strong marketing program backed by funding from the Utah Office of Tourism. Rafferty said he initially wrote that the donations have been "perhaps our greatest success," but he quickly erased the comment and replaced it.

"It is by far our greatest success," he said. "The state has dedicated almost $2.5 million in total advertising dollars to winter over the last two years, and that doesn’t include the co-op funding that Ski Utah, Park City Chamber and some of the other entities have received. That is almost equal to Ski Utah’s annual operating budget so it essentially doubles our firepower."

The funding has helped Ski Utah break into two of the top and most expensive markets in the nation, New York City and Los Angeles. Through the marketing program made possible by the funding Ski Utah has been able to get 16 million impressions off network television ads and 26 million from print ads in publications such as Outside, Outside Traveler and Delta Sky. More than 130 million impressions have been made through cable television ads on Discovery, ESPN, ESPN2, Fox Sports and more.

"I can’t underscore enough the assistance the state has brought to our industry so we’re thinking about really good things this season," Rafferty said.

Overall, Rafferty said he is excited to watch the year unfold and see what the 2006-07 season has to offer. With requests for the Park City Winter Vacation Planner up 113 percent and lodging numbers and Web site visits up, the outlook is good.