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Midweek Visitors Largely Responsible for Record Skier Visits Over COVID-19 Winter, Says Ski Utah

Michelle Deininger

Ski Utah announced this week the state saw a record-breaking number of skier visits over the 2020-21 winter, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and all of the health restrictions that went along with it.


5.3 million skier days were logged at Utah’s 15 ski resorts last winter, over 3% more than the previous record from the 2018-19 winter, according to Ski Utah. 


The state was also on record pace in the spring of 2020 before the season was cut short in mid-March at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Nationally, U.S. ski areas logged 59 million skier visits last winter, the fifth best season on record, according to data compiled by the National Ski Areas Association.


Limited on-mountain capacities, ski day reservations, and physical distancing measures were commonplace across Utah last winter. Ski Utah CEO Nathan Rafferty told KPCW despite the added regulations, the record-setting winter was largely due to the combination of Utah being more open than other ski destinations across the country, actively marketing to potential visitors, and the simple fact that many people were working from home with a limited amount of other activities available to them and had the ability to get out and ski or snowboard in the middle of the week.  


“This season was an anomaly like no other,” Rafferty said. “Really what happened was exactly what the resorts had planned and hoped for, which was lopping off the peaks of these weekends, Saturdays, holidays, and shifting all the skiing to weekdays and downtimes and afternoons. I went out and skied at two o’clock in the afternoon, parked on the front row, and we just kind of got out of our normal routine of skiing and it paid off in a big way for our industry, clocking up 5.3 million skier days.”


Another anomaly of last winter was the weather. On average, Utah saw only 78% of its normal snowpack at the end of the ski season, according to a report by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.


Rafferty said prior to this past season, he had never seen skier records broken without an exceptionally large snow year.


“One real outlier for us was the fact that we had such really average snowfall, below average in fact,” said Rafferty. “I’ve never seen a skier day record fall without having exceptional snow.” 


Although skier visits were at an all-time high, retail and lodging was not as quick to rebound last winter. Park City Mountain Resort’s parent company, Vail Resorts, announced last week the company tallied just shy of $275 million in net income for the third fiscal quarter of 2021, which was 80% higher than one year ago, but still over $17 million less than the most recent pre-pandemic winter.


The big question for next winter will be whether the new trend of midweek skier and snowboarder visits will continue. Although it might not sound likely with many people returning to in-person jobs and other ski destinations expected to allow more visitors in the future, Rafferty said he is optimistic Utah can retain a good number of those visits for at least a few more years.  


“You know, I think a lot of people got off the couch and rediscovered skiing as a sport and people bought season passes that maybe had never had one or hadn’t had one in a long time,” he said. “We hope they invested in equipment. Those shiny new skis or snowboard is going to be staring them in the face next fall and they’re going to remember how much fun they had, so we hope that we can hang on to some of these lapsed skiers and riders, as we call them, for at least a couple years, if not forever.”


In order to attract more skiers and snowboarders for the 2021-22 season, Vail Resorts announced a 20% reduction in prices for their Epic Pass offerings in March.


Summer operations at Utah resorts, including PCMR and Deer Valley are expected to run until early fall.

Sean Higgins covers all things Park City and is the Saturday Weekend Edition host at KPCW. Sean spent the first five years of his journalism career covering World Cup skiing for Ski Racing Media here in Utah and served as Senior Editor until January 2020. As Senior Editor, he managed the day-to-day news section of skiracing.com, as well as produced and hosted Ski Racing’s weekly podcast. During his tenure with Ski Racing Media, he was also a field reporter for NBC Sports, covering events in Europe.