Utah’s ski resorts set new record with 5.3M skier days despite the pandemic
2020-21 ski season strong as people sought out outdoor recreation
In a year of firsts, here’s another one for the record books: Skiers and snowboarders hit the Utah slopes more than 5.3 million times last winter, eclipsing the previous record set in the 2018-2019 winter and besting last season’s mark by nearly 1 million visits.
That’s according to a report put out recently by Ski Utah, a marketing group funded by the state’s 15 ski resorts.
Emily Summers, a Deer Valley Resort spokesperson, said that the resort saw more visits from locals, more season pass purchases and more use of those passes. But before the season started, setting visitation records was far from the minds of Utah’s ski resort officials as the coronavirus pandemic wrought uncertainty for the industry.
“We went into the season with two goals. Well, it was one goal: to stay open and keep the staff employed,” Summers said.
Deer Valley did so, as did Park City Mountain Resort, and contributed to the record-setting season in Utah. Summers didn’t divulge specifics about how many skier visits Deer Valley had but indicated that the year was a success.
“It was a very strong season for us,” she said.
A PCMR spokesperson in a prepared statement said the resort is grateful to its employees, guests and the community for making the season a success.
“Their love of the sport and shared commitment to safety, day after day, allowed us to stay open from the first day of the season to closing day,” wrote Jessica Miller, a PCMR spokesperson. “It’s exciting to see Utah’s skier numbers reflect this passion for our industry.”
Miller didn’t share PCMR visitation numbers. She instead referred to PCMR owner Vail Resorts’ third-quarter earnings report, which says that Vail Resorts season pass sales in 2020 were up 20% compared to 2019.
Before the season started at Deer Valley, officials saw strong local ski pass sales, Summers said, but still weren’t quite sure what kind of season it would be.
“It’s surprising, huh?” Summers said about the record. “Going into the season — we pull a lot of destination skiers. So yeah, we were concerned. We had no idea what to expect.”
There weren’t as many people traveling to ski during the pandemic, Summers said, but the number of people visiting Deer Valley from within Utah picked up, especially earlier in the season. And once March hit, skiers began traveling from farther afield.
Summers added that the resort saw consistent visitation and not the peaks and valleys around busy times that make up a normal season. Nationwide, weekday visitation to ski resorts jumped 27% compared to the previous season, comprising 48% of total visits, according to the National Ski Areas Association.
The trend at Deer Valley and across Utah resorts corresponds with what the association identified as a national theme of skiers staying closer to home. According to the association, there were 59 million skier visits in the U.S. last season, good for the fifth-best year on record dating back to the late 1970s. It was the second-highest number of visits in the Rocky Mountain region, the association reported, a region that includes Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, among other states.
Officials surmised that a renewed emphasis on outdoor recreation and flexibility to work remotely amid the pandemic helped push skiing into a record-breaking year in Utah. But locals and season-pass holders aren’t as lucrative for ski communities as tourists who fly into town, stay at hotels and eat most meals at restaurants.
And the record set on the slopes did not necessarily translate directly to local government coffers, Summit County Finance Director Matt Leavitt said.
“Room and restaurant tax revenues for the County were down in 2020 compared to 2019 (10.7% and 18.0% respectively),” Leavitt wrote in an email to The Park Record. “So we can deduce that the people who visited the County didn’t stay in hotels or eat $22 cheeseburgers.”
He has indicated revenues didn’t fall as much as officials anticipated in the earlier days of the pandemic.
A recent presentation from the Park City Chamber/Bureau to the County Council said much the same thing. Winter occupancy in the area’s lodging establishments was down 7% compared to the previous year, but down 25% compared to 2018/2019, the last pre-pandemic ski season and the previous record holder for most skier visits.
That corresponds with information in the Vail Resorts earnings report, which indicates that revenues lagged from sales other than ski passes.
Food and beverage sales, as well as ski school revenues, were particularly impacted by COVID-related constraints, the report states.
Despite the challenges of operating a ski resort amid a pandemic, most resorts stayed open throughout the season, which officials counted as a win. And Summers saw this last season as a boon for the sport itself as people sought a safe way to escape pandemic-induced confinement.
“If people got back into it during COVID times and there’s these passes where maybe their local hill is on it and maybe their dream resort out West is on it, maybe they’ll visit in the future. I don’t know, it’s hard to say,” Summers said. “I think skiing did really well in a very uncertain time and it just goes to show that outdoor recreation was what people sought out during this crazy year.”
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The Summit County Fair returns this week.