Utah resorts still capitalizing on Olympic success

By Lynn Debruin

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 15 2011 10:00 p.m. MST

A snowboarder is having fun at Solitude Ski Resort. Plenty has changed since the 2002 Winter Olympics put Utah's ski industry on the map as the state's 14 resorts have undergone a billion dollars in improvements.

Anonymous, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Before the buildup for the Olympics 10 years ago, Snowbasin in Utah was little more than a mom-and-pop operation, with aging lifts and amenities and offices in a single-wide trailer.

Now even its bathrooms are turning heads, with the Italian marble day lodge restrooms recently voted top five in the U.S.

Plenty has changed since the 2002 Winter Games put Utah's ski industry on the map.

The state's 14 resorts have undergone roughly a billion dollars in improvements, from high-speed lifts and bubble chairs to the construction of high-end global hotels such as the Montage Deer Valley and Waldorf Astoria Park City.

Overall skier visits have increased 42 percent to 4.2 million, skiable acres are up 26 percent, and a trend of late has been multi-generational vacations — grandparents on the slopes with their children and grandchildren.

The international clientele also is on the rise, particularly at Park City's three resorts, which report international business has increased 200 percent in 10 years. Bilingual instructors and foreign accents on the slopes are now quite common, with Aussies outnumbering UK skiers in Park City for the first time but more and more groups coming from Mexico and Brazil.

There's even a non-stop flight from Paris to Salt Lake City International Airport five to seven days a week.

"In many respects I don't think we were even on the radar screen. The Olympics did a great job of exposing us," said Bill Malone, president of the Park City Chamber and Visitors Bureau.

He said the Olympics also provided a giant "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," reflected in places such as Deer Valley being voted North America's No. 1 overall ski area for the fifth straight year by Ski Magazine readers. Before the Olympics, Park City had one five-star resort; now it has five.

"Even if you didn't know a lot about us, being able to say we hosted the Games creates credibility," he said.

What hasn't changed is the snow, still billed as The Greatest Snow on Earth because of its low moisture content and touch of salt.

It's what drew Evan Unger to Utah nearly 40 years ago when he was a student at Cal-Berkeley. He had planned to ski Tahoe, only to encounter rain. He ended up heading to Snowbird instead and discovered the "magic" powder that has been bringing him back ever since. These days, Unger, who has skied just about everywhere in the world, is often accompanied on trips to the backcountry with his daughter.

In fact, multi-generational ski vacations are a growing trend. "Ten years ago we wouldn't have seen that," Malone said.

"People are living longer and are active later in life," added Nathan Rafferty, president of the trade group Ski Utah.

To Dave Fields, such opportunities are priceless. He still remembers the tears streaming beneath goggles on his father's face last winter when three generations skied the same green run at Powder Mountain.

It was a bluebird day, with warm sun on their backs and a good snowpack underfoot. His then-69-year-old father Chuck, a 50-year member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America, pulled off to the side as his 8-year-old grandson and 5-year-old granddaughter went by.

"It was so important to him," said Fields, who grew up skiing Alta and at 40 is now vice president of resort operations at Snowbird. "That was his legacy to his family, this love of recreating outdoors. It was a great day that I will never forget."

While powder-hounds have been venturing to Utah for years, numerous Olympic athletes now call Park City home because of what the Games helped create.

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